On Sin. [Probably the most important post I’ve ever written.]

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I wrote this for Camille Lewis, because she asked for me to explain this all in one place. So here we go.

To echo the esteemed Dr Mike Barrett, nothing I say below is new. “Novelty is not a virtue in this business,” he said to us in seminary. Orthodox teaching on the subject of the Fall and its effects on Creation isn’t hard to find.

Yet people keep asking me to codify what I find myself repeating in so many different contexts, that we Christians tend to mis-define sin (usually by “hedging” the Law) and then apply those fuzzy, imprecise decisions and do much harm.

So, for Camille & others, here is my first, oh-so-brief sketch of the issues, to be fleshed out “later” …

1. Sin is not a THING. 

It doesn’t “exist” as its own entity somewhere, rubbing off like black tar on “good things” … so that we can simply keep ourselves away from the tar…. Sin is a twistedness, a perversion, a brokenness, a falling short. It exists only as the perversion of what is good….

2. and more precisely & biblically, sin exists IN ME. Not in objects. This point is well established in orthodox theological literature. 

Paul writes in Titus that “to the pure, all things are pure.” Jesus says in Matthew (and He was speaking in that context of physical things, and in a conversation with the law-loving Pharisees), it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out from the heart that defiles a man. Jesus locates the problem of sin within humans, not outside of them. We are  “drawn away by our own lusts and enticed” (James 1).

Jesus then goes on to name a representative short-list of sins as His examples.  “Going in” were things like food (reminds me of Paul’s meat discussion). His “coming out” examples are all sins of the heart — envy, hatred, lust, etc.

The sin problem is INSIDE ME.

This is foundational to biblical thinking. As soon as you define any particular thing as sinful, you’ve missed the point…. because we must agree that God Himself sees all things yet does not sin.

So, a test case:
Is the photo of a naked woman sinful?
Well, lusting certainly is.
Adultery is.
The sins of the heart are the point. You can commit the sin of lust without ever opening a Playboy magazine.

Is it the physical photograph of the naked woman in her sensual pose that is the sin?

Jesus could have picked up a porn magazine, flipped through it, and wept over the exploitation of those girls (whether they realize it or not) and such blatant perversion of God-granted beauty… yet never lust.

Don’t misunderstand my point: I’m not suggesting that men go look at porn. I agree with 100% of the godly ministers I know who argue that porn is a huge problem for Christian men. But my point stands that the sin is taking place inside the heart, and the object that stirs up the illicit desires for a wrong kind of sex isn’t the sinful part of this equation. If an unfallen man (or a glorified one) saw a Playboy centerfold, he would not sin.

We sin because we are sinners.
The sin is not in the object.

3. Mature, growing Christians experience a growing freedom of conscience as their knowledge of God and His Word grow. (At least, as the Spirit applies the Word to our hearts, we ought to.) 

Paul never commends the “weaker brother” for his weakness. All of the protections Paul mandates in our interactions with one another (Romans 14, I Corinthians 8-10) are there to prevent the weaker one, the man with the tighter conscience, from being “destroyed” by his uninformed understanding of biblical boundaries.

Implicit in these passages is the expectation that the weaker brother should grow into a mature faith, one that realizes that meat offered to idols is okay; that no day is more important than another … that our external expressions of liberty are NOT where sin resides…

Sin is in the heart.

If I do something despite believing in my heart by conviction (whether I’m right or wrong) that it’s sin, Paul says I sin against my conscience. And THAT is the sin. Not necessarily the activity itself.

4. The battle is never about the top-level, external, surface issues. When it comes to defining sin, the gray areas are actually very small.

You cannot play a game to create some “gray area” which you label “not-sin” yet “still bad.” The Bible never goes there.

Wisdom is justified by her actions, yes, but you’re dealing in different categories (sinful vs unwise). It would not be wise for me to play heavy metal for you at dinner, or in your church service—for one thing, we would have a hard time having a conversation over dinner or paying attention to the message, and that’s unloving. But that action alone wouldn’t be a sin (other than maybe my transgression of the command to “love your neighbor” and “do unto others…”).

If you can’t enjoy screaming heavy metal, fine. Don’t listen.
But understand: NO particular style of music is sin in itself. Period.

If you can’t look at Michelangelo’s David without being bothered by the nudity, fine. But understand — nakedness is NOT a sin.  If you can admire and not sin, great. You’ll weep at the incredible beauty of the sculpture.

5. So…judging someone’s spiritual status by their list of favorite music … movies… TV… books… businesses… where they buy their socks — it’s just silly. 

We are justified.
We are sanctified.
We are made holy solely through the blood of Jesus Christ and the work of the Cross…. nothing else.

I cannot trust God for my salvation and then try to “work my hardest” to “keep Him happy” during the rest of my Christian life! (Read Galatians)

Yes, we are “to be holy” — to be “set apart” indeed. One might argue that Jesus helps us understand that holiness when He calls us to see that the Law’s demands are inward, and not just outward. And that we are to be known, as His followers, by our LOVE. Not by what music we eschew.

We are losers. Gone. Hopeless— APART from God’s redemptive work.
And THAT is Grace:
you are totally sinful, yet totally loved by your Father.

Your actions will never make you any more or less holy. “Righteous Lot” was tormented in his conscience outside Sodom — but God terms him “righteous.” Unbelievable.

Understand what sin is and educate your conscience.  There’s no righteousness in judgment OR license.  “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)


  1. This is a great blog post and very thought provoking. It helped me think through some observations as well. I would love to hear your comments.

    I like the point you are making about objects not being sinful. In fact, this thought possibly goes back to our old friend Gustav Oehler, who said that even the fruit on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not inherently evil or mystical, but that the act of choosing it was sin that would bring the knowledge of good and evil by the act alone. There has never been a sinful object. I am not sure I agree with your 4th point, although it may be a matter of terminology that separates us and the actual point is a matter of full agreement. How do you define gray areas? Are these areas that are sin for some people but not for others (matters of conscience and therefore gray for the group), or are these difficult to decide areas for an individual (gray within a single person’s context)? I would contend that your arguments lead to the conclusion that there are more gray areas and room for disagreement within the group, but these gray areas are much clearer for each individual in the group who is willing to abide by their own conscience and properly train their conscience.

    There is the sin nature that is in us (Rom. 7) and the sinful things that we think or do (Matt. 5). These are two topics, though closely related. The sin nature is the same in the OT and NT, whereas the nature of the law differs. I would say for the OT believer, the matters covered by the law were so extensive that there were fewer matters of conscience, whereas for the NT believer the law is written on our hearts such that, based on Matt. 5, the intensification of the spirit of the law in our conscience creates greater clarity regarding the nature and extent of sin. Whereas NT believers have less restriction by the law (without abandoning law altogether), there is also a greater range of things that can be sinful based upon looking within the heart. Sins of action are more clearly ruled by external law, whereas sins of the heart are more clearly ruled by the individual’s conscience since such sins are not observed by others as enforcers of the law.

    The topic of sin is closely connected to the understanding of conscience, not just law. Any person, even unredeemed, who does something when their conscience condemns them, is violating a conscience with a specific application of the law, thereby defining sin in terms of individual conscience based on natural law in addition to objective moral law (Rom. 2:14-15). There are also sins of omission based on individual conscience and knowledge of a particular good thing that should be done (James 2:15). These are not merely bad things that aren’t sin, but clearly show that what is actually sinful beyond God’s absolute moral imperatives does vary somewhat from person to person as an additional category of sin beyond God’s moral law, which does not vary among individuals.

    I guess what I am saying is that the above understanding of sin creates fewer gray areas for a particular person if he/she properly follows a conscience informed by Scripture, whereas it creates a massively greater range of gray actions that could be sin for one person’s conscience, but not another person’s conscience. This variation is based upon spiritual maturity levels, knowledge levels, or past experiences that have shaped someone’s conscience.

    For example, if you live in a state that has not banned texting while driving based on law, whether or not it is sin for you to text while driving is entirely informed by your conscience’s interpretation of moral principles. Thus, it could be a gray area where Christians disagree, but for the individual there would be a specific answer based upon his/her conscience based upon a particular situation and understanding that an inordinate amount of distraction could lead to accidental damage or even accidental manslaughter. Having friends whose daughter accidentally killed someone by becoming distracted while driving, I limit any texting to voice recognition and red lights. If my conscience tells me not to text and I do it, then I am sinning based on my conscience accusing me. Other people would vary based on a more strict or a more loose approach.

    Another area of conscience could be the area of helping the poor. To help provide for the poor is a clearly stated principle of Scripture. For one person, buying a pair of shoes for someone in an impoverished nation would be something they are compelled to do by conscience and avoiding it would be sin. For another person informed by different knowledge about helping the poor through building industry, his/her conscience might make it sin to give away shoes or clothing in a way that destroyed the ability of that poor nation to build any industry manufacturing shoes or clothing, thereby creating greater harm through loss of jobs caused by the gift. Rather than violating their conscience by giving shoes, such people would have to obey their conscience telling them to do things to help create jobs and industry. For each one, not doing what they know and understand to be good would be sinful disobedience of Scripture’s principle to provide for the poor.

    Thus, I would contend that as each individual matures, grows in knowledge, and grows attuned to their conscience all things in their life become holy except for what offends their properly trained conscience. Thus, all actions become more clearly sin or clearly holiness (Not that life becomes filled with religious activity among religious people, but that all areas of life are impacted by a continual awareness of God’s presence and one’s relationship with Him). Yet, at the same time that this believer matures, the understanding of conscience and priesthood of the believer also causes the individual to be more aware of the right of other believers to exercise their freedom of conscience based on objective principles of Scripture without being judged or condemned based upon the conscience of others. Thus, while the range of potential gray areas among believers is great, the amount of gray area in the life of a mature believer becomes small. God and his clear commands are our only judge apart from our own conscience.



    1. Longest comment ever. Lol!

      I appreciate your desire to be precise and clear. Just giving you a hard time.

      I think I agree with your final paragraph. That’s basically what I mean by my 4th point.

      Not sure I follow all of your specific argumentation before it. I think — though I need to consider this more fully before speaking definitively– that I disagree with what you’re saying about the boundaries of sin in the OT and NT, and I’m not sure your texting /poverty examples are useful for clarifying the question.

      I guess I’d have to agree that an OT believer wearing a cotton/poly shirt was breaking the ceremonial law. Need to chew on whether that meant the person was sinning because of mixed fibers (a “sin” defined by a law meant to apply only to a certain people group in a particular time and place (Israel “in the land”), or whether the law broken would be ….disobedience? Ceremonial cleanness?

      I think Jesus’ intensification of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount shows that the point of the OT law was always to show the sinfulness of the heart.

      Texting while driving isn’t a sin. It isn’t. That’s kind of my point — we don’t get to assign new sins.

      Not caring about other human lives so that I ignore wisdom and good sense, and tend to my own affairs when I ought to be making sure I don’t kill someone on the road beside me– that seems to be the heart of the issue. Regardless of whether my state made texting while driving illegal, I am responsible for not endangering the lives around me.

      Likewise with the believer who has a weak conscience. Yes, whatever isn’t done in faith is sin, as both Paul and James tell us. Sin for that person…

      .but I think the sin isn’t the particlar act in question (texting, giving, smoking, whatever). The sin would be violating your conscience — even if your conscience is wrong, violating it proves that you’re willing to break the boundary of what you think God’s Law says. We’re responsible to obey God’s Law as best we understand it at the time…..

      That’s not really clear, but I’m typing on an ipad and I’m going to stop for now. Will try to return to this tomorrow. 🙂


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