How Understanding Sin, Helps Us Respond to the Gospel
Imagine for a moment that you’re at a dinner party. You find yourself in casual conversation with a medical researcher. In between bites of appetizers, they share how they’ve come across a cure for a previously terminal condition. You might take another bite of your bacon wrapped morsel before casually saying, “well, that’s good news.” But is it actually good news? In a general sense perhaps, but you’re probably more concerned with the empty appetizer tray.
How different is this news for the person with the terminal condition? It’s the same information, but the knowledge of that terminal condition really does make the good news GOOD!
So it is with the gospel (which means “good news”), and to respond appropriately to the good news, we need to understand our condition. We need to understand something about sin: how we all have it, how it is deadly to us, and how Jesus delivers us from it.
When we grasp the gravity of sin, we are better able to treasure the saving work of Jesus. Understanding the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ” allows the loss of all else to feel light and momentary (Philippians 3:8).
What is Sin
The Bible uses lots of different words for sin, and they each describe a different aspect of it. Some of them emphasize the cause of sin, words like “ignorance” or “error.” Some of them emphasize the character of sin, or what it’s made of, words like “transgression,” “rebellion,” “iniquity” which means to “bend or twist”. There are also terms that emphasize the consequences of sin, like “harmful”, being “guilty”, or being in “trouble”. (1)
Scripture talks about sin in such a variety of ways that I think a framework is helpful. If we can back up for a moment, we might come closer to understanding sin. Let’s start by recognizing some broader categories.
Using those categories as a starting point, I would define sin broadly as:
“A condition in us, causing us to bend away from our God-given purpose, and leaving us in a whole mess of trouble.”
If that definition leaves you wanting something better (as it does with me) here’s a definition from the theologian Millard Erickson that helps me:
“[Sin is] a failure to live up to what God expects of us in act, thought, and being.” (2)
This definition is helpful because it is both broad and straightforward; however, it does introduce another question. What does God expect? And is there a way NOT to fail? Let’s take those questions one at a time, starting with what God expects. What is the standard??
Our understanding of humanity is rooted in the idea that we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Designed with a purpose to reflect His nature. Our understanding of sin is also rooted in this idea because it means that we will be judged on how well we reflect God’s nature. The standard expected of us is a divine one, and not a human one. In other words, you and I were not made to reflect each other, we were made to reflect the likeness of God. This means that you and I can’t define our own standard of what is good for ourselves or for each other. We need a standard established and defined by the One we were made to reflect.
God’s standard then is to perfectly reflect Him in the way we act, the way we think, and the way we live our lives before Him and with others. Did you catch that word? Perfectly.
So as for the second question, is there a way not to fail?
We get our first picture of perfection in the first two chapters of Genesis. Adam is placed in the garden and given instructions to “work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). He is given a companion in Eve. They live life in a perfect relationship with each other and with God without shame (Genesis 2:25). Imagine for a moment with me what that life would have been like! Imagine relating to each other without any shame. Imagine eating the good fruit of the trees, and caring for a garden God himself had given you! Imagine feeling the breeze in the evening and hearing the sound of God walking in the garden.
If the beauty of life in the first two chapters of Genesis is hard to imagine, our decision to turn from it by the third chapter is almost unbelievable. By Genesis 3:6, both Adam and Eve have chosen to follow their own wisdom above God’s instruction. Ironically, in attempting to “be like God” through disobeying Him, they become unlike God. The effects are immediate. Only 3 verses later, they broke their relationship with each other, hid in shame instead of doing good work, and are terrified instead of overjoyed at the presence of the Lord.
Instead of life in God’s presence , we now find ourselves separated from God because of sin, and face death as a result from that separation. I say “we” because Scripture is clear that sin spread to all mankind, from the moment of our conception, and death came with that sin (Romans 5:12, Psalm 51:5).
If you were looking for “rock bottom,” you found it. We have a terminal condition that is the inheritance for all of mankind, and continue to sin and “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). While created to reflect the image of a perfect God, you and I don’t do that perfectly. Broken reflections don’t have a place in the presence of the One they were created to reflect, and sinful people don’t have a place in the presence of a perfect God.
Welcome to rock bottom.
I told you this was bad news, but don’t lose heart! It gets better!
Can We Fix It? No, we can’t.
The benefit of reaching rock bottom is that it’s a solid place to start a firm foundation! I won’t beat around the bush here--this section is particularly uncomfortable if you are an “achiever” like me and hoped to fix the situation with your skill and power.
This is not a hole we can dig ourselves out of, and the harder we try, the deeper we get. Scripture is clear that our salvation from sin is not something we can earn ourselves, but instead is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). Got that? A gift. I feel your pain fellow “achievers” and close cousins the “fixers,” but trust me when I say it’s better we rip the bandaid off. Just like putting a bandaid on a terminal condition, trying to cover sin with your own good works is a recipe for disaster. (Bandaid still sticky? Read Galatians 2:16)
At last, the good news has arrived. How good it is!
While we were hopelessly lost in our sin, powerless to change our fate, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8). Jesus lived a perfect life without sin yet, received the punishment and death that we fully deserved. He took our brokenness, our pride, our addictions, our grief, our sorrow, and every other mortal wound that was the result of sin…and through His wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:4-5).
That is the gospel.
And it is good news.
Sharing in the Death of Christ
If we fail to comprehend the seriousness of sin and the separation it causes, the “good news” of the gospel just doesn’t seem as good! At best, it becomes a bedtime story that leaves you with a warm, fuzzy, but somewhat undefined good feeling. Understanding sin and its deadly consequences, makes the costly cure purchased on your behalf the best news you’ll ever hear.
Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus taught about the importance of “losing your life to find it” (3) and “taking up your cross” (4). I wonder if the disciples would have initially responded to these commands as I did with somewhat lackluster enthusiasm. It wasn’t until I understood the severity of my sin and the hopelessness of my situation that I understood the surpassing value of Christ.
When we understand our sin is deadly, the invitation to leave that dying self behind becomes an invitation of hope! Instead of a hard command, Jesus’ invitation to share in his death becomes a joyful occasion, to which we may respond, “yes, Lord!” Put to death the death in me, that I might rise to life with You!
When we take up our cross, we enter an agreement to share in Christ’s death. We take up something that looks to the outside world like certain death, but with certainty in Jesus, it leads to eternal life. This symbol of death, through the power of the resurrected Jesus, is now a symbol of the eternal life we now live.
Grace and Peace,
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(1) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955)
(2) Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013)
(3) Luke 9:23-24, 17:33
(4) Matthew 10:38, Luke 9:23, 14:27, Mark 8:38
Some other resources:
This video from The Gospel Coalition gives some really helpful analogies for sin.
This video from Bible Project is a great overview of sin as part of the human condition.
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