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What is sin? Falling short? Rebellion? Something else?

know_god_1What is the essence of sin?

In some evangelistic presentations it's all about falling short.  God demands perfection.  We do our best - some more so than others - but none of us reach God's standard.  And that's sin.  Essentially.

Within such a framework it seems that the effort to earn salvation is laudable.  What's sinful is precisely our failure to establish a righteousness of our own.  I hope I don't need to spell out the problem here!

Other presentations try to go a bit deeper and get to the attitude of the heart.  That's certainly preferable to a behaviouristic definition.  So in these presentations sin is the rebellious spirit we display towards God.

It's climbing onto the throne of your life

It's stealing the crown for yourself

It's shaking your puny fist in the face of God

It's saying "Shove off God, I'm in charge, No to your rule"

self throne

Here sin is basically self-rule as opposed to submission to God.

I'm not doubting for a second that these statements of rebellion describe sinful attitudes.  But are they describing the essence of sin?  Is this what sin is at its root?

Before we think about it theologically, just think of it practically.  Don't such definitions of sin strike you as quintessentially western?  Don't they seem particularly aimed at the children of the Enlightenment, rather than the children of Adam more generally?  I mean...

What do you say to the Iranian refugee working his fingers to the bone, sending back every penny to the family, seeking no identity of his own but in constant fear of what his community thinks?

And even in the West...

What do you say to the woman serially abused by the terrible men she invites into her life?

What do you say to the drug addict whose only remaining desire is the hell-bent drive to throw his life away?

What do you say to the down-trodden mother who's completely lost herself in her family?

What do you say to the self-harmer consumed by self-loathing?

All these people are sinners.  But is their sin best captured by a definition of "self-rule"?  Surely not.

If you want to convict people of sin, "rebellion" will speak to a good number of teens and to many confident, middle class go-getters.  But it completely misses the Muslim, the mother and the meth-head.

So practically "self-rule" doesn't work as a definition (unless you want to confine yourself to youth work and ministry among western, middle class professionals.  But no-one wants to limit their ministry so narrowly, right?  Right??)

But besides its practical failures, the position is theologically untenable.

To characterise our sin as basically self-rule is far too flattering a picture of human nature.  Biblically speaking we are dominated subjects in Satan's kingdom (Ephesians 2:1-3).  We are captives in the strong man's house (Mark 3:27).  We are helpless slaves to sin (John 8:34).  We are whores besotted with terrible lovers (Ezekiel 16).  We are sheep following after bad shepherds (Ezekiel 34).  We are thirsty beggars drinking from broken wells (Jeremiah 2:13-14).  We are lost and must be found (Luke 15). We are snake-bitten and need healing (John 3:14f).  We are dead and need raising (John 5:24f).  We are famished and need Bread (John 6).

Our problem is not that we are little kings and queens, ruling our miniature kingdoms!  Our problem is - as Luther has said - we are beasts ridden either by the devil or God.  We don't stand between Christ and Adam, sovereignly choosing who we will emulate.  We stand in Christ and/or in Adam.  Our destiny is determined by their choices not ours.  In other words we have not climbed onto the throne of our lives!  Someone is already on the throne - and it's not us!

It is of course foolish and blasphemous if someone declares themselves the captain of their soul and master of their fate.  But such a "declaration of independence" is not the essence of their sin.  Because in fact no such independence exists.

Our problem, most basically, is not that we are competing sovereigns with Christ.  Our problem is that we are subjects in the wrong kingdom.  Now obviously, some subjects have delusions of grandeur, fine.  But A) let's not agree with their delusions but unmask their true condition and B) let's realise that there are many, many subjects who make no pretence of self-rule.  But they share in the same problem and qualify for the same solution.  We are not rulers, we are ruled.  The only question is, By whom?

Think about the beginning and end of the bible: One powerful perspective on the fall is to see it as man's abdication!  I'm not saying this is my bedrock definition of sin but I can't help thinking that Adam should have ruled more in Genesis 3.  A kingly edict rather than an impotent silence might have saved us a lot of trouble!

And at the end of the bible, we're not looking forward to man getting off the throne.  Precisely the opposite.  Salvation involves being invited onto the throne, to rule with Christ (Revelation 3:21).

The "gospel" of submission ends with the challenge "Get off the throne".  Isn't it pause for thought that the bible finishes with "Get onto the throne"?

What's gone wrong with the "gospel" of submission?  Well it begins with a monadic doctrine of  God (more here).  And it continues with a definition of sin as rebellion against the Almighty.  Such a definition doesn't work practically and it doesn't work theologically.  Certainly we are rebels. But sin as rebellion will capture only some of our hearers and only part of the story.

In John 16, Jesus actually gives us a definition of sin.  He tells us why His Spirit will convict the world of sin.  What is the bottom line for humanity?

They do not believe in me.  (John 16:9)

The world has not received Jesus (believing = receiving cf. John 1:12).  This is the world's great evil, for which it is rightly condemned (John 3:18, 36). Humanity has refused the Fountain of Living Waters and, before it has dug any of its own broken wells, it has first refused to receive from the Giving God (Jeremiah 2:13-14).  For more on Jeremiah 2 see here but note that every instance of idolatry is in fact secondary. Originally we forsake Christ's Gift, then we "look for love in all the wrong places."

Our great treachery and our great tragedy is our disconnection from God.  In Him we live and move and have our being.  And yet we don't know Him!  Not naturally.  How can this be!?  How can we be estranged from Him who is our life?  But we are.  We don't want Him.  We're dying of thirst, drinking from every other poisonous well in the desert, but refusing His life and love.  This is our problem.  And therefore, having defined our problem thus, the solution should be obvious... We have refused Christ, we must receive Him.  This makes sense once we have defined sin properly.

But if sin is fundamentally "self-rule" then Christ becomes sidelined in salvation.  He may be important for taking the punishment which rebels deserve, but the real work of reversing the sin-problem remains in our hands.  If the problem is self-rule then the solution is submission.  And thus, in this kind of evangelism, the "business end" of proceedings is not Christ and His self-emptying but us and ours.

And the irony is this - when self-rule is defined as the problem we are thrust into the centre of the gospel.  Suddenly, we are not lost, enslaved, needy beggars.  We are bold, self-directed rulers who happen to be misusing our powers.  And so the evangelist treats the hearers as free sovereigns who need to rule wisely.  Now they need to choose salvation rather than damnation.  So the evangelist (maybe) speaks of a redemption by Christ, but it can never come across as the central act.  If the sinner is on the throne then Jesus might command, cajole, and "clear the path", but He can't actually do the saving.  It's all down to the sovereign chooser.  And if they decide to submit we can all praise... um... them.  We can praise them for avoiding the punishment due to rebels.  Of course now they no longer are rebels.  They have made themselves subjects and solved the whole self-rule problem.  All through the exercise of their... um... their self-rule.

The whole position is riddled with contradictions.  You'd think that a "gospel" of submission would attack pride wouldn't you?  Actually it fuels pride.  Horrifically.  The power of the sinner, their wisdom in choosing, their piety in submitting - all these things come centre-stage when sin is defined as rebellion.  In other words, such a gospel does not exclude but excites "boasting in the flesh".  And all the while it fails to reach the sinners who know that they are lost - the "sick" for whom the Doctor actually came!

For more on a true definition of sin, see Mike Reeves' two talks

39 thoughts on “What is sin? Falling short? Rebellion? Something else?

  1. Brian Midmore

    Fundamentally we are victims who are lost and who need saving. Now this lostness may lead us to try and take control of our lives or to try to please God but these responses are merely symptons of a deeper problem.

  2. Howard

    Really useful post. Like others (here and elsewhere) recently, it really helps to home in on some of the problems of incorrect or just plain inadequate theology and the essential need of really unlocking what the real situation is. The Mike Reeves talks are also first class.

  3. Jez Poyner

    This is great stuff, Glen - really got me thinking.

    To help clarify things in my mind I have a question, I think I know the answer but I'd thought I'd ask anyway - how is making a decision to receive Christ any less of a 'sovereign chooser' mentality?

  4. Glen

    hey Jez, I suppose it's the difference between giving an ultimatum to the strong and giving a Life-line to the perishing. It's the difference between the unbeliever offering their Decision to God and the unbeliever receiving their Saviour from God.

    Some of the words and phrases you use will be exactly the same but the gospel you convey will be quite different depending on how you frame the problem.


  5. Jez Poyner

    Yeah, that's a helpful distinction.

    I'm thinking through how the emphasis on receiving Christ prevents pride. I guess it's possible for believers to think highly of themselves for receiving Christ (because of sin), but it's silly and contradictory given the very act of receiving Him involves expressing our complete helplessness and weakness.


  6. Ephrem Hagos

    There is a tendency to overlook the following logical framework in the 4th Gospel.

    The PRELUDE defines the right to become God's children in terms of "receiving" Jesus Christ + "believing in him" based not on hearsay but on a radical vision which is promised (1: 50-51).

    The BODY progressively elaborates the specific context of the vision, viz.: synchronized suffering and glorification.

    The FINALE presents the demo, viz.: "People will look at him whom they pierced” (19: 30-37).

    It still works miracles!

  7. John

    "Sin is not conforming to or any disobedience to the law of God" WSC. Simple definition of sin is 1 John 3:4, not referenced I don' t think in the above article.

    Good article otherwise, thank you.

  8. Jonathan

    Glen, enjoyed this post - but when do we get to hear the right view of sin? I'm too busy to listen to those talks - can't you give us the punchline?

  9. Ephrem Hagos

    In essence, sin is "a proud obstacle raised against the knowledge of God" exclusively based on Christ's death on the cross.

    (Matt. 16: 22-23; 2 Cor. 10: 4-6)

  10. fruitofhisdeath

    Religion, a.k.a., “the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is bad”, i.e., a substitute for the directly and personally revealed knowledge of God in Christ’s death on the cross, a.k.a., “the tree that gives life”, is as bad as witchcraft and as sinful as idolatry .

    (Gen. 2: 7-9; 1 Sam. 15: 22-23; Matt. 16: 13-28; Luke 23: 40-43)

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  12. Howard

    fruit of his death wrote: 'a substitute for the directly and personally revealed knowledge'. That's Gnosticism, and a substitute for the revelation of God that comes through His word, which proclaims Jesus Christ as the Son sent by the Father, not just to die but to rise, bodily, from the tomb, to ascend into Heaven and to return on the final day to raise all men as He was raised. It's not a 'tree' that gives us life, it's Jesus Christ Himself, God revealed in the flesh, the fulness of the Godhead bodily - He Himself, not gnosis, saves us.

  13. fruitofhisdeath

    A fundamental clarification is in order.

    In the MASTERPIECE OF CREATION, “the tree that gives life” (Gen. 2:9) represents Christ’s kind of death on the cross as self-sufficient “source of life” , a.k.a., “God’s Spirit” (the antithesis of God revealed in the flesh), and one-stop solution to all of life (John 10:10).

    In that case, your definition of “the final day” would leave all of us out in the cold!

  14. Ephrem Hagos

    Here is food for thought.

    "The law of God" is applicable to all His self-revelations as recorded in the Scriptures.

    The latest and final version of the Law states that what gives life is the HOLY SPIRIT (poured out at Christ's death on the cross, and applied on the day of Pentecost), MAN'S POWER is of no use at all (directly contrasted to the Incarnation) ... .

    (John 6: 62-65)

    Any comments?

  15. Howard

    Why am I not surprised, Ephrem, to see you raising the issue of the law? As Paul shows us, so clearly in Galatians, those who seek to re-establish the law, especially in the manner you convey here, bear the hallmark of teaching 'another Gospel' and 'another Jesus'.
    Look at the very passage you have referred to, where Jesus has just taught His disciples they need to feed upon 'the bread that has come down from heaven' to live forever. What is this 'bread', but the life which comes from the Father, given through His Son (vs 65)? This has nothing to do with our law-keeping, or some 'direct' revelation, but receiving the gift given by God in the saving work (life, death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ, as Paul so clearly shows us, for example, in Romans.
    Christ alone is the true source of life, and that life is conveyed to us through His word.

    If you wish to stand 'under law', be my guest, but as Paul shows in Romans 2 and 3, that leaves every man CONDEMNED before God, with no solution. It is only the free grace and mercy given by the Father through His Son that makes us free.

  16. Howard

    Re:'Masterpiece of Creation'. Is this a publication, radio broadcast or other form of media? If so, who publishes/produces this - what group, organization or society?

  17. Ephrem Hagos

    FOR MAN'S THANKFULNESS, there is no greater "Masterpiece of Creation" whatsoever than Genesis 1 & 2 with its LIVE connections to pioneers of immortality (such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, etc.) and finally to the whole world in Christ's death on the cross. This is the story of the Holy Bible. PTL!

  18. Howard

    So, is this 'teaching' being advocated just by yourself of a group or society, that's what I was asking, and like other cultists, you have totally ignored my question.
    Additionally, are you saved by keeping the law, Ephrem?

  19. Howard

    So, having asked you two questions of you - 1. Which group you belong to and 2. How you view your relationship to the Law - you refuse an answer to either. I have been debating 'a person' for several days now on two threads on this site - a person whose views are entirely contrary to scripture on the nature of God, particularly Jesus Christ, and of the revelation given by God about Him, through the scriptures. I have, as has Theo, sought to warn you of the dangers of your views, but you have refused to see any validity to these responses or concerns, so I can only conclude you are content to remain where you are, and never mind the issues we have raised or the consequences.... that is of very great concern. I can only hope that you will see this yourself. One thing has become abundantly clear - your understanding is very far from the Jesus made plain through God's word. I hope you will come to find a genuine trust and confidence in Him.

  20. Theo K


    Your gentle steadfastness, your love for Ephrem and your concern for his eternal destiny are admirable and truly appreciated. May our Lord bless you abundantly!


    Your lust after gnosis is leading you down the path of destruction. For the sake of your soul, abandon your cult and your false teachers and look to the Lord Jesus, the crucified and risen Saviour, the son of God.

    His promise still stands to every sinner who will receive Him:

    " whoever comes to me I will never cast out. "

  21. fruitofhisdeath

    Theo K,

    You and Howard fear gnosis whatever it is.

    Admittedly, I have a passion for sustainable knowledge of God, a.k.a., “the knowledge about the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven”, without which there is no salvation whatsoever!

    We have also been notified about the ever increasing difference between the haves and have-nots. (Matt. 13: 11-12)

    May God help us to discern the difference. Amen!

  22. Howard

    It simply isn't a case of our (myself and Theo) simply fearing this false gospel in some theoretical manner, it's the fact that the Apostles themselves write material in the scriptures which clearly states it is deadly. It is a false gospel, and It is in light of this that your 'knowledge' has been examined. A prior reference was made, for example, to the law, but the very passage about knowledge you have just referred to in Matthew is where Jesus is defining His use of parables (vs 10) - to confound those who had been 'given much' (see Romans 3:2), who had reduced this to their own success at fulfilling the law as they viewed and interpreted it - far below what is actually required (see Matthew 23), but then, all of our own 'revelations' of righteousness, tainted by our corruption, fall far short of what is truly conveyed in scripture. True redemption comes only through ALL that God reveals here.

  23. fruitofhisdeath

    The origin of sin is man’s denial of the very purpose, for which he was created, i.e., to be eternal like God himself courtesy of the “tree of life”, a.k.a., Christ’s death on the cross –the basis of personally revealed knowledge of God.

    (Gen. 2: 7-17; John 3: 18-21)

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  28. KatharineKN


    I know this is an old post but I have come back to reread it. I think this is very true - also if you search on biblegateway for 'rebellion' it appears quite a lot but ONLY with reference to the people of Israel. I think this makes sense because it has the idea of rebelling against a covenant made with the LORD which of course non-Jews didn't/don't have. Its not untrue that everyone is supposed to obey God because he is the Creator, but the Bible doesn't really use that argument much. And a problem with overemphasising that line of argument is that you're just back with an Allah-type creator rather than the Lord of the Bible. So in my opinion being biblically accurate it would be fine to talk about as much as you want about Christians sinning and rebelling, but its not really the most correct way to talk about nonbelievers.

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