If you ask the average person, “What is sin?” you will typically hear answers like, “Sin is doing something God doesn’t like,” or “Sin is breaking one of the Ten Commandments,” or “Sin is just another word for mistakes,” or “Sin is doing unto others things you wish they would never do unto you.” For most people, the emphasis is on what we do, rather than what we are, subtly insinuating that man is basically good, though at times he will choose to do wrong. But it is the testimony of Scripture that sin is the defining disposition of man’s very nature. It is intrinsic to us. It defines the essence of our character. It is high treason against the Most High God. It is deceptive and deadly and infinitely more offensive to our holy God than we could ever imagine.
God has revealed to us a stunning reality. One event radically altered the very nature of man and the planet on which he would live. That event was the deliberate rebellion of the first man He created, Adam. Because of Adam’s sin in the garden, the entire human race was plunged into sin (Rom 5:12) and every child is conceived in a state of depravity.
The Psalmist put it this way, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5). Sin has penetrated and corrupted the whole of man’s being (Isa 1:6; Eph 4:17-19), including his body (Rom 8:10), his mind (Rom 8:6; 1 Cor 2:14; 4:4; Ti 1:15), his will (Jn 8:34; Jer 13:23; Rom 7:18), and his heart (Jer 17:9). Every man is capable of committing the very worst sins (Rom 1:18ff; 3:10-18); and apart from the transforming grace of God in salvation, even when man does right, it is for motivations other than to glorify God, making his actions displeasing to Him (Mt 6:5; 2 Tim 3:4). Worse yet, the unregenerate are utterly bereft of that love for God necessary to fulfill the most basic requirement of God’s moral law to love Him supremely (Dt 6:4; 1 Jn 4:7-10). Unsaved man will continue to spiral downward in morality (2 Tim 3:13; Rom 7:23) with no possible means of salvation or recovery within him (Mt 19:25-26; Rom 1:18; Eph 2:1,8).
Bottom line: sin is man’s innate inability to conform to the moral character and desires of God. This is manifested primarily in human self-will—the root cause of all sin—fueled by the cherished lies of justified rebellion against God. Man prefers to obey his will rather than God’s. It is portrayed in Scripture as, “the deeds of the flesh,” which includes things like, “immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these…those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21). Because man is innately a slave to his sin (Rom 6:16-20), he rejects his Creator, causing God to gradually abandon him to pursue the lusts of his heart and experience the devastating consequences of his iniquities (Rom 1:24-32).
This is what makes the gospel so exceedingly glorious. For those of us who have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, we are not only forgiven, we have received the imputed righteousness of Christ and are therefore declared (not made) righteous and are no longer under the penalty of the law. God no longer sees our sin, but sees us hidden in His beloved Son. Moreover, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17). We are given a whole new disposition that increasingly loves what God loves and hates what He hates.
Moreover, as believers, we can rejoice knowing that our former sin master no longer has power over us. Paul said, “our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (Rom 6:6,7). For this reason he says, “consider yourselves to be dead to sin; but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness” (vv. 11-13). We have been freed in order to be “slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (v. 19), “freed from sin” so we can choose instead to be “enslaved to God” (v. 22).
Obviously the biblical imperatives imply that sometimes we will foolishly choose to obey our deposed master rather than our new one. David described this very thing in his life in Psalm 119. For 175 consecutive verses he affirmed his love for God, for His Law, and for the power of His Word to suppress sin in his life. Then, in the final verse, he concludes in verse 176 with a lament and says, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep.” To be sure, this will be the plight of every believer until glory.
But some will ask, “If sin is no longer my master, how does it still have influence over me?” Perhaps the following illustration will provide some helpful insight into this mysterious phenomenon.
Indwelling sin can be likened to a cruel king who once ruled over us but has been overthrown. However, we still live in the castle of the deposed tyrant. While he may no longer have authority over us, he is still present. He still dwells with us, waiting and watching to see how he can have influence in our life. Oh yes, he can be ignored. And when he is, he shrinks back into a corner and gradually loses his power to seduce. But the moment we move in a direction where he sees a fresh opportunity to tempt us to do evil, he seizes upon it. After all, he is skilled in knowing our weaknesses and knows precisely what kinds of temptations we will find irresistible. Notwithstanding the new nature of a transformed heart, this ousted oppressor lurks in the shadows of our earthly abode, ever vigilant to offer an enticing option contrary to righteousness—always scheming, tempting, and corrupting.
Paul expressed this same dynamic when he said, “I am of the flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (v. 14), meaning he sees himself still being influenced by the sin principle. While his new nature was no longer under the bondage and dominion of sin, his body remained under its yoke. He says the law of sin (the principle of sin) remains in “the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23). Though sin no longer reigns, it still remains.
Often we willingly choose to sin and thereby sell ourselves back into the slavery of sin. Even with our new nature, we succumb to the insidious temptations that promise a sweet reward to our unredeemed humanness, but deliver heartache and death instead. Though the conscience may sound loud sirens of urgent warnings, the cacophony of sinful pleasures often drowns them out. Sin seems overpowering and even necessary at the time. It is so appealing to our flesh we can justify every wicked thought and action. What a battle! In Galatians 5 the Apostle described this inner conflict when he said, “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (v. 18).
Like David in Psalm 119, Paul was so acutely aware of the ongoing battle of indwelling sin, he finally expressed his deep sorrow and frustration in a closing lament when he said, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24). Here he depicts the devastating effects of sin by using a disturbing analogy. He sees it as clinging to his flesh like a murdered corpse strapped to the body of its murderer. Paul was familiar with this ghoulish punishment practiced by certain tribes of pagans around Tarsus where he was from. In an act of barbaric cruelty, murderers would often receive the sentence of being stripped naked and having their victim strapped tightly to their body. They would then be banished into the wilderness. Within a few short days the putrefying decay of the rotting corpse would gradually kill its murderous victim with ferocious revenge.
I cannot imagine a more graphic picture of the ravages of sin. “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (v. 24), a question—if left unanswered—that would leave us all in hopeless despair. But thankfully Paul answered his own question when he gladly proclaimed, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25a). Christ will set us free from this corrupting corpse!
However, on the heels of his doxology, his focus quickly returned to the reality of life. After appropriately rejoicing in Christ Jesus, his Savior, he added, “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (v. 25). Indeed, the songs of triumph are sweet—but brief—this side of heaven. But we can celebrate knowing “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1), as Paul went on to exult.
It has been my personal experience and observation of many other believers that we are often blind to the remaining sin that dwells in us. For most, considering the seriousness and consequences of personal sin—especially secret sin—is simply not a priority. But if we truly long to be more like Christ, we must take great care in considering how He would have us deal with indwelling sin, which can cause us to forfeit blessing and even subject us to divine chastening. We should be greatly encouraged to know that by the power of the Spirit we can “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13).
Like the Psalmist David we must pray, “Examine me, O LORD, and try me; test my mind and my heart” (Ps 26:2); “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me” (Ps 139:23). This is a prayer for discernment, a willingness to be suspect of our spirituality, a heartfelt pleading with God to expose areas in our life that are dishonoring to Him and rob us of sweet fellowship and blessing.
While celebrating the saving and transforming power of the gospel of grace, may we also ask God to bring us to a deeper hatred of that which He hates, and a higher love for that which He loves, knowing that we are no longer slaves to sin, but by His power have victory over it, that in all things He might have the preeminence.