In his first letter, several times John makes the statement that sin is unrighteousness. No where does he say it more clearly than in 5:17 — “all unrighteousness is sin.”
Our tendency is to read that statement, reflect on it for a moment, devise a list of sins in our heads (some of which may not be a struggle for us to avoid), and then we nod our heads in agreement. “Yup. Unrighteousness is sin.”
Yet John is careful to say, “all unrighteousness is sin.” His statement is all-inclusive. Everything that God calls unrighteous is sin. And there is nothing unrighteous that is not sin. And if that’s true, then the short list that we contrive in our minds must undoubtedly be much longer.
Jerry Bridges has some particularly helpful comments on this issue of the manifestation of sin in his book, Respectable Sins:
But what about our conservative, evangelical churches? Has the idea of sin all but disappeared from us also? No, it has not disappeared, but it has, in many instances, been deflected to those outside our circles who commit flagrant sins such as abortion, homosexuality and murder, or the notorious white-collar crimes of high-level corporate executives. It’s easy for us to condemn those obvious sins while virtually ignoring our own sins of gossip, pride, envy, bitterness, and lust, or even our lack of those gracious qualities that Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23).
A pastor invited the men in his church to join him in a prayer meeting. Rather than praying about the spiritual needs of the church as he expected, all of the men without exception prayed about the sins of the culture, primarily abortion and homosexuality. Finally, the pastor, dismayed over the apparent self-righteousness of the men, closed the prayer meeting with the well-known prayer of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
The attitude toward sin reflected in the prayers of those men seems all too prevalent within our conservative, evangelical circles. Of course, this is a broad»brush observation, and there are many happy exceptions. But on the whole, we appear to be more concerned about the sins of society than we are the sins of the saints. In fact, we often indulge in what I call the “respectable” or even “acceptable” sins without any sense of sin. Our gossip or unkind words about a brother or sister in Christ roll easily off our tongues without any awareness of wrongdoing. We harbor hurts over wrongs long past without any effort to forgive as God has forgiven us. We look down our religious noses at “sinners” in society without any sense of a humble “there but for the grace of God go I” spirit.
We were incensed, and rightfully so, when a major denomination ordained a practicing homosexual as a bishop. Why do we not also mourn over our selfishness, our critical spirit, our impatience, and our anger? It’s easy to let ourselves off the hook by saying, these sins are not as bad as the flagrant ones of society. But God has not given us the authority to establish values for different sins. Instead, He says through James, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for [is guilty of] all of it” (2:10). That Scripture is difficult for us to understand because we think in terms of individual laws and their respective penalties. But God’s law is seamless. The Bible speaks not of God’s laws, as if many of them, but of God’s law as a single whole. When a person commits murder, he breaks God’s law. When a Christian lets corrupting speech (that is, speech which tends to tear down another person) come out of his mouth (see Ephesians 4:29), he breaks God’s law.
In chapter 1 I acknowledged that some sins are more serious than others. I would rather be guilty of a lustful look than of adultery. Yet Jesus said that with that lustful look, I have actually committed adultery in my heart. I would rather be angry at someone than to murder that person. Yet Jesus said that whoever murders and whoever is angry with his brother are both liable to judgment (see Matthew 5:21-22). The truth is, all sin is serious because all sin is a breaking of God’s law.
The apostle John wrote, “Sin is lawlessness” (I John 3:4). All sin, even sin that seems so minor in our eyes, is lawlessness. It is not just the breaking of a single command; it is a complete disregard for the law of God, a deliberate rejection of His moral will in favor of fulfilling one’s own desires. In our human values of civil laws, we draw a huge distinction between an otherwise “law-abiding citizen” who gets an occasional traffic ticket and a person who lives a “lawless” life in contempt and utter disregard for all laws. But the Bible does not seem to make that distinction. Rather, it simply says sin — that is, all sin without distinction — is lawlessness.…
Sin is sin. Even those sins that I call “the acceptable sins of the saints” – those sins that we tolerate in our lives – are serious in God’s eyes. Our religious pride, our critical attitudes, our unkind speech about others, our impatience and anger, even our anxiety (see Philippians 4:6); all of these are serious in the sight of God.
The apostle Paul, in stressing the need to seek justification by faith in Christ alone, quoted from the Old Testament, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Galatians 3:10). That is a perfectly exacting standard of obedience. In academic terms, that means a 99 on a final exam is a failing grade. It means that a misplaced comma in an otherwise fine term paper would garner an F. Now, happily Paul goes on to assure us that Christ has “redeemed us [that is, all who trust in Him as their redeemer] from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). But the fact still remains that the seemingly minor sins we tolerate in our lives do indeed deserve the curse of God.
Yes, the whole idea of sin may have disappeared from our culture. It may have been softened in many of our churches so as not to make the audiences uncomfortable. And, sad to say, the concept of sin among many conservative Christians has been essentially redefined to cover only the obviously gross sins of our society. The result, then, is that for many morally upright believers, the awareness of personal sin has effectively disappeared from their consciences. But it has not disappeared from the sight of God. Rather, all sin, both the so-called respectable sins of the saints, which we too often tolerate, and the flagrant sins of society, which we are quick to condemn, are a disregard for the law of God and are reprehensible in His sight. Both deserve the curse of God.
If this observation seems too harsh and too sweeping an indictment of believers, let me hasten to say that there are many godly humble people who are happy exceptions. In fact, the paradox is that those whose lives most reflect the fruit of the Spirit are usually those who are most keenly aware of and groan inwardly over these so-called acceptable sins in their own lives. But there is also a vast multitude who are quite judgmental toward the grosser sins of society but who seem pridefully unaware of their own personal sins. And a lot of us live somewhere in between. But the point is, all of our sin, wherever we may be on the spectrum of personal awareness of it in our lives, is reprehensible in the sight of God and deserving of His judgment.
Admittedly, I have painted a rather dark picture, both of society as a whole and of our conservative, evangelical community. But God has not forsaken us. For those who are true believers, God is still our heavenly Father, and He is at work among us to call us to repentance and renewal. Part of His calling is to lead us to the place where we do see the sins we tolerate in our own lives so that we will experience the repentance and renewal we need.