The question of what sin is, is not merely an academic one, but is of great practical importance and one which has critical implications for those who desire to be free from its power and dominion. Our approach to the question of how to overcome sin will be determined by our understanding of what sin is. Do we need to prove that? It seems that this is a self-evident fact and needs no further explanation. If I am dealing with impurities on the outside, then I need soap, if in the stomach, then I need a purgative, if in the nature, then I need something more than either of those. Do we see the point? So it is important that we define sin properly if we are ever to overcome it completely. If we do not understand the true nature of sin, then obviously we will always be using the wrong method in an attempt to get rid of it. The record of the history of God's people would indicate that for the most part they have had a wrong understanding of the true nature of sin.
The most fundamental question in this respect is this: Is sin an action or is it a state? To rephrase it, is sin something we do, or is it more accurately described as what we are?
If sin is an action, then obviously the approach to overcoming sin would focus mainly on the task of putting an end to those actions which are sinful. However, if sin is a state, or what we are, then the only way to overcome it is to somehow escape from our sinful state or to change from what we are to something, else. This is the important fact. Our definition of sin will determine how we approach this issue and that is of vital importance. One method is doomed to failure, the other is God's method and the only way to success.
The most well-known definition of sin and the one which is most often used is found in 1 John 3:4. It says,
Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. (1 John 3:4)
On the surface of it this text seems to be pretty straightforward. It seems to indicate that sin occurs when we transgress the law or when we disobey it. This would indicate that sin is an action. However It is interesting to note that most translations of the Bible render this text differently than the King James Version.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. (NRSV)
Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. (NKJV)
Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. (NIV)
Every one that doeth sin doeth also lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. (ASV)
In all these translations, sin is not defined as an action, but rather as a noun. They all say, “sin is lawlessness, making sin a state or a condition rather than an action. The original Greek rendering of the text justifies this translation.
There is no doubt that some will object strongly to this idea that sin is more than an action. If we are to accept such a concept, then surely we need stronger biblical evidence than this. Is there such evidence? There is in fact, an abundance of such evidence.
Sin is mentioned in several other places in the New Testament and in such a way that it seems that it is being defined. For example we have 1 John 5:17 and Romans 14:23. They say,
All unrighteousness is sin …. (1 John 5:17)
…. whatsoever is not of faith is sin. (Rom 14:23)
The second text is particularly interesting because it shows us that it is possible to sin even in the midst of the most pious duties if the motivation for these actions is not faith. There we have a suggestion that sin may be more than our actions and may be something that goes far deeper than simply the act of disobedience. But isn't this exactly what Jesus said? What is His meaning in the following verses?
(Mat 5:27-28) Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: (28) But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
Jesus makes it plain that sin has to do with more than merely the outward actions, it has to do with the motives and the intents of the heart. Transgression of the law lies not only in the outward disobedience, but in the state of mind which cherishes and breeds that outward disobedience.
So then we see that the law condemns not just our actions but also our motives and intentions. This is because the righteousness required by the law goes much further than our behaviour. The law, being God's law and therefore being as righteous as God Himself, cannot be satisfied with any degree of righteousness which is less than that of God Himself!! This leads us to a further question; if the law condemns not just our actions but also our motives, does it also condemn the nature which invokes or breeds those motives and actions? Let me make the question clear:
Nature is Critical
Our actions begin with our thoughts, motives and intents. Therefore if these are wrong, then our actions are bound to be wrong. But what is it that leads to wrong thoughts, motives and intents? Again, we have a very plain answer from Jesus Himself:
(Mat 12:33-35) Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit. (34) O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. (35) A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.
According to Jesus, the reason why a man does evil things is because he is an evil man. Likewise the reason why a man does good things is because he is a good man. The reason for the kind of fruit which a tree bears is the kind of tree it is. The only way to ensure that the fruit is good is to change the kind of tree, or the nature of the tree. Is this what Jesus is saying? It is very difficult to escape His meaning. Therefore, a man has evil motives, intents and thoughts only because he is an evil man.
Now if the law condemns a man for evil deeds and for evil thoughts, does it also condemn him for being an evil man? Does the law of God, demanding the very righteousness of God, excuse a man whose very nature makes him only capable of evil thoughts and actions? Jesus referred to these people as a “generation of vipers,” or, in other words, “the children of snakes.” Was He being poetic or abusive, or was there some deep-seated truth in His words? The fact is, He was stating a fundamental truth. It was the same truth which He declared when He said, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do …” (John 8:44). It was the truth that the problem with these people was their nature, the life that was in them. They were the children of Satan, the seed of vipers and therefore could not do better. Before they could improve they first of all had to have their nature changed. They needed to be born again.
Let us consider something else. Jesus taught that only God is good (Mat 19:17). Yet in the verse quoted earlier, Jesus says that the “good man brings good things out of the good treasure of the heart.” If God alone is good, how is it that Jesus refers to men as being good? Obviously, they are good only because they have become one with God so that He is living in them. That is the reason why they are able to bring good things out of the heart because the good God dwells there. The law can find no fault with such men because to do this, it would have to find fault with God Himself.
More than action
Now this idea that sin is primarily a state rather than actions is taught many places in the Bible and not just in the verses above. In Romans chapters 5, 6 and 7, the apostle Paul refers to sin in a way that makes it clear that sin is more than mere actions. Let us look at a few examples:
(Rom 5:19) For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners …
Here we see that one man committed the act, one man performed the action, one man disobeyed. However, by that one action, many became sinners. How did they become sinners? The meaning is obvious. They became sinners as a kind of being, as a certain kind of creature which was fully committed to sin, which was in harmony with sin by nature. They did not become sinners because they themselves sinned, but rather because one man sinned. To follow the illustration of Jesus above, they became evil trees and consequently could only bring forth evil fruit. They were evil trees not because they brought forth evil fruit, but because they were born that way.
(Rom 6:6-7) Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. (7) For he that is dead is freed from sin.
Here Paul speaks of the “body of sin.” What does he mean by this? Notice he says that this body must be destroyed in order that “we should not serve sin.” He implies that this is the only way that we can escape from the service of sin and in fact he says it very clearly later on in chapter 8 when he says, “they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom. 8:8). The only way to please God and to escape the dominion of sin is to escape from the “flesh” or the “body of sin.” Now if a man cannot please God, can he satisfy the requirements of the law? If God is displeased with such a person, can the law be pleased with him. Obviously the law finds fault with such a person even before he performs one wrong act and condemns him for his state of lawlessness which makes it impossible for him to do good.
(Rom 7:19-20) For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. (20) Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
This is a striking passage. Here Paul personifies sin and describes it as a king. Why was Paul doing evil? Why did he find it impossible to do good? Did he want to do good? He did. Did he desire to stop doing evil? He did. So why did he find both of those things impossible to do? It was because “king sin” was reigning (Rom. 5:21) in his body. There was a power, inherent in his sinful nature which enslaved him and bound him to the way of evil. This power he referred to as “sin that dwelleth in me.”
Now if we limit the definition of sin to the transgression of the law, how can we understand this passage? The obvious thing to do is broaden our definition of sin. We must conclude that sin is more than simply the act of transgressing the law, or, alternatively, if we limit the definition of sin to the transgression of the law, then we must conclude that we transgress the law merely by being born with a sinful nature, because in that state, the law condemns us to death. In either case, the real issue we have to deal with is our nature, rather than our actions.