Using the “Romans 23 Principle” to Explain Sin

Using the “Romans 23 Principle” to Explain Sin March 5, 2014

Chinese people have a hard time understanding what is meant by the word “sin.”


How Does Romans Define Sin?

This observation is what first inspired me to do my theological research. So, this many years later, what do I have to say about it? Well, for a fuller explanation, read Saving God’s Face.

For now, I’ll review an observation I’m mentioned before. In China, the word for sin (zuì, 罪) literally means “crime.” This obviously creates confusion for these millions of people who don’t come from a Christianized culture like those in the West. Calling people “criminals” makes as much sense as calling everyone ballerinas.

Of course, Western Christians have for a long time defined “sin” as breaking God’s law. This almost conventional explanation comes from a certain reading of Romans that generalizes the Mosaic Law to entail “law” in general. This has had an unfortunate consequence.

Westerners have used a much broader concept of “law” (e.g. human moral law) to define “sin.” At the level of metaphor, that’s fine. However, at the level of biblical interpretation, it has meant we read passed a variety of verses that explicitly emphasize other metaphors.

Therefore, when I began my research, I said to myself, “If people can see that honor-shame is a pervasive theme in Romans, then the book cannot be used to over-emphasize law at the expense of all other themes.” In this post, I want to show a little bit of Paul’s honor-shame thinking in the book of Romans.

Notice how explains sin. You’ll find it far better suits Eastern cultures that Western cultures.

What is the “Romans 23 Principle”?

We can explain sin by using honor and shame because of what I call the “Romans 23 principle.”

Paul explains “sin” (i.e. wrong doing, unrighteous, disobedience, etc.) really clearly in 3 places: Romans 1:23, 2:23, and 3:23. The context around these verses are confirming, so I have including some of the surrounding verses.

Romans 1:21–25

“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

Christians often explain “unrighteousness” (from Rom 1:18) in terms of law-breaking. Maybe some other text supports that idea, but it’s not here. Significantly, Paul never once mentions “law” in chapter 1. Instead, he says the human problem is this: we have exchanged God’s glory for the glory of created things. In this way, we dishonor God and each other.

Romans 2:23–24

“23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’”

This passage is tremendously important for the present discussion. Elsewhere I’ve commented on this passage.

“The main (and only) Greek verb in v. 23 is “dishonor” (ἀτιμαζεις). A preposition conveys the means, “by breaking the law.” . . . Law is a means to (dis)honor. That is, the main action is indicated by the lone verb “dishonor,” expressed by the verbal noun “breaking the law.” The ground clause in v. 24 highlights honor-shame as the central concern (not law). In Rom 1:18–32, Paul describes unrighteousness in HS terms not in legal language. Sin is fundamentally a lack of glory (Rom 3:23). Sin is not glorifying to God because it does not express trust in him (cf. Rom 4:20; 14:23). The point can be missed that sin is not merely a matter of “law” breaking; the aim of obedience is honoring God” (Saving God’s Face, 183, 240).

(For those who want to nitpick my Greek, I’m not counting “boast” in my verb count since it is a part of the subject. Paul constructs his sentence such that the subject of the sentence (“You who boast in the law ”) does only one action described by a verb (“dishonor”).

Romans 3:23

“ . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

Little needs to be said about this famous but overlooked verse.

So, if you want to explain sin the way Paul explains sin, then I recommend using honor-shame. If you want an easy way to remember key verses in Romans, just keep in mind the “Romans 23 Principle”–––

Rom 1:23, 2:23, and 3:23

These say everything you need.
*For the follow-up to this post, click here.

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  • Hi,

    Great post! I didn’t realize those three verses were all v. 23 in their chs. That will be helpful to point to people, makes the idea ‘sticky.’ So interesting how explicitly Paul defines sin as dishonor, but how that gets missed.


    • Thanks brother. Hopefully, this opens eyes. We we define the problem correctly, then we can better grasp the solution.

  • “Little needs to be said about this famously but overlooked verse.” Maybe don’t need the -ly on famous.

    A very good perspective. There are so many facets of in Paul’s train of thought in Romans to consider. People will understand each in a different way, and I think the author is right that this might be easier for the Eastern mind to grab on to. After all, the Law among other things is an expression of God’s character, and meant to bring us into communion with him (relational aspect).

    As long as we don’t set any of these aspects against each other, or consider one “better” for understanding the Bible than another, with reliance on the Spirit the Word to do its work to draw people to Jesus!

  • Eric

    Dr. Wu, thanks very much. I’ve kind followed your blog and read a number of articles you’ve written on the subject of sin as shame, but I must confess, this is the one where it “clicked.” Was just studying in Matthew 21-22, the parable of the vineyard tenants and the parable of the wedding feast. Your point here fits so well in that passage where the king is outraged and dishonored at those who reject the invitation, and the speechless wedding attendant who is found to be the only one in the entire feast with the wrong clothes.

    • Eric, I’m really glad to hear this. Romans is a book we are all familiar with, so when we see things we’ve “never” read before, it hits us differently. I agree with you about the Matthew passage. I think of that passage often. After all, the “Law” carries royal connotations; it’s not simply about abstract right/wrong. Accordingly, it’s much easier to get the connection between honor-shame and “law.”

      Thanks for the comment. –JW

  • Paul Wendler

    Dear Dr. Wu,

    I really enjoy reading your posts and I have just begun to read your book which is fascinating. Would you happen to have anything written out in Chinese regarding how you would explain how man has dishonored God? I guess I am looking for key terms and even an illustration or two that would help me explain this to my friends in Chinese since most people’s English in my area is not good enough to have this kind of conversation. I’d appreciate any help you may be able to give me. Thanks.


    On Wed, 5 Mar 2014 00:25:34 +0000

    • Thank you for your comment. Regarding your question, check out my post, which I think is titled, “Talking about Face in Chinese” or something similar to that. That should help you a bit with some of the language you are looking for. I may have posted a similar one but I can’t remember if it has been posted or is forthcoming. I also have translated some of by articles into Chinese, which would help if you can read characters. I hope that all helps a bit.

  • roamingaliens4312

    Glad you posted this article last week. This past weekend held an OT training for Chinese friends that taught them to use a Christ-centered approach to reading scripture. This article, particularly the comments about Rom. 2:23-24, helped me supplement the training by putting into context all the legal language used. Plus, I added Rom. 9:23 to your list.

    • Thank you for this encouraging word. Yes, I thought about adding 9:23 to the list but I didn’t know it I would be throwing too much at people. I’m really glad you caught it! How did they respond?

      • roamingaliens4312

        Don’t know, I didn’t think about it until the end of the training. However, it seemed that many in attendance had previously been exposed to and accepted the definition of sin as simply “breaking the law” and nothing more. Once I get feedback will let you know.

  • Chris Seawright (ស៊ីរ៉ែត គ្រីស)

    Dr. Wu,

    It has been a while since we have communicated. I have been reading many of your posts (not all but most).

    This particular post is very interesting to me and probably the greatest benefit I received from the Honor-Shame class I took in Chiang Mai, Thailand in January 2013. I definitely see two aspects of sin: against God’s person (the honor-shame motif) and against God’s law (the innocence-guilt motif). My ministry partners here in Cambodia have been discussing this particular post via email. I did want to raise a question about Romans 2:23. It seems that the dishonor comes from the breaking of the law, which is the definition of unrighteousness in Jewish thought, as easily shown from a host of biblical passages. More than that, any Jew would have assumed the Gentiles to be unrighteous (=law breakers) because they didn’t have the law. I am still trying to put all of this together in my mind. I agree with most of what you have said below and believe it to be very helpful. It just seems to me that Romans 2:23 is actually saying that the way people have dishonored God is by them breaking the law. It seems like legal terms to me. This is not to discount Romans 1 and 3.

    I hope it is OK for us to discuss your posts :-). You are definitely giving us much food for thought.


    • Thanks for this great question. I’ll reply via a post tomorrow.

  • Angela Hogan

    Regarding Romans 3:23, it seems that it could be understood as either “sin IS falling short of God’s glory (by definition) or that BY sinning, the result is falling short of God’s glory? Does the Greek allow for one or the other options, or possibly both? Thanks so much.