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A Three Part Series Condensed Here!


Part One

Editor's Note:  You can hear the audio of this Bible study under the same title at Truthtellers.org.

It is essential to correctly understand how the Holy Scriptures define sin. False definitions of sin can both excuse sinful behavior and create neuroticism that every human mistake is a sin. The issue of what sin is and is not is of the greatest importance because our hope of going to heaven and not hell depends on becoming pleasing to God.   


At the same time, even with the most accurate definition of sin, we can’t resist sin on our own. Only God’s grace enables us to resist temptation as we trust in Him. Without the atoning blood of Jesus and His unmerited grace, all our efforts to please God through our moral choices are in vain.

Scripture teaches through many precepts and examples that sin is rebellion against the known will of God. It is a free decision. It is not a state of being simply because we live in a human body. It is not a consequence of the actions of other people or of our ancestors. We each deserve hell as a result of our own free will decision to disobey God. That is the definition I will defend in this three-part article.  


Sin exists only in rational beings, not animals, young children or the insane. James says sin follows temptation. "But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed." (James 1:14)  Then when his strong desires or "lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death." This is a significant pattern of events.  


Some people fear that just being tempted (feeling strong temptation) is sin.  In reality, we are filled with many emotions and desires as human beings. God created them. To be human is to feel the pulse of our humanity, including sexual arousal, economic ambition, and creative fires.  It is confusion to say these appetites in themselves are sin. James makes it clear that only when we decide to do what is outside of faith (we steal or commit sexual sin, etc.) does it become actual sin. Even abnormal desires, such as sexual arousal toward members of the same gender, are not sin in themselves. They become sin when they are indulged and acted upon. God is flexible in making provision for our humanity and the vacillations of our emotions.  


James 4:17 is important: "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." Scripture is very clear that sin is a conscious choice. James says if we know what is right to do but choose not to do it, it is sin.  

God has been faithful throughout Scripture and, to a large extent, through our consciences, to inform us of His standards of right and wrong. God's definitions of sin are intelligent, coherent, and logical, and they are made to be received by rational human beings.   


We serve a reasonable God.  


Paul Enlarges Our Definition of Sin

The Biblical basis for right and wrong for western civilization, and earlier for the Hebrews, is contained in the Ten Commandments. But Paul sets forth another definition of sin in Romans 14:22-23: 

Hast thou faith? Have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. 23 And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.  

Paul is saying all sins aren’t graven in stone in the Ten Commandments. Rather, things that otherwise could be morally neutral can be sin if we do them in rebellion, pride, and lack of faith toward God.  Earlier, Paul says some people only eat vegetables, and some people are omnivores.  He says neither is right or wrong. In these gray areas of life, we must act according to the personal convictions of our conscience. Conversely, if we do even a "good" thing in unbelief, arrogance, and rivalry toward God, it becomes sin.  "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin."  This expands the Old Testament concept of sin exponentially.  Pleasing God does not just consist of obeying commandments.  We must first obey His greatest commandment:  

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: 5 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thane heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. (Deut. 6:4-5) 

God requires above everything that we be in a loving, trusting relationship with our Creator.  We must live at all times in faith and willingness toward Him.  Does that mean that while in the middle of a math exam God requires us to also be thinking about Him?  No, it means we live entirely in the context of trusting and obeying Jesus. This requires obeying God whenever a moral issue presents itself.  Every morning when the Christian gets up he should thank God for the new day and seek His will and marching orders. He goes through the day attuned to the Holy Spirit’s voice of direction.   


Sin occurs when we decide we do not want to live by faith in Him. Instead, we have another agenda of our own, not in His will.  We know this alternative is wrong. It is not Biblical and not of faith. But it is so delicious!  Covetous of it, we push away looking toward Jesus and do our own will.  It does not matter what that competing option is.  If we are consciously pushing God from our thoughts, attentions and loyalty, we are sinning.  This is idolatry because we have set up another god beside the One Who has created us and we say to His rival, "You are my guide and leader, the object of my greatest loyalty."  Even if this is our children, our career and earthly security, our reputation before men, such is abomination.  

Thus far, I have laid strong emphasis upon our responsibility to make decisions toward God in order to avoid sin. These decisions include initial repentance and belief that Jesus is God and that when He died on the cross He took the punishment we deserve. We also are required to come toward Jesus for the rest of our lives, forsaking sin and walking and resting in the grace and mercy He provides.


Yes, some object, saying, “All our efforts to be good are in vain. Our righteousness is to God as filthy rags. The main duty of man is not making right decisions but allowing Jesus, the Sinbearer, to be righteous for us.”

It is true that Jesus empowered our salvation at Calvary and His Holy Spirit draws us to repentance. We are hopelessly lost without such empowerments, and yet Christ has ordained that we play a vital role in our own soul-making. It is not legalistic, or detracting from Christ’s glory, to assert that we must cooperate with Him for our moral choices. Salvation is of Christ, and we have nothing of which to boast. As Jesus said, we are unprofitable servants. Thus, Jesus does not despise our desire to do what is Biblical and right if such is done without pride, giving glory to our Savior. Our choices to obey, along with complete trust and hope in His mercies, are the steppingstones to ever greater spiritual maturity and power. Jesus does not want us to begin to trust in our own ability to follow reason and do what superficially seems right. We can never forsake the greater fact that it is He alone who gives us free will and the power to do right. As a result, any righteousness we have comes from Him. We must trust and obey Jesus, the only source of salvation, hoping in His mercies.

 


Part Two

Editor's Note:  You can hear the audio of this Bible study under the same title here.

In this section we will analyze a number of ways Satan attempts to confuse the sincere Christian, trying to persuade him he has sinned when he hasn’t. A quote from our Lord Himself seems to suggest that we are inescapably sinful just by being in human bodies:  

27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: 28 But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart (Matt.5:27-28). 

This verse, which is almost always misinterpreted, goes like a spear into the hearts of many Christian men, who say, “I have looked at women and had sexual thoughts. Thus, I have committed adultery!"  This verse is brought forward by Calvinists and Augustinians who believe that just having a sexually illicit fantasy pass through your mind is the same as committing adultery.  Largely because of misinterpretation of this verse, Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy. They enter monasteries and avoid women lest they experience a lustful thought. Did Jesus really teach that having a sexual thought was as bad as adultery?  


The crucial word in this passage is "lust,” which should be translated "covet." What Jesus really taught is that “epithumeo" (to covet) means to desire a woman so intensely that if the opportunity presented itself you would commit the act. Jesus returns to the Ten Commandments, saying coveting your neighbor's sailboat, house, job, or wife is all the same thing.  We are not to want anything so much that we would steal it if we could get away with it. Correct translation thus reveals that Jesus is not teaching an extreme, indicting, and unworkable definition of sin, as is suggested by the common misunderstanding of this crucial verse. 


Satan constantly bombards us with accusations, sometimes true, about our shortcomings. He says, "If you were what you should be, you would witness more, be more loving, study the Bible more, act in a more compassionate way…"  Since it is impossible to experience "what we should be" and must be ourselves in the present, it is difficult for the sincere but tempted believer to disprove Satan's charge.  Satan also says: "If you are worrying about having sinned, you undoubtedly have sinned.  If you were without sin, your conscience wouldn't be bothering you.  You would know for sure that you have not sinned."  


Are we free of sin just because we are meeting a standard of performance? No. Jesus considers us pure in heart because His blood purifies us as we trust in a childlike way in Him, refusing deliberate rebellion in this moment. We can always grow in stature. We can always become more like Him, for as long as we live and even in eternity. No Christian can say, “I’m perfect now, I don’t need to change.” Life is a continual process of discipline and becoming more like our Savior. But the failings of our humanity and our distance from the perfection of Christ do not mean we are in sin! Christ promised to make us holy and count us holy and justified by faith, childlike faith, in His atoning work on the cross. No matter how much we may see our need to grow, we can be perfect in heart right now if we trust blindly in Jesus and say "no" to sin as it presents itself. This is not because we have performed well. Trust is not a work. It is an abandonment of work, an abandonment of self, to the care of Jesus. It means refusing to look to our performance at all for self-justification. Instead, we trust wholly in Him who died for us. When our hearts (or demons) accuse us, we can respond, “Even if I failed—even if I sinned—right now I am trusting in Jesus to have mercy on me! I am rejecting sin right now!”  


This brings us to a very important distinction: Is a correct definition of sin the secret of true spiritual victory?  I have stressed the importance of such coherence as we navigate the treacherous seas of life, but the correct definition of sin is not the secret of spiritual victory or peace with God.  The essence and power of true Christianity is complete trust in Jesus, not knowledge.  We must trust in Jesus beyond our mind and our understanding, beyond our fears and apprehensions.  Salvation does not come from having a perfect definition of what is right and wrong and choosing the right thing.  Christ alone is our salvation, rescuing us as we cry out to Him, trusting only in Him and what He has done at Calvary to save us.   


When we receive from Christ the ability to trust Him, and we choose to trust and obey Him to the best of our ability, we can’t be lost! We can’t be condemned. It is not reasonable to think that we can trust in Jesus, crying out to Him, "Lord, have mercy on me.  I trust in You," and Jesus would say, "Your trust doesn't mean much to me.  I wanted perfect performance out of you and I didn't get it.  I'm going to send you to hell!"  Can you conceive of a God that callous and twisted?  He is not. To paraphrase Jesus in John 6:37: Whoever comes toward me like a little child and crawls up on my lap and trusts Me, I will in no way cast him out. 


Childlike trust in Jesus, not knowledge, is the great anchor and foundation of our spiritual rest, joy, and certainty that we are accepted by God.  God simply cannot be angry at the believer who is sincerely trusting and obeying Him.Some old-fashioned Calvinists would suffer through their whole lifetime without that assurance.  They waited for a mystical experience to prove they were really one of the predestined ones.  Maybe they never had that experience.  Even today many Christians evaluate themselves by whether they have produced works and have a good reputation that strongly indicate they were really born again.   


The best way to know you are absolutely pleasing to God is to say right now, "Lord, regardless of what I have done and how I have failed and even feel like I am failing right now, I trust in You!"  When we come as sincerely as we can to Jesus in trust, we cannot be lost.  In such vertical movement toward Christ, we send up to the Almighty all the sincerity we can muster.  With the precedents of the thief on the cross and the publican who cried out to Jesus for mercy and were approved by Him, we have every right to rest in the Lord and refuse the devil's demand for perfection.  Jesus is our perfection. By trusting in Jesus and abiding in Him, we have true spiritual transcendence.  This is the faith that overcomes the world.   


The simplicity of this is very important.  As we become more like Christ, we become more aware of the ways we are not perfectly like Him. Interestingly, the Bible itself can be a source of anxiety with its seemingly conflicting solutions to a multitude of moral questions and dilemmas. Life also presents many situations where we are not sure what is right or wrong.  The very complexity of the subject of sin can be so daunting that even pastors throw up their hands and refuse to deal with it.  In fact, the doctrine of eternal security is an end run around normal consideration of these moral issues, saying, "It's very simple.  Don't worry about whether you have sinned because we are all sinning every day in thought, word, and deed.  Just say the sinner's prayer ("I accept You, Lord Jesus, as my Savior"), and you are eternally secure.  You can start enjoying life."   


Yes, God's way is simple, but not simplistic.  Ultimately, God's way to deal with what is and is not sin is by our first saying, "Jesus, I absolutely trust in You.  I give all to You. I will obey you to the best of my ability for the rest of my life." When we do that sincerely, His Holy Spirit is free to come to us and gently lead us into all truth as Jesus promised.  


I am not saying there will not be consequences and reverberations in your life if you have done evil.  I am saying that when you come with singleness of heart vertically to Jesus and cry out for His mercy it really does not matter what you have done in the past. In that simple repentance and trust in Christ’s atonement, God has separated your sins from you as far as the east is from the west.  He has morally made you as fresh and clean as snow.  You are freed to forget those things which are past—though making restitution wherever possible— and look forward only to more of the same kind of grace.  


Let's conclude with a powerful passage from I John 4:17-18:  

17 Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. 19 We love him, because he first loved us. 

There is a place of spiritual rest that remains open to all believers, and we must labor to enter into it, as Hebrews 3 tells us. It's a place in which we can become convinced that if we love and trust in Jesus there is a casting out of the possibility that we are displeasing to God. When we come to Jesus with the childlike faith He requires, John tells us Jesus throws out fear and torment.  If you still fear for your salvation and are in a state of anxiety, he says your love has not been made perfect, nor is your knowledge of the simplicity of God's requirements for peace of soul.  God is a reasonable God Who comes more eagerly to us than we to Him once we come according to His terms.   

 


Part Three

Editor's Note:  You can hear the audio of this Bible study under the same title here.

(Be sure to read What is Sin?)


Let's consider some historic errors concerning sin.  The prevailing definition of sin in mainline evangelical Christianity is Calvinistic. It is derived from the Augustinian (Catholic) view which was influenced by Gnosticism.  


In the first through fourth centuries A. D. a mystical, pseudo-religious cult developed, largely among intellectuals in Mediterranean lands, called Gnosticism (from gnosis, meaning “knowledge,” or “understanding”). Authorities such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Jewish Encyclopedia, and others are quick to state that Gnosticism was invented by Jews.  Its pantheistic eastern theology is similar to that of Hinduism and Buddhism, but especially the Jewish Kabbalah. The Jews inherited the cabalistic tradition that came out of Babylon in the century or two before Jesus was born.  Alfred Edersheim, perhaps the greatest Jewish and also Christian expert on the history of the Jews,  candidly asserts that esoteric cabalistic traditions existed in the centuries before Jesus among the proto-Pharisaic rabbis who came to Palestine from Babylon. In the decades after Christ, as recounted in the Book of Acts, there was a concerted effort by the Pharisees of Jerusalem to destroy Christianity. It is no accident that the ancient church fathers were united in pointing to the Jews as originators of virtually all the great heresies of the early church.   


Like most pagan doctrines, Gnosticism was divided.  There was a philosophical half which appealed to the high-minded, ascetic, and theologically inclined. But there also was a side which appealed to the masses, as in Buddhism and Hinduism.  It provided a pantheon of divinities and angels the people could relate through prayers, offerings, and festivals. We will concern ourselves with the first: the philosophical and theological division of Gnosticism.  


Gnosticism seemed to glorify God. It said God, as the ultimate “gnosis,” is so far above this terrestrial, defiled, lowly world that we cannot even say anything about Him. He is ineffably holy and transcendent, above intelligence and even morality.To the Gnostics, God is beyond comprehension.  This appealed to ascetic and high-minded people, such as the brilliant church father Origen who slept on rough wooden boards to chastise his flesh. 


Gnosticism said the whole world, being material and not spiritual, is evil.  This includes our fleshly humanity.  We are intrinsically evil not because of moral decisions but because we exist in a human body.  As long as we live in this evil world and body, we will be torn by every kind of passion, lust, desire, and attachment.  


The apostle Paul does instruct Christians to mortify the deeds of the flesh and bring our bodies under subjection to Christ.  Christian/Gnostic teachers in and out of the church quoted him as teaching in Romans 7 that, despite the Christian’s best efforts to rise above his “evil flesh,” he remains “wretched” and “carnal, sold under sin.” Largely as a result of Gnostic twisting of Paul's words during the second through fourth centuries A.D., a horde of young people left the church, public life, and marketplace of the ancient world (where souls needed to hear the Gospel and be redeemed from sin). They wandered in the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Palestine, often living in caves. They tried to get rid of the “evil flesh” and ascend to purest contemplation of God alone. Such asceticism led to the monastic system of the Roman Catholic Church. The Gnostic idea that sex is evil led to celibacy of nuns and priests, who also believed that those who separate themselves from the world in a monastic or ascetic way are going to have a better chance of pleasing God and escaping purgatory. Purgatory teaches that possibly eons of trials may be necessary to purge us from sin before we are sufficiently qualified to enter heaven.  This is a very great error. 


The idea that the flesh is evil and we are bound to our evil flesh as long as we live in this world is a fundamental of Roman Catholicism and Calvinism.  If you talk to most Calvinists and say, "We are not in chains to our evil flesh.  We can make a clear decision to exalt Jesus as absolute Lord of our lives.  His blood at Calvary empowers us to put down the flesh and come into a state of complete loyalty to Him that excludes sin," the Calvinist will describe you as a “sinless perfectionist.” They will ask, "But doesn't John say in I John 1:8 that if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us?"  


Yes, John does say that. But he also abundantly asserts throughout the rest of the book that, “whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not." (1 John 5:18; See also 1 John 3:3-10; 4:12, 17; 5:4, 5)  Similarly, they reply, "Doesn't Paul describe himself in Romans 7 as torn between the flesh and the spirit, crying out, "Oh, wretched man, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Calvinists agree with Gnostics that we are caught in the wretchedness of sin and only death will free us from the inevitability of sinning every day in thought, word, and deed. 


In reality, John in I John 1:8 identifies with sinful man in evasion of the fact of their sinfulness, something of which the Holy Spirit labors to convince the human heart.  John is not describing such as normal Christianity.  Similarly, in Romans 7 Paul describes himself as double-minded and wretched before the grace of Jesus came to him.  Yet Calvinists describe his rhetorical "flashback" to a previous life as depicting the normal life of the "sinning saint."   


Suffice it to say that Gnosticism introduced into Christianity great error about what sin is and the nature of our bodies and their relationship to our spirits. Unfortunately, both Catholicism and Calvinism perpetuate such confusion, denying the clarity of understanding of countless Christians over the centuries regarding the Biblical definition of sin. This clarity is essential for fullest maturity and victory in the Christian life.  

 

End of Part Three


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