What is sin? What an incredibly important question that is! It is a deceptive question, though, because the answer seems so easy. However, I am afraid that too many people have a false understanding of the true answer. In fact, I think we all too often get the answer backwards, and that has everything to do with getting the gospel right.
Most of the time when I ask that question to others, I usually get an answer that includes specific actions, words or thoughts that people do. Now, yes, the actions we do, the words we speak, and the thoughts we have can be sinful, and often are; but, we must understand that this is not the true essence of sin. Those things are simply the manifestation of sin. Consider this very important distinction…
We are not sinful because of the sinful things we do. We do the sinful things we do because we are sinful.
That seems like a simple matter of semantics, but it is so much more! The truth is our hearts are utterly sinful, even from birth. Our hearts are fallen and are incapable of doing actions, speaking words, or having thoughts that please God on their own. Our hearts are not simply corrupted and made sinful by the outside influences of the world or even by the things we do. The world around us and the things we do, rather, are further corrupted because of our corrupt hearts. That is not a very pretty picture of who we actually are, I realize, but we must be confronted with this truth and come to embrace this appropriate understanding. If we do not, we will get the gospel absolutely wrong.
If we believe that we are made sinful because of the sinful things that we do, we will recognize the wrong need and seek to meet that need in a way that is simply impossible for us to do. We will begin to falsely believe that the fix for our corrupt hearts will come through attempting to correct our corrupt actions, words, and thoughts. This is NOT the gospel, but it is a (false) version of the gospel that so many people have sadly embraced. Seeking to ‘fix’ the sinful things we do is like treating only the outward symptoms of an internal disease. The outward symptoms, however, will show signs of healing as the heart of the matter, or the inward disease itself, is addressed.
Have you ever wondered what Adam must have been thinking when Even took the first bite of the fruit from the forbidden tree? Adam and Eve had been told by God that “in the day that you eat of [the forbidden tree] you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17, ESV). Knowing this promise of God, did Adam expect Eve to drop dead in the very moments following her disobedience? Was he shocked when she instead turned to offer him some of the fruit? Perhaps this is why he took of the fruit and ate, too. “Perhaps the serpent is telling the truth. Perhaps we will not surely die, but instead become like God,” he could have thought.
The truth is, although Adam and Eve did not cease breathing through their nostrils on that day, death became a pervasive and continuous experience in their lives from that moment forward. They began a march toward physical death, but they also began to experience life in a fallen world, cut off from the Source of Life.
The Scriptures tell us that they immediately experienced shame, forcing them to attempt to deal with it through covering themselves with insufficient clothes and even hiding from their Creator. This is the first act of man-made religion, seeking to deal with the problem on the outside by covering themselves. God quickly showed them that this was incredibly insufficient. They began to experience death and decay in their relationship with one another, attempting to blame each other and even God for their disobedience. In all these ways they experienced the consequences of their sin. They soon would experience death through family strife and the loss of a son.
Romans 6:23 says of sin that its wages is death. A wage is defined as “a recompense or return.” This ‘death’ is not just the moment in which we cease breathing. Nor is ‘death’ here relegated only to an eternal spiritual separation from God’s blessed presence after that moment. Think about that word wage. We earn a wage through our work. We have agreed with our employer that we will provide some sort of service and that our employer will pay us an amount of money/benefits as a return on and in accordance with that service. This wage is paid usually on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, not just in one lump sum at the termination of the job. I believe that the term ‘death’ here carries the same idea. Sure, it means physical death and eternal separation, ultimately. But, it also carries a profound meaning for the here and now. Although the believer is saved from experiencing the eternal wage of sin, even they are still susceptible to experiencing the temporary wages in this life.
Scripture describes our enemy Satan as one who seeks to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10a, ESV). When we serve sin and its purposes by our participation in it, the return is always the wage of death. Just like with Adam and Eve, sin brings death to our relationships and results in shame and guilt. Its wage steals from our life, disallowing us to experience the “abundant life” that God intended in the beginning, and that Jesus came to restore. It kills joy and instead bears the result of heartache and bondage.
As I look around our world, the death wage brought about by sin proves easy to spot. The wages I see in my own life proves to be even more painfully evident. My sinful actions hinder my relationship with my bride and my children. Instead of breathing life into my family, my sin brings death through strife, anxiety, anger, broken trust, sadness, rebellion, etc. Even my secret sin breeds death, causing me to doubt myself, experience shame/guilt, and shrink away from God, just like Adam and Eve. It steals the vibrancy of my relationship with God and stifles my intonation with the Spirit. Not only do I experience the wage of death resulting from my sin, but a ripple effect always propels outward, causing those I love and those associated to my sinful situation to feel the detrimental effects, as well.
Why are these truths about sin so important for us to understand?
1. Sin is serious. One of the most pernicious lies of the evil one includes the idea that our lives and choices are ultimately our lives and choices, and as long as we do not intentionally hurt anyone else, we should be able to do whatever we want and whatever we believe to be ‘just being me.’ All sin repays us in the wages of death. Sin almost always affects others, too, in the same way. Sin steals from us the ability to experience true life and to breathe that life into others and the culture around us. Even though we may not immediately feel that wage completely, we may not understand the toll of our sinful activity for some time, or the effects it may be having on our hearts or on others.
2. We must not deal lightly with sin. We are at war. It really is true, as we have seen, that if we are not killing sin, it will be killing us. Sin is our great enemy. We must stand strong in The Lord and the power of his might. Peter exhorts us three different times in his first epistle to be ‘sober-minded.’ A constant and appropriate understanding of sin and its effects will keep us sober in our battle with it. We must never grow complacent in this battle with the evil one. He certainly never acts in that manner toward us.
3. Jesus has overcome sin. One of the great hopes we have in Jesus is that one day sin will be completely done away with! It is hard to even fathom what life without this battle with sin will be like, but what an incredible thought to ponder! We press on according to that hope, and as John writes in his first letter, “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). We should wage war with sin because we know our end in Christ, which is glorification. In the meantime, that hope also includes the truth that greater is he who is in us than he who is in this world (1 John 4:4). The Spirit within us empowers us to overcome sin and experience abundant life.
4. It’s all about the gospel. The gospel is not a self-improvement plan, seeking to fix ourselves by attempting to change our sinful actions, words, and thoughts. When we begin to buy that idea, we end up frustrated and defeated. We must also be careful that we do not mistakenly proclaim that false gospel to others who need Jesus, not self-improvement. We must have a proper understanding of sin if we are to arrive at a proper understanding of the gospel of Jesus.
5. Our understanding of sin will shape the way we view others. If we falsely believe that we are made sinful because of the sinful things we do, we stand the chance of viewing and treating others with an attitude of condemnation, calling them to simply change their behavior. In doing so, we would be guilty of promoting a false gospel and a false savior. We might begin to just avoid those who do sinful things because of a fear that those things might somehow have an ill effect on us. However, when we approach people with a proper understanding of sin, we will be more apt to bear with them and their sinful behavior, keeping an understanding that only a gospel-transformed heart will properly deal with their bad behavior. Keeping this perspective will allow us to focus on the greatest need of sinful people, which is a radically changed heart through the power of the gospel, calling them to repentance and trust in Christ, not behavior modification. Perhaps we will begin to compassionately help them understand how their sin is paying them in the wage of death and that life can only be found in Christ. Getting this right will help us understand the balance between faithfully standing firm against sin while not neglecting to love people.
The Good News
The backside of Romans 6:23 offers the answer to our greatest need in light of a correct understanding of sin, “but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Salvation does not come through our figuring out how to fix our problems with sin. It comes, rather, through repenting of our sin and trusting the one who has overcome sin. Jesus came on a rescue mission, living the sinless life that we have failed to live, and dying the death that we deserve to face because of our sin guilt. Only by trusting in him as Savior and Lord can we experience life. Sin is a heart problem, and only Jesus can change our hearts. Only Jesus has dealt with the disease. Only Jesus can change us from the inside out. And just like with the death wage of sin, the life he offers can be experienced in the here and now by all believers, regardless of circumstances.