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The Nature of Sin

posted 19 Aug 2011, 10:13 by Peter Booth   [ updated 6 Oct 2011, 03:17 ]
This is something we have talked about recently in ID course, following on from a study on 'forgiveness.' It is therefore written from a Christian perspective. 

One of the big questions that came up was this: "Are some sins worse than others?" Here's my answer with a bit more thought. 

Our first reaction might be to say "yes, of course murder is worse than lying." But we should always be careful about 'first reactions!' Are they from the Bible? 

I think when we're thinking about this we have to consider the difference, between 'sins' and 'sin.' 'Sin' is a fundamental disobedience of God, taking the crown off Jesus' head and putting it on our own, making ourselves king, not God. Sin leads to death (Gen.2,3). Before we became Christians we were all born into 'sin,' or born 'in Adam.' When we became Christian we received new birth 'in Christ.' However 'sin' is not something we can be rid of this side of glory, and it is because of our 'sin' that we were separated from God. God made a relationship possible again by sending his only Son Jesus Christ to take on himself our 'sin.' "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."- 2Corinthians 5:21  In a sense, every time we sin against God we drive a nail into Jesus' wrist and feet on the cross, which is a sobering thought. 

'Sins' (with an 's') all find their root in 'sin.' Put another way, 'sins' are the out-workings of 'sin,' so things like pride, idolatry, stealing, envy, murder etc. All 'sins' are in some way rejecting the ten commandments, particularly the first 4. All 'sins' are first and foremost against God (Mark 2:1-12), but they are also against other people and have a 'horizontal' as well as 'vertical' ramifications/effects. 

In the Old Testament different sins are deemed to have different punishments to make the punishment fit the crime, but I think this was more in light of the 'horizontal' effects of different sins on other people in Israel. Murder for example would hurt many more people probably than stealing a fish. In the new testament though Jesus says this: “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgement.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgement! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell...“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." - Matthew 5:21-22,27-28

It might appear that there is a difference between the Old and New Testaments on this, but I think what is rather happening can be found in the context of the whole of the chapter in Matthew 5. Look back particularly at verses 17-20 and verse 48 (and really the whole chapter), and you'll see as part of Jesus' sermon he is setting out a perfect standard for how we should live. This side of glory/heaven we are not going to live in a perfect way as we sin every day, but we are to try as much as possible to live in a way that causes others to "give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven" (v.16). In other words NONE of us can achieve 100% and be "perfect as [our] heavenly Father is perfect" or reach back to God through our own efforts and fulfilment of the law. ALL of us need a change of heart and God's mercy and grace because all of us have sinned, fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and taken Christ to the cross, where we have mocked him, rejected him and hammered the nails in. 

Therefore we are in one sense all the same, and all 'sins' are the same because they fundamentally mean dishonouring God. Some 'sins' have a bigger 'horizontal' effects on others and that shouldn't be overlooked - some can bring much pain and heartache, but at the same time all 'sins' have separated us from God and have been taken up by Christ himself. I am no better than a murderer, in fact that is exactly what I am because I have put Christ on the cross. It is ONLY BY GRACE that we are seen as someone of worth in God's eyes and can "be called children of God; and so we are." (1John 3:1) 

Some more questions that came out of this: 
  1. As Christians, do we still have sin rooted in our hearts? The answer is yes, and no. 'Yes' in the sense that every time we sin it comes from the heart - sin is from inside a person - see Mark 7:14-23. But 'no' in another sense as now we have a new Master, and we are no longer slaves to sin. We no longer have to sin as we formerly did. Romans 6 and 7 are key chapters on this. "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." - Romans 6:14  Before we were Christians we were 'in Adam' and controlled by sin - or dead; we could not stop sinning and sin was rooted in our hearts. Now we are alive 'in Christ' - he is our new Master (and more than that - a heavenly Father) and we have had a change of heart - we no longer want to sin. Think about it like this: imagine a country was invaded and occupied and suffered under a brutal and harsh regime for many years. That country was then freed by rescue from outside, and the people were no longer occupied but free citizens - although the former occupying forces were not occupying them any more, the people in the country would still act out of habit in many ways as if they were still occupied - they would in a sense be 'institutionalised.' It is similar with us and sin; as Christians we are no longer occupied or rather controlled by sin, but we do still sin because that is all we know - God is changing us through sanctification back into his likeness and image, and this work will be made complete in glory - see Philippians 1:6 and 1Thessalonians 5:23-24.  
  2. What is the relationship between sin and Satan? This really follows on from the previous question. It was Satan that tempted Eve and caused Adam to first sin in the garden of Eden. Satan wants us to sin and is in a sense the ruler of this earth, but he is the out-going ruler. Satan does tempt us to sin, but as a Christian we are not forced to sin by him. The war against sin and Satan has already been won by Christ on the cross, but there are still small battles which go on. The enemy is defeated but going out kicking. Also it's important to remember that all sin is our responsibility - at no point can we blame Satan for our sin.  Jesus said: "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." - John 16:33
  3. The debt has been paid and the sin forgiven, so does that mean that the sin basically never existed? No. We have not been declared 'not guilty' by Christ - we have been 'justified' by Christ. This is an important distinction as it has implications for how we understand grace. We are forgiven sinners through grace - Christ is our substitute and took on our sin - if the sin was forgotten about then the cross was pointless, and we wouldn't be living in the light of grace - rather it is as if we never sinned.  "For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ." - Romans 5:17
  4. Eden and heaven - what's the relation in respect of sin? In heaven we can look forward with a certain hope to a place where there is no more pain, or mourning. Particularly read Revelation 21 and 22. There we will be fully sanctified, and we will no longer be able to sin; we will be made like Christ and be in the presence of God, with his people in the ultimate promised land and under his eternal blessing. There we will see the final fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham back in Genesis 12 - promises which were made in light of what was lost after sin came into the world in Eden. So how is Eden different? In Eden Adam and Eve had the choice to sin and dishonour God - in heaven we will not want to or be able to sin (there's no Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but there is the Tree of Life). Eden is a garden, heaven is a city - the fulfilment of the human cultural project which started in Eden.