What is Sin?

The word “sin” appears in the Bible in both the singular and the plural. When we read “sins” we are reading about personal sins. When the word “sin” appears in the singular, it is usually speaking of the sin nature of man. Every, person is born with a sin nature. John wrote, “If we say that we have no sin [nature], we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Paul observed that the Ephesians “were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:3). David recognized the sin nature of his own soul when he wrote, “Behold, I was shaped in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). This nature is universal and manifests itself to varying degrees in individuals and societies. Of an earlier society it was said, “Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). That society was eventually destroyed in the Flood.

Sin Destroys and Must Be Destroyed

The Sin Nature Affects the Personality

The sin nature affects various aspects of personality. Paul observed that the sin nature could negatively influence man’s mind. “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient” (Rom. 1:28). The sin nature is partially responsible for blinding man’s mind and understanding so that he cannot perceive spiritual things (Eph. 5:12).

The conscience and will of some people are also affected by the sin nature.

Paul identified some who had departed from the faith: “Speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:2). The conscience is a moral regulator to inform man of his falling from that which is right (Rom. 2:15). But the conscience can become so corrupted by sin that it is of little or no value in determining moral direction.

Even though than is born with a nature to sin, God has given him a conscience to point him to righteousness. When man gives in to his sinful nature and follows the lust of his heart, he will be judged for rejecting the witness of his conscience. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).

There are at least two reasons that justify God’s judging the heathen.

  • First, the Bible teaches that every man has a conscience which initially directs man toward God. Paul described it as “the work of the law written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:15).
  • Secondly, God has clearly revealed himself to men in nature (Rom.1:20). “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Ps. 19:1). When God judges a man for his sin, that man has already rejected the twofold revelation of God. Jesus observed another consequence of the sin nature in the religious leaders of his day. It had affected their wills. “And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life” (John 5:40). These men who sought to study the Scriptures were so affected by sin that they were unable to respond to God when they met him.

The Sin Nature Influences Us to Sin

Most people may be willing to acknowledge that they are sinners because they sin. But the Bible teaches the reverse. We sin because we are sinners. It is our sin nature which results in our committing sins (Rom. 5:12). We are all “conceived in sin” (Ps. 51:5). Therefore the sin nature, when it surfaces, results in personal sin. We are all guilty and deserving of a twofold judgment upon sin. But God is willing to forgive personal sin, so he deals adequately with our sin nature.

The Sin Nature Has Been Judged

The Bible teaches, “Knowing this, that our old man [was] crucified with him” (Rom. 6:6). When Christ died, he condemned the old man to death. Our old man is dead (v. 7), and we are exhorted to reckon it dead. But our sin nature continues to operate within us. The old nature was “judged” when Christ died. Until Christ returns we must live in the strength of the new man to overcome the sinful desires arising from the sin nature still at work in us. We can’t eradicate our sin nature but we can use the Christian means of allowing the Holy Spirit to control us so that we don’t give in to temptation.

Are Christians Sinless?

“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (1 John 3:9)

In this passage the usage of the word sin does not mean that once a person is saved he never sins again. It does mean, however, that once a person is saved he no longer lives in sin (continual, habitual state of sin). His life is no longer characterized by sin. (LIBERTY BIBLE COMMENTARY, Vol. 2 p. 769)

It should be noted concerning the 1 John 3:9 passage that the verb employed in the Greek for sin (hamartian) is in the present tense, which indicates continual action. When one examines the entire passage (1 John 3:6-9) we find that there is total agreement in the usage of the Greek present tense, which indicates continual action. These verses do not claim that a Christian never sins after conversion nor, for that matter, that a believer ever reaches perfection in this life. The present tense indicates the breaking of the perpetual hold of sin in the life of the believer. A better English translation is “whosoever is born of God does not continually and habitually sin.” The power to overcome habitual sin is based on the inaccessibility of the believer to the ravages of satanic influence (see 1 John 5:18) and to his seed [God’s] remaining in him (verse 9). The expression “his seed” is a reference to the divine principle of life that abides in a believer after regeneration in Christ. This principle prevents slavery to Satan and sin. (THE CRISWELL STUDY BIBLE, p. 1466)

Greek Translation of Sin

Let us now examine the usage of the term “sin” as it is found in 1 John 3:6,8, and 9.

  • 1 John 3:6 — sinneth not (ouch hamartanei) is in the Greek linear present tense meaning continuous action, i.e., “does not keep on sinning,” having to do with the habit of sin.
  • 1 John 3:8 — he that doeth sin (no poion ten hamartian) interpreted as “he that keeps on doing sin” (the habit of sin).
  • 1 John 3:9 — doeth no sin (hamartian ou poiei) is in the Greek linear indicative form (same as verses 4 and 8) meaning “the child of God does not have the habit of sin.”

And he cannot sin (kai ou dunatai hamartanein) which in the English translation is incorrect … the proper translation in the Greek present active infinitive (hamartanein) which can only mean “and he cannot go on sinning,” which agrees with verses 6 and 8. A great deal of false theology has grown out of a misunderstanding of the tense of hamartanein in 1 John 3:9 (see parallel teachings of Paul in Romans 6:1,15).

The proper teaching of 1 John 3:6-9 is that the person who is abiding in Christ is not able to sin habitually. Sin may enter his experience, but it is the exception and not the rule. If sin is the ruling principle of a life, that person is not redeemed (Romans 6); thus a saved person cannot sin as a habit of life. When a Christian does sin, he confesses it (1 John 1:9) and perseveres in his purification (1 John 3:3). The continuous sinner has not known God and is therefore an unregenerate person. (WYCLIFFE BIBLE COMMENTARY, p. 1473)

A further teaching for 1 John 3:9 would include the fact that few Christians would dare to claim to be sinless or to be free from the fear of yielding to temptation. The vast majority of Christians would have to honestly confess the fact of their own continuing sinfulness. Many theologians would also recognize that there is no consistent scriptural and theoretical possibility of sinlessness for the believer until they receive their glorified body.

The apostle John in writing 1 John was not suggesting some group of “super-Christians” living a Christian life on a higher quality than is possible for all other believers. What John was presenting was an “ideal” rather than something that is universally true of all believers. John was depicting the ideal character of the Christian. The simplest form of which depicts what “ought to be the character” of the Christian. The Christian is still subject to temptation, mortality, and imperfection. Yet in the midst of this situation the Christian can grasp the new life of the Spirit and realize that he is being changed into the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29) which will be achieved only at the consummation (resurrection and glorified body). Thus, John was describing the eschatological reality, the possibility that will be for believers, upon the return of Christ. (Excerpts from THE NEW INTERNATIONAL COMMENTARY ON THE NEW TESTAMENT, THE EPISTLE OF JOHN, pp. 178, 179, 180, 182)

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Dr. Elmer Towns is a college and seminary professor, an author of popular and scholarly works (the editor of two encyclopedias), a popular seminar lecturer, and dedicated worker in Sunday school, and has developed over 20 resource packets for leadership education.His personal education includes a B.S. from Northwestern College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a M.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary also in Dallas, a MRE from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and a D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.He is co-founder of Liberty University, with Jerry Falwell, in 1971, and was the only full-time teacher in the first year of Liberty’s existence. Today, the University has over 11,400 students on campus with 39,000 in the Distance Learning Program (now Liberty University Online), and he is the Dean of the School of Religion.Dr. Towns has given theological lectures and taught intensive seminars at over 50 theological seminaries in America and abroad. He holds visiting professorship rank in five seminaries. He has written over 2,000 reference and/or popular articles and received six honorary doctoral degrees. Four doctoral dissertations have analyzed his contribution to religious education and evangelism.

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