Conversations About God 2:2
A crisis of distrust developed in God’s universal family. As we reviewed earlier, our heavenly Father has been accused of being unworthy of our trust. Specifically, He has been accused of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. And thus sin entered our universe for the first time. For the Bible, sin is much more than a mere breaking of the rules, serious as that might be. In its essence, sin is a violation of mutual trust. It is a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness, a stubborn unwillingness to listen to the One who is so eager to help us in our predicament.
Doesn’t the Bible specifically state, however, that sin is breaking the rules? How about the key text we’ve learned from childhood up, “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, KJV)? Actually, that’s a rather free translation. The Greek word that John used is anomia, and it means, literally, lawlessness. “Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4, Williams). In other words, sin is described as a state of mind, an attitude. And anyone in that state of mind is a continuing threat to the peace and security of the universal family. Sin will not have been truly dealt with until our lawlessness has either been changed or eliminated. Sin begins with a lawless, rebellious state of mind.
The hazard of regarding sin primarily as breaking the rules is that such a mindset tends to encourage an impersonal, even fearful relationship with God. If we regard sin as primarily a breaking of the rules, God’s commandments may be misunderstood as arbitrary regulations designed to show His authority and test our willingness to obey. If we obey, we’re rewarded. If we disobey, we’re destroyed. Do you want to live under those circumstances?
Since we all have sinned, should we be fearfully awaiting the execution of the sentence? Or have we been spared because God found some legal way to give us yet another chance? And if we turn down that second chance, will He punish us with even greater severity for our ingratitude? Would such an understanding help produce the peace and the freedom from fear that God desires so much in His universal family?
Actually though, if rightly understood, there is a sense in which one can say that sin is a breaking of the rules. Let’s look again God’s commandments, particularly the Decalogue. All those Ten Commandments ultimately require is that we love God and we love each other (Matt 22:36-40). And if we really did that we would have peace and freedom. In fact, in the tenth of the Ten Commandments it says that we should not even want to sin. If we lived in that state of mind, not even wanting to do anything unloving, we would have freedom to be sure, and all kinds of peace and good will.
But can love actually be commanded? Or produced by force or by fear? To put it vividly, has God said to us children, “You either love Me, and love each other, or I’ll have to kill you. Do I make Myself clear?” Have you husbands ever tried that on your wives and children? Did it work? Imagine your wives and children trembling in front of you and saying in unison, “Oh, yes, daddy. We love you very much.” Would you be pleased? Would you be satisfied? If so, then you’re a brute. And the God some of us worship would never settle for that.
Having said that, we all must admit that the Bible is full of references to law, discipline, punishment and rewards, even final fiery destruction. And since our purpose in this series is always to look at the Bible as a whole, not just “here a little and there a little,” we must look at all these other passages seriously. In fact, several chapters of this book will be devoted to God’s wide use of law and why Jesus indeed had to die. And we will talk about how, in reality, God’s law is no threat to our freedom! To understand that is really the truth that sets us free.
Going back to the beginning, sin entered our universe when angels ceased to trust. As a consequence, they themselves became untrustworthy. James 4:17 offers a familiar definition: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (RSV).” It is rebellious to act that way. It is lawless to act that way. Anyone who behaves like that is certainly not trustworthy to have around in a free universe.
Look at Romans 14:23 in several, different versions: “Any action that is not based on faith is a sin.” (Moffat) “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (RSV).” “When we act apart from our faith we sin (Phillips).” In a text from the book of Ezra (10:2), the Jews who returned from Babylonian captivity are confessing that they have done several things that they should not have done. But they describe their misbehaviors in these words: “We have broken faith with our God (RSV).” “We have been unfaithful to our God (NIV).” These texts underline that the essence of sin is a breach of faith; it’s a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness.