What is sin?


This is a question we’ve had to field with our kids a number of times over the last couple of years, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve answered it that well But think about it for a second—what is sin? How would you define it?

Many of us, no doubt, describe it as the breaking of God’s law—either doing what we should not do, or not doing what we should. And this is accurate, insofar as it goes. Maybe we go a little deeper and, to borrow an encyclopedia’s definition, and describe it as “Evildoing seen in religious perspective, not only against humanity, society, others, or oneself, but against God.”[1. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1967.] Or perhaps we look at the various Greek and Hebrew words used to describe sin and come to “the failure of duty”, or “missing the mark,”[1. Which is the meaning of the word hamartēma as found in Romans 3:23.] along with the words behind transgression, iniquity, lawlessness, ungodliness and so many others.

And these are all right and good, without question. They’re helpful. But I wonder if there’s another way to describe sin—a way that really cuts to the heart issue: madness.

Consider how R.C. Sproul describes the problem in The Holiness of God:

My sins have not brought me happiness. But my sins have brought me pleasure. I like pleasure. I am still very much attracted to pleasure. Pleasure can be great fun. And not all pleasures are sins. There is much pleasure to be found in righteousness. But the difference is still there. Sin can be pleasurable, but it never brings happiness.

Now if I understand all this, why would I ever be tempted to sin? It seems silly that anyone who knows the difference between happiness and pleasure would continue to trade happiness for pleasure. It seems utterly stupid for a person to do something that he knows will rob him of his happiness. Yet we do it. The mystery of sin is not only that it is wicked and destructive but also that it is so downright stupid.

When we sin—especially when we sin as Christians—we know we’re doing something that is wrong. We know it’s not going to fulfill its promises. We might have some momentary pleasure, but we know (at minimum intellectually) that it won’t bring us the happiness we seek.

But we do it anyway. So why would we do something so destructive and stupid? Because we are mad. And that’s what sin is: madness. “Sheer madness,” as Sproul describes it.

That cuts to the heart a little more, doesn’t it? And I wonder if that’s what we need to hear a little more of sometimes. Not just for us as parents trying to figure out how to deepen the conversation with our kids as they get older, or as we discuss the issue in our small groups, or one-on-one relationships. But for us, individually. We don’t seem to easily get the truth about sin and what it is and what it says about us. But it’s there. When we look at the crazy soap opera that is Jacob’s marriages in Genesis 30, we’re confronted by it. When we look at the fall in Genesis 3, we’re confronted by it. When we look at the wandering and grumbling in the wilderness, we’re confronted by it. And when we look at our own lives, with the things that call out to us, and those we entertain for just a little too long, or indulge in when we know better…

There’s no better way to put it: it is madness. And when we think about sin—even sin as Christians—like that, we get to see the good news in a different way. That God isn’t trying to make us better people, but that in Christ, he is restoring our sanity day by day. And in the new creation, when all is made as it should be, we will be able to think straight for the first time in our lives.

I’m kind of looking forward to that. How about you?

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.