What Is Sin?

What is sin?

This question seems obvious. Sin is disobeying God. A more informed answer would say it is transgression of the Law (1 John 3:4). But this is only marginally helpful, because defining it doesn't automatically explain why something is a sin. It might help to take it back to Genesis to know what standard we are measuring against.

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
—Genesis 1:31

In English, the word “good” is a bit nebulous. It means something like “correct”, but even that seems arbitrary. Correct—according to whom? According to God, of course, but by what basis does he declare something good or evil? Is goodness arbitrary? Not really. The word here rendered “good” is the Hebrew word טוב (tov). This word isn't describing some esoteric quality of morality. Hebrew is a concrete language. Tov means “functional”. To be good is to operate as designed.

And from that, we can determine that “evil” means “dysfunctional”. In Hebrew, the word is רע (ra). Ra has a variety of nuances, but if we are contrasting it with tov, it seems obvious that anything evil is going against its natural design.

As it pertains to human behavior, does this discussion on function and dysfunction aid us in understanding sin or answering the question of how God establishes morality? It does. In the Bible, God distills morality to us in the form of his תורה (torah). This word means “instruction”, so we can think of it as God's instructions on how humans ought to live in order to function as designed. Moreover, torah comes from a root word related to archery. If we behave according to our design, we are hitting the bullseye of ideal human behavior.

Just as ra (dysfunctional) is the negative of tov (functional), we find that חטא (chata, sin) is the negative of torah (instruction). Chata means “to miss the mark”, hearkening back to the archery imagery. (There are degrees of sin, which is a concept poorly understood in most Christian circles, but that is unimportant for this discussion.)

With all this in mind, it seems that sin could be described as behaving in a way that goes against the way we were designed to be. This has pretty big implications. For one thing, it suggests that, for non-religious activities, morality should be intuitive. There are many moral philosophers who find convincing arguments for biblical values such as monogamy and opposing abortion from within a completely secular framework. This should be expected, as any being who bears God's image ought to have an intuitive grasp on justice and reciprocity. Paul says something similar in Romans 2:12-16.

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

This has other interesting implications that are for another time, but what motivates me tonight is attitudes I've seen toward people outside the fold of Christianity. I don't mean to paint with a broad brush, but I have seen many unfortunate accusations made toward irreligious people along the lines of, “You want to reject God because you love your sin too much,” and there is a great concern over the cognizance of particular creeds and doctrines. But let's be honest: Many people who claim to know God still behave in dysfunctional ways, and Paul makes clear that those who do good in ignorance may be justified while those who sin high-handedly may be judged.

Of course it is advantageous to seek God and know him. We have clarity in knowing what he desires and assurance in the resurrection of the dead. But I guess I'm just disappointed by some of the things I've seen—especially from apologists—that impugn the motivations of people who generally try to live kind and decent lives. There must be a better way to reach people with the truth than to paint them as enemies.


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