Understanding Sin

2010 May 16

In an interview, Gary Anderson (author of a book about the historical understanding of sin) made the point that in the Bible sin has been seen primarily by a couple of metaphors through time.

Sin Metaphors

Early in the Old Testament, sin was primarily seen as a burden to be carried. Although our English translations of the Bible don't convey much of that concept, it can be seen in Leviticus 16. The sins of the people are figuratively put onto a goat, and then the goat is taken away and released into the wilderness. The scapegoat carried away the weight of the people's sins.

It is easy to understand how sin could come to be viewed this way. The feeling we experience when we have done wrong is like that of a heavy, debilitating load. However, there is more to sin than this metaphor can carry.

In the course of Old Testament history, the religion of the Jews influenced a change in their thinking about sin. Jewish ritual law required sinners to provide a sacrifice for their sin. So, by the time of Jesus the common metaphor had changed such that sin was viewed as a debt. Jesus made use of the metaphor in his his parable about forgiveness of sin (Matthew 18:23-34).

Regardless of metaphor, the fundamental problem of sin is what it does in relationships. If I sin against a person, the relationship is damaged. And if I sin against God, the relationship is damaged.

Unfortunately, with the debt metaphor, it became easy to come to the mistaken conclusion that the sinner might legalistically be able to pay off their own sin debt. In relationship debts, you can't do good deeds to pay off the balance. And attempting to pay down the relationship debt with money is insulting bribery to the offended. The offender increases their offense by this kind of thinking. And this is true whether the offended is God or a human. Sin is not a debt that a sinner can pay.

The underlying issue of sin is a relationship problem. So, the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus clarified that God didn't desire sacrifices (payments) for sin (Isaiah 1, Jeremiah 7, Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13). Instead, God wanted changes in the hearts of his people that affected how they treated one another.

Today, the debt metaphor of sin still predominates. This is unfortunate because it has encouraged some badly mistaken legalistic views of sin. God still doesn't want payment from us for our sins; he wants our motivations and our hearts to be changed to be like his. What pleases God is changed hearts.

Interestingly, both of these metaphors for sin don't describe what sin actually is. They only describe what sin accumulates.

Sin and Free Will

Under those metaphors, I suppose that people probably would say that sins were actions, sin was doing that which was wrong. Before the Old Testament law existed, actions that were good were defined by tradition or conscience. At the law, many wrong actions were codified. note However, the tenth commandment ("Do not covet.") made a clear exception to the idea of sin as an action. If coveting also was sin, then sin had to be a matter of the mind.

That is, they were codified for the Israelites. There have always been systems of laws in civilizations. The Code of Hammurabi is an example of another code which preceded the Jewish system.

There is a lot of overlap between systems of laws because humans possess inherent understanding of the idea of injustice and generally make laws to prohibit unjust actions.

Sin has always been viewed as a choice of free will. Actions resulted from the choice. In our traditions, not much distinction has been made between the choice and the action. The tenth commandment illuminates this lack of distinction as a defect because the commandment shows that you can sin without external action. In addition, under careful inspection it can be seen that sin and sinful acts have always been considered by God as separate things because they have separate consequences:

  • If an individual commits a sinful act against someone, the sinner has offended twice: first an offense against God, and then also one against a person. Under the law, this would require both a sacrifice and restitution to make right (Leviticus 5:14-16).
  • Jesus forgave the sins of the criminal on the cross beside him (Jesus promised him heaven), but Jesus did not take away the consequences of his crime (death by crucifixion).

Sin and Value System

A better understanding of sin results when it is seen that sin is a matter of value systems and relationships.

God's value system is sacrificial love for the benefit of others (John 15:9-13), and relationships are based on common value systems (Philippians 2:1-8). note God's value system is the only one that can be shared because all other ones are selfish and are therefore proprietary to the holder (Isaiah 53:6). The actions that result from these other value systems bring exploitation and broken relationships (Romans 1:18-32).

Within this perspective, sin is choosing a value system other than God's, and the result of this sin is sinful acts. The effects of sin, and the results of sinful acts are burdens or debts in relationship.

This description for sin explains why two people might do the same action, but for one it is sinful and the other it is not.

  • Jesus condemned the Pharisees (Mark 7:9-12) for not taking care of their parents, and instead giving their money to the temple. Giving to ministry is usually not a sin. However, for these Pharisees, the value system they chose that motivated them to give to ministry (but abandon their parents), was their sin.
  • Paul acknowledged that eating meat sacrificed to idols was not a sin, even though some people were really bothered to do so because of their life experiences (1 Corinthians 8). However, if a person that was personally OK with the eating this meat knowingly did so in front of another for whom this was an issue, the liberated person would be sinning. This is because they would be motivated by selfishness ("I want my meat"), and not by God's value system of sacrificial love. The eating or not eating was not the sin - the choice of the motivating value system was the sin.

In both these cases the action without context was non-moral. However, in the context of motivation by immoral values the act became immoral.

There are other specific actions (such as murder) that have been pre-designated as immoral. To even do these acts, the evidence then is that you have already chosen to be motivated by immoral values.

Another aspect of sin is its consequences. Romans 6:23 says, "the wages of sin is death". Death is mortality, but a more general understanding of death is separation or breaking of relationship. Physical death permanently breaks human relationships. Spiritual death is broken relationship with God. All these aspects were illustrated at the first sin.

The deceiver came to Eve and suggested she choose her own value system so that she could self-determine good and evil. When she and Adam chose to do so, immediately they were separated by value system from each other and from God. (Genesis 3:9-13) The choice of value system was their sin, the eating of the tree fruit was a sinful act that came out of it. The consequences were that Adam and Eve's relationships with each other and with God immediately became broken, and they were cursed with mortality.

Sin is so abhorrently evil that not only was God justified in making us mortal, but he also would be justified in immediately taking our physical life. Certainly some sinful acts had been designated for capital punishment. But also in the sacrificial system, all sin resulted in physical death - at least the death of an animal. Sin brings death at many levels.

Sin as a choice of values explains why people who have never even heard of God's law still sin and experience death. All humans natively choose selfish value systems, therefore, all humans are sinners and are under condemnation of God.

This view of sin also correlates with the process of forgiveness by which we come to God. This process critically includes repentance, which is a change of mind. This important part of it is specifically that we change our mind to adopt God's value system so that we can stop sinning.

Sin is a choice of value system. When we choose a value system other than God's value system, we sin. From this sin can come only sinful acts, no matter what we might try to do. However when we adopt God's value system we can produce acts of faith that are pleasing to God.


See also How should Christians view sin?


The value system concepts and perspective on the gospel that are on this page are based on ideas from the work of Darren Twa, pastor at Life Fellowship and author of several books including God's Value System.