It is important for us to understand what sin is and its impact on our lives and relationships. The Bible talks a lot about sin, so we need to know what it is so we can understand what the Bible says about it. According to the Bible, sin is what negatively impacts our lives and relationships. So if we want to understand why our lives and relationships aren’t what we would like them to be (or what we know they should be), then we need to understand how sin affects them.
James 1:14-15 and 2:10-11 reveal several things about the root of our sinful actions, and also about God’s law and the consequences of breaking it. At the beginning of the chain James says our desires, or better, sinful desires, eventually lead to sinful actions and ultimately death. James also teaches that God’s law is of one piece. In other words, God has given us many laws (plural), but when we sin and break one of God’s laws it is also true that we have broken God’s law (singular), and therefore have become a lawbreaker and are now in the same category as others who break God’s other commands. A transgressor is a sinner against God’s law, regardless of whether he is a liar or a murderer. And the consequence of breaking God’s law is ultimately death.
In Matthew 5:22, 27-28, notice what Jesus emphasizes concerning the seriousness of sin—of breaking God’s law. Jesus taught that sin is so serious that it extends to our hearts and minds as well as our actions. Sin is so serious that we are actually committing sin and breaking God’s law if we merely commit a particular sin in our heart and mind by giving in (succumbing to temptation) to our evil desires so that we meditate on and give free reign in our hearts to sin.
So whatever happened to the word “sin”? There seems to be much evidence that the word sin has virtually disappeared from our culture. The awareness of personal sin has effectively disappeared from many believers’ consciences. For example, consider the following:
Adultery = affair, cheating, liaison, inappropriate relationship, indiscretion, fling
Fornication = hooking up, getting laid, “hitting” that
Stealing = bogarding, five-finger discount
Lying = shading the truth, a different perspective, “white” lie
Genocide = ethnic cleansing
Random murder = terrorism
Sin = mistake, bad or unfortunate choice, lapse of judgment
Moreover, my limited exposure to generic and seeker-sensitive evangelical sermons leads me to conclude that the word “sin” is infrequently used, and when it is the preacher speaking, he doesn’t use the word in terms of wickedness but rather as a clinical description of the way things are or an explanation of why we are imperfect. In terms of the awareness believers have of personal sin, it does seem to have effectively disappeared from many of our consciences. I see the evidence in believers not fighting against their sin and not understanding that this life is a war between the spirit and the world, flesh, and Devil. I also have the impression that we are quick to impute sin to others’ words and deeds, but we tend to justify our own words and deeds, perhaps not wanting to believe that our hearts are still wicked by nature and capable of sinning constantly.
This “softening” of language regarding sin is having an impact on our lives and our churches. I am sure that the softening of the language of sin is blinding us to the depth of our sinful condition. Most believers tend to think that we are pretty good compared to the people of the world. From a certain perspective that is true, but I get the sense that believers are content to be winning the “righteousness contest” with our worldly neighbors, all the while we are blissfully unaware that because God has redeemed us he holds us to a higher standard—the standard of holiness as revealed in his law which touches the heart, words, and actions.
But why is it often easier for believers to focus on the sins of unbelievers rather than on their own personal sins? Frankly, because it feels better to pray like the Pharisee than the tax collector. Most of us think we fare pretty well when compared to unbelievers, and often that is true. And that makes us feel righteous in ourselves and thus in some way worthy of God’s blessing. But unbelievers are not our sin barometer. Rather it is God’s law. But we hesitate to measure ourselves against it because we know it requires perfection and will drive us to despair of our own righteousness. Praise God that this is one main purpose of the law, and the reason why Christ is not just Lord but Savior as well!
What are some common “respectable” sins?
Speeding and other minor traffic violations
Recreational drug use
Skipping church worship for recreation (especially for your kids)
Massaging your tax return
Taking God’s name in vain (if it is not done too maliciously or mockingly)
Breaking your word or simple promises
You know there are many, many others besides these. Why are we more inclined to tolerate them? Probably because we don’t immediately see the consequences. Another reason is that many of us commit these sins regularly (even habitually) and don’t really want to repent. In Galatians 3:10, the apostle Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26 to emphasize the importance of obeying God’s law. This passage can reveal something about the consequences of tolerating “seemingly minor sins”. He quotes this passages from the Old Testament to show that the one who sins at one point in the law is cursed by God because he has not done everything that the law commands. This obviously reveals that committing respectable sins leave us in a position cursed of God (if we are seeking to be justified by keeping the whole law), and for believers (those who do not seek their righteousness in keeping th law) the respectable sins that we commit still bring consequences of the law’s curse upon ourselves (without the guilty verdict and judgment apart from Christ’s atonement).
Even though God always makes a decisive change in every believer’s heart, every believer faces the consequences of sin when he or she seeks to live in obedience to God. (See Galatians 5:17; James 1:14.) As the saying goes, “What goes around comes around.” Our sins against others can easily (and with poetic justice) come back in our lap to bite us. When believers seek to live in obedience to God, we will face the sins (respectable sins?) of other believers, even when they commit these sins against us. Believers still sin, and we sin against other believers too.
Peter and Paul urge every true believer to make choices in the face of sin. (See Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 4:29; 1 Peter 2:11.) In Galatians, Paul urges us to walk by the Spirit, which is the remedy for gratifying the desires of the flesh. Thus he contrasts the flesh and the Spirit. In Ephesians, he speaks about the sins of the tongue, urging us to abstain from corrupt speech because it tears others down, and instead to build each other up in grace through the use of good speech. Peter urges us to abstain from the passions of the flesh because they are at war against the Christian, who is a sojourner and exile from this world and this age. Together, Paul and Peter urge us to war against the flesh, especially in the fleshly sins of the tongue.
Jerry Bridges writes in his book Respectable Sins:
When we sin we violate the law of God in any way…we rebel against the sovereign authority and transcendent majesty of God. We commit ‘cosmic treason.’ It is indeed cosmic treason.
I think there is something to the idea of sin being cosmic treason. God is the Lord of every square inch of the universe, and he is Lord over all immaterial things that exist too. In this way he is the cosmic Lord. So any transgression against him and his will is a transgression that is cosmic in scope. While we are finite and commit finite sins, the one offended (God) is affected in all his being, therefore our finite sin against him has cosmic repercussions on God.
God sees all of our sins. Sinful deeds are no less obvious to God than our sinful thoughts and words. And frighteningly, God not only knows about our sin, but he is recording it and will require an accounting on judgment day. (See Psalm 139:1-4; 1 Corinthians 4:5.)
Second Samuel 12:1-10 narrates the occasion when Nathan the prophet spoke God’s words to King David, who had committed adultery with Bathsheba, murdered her husband, and lived in denial of his sin.
2 Samuel 12:1-10 And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds, 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, 6 and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” 7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. 8 And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’
This passage has much to teach us about denial and about sin in relation to God and His law. Denial of our own sin has a blinding effect on us. We are still able to see the sins of others and are capable of responding in righteous indignation. But we are unable to see the connection between the sins of others and our own denied sins. Denial of our own sin amounts to despising God’s law, and even God himself! Even when we don’t deny our sin but refuse to repent of it, we still actively despise God and his law.
Sin also has an effect on the Holy Spirit—that is, God—who lives inside each believer. (See Ephesians 4:30.) Our sin affects the Holy Spirit of God as well. Paul says that our sin grieves the Spirit, and implies that the Spirit’s grief over sin is felt by the believer too because the Spirit lives in each child of God as a seal, deposit, and guaranty of salvation and sonship. In other words, if you want to hurt God’s feelings, then sin. But don’t think it won’t hurt yourself in the process.
One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed is how quickly even Christians revert back to talking about sin like it is primarily something that other people do. I noticed that as Christians discuss the observation that the idea of sin has disappeared from our culture and the Church (in many instances), we all tend to focus on the external causes of this: the media, the culture, preachers, other Christians. I take from this that we all need to be especially on guard not to slip into the sin of Pharisaism. I note that this was the exact response of King David when the prophet Nathan confronted him (at first in a round-about way) about his sin. David quickly recognized the sin in the other person but was blinded to the same exact sin in his own life. The Bible says that when David disregarded God’s law against adultery and murder, that in doing so he was despising both God’s law and God himself! I’m pretty sure if someone had asked me before if those were connected I would have agreed, but reading the passage in 2 Samuel really drove the point home.
I’m sure that there are “respectable” sins that I tolerate in my own life. I know that I am too hard on my children sometimes, and I excuse it even around my Christian brothers and sisters with a hand-wave, a confession (with repentance), and an explanation of how they frustrate me–being kids and all. I am sure that I am too materialistic, especially when it comes to buying media (books, music, movies). There is no reason why I cannot borrow many of these and save (or give) the money for more useful things. I also am on the fence when it comes to copying digital music from CDs that are not my own. Sometimes I think this is legitimate because I am saving the music in compressed (lower audio quality) format, but other times I wonder whether this qualifies as stealing. It seems even the recording artists are divided on this issue, so it confuses me. I suppose that not copying would be to live on the safe side, but it could also be being too scrupulous. I also know that I am a prideful man in many ways, and God is working on me, giving me humble circumstances to correct this sinful inclination. From the rest of the list of respectable sins in Bridges’s book, I confess that I struggle with all of them to a degree, but probably mostly with frustration, pride (including theological pride), selfishness, lack of self-control, impatience and irritability, anger, and worldliness. God certainly has quite a reclamation project with me!
I know that these sins affect my relationship with my children. They are hurt when I am overly angry with them, or when my irritation results in me refusing to play with them. I know that these sins also affect my marriage. My wife can see these things sometimes before I can see them in my own life (sometimes she jumps the gun in assessing my heart, which usually leads to irritation and frustration that she judged too quickly)! But often she is right about my heart. My relationship with God is certainly affected as well. When I am in the midst of sin (or when I am earlier or later trying to justify it), I don’t feel like praying or doing anything else that feels “spiritual”. Not that doing spiritual things all the time is necessary, but when I know my heart needs it because of my sin, I often recoil from fellowship with God. God probably wants me to learn from this that I need to repent and continue to believe the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to trust him that his way is superior to my way.
The one insight that I’d like to begin applying to my spiritual journey this week is that sin is not primarily “out there” in others (the world and the Church), but is primarily “in here”. That is the reason why there is so much sin in the world and in the Church, because the world and the Church are full of sinners who continue to live in unrepentant sin patterns. So with the Holy Spirit’s help, I resolve to pause each time I notice sin in others “out there” and reflect on the condition of my own heart, looking for the plank in my own eye before I begin to remove the speck from the eye of another. The goal being not to refrain from making good judgments about sin “out there”, but to first judge the sin “in here” and to repent of it, seeking God’s renewal in the gospel and the pursuit of holiness.
Dear Lord, give me the strength and resolve to resist the lure and impact of sin in my life, beginning in my heart. Give me grace and mercy when I fail to obey your Word, when I despise your holy law and holy name. Grant me forgiveness and restore to me the joy of salvation. Grant me the sweet release of guilt and shame from my sin. Be merciful when the consequences of my sin come upon me. Protect me from the harsh responses to my sin against others, yet may I understand the effects of my sin on others so I may humbly and with sincere confession seek restoration of fellowship with those whom I have and will offend. Treat me as a loving father would his repentant yet wayward child for Christ’s sake. Amen.