Is ‘Sin’ a List of Forbidden Activities?

Is ‘Sin’ a List of Forbidden Activities? March 23, 2024

Sin is such an emotionally laden term, associated with heaviness and accusation – the angry finger of a vengeful God, wagging in our unworthy faces. Any Biblical term, if twisted out of shape, can become harmful and misleading, which is exactly what I believe has happened with sin/sinner/sinful.


In this post, I hope to drain all negative associations from the word ‘sin’ and start from scratch by asking a simple question – what makes an action/choice sinful? I propose that sin is not a list of forbidden activities. This shouldn’t be controversial, but the reactions I sometimes get within Christian communities when stating this range from indignation to horror:


‘What about the ten commandments? That’s a list!’


I see the point, but even activities prohibited by the ten commandments are not consistently presented as sinful in the Bible. For example, Exodus 20, 16a:


‘Thou shalt not bear false witness…’


Relying on the scriptures alone, can we say that lying is always wrong? Looking at the story of Rahab, in the early chapters of Joshua, I think we have to say no. Rahab harboured Israelite spies and directly lied to the authorities, leading to the fall of her city, which by any measure is both deception and treason. And yet, the writer of Hebrews says her actions sprang from faith, (chapter 11, 31):


‘By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace.’


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comfortable with much about the story of Jericho. It’s an Old Testament opera of chaos and death, but I want to make the point that even when relying on the Bible alone, ‘sin’ cannot be defined in black and white terms. Let’s look at a simpler example of something sinful that became an act of faith. In Acts 9, Peter has a vision while praying on a rooftop (v. 9-16):


‘About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’


‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’


The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’


This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.’


Eating pork was forbidden by Hebrew Law, and before seeing this vision, doing so would have been sinful for Peter. Once he’d seen the vision, however, refusing to eat pork would have been sinful, as that would have meant refusing God. Crazy, huh? Similarly, it was forbidden by Hebrew Law for a Jew to visit a gentile, but the first thing Peter did after seeing this vision was to go to the house of a Gentile and lead him, his family and all his friends to the Lord. What was sinful became pure and what was pure became sinful, in the time it took Peter to see and comprehend his vision.


The interaction of sin and conscience


Romans 14 is perhaps the most explicit passage on the mutability of sin. Paul goes through a list of actions and observances, starting with what we eat:


‘One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.’


He also touches on how (or even if) we celebrate the Sabbath (v. 5-6a):


‘One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.’


Paul emphasises the importance of motivation, saying that an action can become sinful if it violates a person’s conscience, even when there is nothing wrong with the deed itself:


‘I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.’


Having laid out a brief set of examples – eating, drinking, partaking in food sacrificed to idols, and how an individual approaches the Sabbath – Paul sums up with some key principles that can be applied more broadly:


‘So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.’


If anything that doesn’t come from faith is sin, then unavoidably, anything done in faith cannot be sin. This raises a difficult question – can anything be done in faith, and therefore be pure? Could I cheat on my wife in faith? No, and no again, because faith can only access what grace has provided. We can only act in faith when following the leading of the Holy Spirit, and he will not lead me to betray my wife, or to perform any other unloving act. We follow love, we serve love, and love leads us for our own good and the good of others. I’ll say it once more – faith can only access what grace has provided.


What is sin?


If sin is not a list of forbidden activities, and if some matters can only be categorised as either sinful or pure by measuring a person’s intentions and conscience, how do we define sin? If an action can be sinful one moment and pure the next, as in Peter’s case, and if anything done in faith is not sin, can we reach a simple, working definition that applies to all?


I believe we can, if we keep our eyes on love – Sin is anything that harms ourselves or other people. I hope readers will test this theory. Is there anything you currently consider sinful that isn’t covered by this? If you can identify such a sin, I hope you will leave a comment for discussion.


Sin has to be sin for a reason, or God is arbitrary, whimsical, cruel, and a rule-keeping perfectionist. What reason does God have to consider something sinful, if not that it is harmful to us, those we love, or both? God wants us to be free from sin because, quite simply, he loves us, and life is better in its absence. God is not a jailor, punishing sinners; he is a rescuer, swinging wide the jailhouse doors and leading us to freedom.


Sin has been presented in unloving ways that have put people off church, faith, and God. Instead of teaching that our Father wants to liberate us because of love, we have taught that God is scrutinising us, ready to pounce – a knee-jerk, puritanical snowflake, quick to be offended. We elevate judgement and diminish mercy, but that does not reflect the nature of Christ. James 2, 13b:


‘Mercy triumphs over judgment.’


Self-condemnation is harmful


As a young man, I was deeply concerned with sin. I had been taught that sinful actions were a spiritual barrier between God and I, preventing me from drawing near to him until I’d repented. Imagine the effect that had on a young lad, desperate to please God but unsure of his loving nature. If I did something I considered sinful, I would literally beg God to forgive me until my emotions changed. It was torture, and surely grieved the heart of my loving Father in Heaven, who never wants us to grovel. Heb 4, 15-16:


‘For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’


When do we most need mercy? When we’re struggling with harmful habits and behaviours. God does not require that we grovel or see ourselves differently when we’ve messed up. If we come to the throne of grace to obtain mercy, he would have us come boldly.


It is my firm belief that broad swathes of the Church are guilty of driving away those who might come to know Christ by speaking of sin in archaic, heavy, and condemning terms. If sin is anything that harms us or others, then addressing it in ourselves can only be positive and life-giving. I believe we need to drain the fetid swamp of self-hatred and condemnation, and embrace Spirit-led, personal growth.


Self-condemnation is fundamentally sinful because it damages us. If we understand that God has not curated an arbitrary list of sins but wishes to free us from anything that harms ourselves or other people, the process of repentance is characterised by softness and compassion and leads to healing – a journey of ever-increasing freedom in the company of the One who loves us most.


Imagine how the world might respond if every church was a community of people who loved and accepted themselves and each other. Imagine if every congregation thronged with individuals and groups who embraced the grace and mercy of God in their lives. Imagine if we preached the truth – that through the cross, Jesus triumphed over sin, and that through his Spirit, we can take hold of that victory stage by stage, piece by piece, and be made new. 1 Cor 15, 54-57:


‘When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’

 ‘Where, O death, is your victory? 

    Where, O death, is your sting?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’


Note from the author


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