A Faulty Definition of Sin

So if I don’t understand sin, can I understand anything about the Gospel? Can I even understand the purpose of the Law?

As I grew up, I attended several different churches from varying traditions. In these places, sin was not an avoided topic (and yes, there are definitely some churches whose pastors purposely avoid speaking about sin). It was merely defined very specifically.

It was a “sin” to sleep with someone outside of marriage.

It was a “sin” to curse a lot (occasional potty-mouth wasn’t really labeled “sin”).

It was a “sin” to use God’s name in vain (which meant cursing with His name in it).

It was “sin” to murder someone, steal from a store, or to lie all the time.

There were others, of course. As a matter of fact, each church sort of had a different regimen of “sins” that you would learn so that you knew what you could and could not do around the leadership.

The above statement should be a great indicator of my motivation at the time. Ahem.

So, with these definitions of “sin” in mind, thinking about what Christ did on the cross had different implications for me. At the time, I recognized that Christ died for all my sins—past, present and future. I was even taught the orthodox belief that there was nothing I could do to make Him turn His back on me. But there was a severe deficiency in the value I ascribed to Christ’s crucifixion, because there was a severe deficiency in understanding how sinful I really am.

See, “sin”, to me, at that time, was something that you would commit now and again. If I cursed, that was a sin. If I happened to lie—that was a sin. If I slept with a girl outside of marriage—that was a BIG sin. Most of the time, for most of my life, I didn’t do a lot of these things, so I felt I was in pretty good shape. I mean, I knew some guys that had done much more than I and were in a lot more serious trouble, so I figured I was better off, or, at least, somehow “more Christian”.

Thus, to me, the value of Christ’s work on the cross was minimized. I still thought it was a great work: it took care of those occasional moments when I would “slip up” and “sin”. Those moments few and far between when I would let a four-letter word slip or when I would tell a lie.

Yeah, I had heard the line, “Have you ever lied before?” I raised my hand at those events where someone asked that question. Of course. Everyone’s sinned—even in my emaciated definition. So when I read passages like Romans 3:23: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”

Are you getting the point? Do you happen to relate, perhaps?

The problem with this definition of sin is that it’s wrong—completely wrong. Its inadequacy is terrible: calling sin an occasional problem for man is like calling water an occasional ingredient in the ocean.

Jesus Christ said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38 ESV).

I’ve heard this verse before. But what does it mean? If we take it for its clearest reading, we must recognize that we fail to honor a command (the greatest command) of the Lord, for no one has ever loved God with all of his heart, soul and mind for every moment of every day. At some second, every one of us has violated (and will continue to do so!) this command!

Now it doesn’t matter if we don’t lie, don’t steal, or don’t kill—for truly: all have failed to do this one, seemingly simple command—every one of us, all the time.

This changes the value system quite a lot. So much so, that I think Christ recognized this disparity in thinking when he said, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47 ESV).

God’s Law is meant to show us our sin—to show us how we are thoroughly sinful (cf. Romans 7:7). The Gospel is there to show us that because we do not have the ability to stop sinning in ourselves, Christ’s defeat of sin and death erases the debt that we cannot, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit begins a work in us that we cannot: to be free from bondage to sin and to be a slave to righteousness!

So the question is now framed: if our definition of sin is wrong—by being inadequate or marginalized—does it make the Gospel valuable? Does God’s Law have any purpose?

Unfortunately, I can speak from experience that a bad definition of sin creates:

  • An inadequate definition of the Gospel. It is evident by the plethora of churches who add to that Gospel in order to make it more attractive, and who simply don’t talk about sin because it’s a “turn-off” to the non-believer. Whether the addition is prosperity, a “better life”, or something else doesn’t matter—it’s all done because the definition of Gospel is short-changed and made into something it is not.
  • An unusable definition of God’s Law. So unusable, in fact, that most people ignore Matthew 5:17 and believe that grace abolishes God’s Law. Antinomianism isn’t really a word used regularly anymore, but it basically means “no law”, and scores of alleged Christians believe that because God has “grace”, we don’t need to worry about being in bondage to the law anymore. It’s a partial truth, of course—we are free from having only the bondage of knowing our sin from the law, but we are not free to do what we want. It’s such an obvious misconception that Paul addresses the very objection in Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

If you, too, know only the emaciated definition of sin, you may also have been under a faulty impression of the Gospel, and you, too, may have been taking such a beautiful thing for granted.

Fear not! The Good News is still proclaimed at churches who faithful administer the Sacraments (communion and baptism) and whose pastors faithfully preach the Word of God. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re funny, entertaining, and dynamic—though I hope they are passionate! Preaching the Word of God means that they take the time to read Scripture—typically several verses or an entire chapter—and that they then show the historic setting of that passage, the grammar of that passage, and what the author’s intent was in that passage. This is called expositional preaching, and it helps the congregation to understand the actual meaning of the text—not just the person’s opinion, or “what they think it means”. In other words, since we know God speaks to us through His Word, it would be a really good idea for us to have a pastor who takes seriously what the Word of God is actually trying to say.*

You can also check out some of the Recommended Resources on our blog.

* – As an aside, this was very difficult for my wife and I, at first. We had to search for a long time, and we also had to listen to a lot of sermons (on CD, streamed over the Internet, or downloaded MP3s) to sort of “unlearn” the way in which our former pastors would talk about life issues and occasionally throw in something from the bible as if it supported their thoughts. If you aren’t sure, take my advice and listen to Pirate Christian Radio—specifically Fighting for The Faith. Chris Rosebrough—the host—takes the listeners through a typical evangelical sermon (sometimes a good one, but most times a bad one) and points out where the speaker deviates from Scripture, as well as when the speaker is faithful to Scripture.

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