Nailing Down the Nature of Sin

A group at our church has been going through BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE, and the question we took on last Wednesday led to a great discussion, but one that left me wondering:

Are some sins worse or better than others?

Most of the responses leaned toward “yes,” but that wasn’t the interesting part. When it came down to it, we had a really hard time defining what was sin and what wasn’t.

Gary Peluso-Verdend suggested in his response that the degree of severity of a sin is tied to the degree of brokenness or harm it causes. On the surface this makes perfect sense, but what about in the case of accidents? If I step on someone’s toe without meaning to, is that a sin? What if I’m hunting and accidentally shoot someone? Does it matter at all if the act is intentional, or does it just have to do with the harm caused?

This also raises another point about good that comes out of selfish acts. Say a big box store exploits workers, giving them less than a living wage in hostile work surroundings to make clothes. Then our church buys those clothes and gives them to the poor. Have we sinned? Does the big box store get partial credit for helping the homeless? After all, we were able to clothe more people with the money we had because they kept prices low.

Someone then wondered if sinning was basically the same as making a mistake. Some translate the Greek word for sin as “falling short.” But if I make a mistake on a spelling test, or fall short on a job, even if I try my best, is that a sin? What if I don’t try my hardest? Is it a sin now?

Then we got to Jesus so-called Greatest Commandment. The rule upon which all other rules hang, according to him. The two-part rule for a righteous life is to love God with every part of your being, and to love your neighbor (not just your next door neighbor, but everyone else) like you love yourself.

What if I don’t love myself? Does that mean I have permission to treat others as badly as I treat myself? Can I lower the bar on self-care on purpose so I have greater latitude in how I love others?

Finally, we came together on the idea that what Jesus was getting at was that you would know in your heart what is right and what is wrong. If you follow that inner voice – that moral compass, so to speak – you’ll always point in the right direction.

Makes sense. But then even that started to get shaky. What if you’re a sociopath and honestly don’t know the difference between right and wrong? Are you then incapable of sin? The Bible talks about the “age of accountability” when children become aware of their own sense of morality, but what if that never kicks in? What if I have a developmental disorder that keeps me from understanding the separation between myself and others? Am I then given free rein since I don’t know any better?

And how about learned, or environmental, sociopathic behavior? Think of the mob, which develops their own twisted honor code, yet seems to have no misgivings about murders, extortions and such that are permissible within that code. So when is a sociopath a sociopath? Do they get a free pass if it’s developmental, but not if it’s socially derived?

We looked back at the Ten Commandments for guidance, but even with those apparently clear-cut rules, we had problems. Does it say, “you shall not kill” or “you shall not commit murder?” There are both in the Bible. Lots of them. And does this only apply to humans or does it include animals? What about plants?

“You shall not commit adultery,” seems straightforward until we realize what they meant back then by ‘adultery’ is different than today. Many men had multiple wives, and in fact, you were expected to marry your brother’s wife and make babies with her if he died. Now it would be, well, kinda gross.

I left that night more bewildered about the nature of sin than when we started, and keep in mind that I created the book! Nice job, doofus. But one thing did keep echoing in my head. It was the statement by Jesus about not concerning ourselves with the splinter in someone else’s eye while we have a log in our own. Weird image, Jesus, but I think I get it.

I suppose the point is that I don’t have to figure it out, except for myself. And believe me, that leaves me with plenty of work to do without adding anything else to the to-do list.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of the Banned Questions book series, which include Banned Questions About the Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PregMANcy: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date. For more information about Christian, visit, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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  • A fine article. Thank you.

    As for sin, the nuanced way of defining in that works best, I believe, is that “sin is saying ‘yes’ to anything that is not God’s will.” This is better than “sin is saying ‘no’ to God’s will,” because the latter implies the arrogance of knowing God’s will.

    Furthermore, I believe it is necessary to parse the difference between A.) the sin-act, which is any action of harm to: self, another or creation, and B.) sinful nature, which describes the inherent, inextricable situation that all creation is locked in a system of sin whether a person knows it or not, chooses it or not, and resists it or not. The sinful nature describes intentional efforts to harm, the bio/psychological predisposition to harm, and the action of corporate sin in colonialism, sexism, racism, economic or environmental injustice, despite our best efforts either to do the right thing or to withdraw from the system all together.

    There is a reason that Pride often leads the procession of sin marching through human history, because the most egregious sin rears its ugly head when humanity either falls into despair or assumes it can pay, innovate, legislate or otherwise manipulate its way out of sinful nature. In both situations, humanity assumes that it possesses the power and ability to save itself. It does not.

    So sin is saying “yes” to anything that is not God’s will. Another way of saying this is existentially: sin is defining and understanding oneself by worldly measures. We look to the world and say “yes” to individualism, to greed, to power, to security, to accumulation, etc, and we build our very identities in the world’s mirror. And of course, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with many of the identities we don, if it weren’t for the systemic nature of sin. The cheap clothes that I buy for the homeless still abuse children in the Third World.

    And no matter what we do, we’ll never know if we are ever doing God’s will. Seems like we’re kinda screwed. Precisely. That’s the point. What’s left to do is cease to look to the world or ourselves for our identity, but rather (in the Christian faith tradition, at least) look to the cross to see ourselves, the world, and God, all expressed in the inseparable action of crucifixion/resurrection. IN so doing, we allow ourselves to die with Jesus of Nazareth and be raised/transformed with a new identity in Christ.

    And what about that sinful world? Well, as God-oriented folk, God works through us over the course of history to spread the light which defeats the darkness, the love that vanquishes the hate, the forgiveness that heals a broken world.

  • Sounds like a good discussion. I wish I could have been there.

  • Glen

    I enjoyed reading this discussion. One correction though: The Bible doesn’t talk about an age of accountability, or anything resembling it. That notion has been postulated by theologians who are trying to reconcile the notion that all people are sinful from birth (and deserving of hell) with the distasteful consequence of that doctrine that would result in young children going to hell if they die. Seems reasonable if you subscribe to that line of thought about hell, but there’s no direct biblical support for the age of accountability.

  • Christian Piatt

    Very good point of clarification. Thanks Glen!