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The Essence of Sin

We’re still working through the doctrine of sin.

We’ve looked at the OT and NT terms that are used to speak of sin.

There are many words that are used, but the big takeaway is that while all sin is infinitely evil before the eyes of God, there are gradations of sin within the heart of a person.

Sometimes people sin without even knowing it, because we’re all sinners by our very nature, and at other times there is great intentionally within the heart of a person.

Sometimes sin is described as missing the mark (or falling short of God’s standard).

At other times, it’s described as stubborn rebellion, where there is a high-handed rejection of God.

So there’s a whole spectrum to describe what’s going on within the heart of a person.

Today we will actually begin to develop the doctrine itself.

Again, we’ve only looked at the terms, and so now we will synthesize everything the Bible says about sin to develop a fuller understanding of what sin actually is.

Systematic Theological Issues:

The Essence of Sin

False Definitions:

- Sin is an illusion (i.e., Christian Science).

- Sin is finiteness.

- The famous statement: “To err is human.”

- Sin is not really anything bad, it’s just the nature of life and what it means to be finite.

If we want to talk in terms of “erring,” even if we want to call something a mistake, we should not attach a moral quality to that. Rather, sin is simply what it means not to be God, and so no one can be faulted for that. 

- Sin is sensuousness.

This is an area where the church has allowed unbiblical ideas (i.e. neo-platonism) to control theology.

(Neo-platonism teaches that the flesh/body = lower or sinful nature, which is bad, but the soul/spirit=higher or spiritual nature, which is good.)

As you look at the deeds of the flesh (in Gal. 5:17ff.) it shows how there are both physical and spiritual aspects of sin.

To view sin as something merely committed in the flesh (and, here, something explicitly sexual in nature), is to have a very wrong view. This is especially true, as we saw in the terms themselves, sin is something committed in the heart, but then works itself out in the flesh.

Incomplete definitions:

- Sin is the absence of goodness. 

Sin is something far more than merely not doing something, or something not being present.It is also the very real presence of something; and we’ll develop that in a bit.

- Sin is unbelief

All unbelief is sin, but not all sin is unbelief. (C.f. James 2:19)

“You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.”

- Sin is lawlessness.

Commonly, 1 John 3:4 will be used to prove this point.

“Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.”

So while this is certainly true, it is not full. You cannot argue from this passage that sin is lawlessness and nothing else. If that were the case, it would mean that ignorance of God’s law frees a sinner from responsibility (Rom. 5:13-14 make that clear).

- Sin is selfishness.

This is the most comprehensive, but it is still incomplete. All sin is selfishness, but not all is sin is necessarily selfish. The presence of sin in a person results from a self-centered focus, the result is that there is this inner drive to exalt man and act as if we are independent of God (c.f., Rom. 1:18; Dan. 4:30; 2 Thess. 2:3-4, etc.).

Working definitions:

“Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of the law of God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism).

“Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature” (Grudem, ST).

“Sin may be then defined ultimately as anything in the creature which does not express, or which is contrary to, the holy character of the Creator” (Buswell, Theology).

"Any personal lack of conformity to the moral character or desire of God” (Zemek, STII).

Aspects of Sin’s Expression

- Sin is a disposition of the heart.

This is not an attribute of man, per se, because man was not created sinful (pre Gen. 3.). Rather, it is the current state of all humans due to the Fall (post Gen. 3).

Gen. 6:5 overtly expressed this state.

“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Every word could be examined.

Wickedness (ra’ah - lit. evil).


Every intent of the thoughts of his heart.

This shows the location (or soup) from which evil flows.

It is the heart (Heb. lev) - the control factory of a person.


Shows exclusivity. There is nothing but evil. We must dispense with this idea that humanity is mostly good (or that there are good people in the world). 

If we say there is good, then who defines this good? It is not God. Gen. 6:5 is God’s statement of the condition of man, and his judgement is that of of all-inclusive evil.



Shows the continuous nature of how the human heart just pumps evil.

There is no time in which it is not in the state of doing this.

So God defines the state of man's heart in a very bleak category. God has looked, and this is what He has found. Sin is not a mere action, but rather, a disposition of the heart.

- Sin is a thought.

This speaks to impulses and intentions. Jesus shows how sin is not a mere action, but a thought/intention of the heart (Matt. 5:27-28).

"You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

So the heart of man is such that these thoughts and intentions naturally arise.

- Sin is an act (commission).

This is the fruit of the thoughts of the heart. This takes what already is sin and compounds it. Whether one is redeemed or not, these sinful actions can be resisted. This is a key purpose behind government rule and parental authority.

This is also why so many people don’t view themselves as sinners. They are merely looking at the external acts they do (or do not) commit. But again, actions are the fruit of the state of the heart.

So if sin (esp. grievous evil) can be resisted to some capacity, then it is harder for people to see (or understand), themselves to be what they truly are-- a sinner.

- Sin is an omission.

It is often thought that as long as we do not commit a sin, then we are doing well. But this is only half of the equation. All throughout the Bible we are also commanded “to do” many things.

Ignorance is not a safe-haven either. Even in the detailed system of sin and sacrifice in the OT, there were offerings due to ignorance (c.f., Heb. 9:7).

Who does sin offend?

God, first and foremost.

Gen. 13:13; 1Sam. 12:23; Lk. 15:18, perhaps the clearest is Psalm 51:4.

“Against You, You only, I have sinned And done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge.”

Obviously, David sinned against Bathsheba, Uriah, and the baby, who is dead because of him. Yet, in an ultimate sense, David records that sin is first and foremost against God.

The idea “Against You, You only” shows that there is no true victim. God is the only one (in an ultimate sense) who has a right to be offended. He is the only one pure, blameless, and fully righteous.

Man. (Gen. 42:22; 1 Sam. 19:4; Matt. 18:21; 1 Cor. 8:12)

This is obvious, and we see it all the time.

We are also commanded to forgive and seek forgiveness. This implies we can sin against our fellow man.

Self. (Prov. 8:36; Hab. 2:10).

Ultimately, you are God’s creation and belong to Him.

So when you defile yourself, you are defiling a creation of God. We don’t even have a right to sin against ourselves. Ultimately, we belong to the creator.


So that’s probably sufficient for now.

We’ve just begun to develop the doctrine; and next time we’ll get into some more interesting things.

We’re going to talk about the Fall of man, the doctrine of Total Depravity, the doctrine of Original Sin, etc.


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