What is sin?

This post is part of a series of posts on the basics of systematic theology.  Why do we need theology, and what are the essential truths to know about each doctrine?  All the posts are archived under the category “Theology 101.”


Sin is defined as a transgression of the law of God — a missing of God’s standard that is the result of one’s rebellious dissatisfaction with God.  Sin is what we do when we are unhappy with God.

But sin isn’t just about our actions — it is about our inward desires and motives as well.  As Tim Keller has said, “Sin isn’t only about doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things.  Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God.  Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us.  Sin is primarily idolatry.”

And the tragic truth is that all people are sinners; the nature of all men is sinful from the moment of birth (Rom. 3:10-18).  And that means that sin renders people helpless to change themselves (Eph. 2:1-3).

Some time ago, a couple came to our church for some marital help.  He told us about their problem and when asked what he’d done about it he said, “Fight. Yell.  Leave.  Drink beer.  Smoke pot.”  That is the typical condition of the sinner — he may understand he has a problem, but he is incapable of doing anything righteous to resolve that problem.

And even worse than not being able to solve his problem, a sinner is alienated from God, and as a result, he will seek fulfillment from the world’s system (1 John 2:15-17).  And when that happens, Christ will not be seen as the only solution to man’s problems, the sinner will try to provide substitutes that promise fulfillment, and the sinner will pursue his felt needs instead of his real needs.

So the sinner’s sin will lead to many other problems, like feelings of guilt and shame, depression, unhappiness, physical problems, worldly “syndromes.”   He suffers directly from his primary sins and sinful desires, but also adds to those sins further complicating problems that arise indirectly from his sin.

The only hope for the sinner is Christ (which will be discussed in a later lesson).

But there might also be a question about whether there is any hope for the Christian who sins — on what might he lean and find confidence?  The Christian who sins must remember three truths:

  • Our sins do not affect our legal standing with God (Rom. 6:23; 8:1; 1 Cor. 15:3).
  • Our sin does disrupt our fellowship with God — we grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30) and we incur His fatherly discipline (Heb. 12:6ff).
  • Our sin is redeemable and is able to be used as an instrument of growth by means of appropriating afresh the truths of the gospel (1 Pt. 1:17).

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