For most people, when the word sin is spoken, it is used either in a metaphorical sense or applied to people like Bernie Madoff, Hitler or Stalin, or used for exaggeration purposes, depending on the situation. When we consider our bad behavior or even the intentional harm we’ve caused others, we think of these things mainly in terms of mistakes, accidents or wrongs toward other people in particular … but sin? No, we’re not that bad! (Being facetious of course).
In our time, when we apply the word sin to ourselves in a serious manner, you will sometimes get a funny look. For instance, tell the average person you’re a sinner and it’s probable they will start wondering what major wrong you committed, or in other situations they will just say, “Oh, we’ve all made mistakes,” which is to say, it’s okay to sweep it under the rug, what’s past is past, no need to rehash something that can be left dead. Just move on!
All of the aforementioned situations presume a specific relationship in which the “mistake” plays out: between other people. But the question we must ask that is of the utmost importance is, what is sin as God defines it in His Word? Man has a definition of sin many times, and particularly in our society it is just a mistake or accident or it is very grave, depending on how you use it. But is man’s definition of sin Biblical? Is the relationship of offenses simply limited to other people? Paul lays out clearly what sin is in the book of Romans. Of course sins are committed against other people. But is that where it stops and is that the heart of what sin really is?
In Romans 1, after the introduction to his letter in verses 1 through 17, Paul does not hesitate to then get started on what humanity’s main issue is: the wrath of God resulting from our sinning. But why? Because this is the starting point of the explanation of the Gospel (for how can you know of what salvation is [being saved] if you have not a clue what you’re being saved from?), but it will also help us to clearly see exactly what sin is. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). So we see here that God’s wrath burns against 1) ungodliness and 2) unrighteousness. And the acts resulting from ungodliness and unrighteousness themselves are a suppression of the truth. But how does that play out? What does this suppression actually look like? You can think of it like a downward spiral, a whirlpool of darkness that spins irreversibly out of control.
“Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23) … And so, “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (Romans 1:24).
“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25) … And so, “God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” (Romans 1:26)
“For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature” (v.26) … And so, finally, “God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” (Romans 1:28)
“They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Romans 1:29-32)
So essentially three things happen: we exchange His glory, His truth and the natural order of things and in return for each of these we are further and further given up to our hearts depraved desires by God Himself, which all results in greater and greater condemnation. Not a pretty picture. We exchange God’s infinitely burning, all-consuming, pleasure-giving glory for things that are not just sub par, but infinitely less valuable. We exchange His glory, His truth and God gives us up to all kinds of unrighteousness, including homosexuality, but certainly not just this, as Paul makes clear in the latter part of the chapter.
Paul uses homosexuality in this context, I believe, to show the clearest versus highest example, of this God-exchanging dark commerce man is over his head in, not necessarily to say this is the definitive sin as many have taken it to mean. Surely it is sin. Paul makes it obviously clear here and other places. But he’s not saying this is the final vestige, I believe. Surely Jesus was more upset with the hardness of heart of the Pharisees than the woman at the well who adulterously had five husbands. As cited above, Paul lists many other sins which all result from the one main headline of the entire section: the exchanging His glory for anything of infinitely lesser value and then being given up to those sins with their resultant punishments under His wrath forever. All sin, no matter what form it takes, deserves God’s wrath and punishment, whether it is homosexuality or self-righteousness or boasting or unjust anger or deceit or gossip. Sin is sin, and we are all guilty as charged.
So back to our question: what is sin? Sin has at its core a reference not to man but to God, and not just generally to God but specifically to His glory, truth, honor, and name. Sinning is not just making a mistake, but rather failing to prize, cherish and display the glory of God in all you do. Sinning is exchanging the glory of God, belittling the glory of God. Sin is suppressing the truth of God, which contains the revelation of His glory to us. Sin is telling God He is worthless when the truth is He is the most worthy One in the universe to receive exaltation. And Christian, we do this every day. We are wickedly depraved, just as all others. We are in need of continual mending.
Sin can also be committed when doing things that are benevolent in the world, like an unbelieving, agnostic philanthropist building a hospital or serving the homeless. If not done with reference to God’s glory and honor, it is sin. That is exactly what Paul tells us in Romans 14:23 when he says, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” And all of this Sin together is basically divine treason. All of the acts and outward actions of sins themselves result from the larger horror playing out in our souls called Sin: exchanging God’s glory for anything else in all creation and finding ultimate joy in those things. How unbelievably offensive to Him that we treasure pieces of wood, or fame, or money, or family, or houses, or entertainment above His all-encompassing, all-satisfying glory! And the One offended is infinitely glorious in Himself which then makes sense why the punishment itself is infinite and eternal.
It is in light of this awful reality of our true condition as people made in God’s image that David says to the Lord in Psalm 51:4 after committing adultery and murder, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Of course David sinned with Bathsheba in committing adultery and sinned against her husband by murdering him. But after David was broken for his horrific acts, he sees the real heart of the problem: he sinned against God and valued other things more than Him, did not trust Him, which then resulted in his actions.
Can you feel the weight of this? Sin is not primarily in relation to people, but to God. I pray you can see these things by His Spirit making it known to you through His Word. All we can say is, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)
We can’t make ourselves righteous (or right-standing) in God’s eyes by anything we do. Sin has disabled us and blinded us in our souls, wills, hearts, minds, bodies, in every single facet of our being. We are turned away from Him and by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) … which is exactly why Christ came. Sinless in Himself, perfectly honoring God’s glory, truth and name, He willingly suffered the eternal penalty of any who would believe which then brought us back to square one. We’re out of His debt. But that’s not all we need to be in His presence forever. For those who believe in and rest upon Him, He then credits our accounts with His infinite righteousness, as if we had done everything He ever did in His life, perfectly!
I will simply close with the wonderful announcement of this very truth from heaven that no longer do we have to try to earn our salvation (which was impossible to begin with anyway), but God Himself became a man and fulfilled all righteousness on behalf of those who believe in Him.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-26)