Viewing Sin as a Violation of God’s Law
Throughout history, Christian theologians have offered various definitions of sin. I am not convinced there’s one exclusive and exhaustive definition for the concept of sin. The concept of sin, like the concept of godliness, is multifaceted. Sin can be and often is viewed in the Scriptures from different perspectives. I’d like to highlight three ways, which I believe are helpful in defining or describing sin. The first of these three views sin in relationship to God’s moral law.
Sin as a Violation of God’s law
Question 14 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism queries, “What is sin?” To which the response reads as follows: “Sin is any lack of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” The key proof text given to support that answer is 1 John 3:4, which reads, “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.”
The word translated “lawlessness” refers to behavior which completely disregards the law. And John was not referring to Roman law. Nor was he merely referring to the law of the scribes and Pharisees. When John refers to “lawlessness,” he has primarily in mind the moral law of God. Paul underscores this in Romans 8:7 when he writes, “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God” (Rom. 8:7). Thus, sin is a violation of God’s law.
What’s the practical relevance of this definition of sin?
A Theological Not Merely Social Concept
First, it reminds us that human sin is primarily a theological concept and not merely a social concept. In other words, we cannot properly define sinful behavior without presupposing a personal and sovereign God who has revealed a standard of right and wrong. The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell the atheist concedes this when he writes,
“Although the sense of sin is easy to recognize and define, the concept of ‘sin’ is obscure, especially if we attempt to interpret it in non-theological terms.”1
We can’t define sin properly without God in the picture. This is why modern attempts to define sin primarily on a horizontal level are doomed to failure. Modern society says, “You can live as you please, provided that you don’t harm your neighbor.” As a result, a person may engage in premarital sex or homosexuality, provided that the other party consents.
How different the perspective of Scripture! When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he responded, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen 39:9b). He didn’t view his “sin” primarily as an offense against societal norms. He viewed his sin primarily as a violation of God’s law. Was this not also David’s perspective in Psalm 51? Directing his penitent prayer to God, David confesses, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4). We must define sin theologically. We must see sin as a violation of God’s law.
To Know Sin We Must Know the Law
If sin is a violation of God’s law, then it’s vitally important for men to know God’s law. Paul tells us in Romans 3:20 that “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The law exposes our sin. In the words of Greg Nichols, “God’s law is the great spotlight which shines upon our sin and shows us what our sin is.”2 Paul further underscores this point in Romans 7:7, when he writes, “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”
Paul’s awareness of God’s law gave him an awareness of his sin. And you probably noted that Paul cited the 10th commandment of the Decalogue, which is the OT summary of God’s moral law. Indeed, there’s no sinful behavior that falls outside the scope of at least one of the Ten Commandments.
If this is the case, then we must not be afraid of preaching and hearing sermons on the Ten Commandments. We shouldn’t fall for the notion that the Ten Commandments have no continuing relevance for today and no place in evangelism. We cannot call upon men to turn to Christ unless we also call them to turn from their sin. We cannot preach repentance from sin unless we expose sin. And we cannot expose sin without the law. Certainly, we don’t want to preach Moses without Christ. But on the other hand, we don’t want to preach Christ without Moses. As one man has remarked, “The whispers of Calvary must not preclude the thunders of Sinai.”3
This doesn’t necessarily mean every gospel sermon must include a lengthy exposition of the Decalogue or God’s moral law in Scripture before it introduces the cross of Christ. Since sinners have a conscience that bears witness to God’s moral law (Rom 1:32; 2:14-15), they may already be under conviction and ready for the message of Calvary. On the other hand, Scripture reveals God’s moral law more clearly than conscience and more effectively highlights the nature and depth of human depravity. And when we see our sin more clearly, we feel our need for God’s grace more dearly.
For these reasons, it is vitally important that we view sin as a violation of God’s law. But that’s not the only way we may define sin. In our next post, we’ll look at sin as a misrepresentation of God’s character.