What Is Sin?

To sin is to miss the target. That requires there be a target to be missed. Paul said that, where no law is, sin is not imputed, because sin is “transgression” – violation – of law. From this, we learn that the target is whatever “law” has been issued. Until we have a target, we cannot be held responsible for failing to hit it. And God, Who is just, does not count our sin against us apart from our having been given that target – His perfect nature and His spoken commands.

Paul refers to the Law of Moses as being like a school-master, tutoring Israel to righteousness. The “Ten Commandments” were God’s summary of there moral conduct that should be reflected in the life of any Israelite who believed and revered God. The verbs all in the indicative, God’s ten “words” declared what anyone would be like if they followed God: they would have no other gods, create no idols, revere God’s name, observe God’s Sabbath, honour their parents, commit neither murder, nor theft, nor adultery. They would not bear false witness nor covet what belonged to others. If they truly honoured God, these things would be the fabric of their lives.

God gave the Law to Israel when they rejected Him at Sinai. They begged Moses that they not hear God’s voice again, “lest they die”, but that God should tell Moses what He wanted them to do, and they would comply, but that they would not hear His voice again.

While the protest at first may sound reasonable – their contact with God was terrifying, with lightening and loud thundering, smoke and fire on the mountain, putting fear deep into their hearts – the fact that they had endured the encounter, and survived the terrifying effects, should have made evident that they were at no risk of dying simply from hearing God’s voice. He had invited them into His presence, to hear His words, and they refused, claiming it was too dangerous. This was an unfaithful people who did not truly know God nor understand what they lost by begging for instructions in place of interaction with the Creator of the universe.

God obliged their faithless plea with a long list of several hundred rules: statutes, ordinances, rituals, and moral requirements. While the moral absolutes are universally applicable, many of God’s instructions made distinctions between different things in the same class, designed to reinforce to Israel the necessity of separation between the holy and the profane.

Israel was called to be a people set apart to God, chosen by Him because of the faith of their forefather Abraham, who “believed God and it was accredited to him for righteousness”, bringing upon himself the promised blessings of an old man becoming the father of a mighty nation set apart to God, and of bringing into the world a blessing that would be to all nations: the nation from which God would raise up the Saviour of the world. But God required that Israel learn to remain separate from the nations around them, which worshipped created things, demonic entities, or worshipped nothing at all. They were not to seek unity with those nations, intermingle with them, nor learn to think or act as they did. Many of the regulations included in that Law given to Moses, emphasized the concept of difference and separation: do not mingle wool and linen in a single garment. Do not boil a goat in its own mother’s milk.

Other requirements served to demonstrate God’s mercy and love: if you see your enemy’s animal lost, you work to return it to him; if it is trapped, injured, or bowed under its load, you are to help him. You shall not oppress those who are indebted to you. You shall be hospitable to strangers. You must repay your debts and pay your employees promptly.

Christians can learn much from studying the rules God gave to Israel, if we consider them in their proper context. God also requires us to be separate from idolatry, not unite with those who do not love God; conduct ourselves with integrity, goodness, and mercy. We are to love even our enemies, as God loved us when we were His enemies. But His commands to His church are different from those given to Israel: to our faith, we are to add love for God, our brethren, our family, and love our neighbours as ourselves. We are to be holy as God is holy, walking by the power and direction of His Holy Spirit, and not by the power and motivation of our own flesh. We are to grow in grace and the knowledge of the Lord. We are to submit ourselves to God in order to be changed by Him from a tarnished image to the true reflection of the Lord Who loved us and washed us in His own blood. Our lives are to reflect the Lord Who indwells us, and we are to refrain from all forms of wickedness. These are His commands to His New Covenant children. These are our “target”, and when we miss them, we have sinned.