What is Sin?
Scripture: Genesis 2:25–3:7
The very basis of Christianity as a religion is that we are people who have sinned and are in grave need of forgiveness. We preach the gospel, the good news of redemption through Jesus Christ. Jesus has the power to take away our sins and to save us from their consequences.
I’ve said it before: there’s a societal perception that our message is just bad news. We absolutely must get into the habit of preaching the Gospel as good news.
However—to appreciate the good news, we must first understand the bad.
- The good news is we can be reconciled; the bad news is we’ve been separated.
- The good news is we can have eternal life; the bad news is we’ve earned death.
- The good news is our sins can be removed—the bad news is we’ve sinned.
The fact that we have sinned against God is the source of all our other problems.
But I wonder, do we really even understand what sin is? We know that sin is not pleasing to God, and that we ought to avoid it because of the consequences, but what makes sin so bad? In fact, what even is sin? Is there a standard for what makes something sinful, or does God just have a set of somewhat arbitrary rules He binds on us to test us? These are some of the questions I want to answer this morning as we look at the very first sin in Genesis chapter three.
“This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven. Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground. But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground. Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Gen 2:4–9)
“Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely.’” (Gen 2:15–16)
“And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, ‘Indeed, has God said, “You shall not eat from any tree of the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, “You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.“’ The serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.” (Gen 2:25–3:7)
Sin rejects God-given boundaries.
Anything that violates God’s commandments is clearly sin.
God commands the man and the woman, saying “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” so eating of that tree is—quite simply—sin. (Gen 2:17)
Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4).
The easiest way to determine whether something is right or wrong is asking whether God has spoken about it. This will deal with probably 80% of the issues we face daily. Notice that Satan starts by trying to change God’s instruction in Eve’s mind. It should be easy to avoid sins that God has warned us about ahead of time, but Satan works to make us forget what God has even said.
How can you know what is right and wrong if you never read the law? When you apply for a driver’s license, the state government requires you to pass a written test before you ever take the driving test. This is to ensure that you have read and are familiar with the state driving laws. In the same way, if you read God’s word, you will be familiar with the laws of life.
God’s blessings are infinite—yet they exist within certain boundaries. Those boundaries are not restrictive limitations, but rules that protect and keep safe. Sin crosses those boundaries, pretending to exist within them. God gave to Adam and Eve the fruit of every tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and all Satan had to do was persuade Eve to include one more tree. The reason they had to avoid that fruit was not fully understood; but God shares at least part of the reason: “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
In the same way, many of our instructions are written for our own sake. When God instructs us about respecting our parents, for example, He gives explanation:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth” (Eph 6:1–3).
Fill your mind with the word of God so that His instructions can guide you. I know I say this a lot, but that’s because it is so important! He warns us about sin and tells us exactly what He expects from us.
But what do we do when something comes up that God doesn’t directly address? Then we must look at deeper principles of God’s word, which in turn means we must be even more familiar with it.
Sin inappropriately satiates God-given desires.
God fully intends for us to have every natural desire we possess, and He has given us proper ways to fulfill them; anything that tries to do so improperly is sin. Here’s what I mean: look at what appealed to Eve about this fruit.
When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate (Gen 3:6).
Was there anything wrong with fulfilling the desire for something “good for food” or “a delight to the eyes”? What about becoming wise? No! Those are all desires that God has placed within us, but He also already provided an outlet for them.
“Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:9).
God put all these trees into the garden as a gift to the man and the woman, and they’re already designed to fulfill those desires that he gave them. Then Satan appeals to becoming like God—but the man and woman have already been made in God’s image! Becoming more like God does not come from eating this fruit; in fact, it comes from not eating this fruit. Sin never fulfills the desires God gave you, it only satiates them for a time.
Sin can only offer a grotesque imitation of the true fulfillment that God provides. Satan appeals to all of this because he knows how much we crave true fulfilment.
Although God has already provided a solution, Satan still offers a cheapened version of it—an off-brand—a generic—an imitation that will never truly bring you happiness.
Instead, sin will bring you only sorrow.
Sin tries to fulfill our desires outside the proper time.
A good example is sex before marriage. In Song of Solomon, there is a scene where the Shulamite woman makes request a request of her handmaids before the wedding takes place.
“I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you will not arouse or awaken my love until she pleases” (Song 3:5).
Despite her desire for her fiancé, it’s not the proper time to awaken that love. Later in the book they marry, and it becomes the proper time for their love. There’s nothing wrong with fulfilling the sexual desires that God has given to us, but he gave them a proper place and a proper time. When we keep sex in that context, it’s so much more fulfilling.
Sin tries to fulfill our desires outside the proper channels.
In a similar vein, there is a proper way to fulfill sexual desires and that is sexual activity involving a husband and wife.
“Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb 13:4).
Marriage is not only about timing, but about placement. This excludes all kinds of perversions of sexual fulfillment such as homosexuality, polyamory, pornography.
Satan pulls us away by twisting the good desires that God has given to us. Many times, he simply offers us his snake oil solutions and we accept them.
Sin takes advantage of natural categories of desire.
These are what we call the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16).
- The lust of the flesh twists natural desires we have because we have physical needs. God gave these to us to protect us and help us take care of our human bodies.
- The lust of the eyes abuses the love of beauty that God has given to us. It is perfectly acceptable to appreciate beauty, joy, art, and aesthetics. God is an artist. Not in a bad sense, of course, but He’s very proud of his work. God is the one who made those trees so beautiful in the garden! In fact, He has instilled within us a desire to create beautiful things. God intends for us to enjoy his handiwork; he did not put it here simply to exist—He put it here for us to enjoy. We glorify God by enjoying His creation—appropriately.
- The pride of life manipulates the image we have been given. It is a very honorable position to be made in the image of God, and God expects us to live worthy of that. When we think more highly of ourselves than we ought, we take the honor God has given us and we change it; that’s what pride is. Satan manipulates Eve by playing off a good and holy desire to be like God. He does the same thing to us, telling us that if we act in a certain way, we’ll become better, greater, stronger, more powerful, more popular.
All Satan’s promises are vain and empty; there is no substance behind them.
Sin abuses God-given blessings.
God has given us abundant blessings, but each has its own purpose; anything that uses them for a different purpose is sin. Not only is it sinful to twist the desires we have instead, it’s also sinful to take the solutions God has given to us and use them to try to fulfill some other purpose.
God created everything good (Gen 1:31), but with a purpose (Gen 1:14–15).
Romans 1:26–27 talks about how homosexuality abandons the natural function of the man and the woman.
Another example that always comes to my mind is the abuse of drugs. There is a real medical purpose for morphine. If you’re having an amputation, the anesthesiologist is going to put you on the strongest painkillers he can find, because you’re going to need them! But using those same drugs to fill yourself with euphoria corrupts that blessing.
We’re not given a purpose for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but we do know that it was not for eating, yet they use it as a food source instead. By eating, they prove their ingratitude for the plentiful blessings God gave them. They preferred to abuse the one forbidden tree, the one that would give them none of the blessings they sought.
Sin abandons our God-given image.
God chose to make man—humankind—in his image, which refers to our perfect morality, unity, love, and holiness as much as it refers to our spiritual nature.
This point is really both a definition and a description.
- It is a definition because any action that does not perfectly represent God is sin.
- And it is a description because every single time we sin, we show God that we do not want to be like Him.
There’s a lot to this point, and I don’t have time to go into all the details this morning. I’m going to return to this point in the next lesson as we examine the consequences of sin in the three curses that God brings upon the Serpent, the woman, and the man.
God chose to make us in His image, and if we reject that image in favor of being made in our own image, we sin. Sin usually means we’re finding something else to model ourselves after. If we “exchange the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Rom 1:23), we completely rewrite who God is.
And when we change how we see God—we change the image of ourselves.
A.W. Tozer wrote these thoughtful words:
“There is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”1
Eve thought eating that fruit was going to make her more like God. Although she really believed that, it could not have been farther from the truth. Satan altered her concept of God into one who wanted to withhold his image.
Anything that takes us away from God’s image is sin. When trying to discover, “Is this right? Is this wrong?” we should always come down to the fundamental question, “Is this who God is?”
That is why Christ’s example is so critical; Christ not only shows us how a man can live perfectly, but he shows us how God would live as a man—He shows us exactly how we should live because he is the perfect embodiment of who God is.
If I want to evaluate my life I need to ask whether I am living a life that looks like God.
- Do I follow His instructions, or do I seek out my own way?
- Do I seek to fit into the order He established, or do I discard that order?
- Do I emulate God, or do I exchange Him for some distorted image I’ve concocted?
The gospel is not a message of bad news—the gospel is a message of good news.
The bad news is that we’re all guilty of every kind of sin I’ve mentioned.
- We’re all guilty of looking into God’s word, seeing what He wants us to do, and turning our backs on it.
- We’re all guilty of filling our God-given desires with counterfeit fulfilments.
- We’re all guilty of twisting our God-given blessings to our own purposes.
- We’re all guilty of discarding our God-given image, telling Him that we do not want to be like Him and that we would rather be our own image.
That’s the bad news; but there’s good news too!
The good news is that sin doesn’t have to stay on your record, and you don’t have to continue to be a sinner. You can submit to God’s word. Choose to follow Him.
Choose to live in God’s image.
1. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Chicago: Moody, 1961), 15. ↑