What is Sin . . . Really? (Part 2)

sinRead the rest of the series.

Sin is more than an external action. It is also a thought. It is also a state of being; a status or condition. You are either pregnant or you are not. You are either a male or a female. You are either a condemned sinner in God’s universe – an individual made in God’s image who stands guilty and has the status of “criminal” . . . or you are not.

So much is clear. But, is there still another layer here? After all, why do people break God’s moral law? What is at the heart of this transgression? What drives the sinful action? That is, what is the motive?

This matter of intent is important. It lies at the heart of our legal system. The difference between murder and, say, involuntary manslaughter is the issue of intent. In the former case, you plan to kill somebody and you do it. In the latter scenario, you kill somebody in the heat of a sudden passion. Both are wicked and wrong. But, we all recognize that murder carries greater condemnation. We recognize this because we understand that intent means something.

Moral value is assigned to the act, thought or state based on the intent of the action. That criterion is motive. An act is “sinful” (i.e. “tainted with, marked by, or full of sin”[1]) because of the wicked motivation which drives the behavior. So, consider yourself:

  • What makes you lust after a co-worker?
  • Hate your Christian brother (i.e. “neighbor”)?
  • Cheat on your taxes?
  • Covet money?
  • Forsake the local church?
  • Close your eyes to the cares and needs of your Christian brethren?
  • Never read the Scriptures?
  • Watch pornography?
  • Value your career over your responsibilities to your own family?
  • Love yourself more than you love your spouse?
  • Shirk your responsibility to raise your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?
  • Fail to live up to your God-given responsibilities as a mother or father?

It should be clear there is an intent, a motive and a drive which produces (1) a sinful action, (2) a sinful thought or (3) the state of “sinfulness” and condemnation in the unregenerate. The act, thought or state is merely the fruit of something far deeper. One theologian observed, “It may be admitted along with the speculative ideals that sin is an action of the will – either an overt omission or commission – but back of the will is the evil heart.”[2]

The act, thought or state of sin is not “sinful” in and of itself – it is merely the fruit of some other poisonous tree. My question today is – what is that tree?

There have been several answers. We’ll focus on three:[3]


This view hold that sin is really about lust. There are physical desires which every man recognizes are part of the material world, and there are spiritual virtues everybody recognizes are higher, nobler and more virtuous. Sin is a capitulation to the physical lusts (i.e. “sensuality”) at the expense of spiritual truth.[4]

This view is clearly wrong-headed. There are many sinful actions which have nothing to do with physical lust. Pride, discord, jealousy, envy and arrogance (to name a few) are certainly not about lusting after physical things. This concept of sin also tends to favor aestheticism; that is, the idea that a monk living in the desert is somehow more “spiritual” than the Christian who lives in the city. This is nonsense.[5]


We prefer God to ourselves. We want what we want, not what God wants. We are petulant, spoiled and wicked children who want a Burger King god – one who makes things our way. After all, God commanded His people to love Him supremely (cf. Deut 6:5). Christ sought the Father’s will, not His own. A true Christian does not live for Himself, but for the Lord. Satan’s main point of attack in the Garden of Eden was an appeal to selfish independence. The antichrist himself, the “man of sin,” is so named because he will exalt himself against God.[6] “[S]elfishness can be understood as the root cause of all other expressions of sin.”[7] One theologian wrote, “[W]hen selfishness is considered as an undue preference of our interests to God’s interests, we have in selfishness the essence of all sin.”[8]

This view has a lot to commend it. But, I don’t believe it quite goes far enough. There is still another layer to this onion.

  • A man does cheat on his wife because he is selfish.
  • He does cheat on his taxes because he is selfish.
  • He does forsake the local Christian church because he is selfish.
  • He does forsake his personal study of the Scriptures in favor of his career and his own narcissistic ambition.
  • He may even forsake his duties as a father, son and husband because he is selfish

But, there is something deeper:

  • Why does a man cheat on his wife?
  • Why does he cheat on his taxes?
  • Why does he forsake his local church?
  • Why does he neglect his own responsibilities as a father?

In effect, I’m asking:

  • Why does a man reject God in favor of his own self-interest?
  • Why is a man selfish?

This leads us to the next option; the best option

Rejection of God’s Authority

At the heart of all this is a willful rejection of God. You commit sinful acts, think sinful thoughts, and are born by nature as a child of wrath in the state of sin because you are in rebellion against God.[9] Even one theologian who advocated for selfishness as the poisonous tree wrote, “this selfishness is simply man’s desire for autonomy.”[10]

  • You are a terrorist insurgent, and God is the law keeper.
  • You are a criminal in God’s universe, and Jesus is the Righteous Judge
  • You are a seditious rebel, and it is God who you are fighting against

Because this is true, sin is really more than an act, a thought or a state of being. It is a willful desire for complete independence from God. This unending quest for autonomy manifests itself in:

  1. the wicked condition of spiritual degeneracy and depravity
  2. the evil thoughts, lusts and intents of the human heart and mind, and
  3. criminal actions which are against God’s law

Adam and Eve’s great sin was the start of it all. That sin was that “they became, in their understanding, their own authority, and their fallen descendants ever since that time have claimed a similar autonomy from God.”[11] A “willful ambition against God” was also Satan’s sin, and it is ours, too.[12] When you get down to brass tacks, Adam and Eve were disobedient – “[h]ence infidelity was at the root of the revolt.”[13] The Apostle Paul confirmed this:

Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous (Rom. 5:18-19).

Adam’s trespass led to condemnation; his disobedience resulted in a fundamental change in status. He and his wife lost their status of moral innocence and gained the new status of “rebellious criminal.” Christ’s perfect righteousness is designed to reverse this tragedy for all who repent and believe in Him and His Gospel. Disobedience did this. What is disobedience but a deliberate rejection of authority?

  • Men are commanded to love God with all they have (cf. Deut 6:5),
  • He has given us a holy book, a “perfect treasure of heavenly instruction” which “reveals the principles by which God will judge us,”[14] and tells us precisely how to love Him,
  • An action, thought, or pattern of life which is opposed to God’s command is deliberate disobedience and “active opposition to God.” Indeed, “sin is the result of a free but evil choice of man.”[15]

The Psalmist wrote the same thing:

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision (Ps 2:1-4).

People are born in rebellion against God, and their entire life is spent desperately trying to cut the ties which bind them to the Father and the Son’s jurisdiction and authority.

The poisonous tree which produces the fruit of sinful actions, sinful thoughts and a sinful status before God is a quest for independence, for autonomy – a deliberate rejection of God. “In short, it is failing to acknowledge God as God.”[16]

What does this mean for you? What does this mean for Jesus and His sinlessness? Until next time . . .


[1] Merriam-Webster (s.v. “sinful”).

[2] Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (reprint; Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1976), 2:254.

[3] See Erickson (Christian Theology, 596-598) for short summaries of these theories.

[4] See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 2:140-144 for a detailed discussion of this view, and its various flavors.

[5] John Calvin remarked, “the common idea of sensual intemperance is childish,” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge [reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012], 2.1.4.

[6] These points are from Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1907), 572.

[7] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit, MI: DBTS, 2009), 2:57.

[8] Theissen (Systematic Theology, 247).

[9] “Now there is no doubt that the great central demand of the law is love to God. And if from the material point of view moral goodness consists in love to God, then moral evil must consist in the opposite. It is separation from God, opposition to God, hatred of God, and this manifests itself in constant transgression of the law of God in thought, word, and deed,” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, combined ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996], 2:232).

[10] McCune (Systematic, 2:57).

[11] Robert Reymond, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, revised ed. (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 1998), 445.

[12] See the discussion by Chafer (Systematic, 2:242-248). “All human beings acting independently who are not concerned to fulfill the divine purpose for them are re-enacting this same sin, and their destiny is that of the devil and his angels (Rev 20:10-15), unless they come under the saving grace of God,” (2:248).

[13] Calvin (Institutes, 2.1.4.).

[14] 1833 NHCF, Article 1.

[15] Berkhof (Systematic, 2:231).

[16] Erickson (Christian Theology, 598).

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