What is Sin?
By Dr. Brad Cole
Most Christians would say that sin began when Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden. But of course, there was a conniving serpent in that tree, which gives us the important clue that there was some sort of rebellion taking place even prior to God’s creation of Adam and Eve. This “great controversy” view of a rebellion that began in heaven is critical to our understanding of the sin problem, but for this brief article I would like to see if we can come to a better understanding of the sin problem.
I believe that this is crucially important because the definition we give to “sin” has everything to do with how we understand what God has done to remedy the sin problem. Just like the practice of medicine, our understanding of the right treatment only makes sense when the correct diagnosis is made. For example, our definition of sin must somehow help us to explain how the death of God in human form would have anything to do with “fixing” the “sin” of eating forbidden fruit.
Listen very carefully to the exchange between Eve and “Mr. Snake”:
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ‘You will not surely die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Genesis 3:1-5)
There is only one word that appropriately describes the horrific nature of the lies which were so subtly presented to Eve: Satanic! There were 3 lies actually, and they were so artfully woven together all with the express purpose of making God out to be a monster. Let’s go through them systematically:
1. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’”
I’ve read this passage so many times, but only recently “saw” the lie involved in Satan’s first words to Eve. In essence he said to her, “Hey, God doesn’t really let you eat any fruit around here does he? He’s really restrictive isn’t he Eve? He’s not a God of freedom is he? Why do you think he has placed so many limits on your freedom Eve? Who is God to tell you not to eat the fruit of certain trees? What a control freak!”
Eve does defend God by saying that He did allow them to eat from the other trees, but she did not respond with absolute truth when she claimed that God said that they would die if they even touched the fruit. We have no record that God ever said that and Eve appears primed to ingest the big lie that would follow.
2. “You will not surely die.”
Unbelievable! What is so damming about these words? “Eve! God is nothing but a liar. He told you that you would die, but it’s not true. I can’t believe that you trusted what he said. God can’t be trusted Eve!”
With this 2nd lie working its way through the mind of Eve, she must have wondered why God would lie about the fruit. Why threaten her with an outcome that was not a reality? Satan had obviously thought this through very carefully and now he moves in for the kill.
3. “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
“You want to know why God threatened you with death Eve? I’ll tell you. You will be enlightened to a higher state if you eat this fruit and God knows it. He wants to keep you at a lower state. Why look at me Eve? Have you ever seen a talking snake before? Look what it did for me! God is so manipulative. He threatens his creatures with the fear of death just so that he can keep all the power. What kind of a God is that? God is no good Eve.”
And so, when Eve ate the fruit what she really ate was the 3-pronged lie that God is an untrustworthy liar, a restrictive tyrant, and a God who threatens his children with death just so that they will not enter into a more exalted state. He is not a compassionate and loving “God the Father” he is in fact more like “The Godfather”.
Eating the fruit was merely the action that confirmed that Eve had in fact believed the lies about God. The real sin was what happened in the mind of Eve prior to eating the fruit. Sin is something that occurs in the mind of intelligent creatures. Sinful actions, which are what we usually label as “sin” are in actuality merely the confirmation of what is going on within the sinful mind.
To use a medical model of this, I saw a patient not too long ago that presented with headaches and a fever. The headaches and fever in this case are called symptoms which are useful clues that help a doctor in determining the underlying cause. The patient in this case was given a pain medication and some Tylenol in the emergency room and within a short time the pain was reduced and the fever was gone. But does eliminating the symptoms mean that the problem is solved? No! This patient was eventually determined to have meningitis, which was the ultimate source of the symptoms. The symptoms were merely the outward manifestation of a very serious underlying problem.
The parallel with what happened at the tree is that Eve ate the fruit (the outward and visible “symptom”) which was really a reflection of a very real and serious underlying problem of internal distrust and rebellion.
So, how can we put all this together to clearly define “sin”? I would say that “sin” has the following essential features, in this order:
- A believed lie about the character of God – “God is no good. God is a liar. God is a destroying tyrant. God is not trustworthy. God is restrictive of our freedom. God abuses his power. God is not a God of love.”
- Once we have believed one or more of these lies about God, the inevitable and unavoidable consequence is that we now distrust God and “anything that is not based on faith [trust] is sin” (Romans 14:23).
- Once trust is broken, we collapse into a chaos, lawlessness and open rebellion. “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.” (1 John 3:4) The Greek word for lawlessness in this text is anomia. “Nomia” is law, and so “anomia” is literally lawlessness.
The result then of believing a lie about the character of God (1) is that it destroys trust in God (2) which immediately separates us from God. This separation can only lead to an attitude of rebellion and lawlessness towards God which manifests as outward acts of “sin” (3). But once again, these sinful actions are merely the natural result of the internal distrust and rebelliousness against God.
With this definition of sin, we are able to understand why God would praise someone like Abraham with these words, “Abram put his trust in the LORD, and because of this the LORD was pleased with him and accepted him.” (Genesis 15:6). Abraham was no longer in a sinful and rebellious state as evidenced by the fact that he trusted God. This is why the Bible is so redundant on the fact that what God really wants is to restore our trust: “God puts people right through their faith (trust) in Jesus Christ.” (Romans 3:22)
How does God restore our trust? If sin ultimately derives from believing a lie about the character of God, then God must first bring us to see the truth about His character. How did God ultimately do this? If Jesus was really none other than God in human form and a perfect reflection of God’s character, is it even possible to believe the lie that God is a vengeful tyrant as we watch Jesus forgive those people who tortured Him to death? Jesus reveals that God is kind, forgiving, gracious, gentle, and even humble. Jesus revealed that God is good and entirely worthy of our trust! God Himself came in human form to bring us to see the truth about His character, that we may be restored to trust once again.
Listen to Jesus define his mission in coming to solve the sin problem:
“I have shown your glory on earth; I have finished the work you gave me to do…[and how did He do it?]… I spelled out your character in detail to the men and women you gave me.”” (John 17:4,6)
What “glory” did Jesus reveal? Jesus revealed not a glory of God’s physical brightness, but a glory of God’s gracious character. This was “the work” that the Father gave Him to do. And if we really believe that God is just like Jesus in character, our trust in God is restored, and our own sinful heart and mind is purged of rebelliousness (sin).