What is Sin?

Reading: Mark 12:28-34

A common metaphor for sin is “to miss the mark.” But if we define sin that way, we haven’t really said anything. If sin is like throwing a spear and missing a target, I must also know where the target is. Jesus says, “Stop sinning lest something worse come upon you.” If “stop sinning” means to start hitting the target, then I better know where or what the target is. To put it another way: if the gospel is in some sense the story of how God dealt with sin, then to understand the gospel we must understand what sin is.

If the gospel is in some sense the story of how God dealt with sin, then to understand the gospel we must understand what sin is.

Conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees often boiled down to how they defined sin differently. They agreed that the Law explained it, but how does one interpret the Law and what it says about sin? One day there was a teacher of the Law who arrives at a gathering at which the Sadducees are arguing with Jesus. He perceives that Jesus answered them wisely, and, being from Pharisaical tradition, he is probably glad Jesus had one-upped the Sadducees. Maybe perceiving an opportunity to settle an argument he was having with his fellow teachers of the law, he asks, “Of all the commandments (and everyone knows there are lots of them), which is the greatest?”

Jesus answers as any good Jew would, with the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord, is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30). At which point He should be finished. No one asked what the second commandment was, but Jesus refuses to stop there.

Far too often, “we” stop there. The primary problem with the Pharisees is that they stopped there too. Jesus refuses to let us stop there. In fact, the entire Bible refuses to let us stop there. When YHWH says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6), it is the essence of saying, “You can’t stop with the first great commandment.”

Jesus knows that to stop there would feed into Pharisaical self-righteousness and false religion. So without skipping a beat, he continues: “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31).

Now we usually think the story is essentially over, but for letting the credits roll. But what happens next is central to the gospel. What the man says next causes Jesus to tell him that he is not far from the kingdom of God (Mark 12:34).

The man says, “I’m even more impressed Jesus, you are right to identify who God is, and to say that to love Him and only Him with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:32-33, paraphrase).

This man did two things: 1) he combined the two commandments right into one long chain, as if they were intricately bound together, just as Jesus intended. And 2) he said this one combined commandment is greater than all burnt offerings and sacrifices–referencing Hosea 6:6 which Jesus twice pointed to as the reason He interpreted the commandments differently than the Pharisees (Matt. 9:13; 12:7).

Jesus’s response, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” tells us that when we understand the relationship between the two love commandments, that the target of the law is mercy and not sacrifice, we are getting really close to an understanding of the kingdom of God. (Mark 12:28-34)

When we understand that the target of the law is mercy and not sacrifice we are getting really close to an understanding of the kingdom of God. 

I surmise that most of those sitting in churches across America, if sin is even still in their vocabulary, would predominantly define the target as loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. In and of itself that is not the problem. The problem is how we define loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This is commonly portrayed as praying enough, reading our Bibles enough, sharing Jesus with others enough (because we’ve been commanded to), and singing with great passion at church. More serious Christians might include fasting. In other words, we define loving God as New Testament forms of sacrifice, not mercy.

When Jesus and the prophets summarized the law, they always connected love of God to love of neighbor, such as to say, “We love God by loving our neighbor.” The only biblical description of Judgment Day for the believer, explains that how we treat the least, the ones most in need of mercy, is the sole measure Christ will use for measuring our love for Him (Matt. 25:31-46). He will not bring up Bible reading, prayer, or evangelism. He will not critique the level of your passion during the song service.

I am not saying that these are not good things. But if we make them the measure of our love for God, of true religion, we create Pharisaical religion. If we define discipleship as those things, and not love of neighbor, we create Pharisaical religion. For Micah the target was “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly…” (Mic. 6:8).

It is not uncommon for Christians to talk about victory over sin. But what exactly is it that we have victory over?

It is not uncommon for Christians to talk about victory over sin. But what exactly is it that we have victory over? Does victory over sin simply mean that we have arrived at some form of personal piety in which we aren’t slothful, we don’t spend too much and save too little, we read our Bibles, we pray, etc.? No! Jesus refuses to accept this as the definition of righteousness and so should we.

The essence of sin is a lack of love for God and neighbor; it is worship of God without mercy toward neighbor. Sin is every thing by which we either oppress our neighbor (who is made in God’s image), or fail to liberate our neighbor when it is in our power to do so. Sin is not only that which enslaves us, but that which enslaves others through us. It may be our anger that enslaves them (and how it is expressed in our words toward them (Jam. 3:9-10), or our cheating them, or our not sharing with them the excess which God has supplied us with (2 Cor. 8:13-15). It is any time we fail to seek first God’s kingdom justice and instead seek all the things we think we need (Matt. 6:33).

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Jerry

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