Appendix A: God's Definition of Sin

I had mentioned earlier that those who don’t have the knowledge of good and evil are not accountable for their actions, and cannot sin. Let me explore that thought in greater detail here. We need to start by understanding God’s definition of sin.

What is God’s definition of sin? This is a very simple question, but the answer is not so simple. Theology textbooks will give you an answer, but their answer is not really based on Scripture but on linguistics. I say it is better, and more insightful, to get the answer from Scripture.

So let’s look at Scripture to answer this question. Let’s start with 1 Jn 5:17.

1 Jn 5:17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.

In 1 Jn 5:17 we read that all unrighteousness is sin. Righteousness is something that is right. So unrighteousness is something that is not right.

So how does one know what is right and what is wrong? This is where a moral law comes in. A moral law tells us what is right and what is wrong. If a moral law is not defined, righteousness and unrighteousness are not defined either. Righteousness and unrighteousness are tied to, or related to, a law. When you say that a person is righteous you are saying that the person is righteous with respect to a law.

One can be unrighteous in two ways. One way is to know that something is right and not do it. The other way is to know that something is wrong and do it.

Jas 4:17 tells us that to everyone who knows the right (or good) thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin. It describes one way of doing unrighteousness and thereby sinning. This is a sin of omission.

Jas 4:17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.

Rom 14:23 tells us that whatever is not from faith is sin. That is, if you believe that something is wrong, and you do it, then to you it is sin. It describes the other way of doing unrighteousness and thereby sinning. This is a sin of commission.

Rom 14:23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.

Thus we see that Jas 4:17 and Rom 14:23 are summarized in 1 Jn 5:17 – all unrighteousness is sin.

Notice how both Jas 4:17 and Rom 14:23 indicate that sin is relative. If you know something is good and you don’t do it, then to you it is sin, says James. The implication is that someone else may not do the same thing and yet it may not be sin to him because he did not know that it was a good thing to do.

Similarly, Rom 14:23 indicates that someone else may have faith to do something, and to him it would not be sin, but if you do not believe that what you are doing is right, and you do it, then to you it is sin.

It is true that God does have an absolute moral law. But the above verses teach that God does not judge everyone by the same moral law. There is further evidence that this is true, as we see below.

In 1 Jn 3:4 we read that sin is lawlessness (i.e. disobeying some law). That is, in order to sin you have to break a law. You cannot have sinned unless you have broken a law.

1 Jn 3:4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.

So what if there is no law? What if God has not given you some law? Can you still sin if you break that law? Rom 4:15 says that where there is no law there is no violation. We just saw that 1 Jn 3:4 implies that if we do not violate a law we have not sinned. So if there is no law then there is no violation, and hence no sin. This is reinforced in Rom 5:13, which says that sin is not imputed when there is no law. In 1 Cor 15:56 we read that the power of sin is the law. In Rom 7:8 we read that apart from the law sin is dead. The bottom line is this: take out the law and you take out the possibility of sin.

Rom 4:15 for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.

Rom 5:13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.

1 Cor 15:56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law;

Rom 7:8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.

So just what do we mean by ‘the law’? Is ‘the law’ same for everyone? Or more precisely, does God use the same law to judge everyone, or is there a different law in operation for different categories of people?

From Rom 2:12-16 we can conclude the Jews will be judged according to the Law of Moses, whereas the Gentiles will be judged according to the law of their conscience.

Rom 2:12-16 For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

We can therefore say that God does not use the same law to judge everyone. God judges people based on the law that they are aware of. This agrees with what we saw in Jas 4:17 and Rom 14:23. Let’s explore this a little further.

Under what law do children operate? What law must they violate in order to sin? Until they are of age, children do not have the knowledge of good and evil (Deut 1:39).

Deut 1:39 ‘Moreover, your little ones who you said would become a prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it.’

This means that little children do not have a conscience – their own mind cannot tell them what is wrong and right. So they cannot inherently discern any law. Further, they cannot understand language (I’m talking of small children here). So no one can communicate a law to them. Hence we can say that children are under no law. No law means no violation (Rom 4:15) which means no sin (Rom 5:13, 1 Jn 3:4). Therefore, as far as God is concerned, children are definitely sinless until either their conscience develops or until they understand language, whichever comes first. That is why Jesus said that their angels (or messengers) continually behold His Father in heaven (Mt 18:10). To have uninterrupted fellowship with God you have to be without sin.

Mt 18:10 "See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven."

This also explains why Paul says in Rom 7:9 that he was once alive apart from the Law.

Rom 7:9 I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died;

He is referring to the time when he was a child and the Law was not applicable to him. The moment his conscience began to develop and he began to acquire the knowledge of good and evil, or the moment he could understand language to the extent that he could understand the Law (whichever came first) he sinned and died as soon as he violated his conscience or the Law.

This also explains why Jesus said that the kingdom of God belongs (present tense) to little children but He told the scribe that he was not far from the kingdom of God.

Lk 18:16 But Jesus called for them, saying, "Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these."

Mk 12:34 When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that, no one would venture to ask Him any more questions.

Children are already in the kingdom because they are sinless but the scribe needed a Savior to pay the price for his sins.

This also explains what Jesus said in Jn 9:41 that if one is blind (meaning if one is unable to distinguish between good and evil) he has no sin. It also explains what Jesus said in Jn 15:22 and Jn 15:24.

Jn 9:41 Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains."

Jn 15:22 "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin."

Jn 15:24 "If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well."

What holds for children also holds for those who are mentally retarded or the mentally unbalanced from birth – if their conscience and communication abilities are not developed. Their actions, even though apparently sinful in the eyes of those who have the knowledge of good and evil, are not considered sinful by God.

How about Adam and Eve before the fall? What was ‘the law’ for them? Adam and Eve also didn’t have the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-17,25; Gen 3:6,7). But they could understand language (Gen 2:20). God gave them one law, through language, which was to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-17). So Adam and Eve had just one law. When they violated it they sinned.

Gen 2:16-17 The LORD God commanded the man, saying, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die."

Before they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, anything else Adam and Eve might have done, any selfishness that they might have exhibited, would not have been considered as sin by God. For example, in Gen 2:16-17 God told them not to eat of the tree. But in Gen 3:2-3 we read that Eve lied to the serpent saying that God said that they shouldn’t even touch the fruit. Even though she lied God didn’t consider it as sin because God banished them only after they ate the fruit, and not after they lied.

After Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they were able to discern between good and evil – they now had a conscience. They were then judged according to the law of their conscience.

The only change (spiritually) from before the fall to after the fall was the addition of the knowledge of good and evil to the spiritual constitution of mankind (Gen 3:22). Before the fall Adam and Eve were flesh and spirit (Gen 2:7). They could be tempted (Gen 3:1-6). They were aware of the existence of God. That didn’t change in any way after the fall. Of course, after they sinned they died spiritually – that is, their communication with God was not at the level it was before. If Adam had not eaten of the tree none of his descendants would have been able to discern between good and evil (unless they ate of the tree themselves) and whatever deeds they may have done in the flesh would not be considered as sin.

After Adam fell, and until the time Moses gave the Israelites God’s Law, men were judged under the law of their conscience (Rom 2:12-16).

From the time of Moses, until the death of Christ, the Jews were governed by the Law of Moses, and the Gentiles were governed by the law of their conscience (Rom 2:12-16).

After the death of Christ, those who became believers in Christ are governed by God’s full moral law, which is written in our hearts (Jer 31:33-34). The Jews are still governed by the Law of Moses, and the heathen are still governed by the law of their conscience.

Jer 31:33-34 "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."

There is a difference between the law of the conscience, the Law of Moses, and the full moral law of God. For example, under the full moral law of God it is a sin to hate another man. To sin in a similar way under the Law of Moses you had to act out that hate and strike or kill a man. For another example, if you didn’t tithe in the time between Adam and Moses you did not sin, but under the Law of Moses you sinned if you didn’t tithe. Many more similar examples can be given.

One big implication out of this discussion is that the Bible does not support original sin. We are not born sinners. No one else’s sin is imputed to us. Nor do we sin in Adam. All such theories were concocted to explain Rom 5:12-19. Original sin is an invention of man – and in that sense it is indeed ‘original’! Of course, in the defense of a ‘no original sin’ doctrine there are other verses to consider (Ps 51:5 and Ps 58:3 come to mind). An explanation of those verses will be given elsewhere (see Appendix B) while doing a more detailed study on whether the Bible teaches the doctrine of original sin; in this section we are considering God’s definition of sin.

Another big implication out of this discussion is that Adam did not get a sinful nature (or flesh) at the fall. The sinful nature is the collection of lusts through which man is tempted to sin. Adam had it before the fall. And when he had it he was not spiritually dead, he was not incapable of doing good, he was not incapable of seeking God, and he was not incapable of being righteous.

To those who insist that God’s definition of sin is "breaking God’s absolute moral code, even if you could not know that such a code exists or could not understand what that moral code meant," I ask this: Why would the Bible contain statements such as Rom 2:12-16, Rom 4:15, Rom 5:13 and Rom 7:8? These verses are meaningless if you define sin in such a way.

Lastly, note that "being inherently incapable of knowing" is not the same as "not knowing". For example, a drunken man is not inherently incapable of knowing God’s moral law – he has put himself into a state where his senses are dulled – he is fully accountable to God for the laws applicable to the category that he is in.

The different levels of sin

If there is no law about not doing A then if you do A you have not sinned. That is why some mistakes are not sin. Here, there is no sin because there is no law about A.

If there is a God appointed law that says that doing A is sin, but you are incapable of receiving information about the existence of that law then if you do A you have not sinned. Here, there is no sin because of a lack of the capability to know the existence of the law about A.

If there is a God appointed law that says that doing A is sin, and you are capable of receiving information about the existence of that law, but for some reason you do not have information about the existence of that law, then if you do A you have sinned. This is a sin of ignorance, or unconscious sin. It occurs due to the lack of knowledge of the existence of the law regarding A. Such a person can still be saved.

If there is a God appointed law that says that doing A is sin, and you are capable of receiving information about the existence of that law, and you have received information about the existence of that law, and you don’t want to ever do A, but things happen and you find that you have done A then you have sinned. This is an accidental sin. It occurs due to the lack of watching out for that sin sneaking up on you. Such a person can still be saved.

If there is a God appointed law that says that doing A is sin, and you are capable of receiving information about the existence of that law, and you have received information about the existence of that law, and you don’t want to ever do A, and when tempted to do A you struggle to not do A but you find the temptation too great and yourself too weak and you do A then you have sinned. This is the case of a person putting to death the deeds of the flesh (namely A) but not yet strong enough to overcome temptation to do A. This is an unintentional sin. It occurs due to the lack of power to stop sinning. For an unbeliever the lack of power can be genuine. For a believer, the power is available but the person may have not figured out how to avail of it. Such a person can still be saved.

If there is a God appointed law that says that doing A is sin, and you are capable of receiving information about the existence of that law, and you have received information about the existence of that law, but you decide that you are not going to stop doing A, and when tempted to do A you do not struggle to not do A but jump joyfully to do A then you have sinned. This is the case of a person practicing the sin. This is an intentional sin. It occurs due to the lack of desire to stop sinning. Such a person is not saved.


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