“You know what I dislike about church these days?” a reader of mine recently asked. “Preachers just don’t talk about sin anymore. I mean, when was the last time you heard a sermon where a preacher said, ‘This is a sin. That’s a sin.’ I bet it’s been a while.”
Well, he’s right. It has been a while. On the one hand, I’m grateful. On the other, I’m concerned. I’ll explain what I mean.
When I was growing up in a fundamentalist church, I heard sermons about sin all. the. time. I don’t think I ever went a single week without hearing one. The problem was, most of these so-called sins couldn’t be found in any scripture. The sin of baggy pants? Not in there. The sin of co-ed swimming? Nuh-uh. The sin of voting Democrat? Nope. The sin of taking government welfare? Of wearing too much makeup? Of allowing drums and electric guitars in church? Of going to the movie theater? Of kissing before marriage? None of that is in there.
I have found this to be common in sermons on sin: Sin is whatever the preacher defines it to be, based on his personal or denominational convictions. That may seem harmless, but it distracts from what the Bible actually says about sin. It also adds to the scriptures, which God clearly told us not to do (Revelation 22:18; Deuteronomy 4:2; Proverbs 30:5-6).
So what does the Bible say sin is?
1. Idolatry (Exodus 20:3-4) – about 90% of the time the word “sin” is used in the Old Testament, it is in reference to worshiping false gods and idols. Also includes blasphemy and misusing the Lord’s name.
2. Sexual immorality – adultery (Exodus 20:14), orgies (Galatians 5:21), incest and bestiality (Leviticus 20), etc.
3. Slander and bearing false witness (Exodus 20:16) – includes withholding pertinent testimony in matters of justice (Leviticus 5:1).
4. Theft and extortion (Exodus 20:15) – includes withholding wages from laborers (Deuteronomy 24:14-15; James 5:4), charging excessive interest on loans (Proverbs 28:8), and failing to return borrowed or recovered property to its rightful owner (Leviticus 6:2-4).
5. Murder (Exodus 20:13), or shedding innocent blood (Deuteronomy 21:8-9).
6. Rebellion and pride against God (1 Samuel 15:23).
7. Showing ill will toward the poor (Deuteronomy 15:8-9) or your neighbor (Proverbs 14:21) – includes hatred and discord (Galatians 5:19-20).
8. Covetousness (Exodus 20:17) – includes envy and lust.
9. Drunkenness (Galatians 5:21) and debauchery (1 Peter 4:3) – includes gluttony.
10. Witchcraft and divination (Deuteronomy 18:10; Galatians 5:19-20).
There are a few other sins as well, such as failing to keep a vow made to God (Deuteronomy 23:21), failing to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8), failing to celebrate Passover (Numbers 9:13), and eating meat with the blood still in it (1 Samuel 14:33). And we all know about that crazy list of sins in Leviticus involving beard trimming, eating shellfish and wearing polyester.
But there’s one sin in particular that doesn’t get as much attention as it should. It’s found in James 4:17:
If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
The list of 10 above are all sins of commission; in other words, you have to do them in order to be sinning. But the sin in James 4 is a sin of omission – if you know to do a good thing and choose not to do it, that’s also a sin. This is important, because Jesus commanded his followers to do a lot of good: love thy neighbor, uphold justice for the weak, give to those who ask, pray for enemies, etc. It is by this sin of omission that Christ judges his followers in Matthew 25, when he says:
“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
In my experience, preachers love to point out sins of commission. After all, their consequences are more obvious and personal. But to tell the clean and well-dressed membership that they may be sinners by omission? That won’t get many Benjamins into the offering plate.
In short, sin is turning away from God and His will. The word sin literally means “to miss the mark.” It is God’s will (and command) that we avoid evil, and also His will (and command) that we do good. When we do evil or fail to do good, we stray from the path God has called us to walk.
The Purpose in Pointing out Sin
So now that we’ve biblically defined what sin is, we can now discuss the purpose in pointing it out. Not surprisingly, the Apostle Paul addresses this exact matter in his letter to the Romans:
What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:7-12).
So, the purpose in pointing out sin is to bring awareness of God’s law, which Paul calls good and holy. However, Paul goes on to say that the law, while holy, cannot save anyone from judgment (Romans 3:20; Romans 8:1-4). It only makes one aware of their need for salvation. By itself, the law only brings death to the soul.
And herein lies the problem. There are Christians out in the world pointing out sins left and right but never actually presenting the gospel of Christ. We’ve all seen these folk at secular festivals and conferences holding up scripture-plastered signs decrying drinking or homosexuality, but there’s rarely ever a sign that points passersby to their only hope of salvation. I want to be absolutely crystal: Merely convincing someone to stop sinning will not save them. It is a pointless exercise. And I personally believe it is impossible to stop sinning without the indwelling power of Christ which enables one to “quench all the fiery darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). So if you point out sin without informing the sinner of the hope and redemption found in Christ, you have just sentenced that person to spiritual death.
And for Christians who sin? The Bible says we are to first rebuke them privately with love (Matthew 18:15; Galatians 6:1).
To wit, Jesus never commanded his followers to go around pointing out the sins of others. However, he did command us to preach the gospel. And the only role that pointing out sin plays in that is pointing out that sin, because of Christ’s redemptive act, no longer has any power over us.
Besides, we had 5,000 years of pointing out sin under the law of Moses. Awareness of sin isn’t much the problem. It’s awareness of God’s love and salvation for all.
Great post, April. As usual, you’ve pointed out truth in love. The hope of God’s grace – of salvation in Jesus, of reconciliation with God – is the Good News that needs to be forefront on our tongues and in our hearts.
I appreciate your treatment of this tough topic.
Surely, there are some who choose to grab a Bible and try to smack folks over the head with it. As if knowing the law and adhering to every principle is the goal, while literally no one can possibly achieve that level of obedience. I’m not at all sure that approach ever gets the point across. It absolutely misses the whole point of Jesus’ redemptive power and His ability to reconcile us to our God.
At the same time, others choose to ignore any such discourse, perhaps afraid of causing friction or jeopardizing a friendship. Sometimes you have to stand for something.
In my view, you have captured the spirit of the biblical mandate – to love one another – as He has loved us. There is an open question of a couple important steps that enable us to address sinful behavior – confession; and repentance, turning 180 degrees away from the behavior (omission or commission). Themes for another blog?
Maybe the key to more obedience, and less sinful practices, is in knowing Him; in having a ever-growing personal relationship with Him; and believing – absolutely – that God is who He says He is, and God will fulfill His promises as He said He would.
It is important to preach the law so that man rightly understands the need for the Gospel. In his letter to Timothy where Paul is warning of false teachers (1 Timothy 1:1-11), he takes a moment (1 Tim 1:8) to remind him that the Law is good, when used lawfully. The beauty and mystery of the Gospel is in the fact that God came down to pay the full penalty of sin to fulfill the law in our place. For under the law we had no hope of salvation. The law must be preached, but immediately followed up with the Gospel. As for the preaching of man-made laws, that is false doctrine and must be rebuked. Growing up, I too, remember many a sermon preached on man-made laws. The problem in the mainstream church today is the reduction of the Gospel by ignoring the Law of God. Preachers still preach themselves and their man-made laws, but now they call them “key principles” or “steps” for gaining favor with God through works. The vocabulary changes, but the problem of false doctrines remains.
I’ve been reading through several of your posts, and I’d like to say “thank you” for sharing your testimony and for blogging on these issues. May the Lord bless and keep you.