What is Sin?

An Aid to Repentance

The pandemic and now a severe winter storm in Texas, where we live, as well as elsewhere, have prompted the question: What is God trying to teach us?

One obvious answer is that we are coming face to face with our limitations as human beings. Government has not been able to prevent the virus from coming to us, and has been ineffective in slowing its spread and providing vaccines.

Another answer, one which our Puritan forebears and even Abraham Lincoln realized, is that God often uses plagues and other disasters to bring his people to repentance. He does the same with individuals, too. The Scriptures often speak of God’s chastisement of those whom he loves and his severe discipline for his people, so that they might repent (Proverbs 3:11; Hebrews 12:5-6).

We know that not all suffering results from a particular sin, but we do know that suffering came into this world because of sin, that no one is righteous, and that Scripture encourages us to search our hearts to see whether any “secret sins” lurk beneath the radar of our conscience (Psalm 90:8) or “wicked way” requires God’s illumination for us to see how we have disobeyed God (Psalm 139:24). When we just don’t perceive how we’ve departed from the Lord or failed him, we need to ask God to open our eyes, as the psalmists did.

Just when I’m feeling that, despite looking hard for some offense that would “justify” God’s chastisement of me, I am reminded that “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us . . . If we say that we have not [in the past] sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:8, 10).

As I pondered this question, I thought of some Scriptures that quickly brought me to an awareness that, though I may not have killed anyone or committed some heinous crime or obvious idolatry, like Paul I must say, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells” (Romans 7:18).

A definition

First of all, what is sin? The apostle John wrote, “Sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). That is, sin is any failure to obey any of God’s commands.

Some have restricted the definition of sin to conscious, willful acts of disobedience to known commands, but that does not satisfy the clear teaching of Scripture, including the psalms cited above, that sin proceeds from the heart, which is “deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt” (Jeremiah 17:9). The reason that Jesus explained some of the Ten Commandments to his disciples was to warn them not to fall into the error of the Pharisees, who thought that they could keep all the commandments of God. By internalizing the commands, he exposed our true condition.

And that is why he called upon people to repent and not to imagine that they were righteous before God. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple (Luke 18:9-14)   serves as a stark warning not to think of ourselves as morally better than others or to try to justify ourselves before a holy God. As Psalm 143:2 says, “In Your sight no one living is righteous.” Some may be relatively righteous, in that they haven’t done anything outrageously wrong in public or broken the law of the land, but no one is righteous in the sight of God.

So, we know that we are sinful, but we still need specific guidance in order to see what sins we have committed.

The commandments of God

Since “sin is lawlessness,” that is, failure to keep any of the commands of God, we can start with the clear commands in Scripture.

The Ten Commandments can help us begin our inner search.

“I am the LORD your God… You shall no other gods before [or, beside] Me” (Exodus 20:2,3). The Second Commandment says, “You shall not  … bow to. . . or serve” any image of any created thing.” This rules out rank idolatry, of course, but Scripture shows that anything that vies for the total allegiance of our heart is, in effect, another “god.”

We know that because Jesus said that the first and greatest commandment is, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). If we love him with all we are and have, then he will be enough for us, regardless of what else we have or don’t have (see Psalm 16:2; 73:25-26).

As a consequence, “having” God but perhaps nothing else that we desire – including reasonable desires – we should be able to “Rejoice always . . . in every thing give thanks” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) and even to be constantly “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20). That is why Paul, writing from prison where he had virtually nothing that one could desire, commanded, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). On the run for his life, David nevertheless said, “I will bless [praise, thank] the LORD at all times; His praise shall be continually be in my mouth” (Psalm 34:1).

So, when I am tempted to think that God is not treating me well and that I have “grounds” for being unhappy, I measure myself against this standard: Total love for, and satisfaction in, the Lord, leading to constant rejoicing and praising him.

Usually, I fail this test. Then I look for an idol of some sort, a rival “god,” that is, something which I consider “necessary” for my happiness or from which (or whom) I am seeking “life” in addition to God, who is, clearly, not “enough” for me.

The list of possible candidates is very long, but it would include much that we can “reasonably” expect to have in this life: food, shelter, safety, warmth, health, success in work, money, sex, a reasonably happy marriage, affectionate and affirming parents, children, grandchildren, kind friends, supportive family members, recognition, respect from others, freedom, beauty, entertainment, pleasure, national prosperity, power and prominence, a house, car, any coveted possession, etc. These are all good in themselves, of course, and we may pray for them, but if God chooses to withhold them from us, will we be satisfied with having “only” him – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? We also have the precious promises of eternal bliss with God and all the saints in a new heaven and new earth, along with a glorified body.

If the present presence and love of God, plus his promises, are not enough for me, then something is not right in my heart. Clearly, I am holding on to some idol, something that I “must” have, in order to be joyful and happy. If I cannot praise God in all circumstances, and thank him in and for all things, then something or someone is more important to me than God himself and the spiritual blessings he has or will confer on me (see Ephesians 1:3-14 for a representative list).

Furthermore, if these things fill my thoughts and engage my emotions as much as, or more than, God and his goodness to me, they are idols. We can become obsessed with politics or gaining wealth, or health, or our concept of justice, and treat them as if they are ultimate, which they are not. Only God is ultimate.

If I love God with my whole being, I will love his Word as it is recorded in Scripture. Like the righteous person in Psalm 1, I will delight in his Torah (Law, teaching, revelation) and meditate on it day and night. I will find the Scriptures to be more precious than gold and sweeter than honey (Psalm 19:10).

If I love God, I will respond meekly to all his dealings with me, whether they be for  correction (see Hebrews 12:3-11), or testing of my faith to reveal its genuineness (see 1 Peter 1:6-7), or refining, to wean me from the excessive love of this world (Psalm 66:10; 1 John 2:14-15), or to equip me to minister to others the comfort God has given me in my troubles (2 Corinthians 1:3-5), or to enable me to “fill up” what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for his church (see Colossians 1:24), or to give me an opportunity to be a witness of Christ by suffering as he did (Acts 1:8; 1 Peter 2:21), or simply to enter more fully into an awareness of Christ’s sufferings on our behalf, and thus to see how much he loved us and still does, that I may love him all the more – or any other of his many reasons for sending/allowing suffering in my life.

If I love God, I will trust his Word and believe his promises to provide for me and protect me. When I worry, I am showing that I really don’t believe that God loves me enough to take care of me. (See, for example, Matthew 6:24-34; Philippians 4:6-7.) Considering how often God’s people are told in the Bible not to fear or to be anxious, but to trust in him, we can see how important this is to our heavenly Father. All worry is sin!

If I love Christ, I will keep his commandments or ask him to help me to do so. These commandments include: forgive your enemies (Matthew 6:14-15) and love those who do not love us or even treat us spitefully (Matthew 5:44).

If I love God, I will humble myself before him. When rebuked by his Word or by someone else, I will meekly receive the correction, thankful for the chance to become more like Christ. When I see the faults of others, I will avoid pride and self-righteousness; after all, I am not without serious faults, either. All attempts to justify myself before him or before people who have legitimate reminders or even rebukes to offer, are prideful and thus sinful. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5-6; see also Luke 18:9-14; James 4:10).[1]

Can I honestly say, after pondering what it means to love God, that I have not sinned?

Here are a few more commands for us to ponder:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 5:39). This means to treat others as I would want them to treat me (Matthew 7:12).

If I think I am fulfilling this commandment, perhaps I need to ask my neighbor what he or she thinks. Maybe I think I’ve been a pretty good spouse or parent or child or sibling or teacher or teammate or leader, etc., but it might be good to ask the other persons what they think. I might be surprised!

I know that on the few occasions I have asked my wife or daughter what I could do, or could have done, differently, I have been completely stunned by their response, which always seems to come very quickly! As Robert Burns famously said, “Oh the gift that God could give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”

It might be helpful to phrase our question rather generally, such as, “How could I be/have been a better husband/wife/father/child…?”

To follow up, we could ask, “When have you felt that I was not as good a (fill in the blank) as you wish I had been?”

And then, to gain a better sense of how our action or inaction impacted the other, “How did you feel when I did (or did not do) that?”

When the person responds, we should not defend ourselves, much as we are eager to do so, but simply listen and ponder the import of what has been said.

In my own experience, hearing from Dori and Sarah how I have failed to be the husband and father I should have been has been extremely humbling.

This same principle applies to all our relationships with others. We must treat all people with dignity, respect, and fairness, regardless of their age, sex, class, race, ethnicity, appearance, intelligence, etc. Racial prejudice of any kind has no rightful place in our lives. Neither does speaking contemptuously of anyone, even those whose politics, religion, or personality we don’t like. The Golden Rule must rule our minds and actions.

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep holy.” Although I believe that the Sabbath principle – that is, of taking one full day for rest and worship and essential good deeds – still applies to Christians, this is a very controversial subject, so I won’t say more, except that we should submit our use of time to God. (See Genesis 2;2-3.) In the light of his lordship over all of our time, wasting time is a sin. (See, for example, Ephesians 5;15). WE should ponder this principle when assessing how much time we spend on social media, playing computer games, or watching television programs or movies.

“Honor your father and your mother” (Ephesians 6:2; Deuteronomy 5:26). When we are small, to honor our parents is to obey them. As we grow, we honor them by always speaking respectfully to them and about them, except in cases of extreme necessity (we should report physical or sexual abuse, for example).

We should also think of them with respect, even though, as fallen people, they have failed to love us as they should have. We can acknowledge our disappointment and even, sometimes, outrage, but we must quickly forgive them, as we have seen. We should also respect and seek to follow their counsel, unless it conflicts with Scripture. Particularly in the case of marriage and career, and especially for young women, seeking to follow our parents’ counsel is almost always the way of wisdom and of godliness.[2]

Throughout Christian history, theologians have applied this commandment to our attitude towards our elders, whom we must treat with respect, and to those in authority over us at work, school, or in government. We do not have to agree with them, but we must obey them unless they command us to sin (see Acts 5:27-29, with Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-25).

Violent revolution is always wrong, therefore, as is inciting mob violence.[3] That brings us to the next commandment:

“You shall not murder.”

With the advancements of modern medicine, almost all the dangers of childbirth can be prevented. Christian ethicists of all schools, therefore, believe that abortion constitutes the taking of innocent human life, and is therefore forbidden by God.

We know that murder is wrong, but Jesus taught us that having, or expressing, contemptuous attitudes towards others is, too. He also taught us not to hold resentment. Paul said that we should not let the sun go down on our anger, lest we give the devil a foothold in our minds and hearts (Ephesians 4:26). Indeed, resentment is one of the most harmful emotions for our bodies, minds, and spirits.

“You shall not commit adultery.”

The Bible defines marriage as the lifelong union between one man and one woman (see Genesis 2:21-24; Mark 10:1-9) Anything that endangers this union is forbidden by the commandment against adultery.

All sexual intimacy with anyone who is not our spouse is wrong. That would include pre-marital sex; cohabitation; extra-marital sex; and, according to some, remarriage after divorce.[4]So is intentionally looking upon – or thinking about – another person who is not our spouse in an erotic way (Matthew 5:27-28). In fact, we can take this further: To read novels or watch programs or movies that evoke desires for people depicted therein constitutes lust, and therefore adultery.

Within marriage, husbands must be tender and loving towards their wives, even at their own expense. Wives should be respectful and submissive, unless the husband is requiring them to sin. That doesn’t rule out a wife’s honestly telling her husband when she feels hurt, or from giving helpful advice. But it does mean that she should speak with respect, and – given the natural desire of a man for respect and dignity – she should not offer “helpful” advice too often, or she may find that he becomes increasingly irritated. (See Ephesians 5:22-33.)

Whenever possible, spouses should seek to do what the other requests, unless there are strong moral or prudential reasons for not doing so. This requires endless self-sacrifice, of course.

“You shall not steal.”

This commandment, like almost all the others, expresses a negative prohibition in an extreme way, but it includes much more. To steal is to take what is not rightfully mine, or to defraud someone else of what is rightfully theirs. That is why Paul uses the word “defraud” when telling married couples to have regular sexual intercourse (1 Corinthians 7:3-5). If I am not giving, or expressing, love to someone who rightfully should receive it, I am stealing.

“You shall not bear false witness.”

Likewise, this command goes beyond giving false testimony in a court.

It covers all uses of words, spoken or written. As the rest of the Bible shows, we are to speak the truth at all times, and we are to do so in love (Ephesians 4:15). We should not let any idle or unprofitable word proceed from our mouths, but always speak only to build up others (Ephesians 4:29). Honest communication, even criticism, is allowed, but only if we are intending thereby to build the other up and to restore our relationship (Matthew 18:15-16).  We should never criticize or complain about another person behind his or her back. Rather, we should seek the help of another person only if all efforts to communicate with the offender have failed.

This principle calls into question a great deal of so-called “Christian” counseling. It is one thing to ask advice on how to be reconciled with our spouse/parent/child/sibling/neighbor, etc. It is another to speak at length about their faults and failings toward us without bringing the offender into the conversation. Christian counseling should strive to help people communicate better with those with whom they have conflict; it should not merely confirm them in their anger.

I realize that it may take some time for the counselor to probe the deepest wounds and to address their impact. Hurting people do need to be heard. At some point, however, the offended person needs to be helped to speak directly to the offender and forgive. If that person has died – as is often the case with our parents – then we can’t go to them directly. Still, the role of the counselor is to guide us toward full forgiveness.

Unkind, angry, or hurtful language is never permissible by God (Ephesians 4:31). Instead, we should speak kind, tender, and gracious words to each other (Ephesians 4:32). Words can wound, and they can heal.

“You shall not covet.”

If I still imagine that I am without sin before God and others, this commandment, rightly understood, exposes my foolishness.

To covet is to desire what someone else has – the definition of envy – and to be discontented with what God has given us. That does not rule out seeking improvement in our living condition or our relationships with people or with God, of course. We may humble ask god to give these to us. It does forbid us of having inordinate, that is, excessive, desires, as well as misplaced desires for something that we should not have.

The original commandment told us not to long for our neighbor’s spouse or property, “nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). We must not yearn to have our neighbor’s spouse, marriage, health, financial state, success, or anything else.

The Bible often commands us to exercise self-control (Galatians 5:23; Titus 1:8; 2 Peter 1:6). We are to control our anger, sexual desire, enjoyment of food, ambition, bodily urges, and more. If we seek for the roots of our lack of self-control, we will find that we are wanting and desiring more than we need or even should have.

Gluttony, for example, involves allowing our legitimate need to satisfy our hunger and nourish our body to mushroom into an excessive indulgence in food. Often, we overeat to assuage our guilt or sorrow, or combat boredom, or to fill a void in our heart, especially a sense of not being loved. Ambition drives us beyond the limits of our capacity or proper sphere of work often to give us a sense of worth or to gain the approval of others. In every case, we are wanting something we should not want, or wanting something good, but wanting it too much. We have made an idol out of something, seeking “life” from it instead of from God.

As all Christian expositors have said, not to covet is to be grateful at all times to God for all things. Gratitude is the opposite of covetousness. Covetousness is equivalent to idolatry (Ephesians 5:4-5; Colossians 3:5).

Now we have, as it were, circled back to the first and great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, … soul, … mind… and strength. As I said before, if I love God, I will be satisfied with him, and him alone, though I have no one and nothing else. And I will bless, praise, honor, adore, and thank him at all times and in all circumstances. For he is my life, and he alone gives life (see Psalm 36:8-9).


Now that we have seen that we have all “sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and that “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:23, 10), what should we do?

First of all, we need to repent before God and confess our sins to him. Then, ask his forgiveness, confident that he will “forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all [stain of] unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). He will consider us righteous, because of the work of Christ on the Cross and at the resurrection for us (Romans 3:22-26; 4:25).

We do not need to grovel in our sins and sorrow, but trust and receive God’s full pardon each day.

Then, of course, we can ask him to change us and give us the grace to do what his will better than we have before, always remembering that we will never be sinless in this life.

As we realize afresh just how much we have offended our heavenly Father, and see what a great burden of sin our Lord Jesus bore for us and in our place “to bring us to God” (1Peter 3:18), we will love him all the more, seek to follow him more closely, and praise and thank him more profusely than ever before.

In these ways, we will honor and glorify him who has loved us (Revelation 1:4-6).

G. Wright Doyle

[1] In some cases, we may need to explain ourselves if the other person as misinterpreted something we did or said.

[2] I know that most Christians in America today do not think that young women who are legally of age have any obligation to obey the counsel of their fathers, but Christians of all previous generations did believe so, and with some Scriptural warrant. Actually, we parents are approached humbly, some compromise can usually be worked out. In any case, modern Western individualism often conflicts with the spirit of this commandment.

[3]For a critical evaluation of the American revolution, see my Christianity in America: Triumph and Tragedy, chapter 2.

[4] For a general discussion of marriage, see my book The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: A Handbook to Marriage, which includes an appendix on divorce and remarriage.