What is sin?

Sin isn’t a word we use a lot these days. But when you start to read Mark’s Gospel the word comes up on the first page. What does it mean?

Is it just a word religious people use to judge you, looking down on you for enjoying life? Maybe it’s just a way of someone saying, ‘I’m better than you’?

Or maybe it’s just a way of saying something is a bit of a guilty pleasure? Online you can find examples of ‘sinfully good’ wine, tans, and even strawberry chocolate muffins. Is sin, as one definition on urbandictionary.com says, simply ‘good, dirty fun’?

Or perhaps sin is a word to describe the most horrendous acts – things like human trafficking, child abuse or rape? When it’s not enough to say something is illegal, or harmful, but truly evil – is that what sin is?

As we encounter the idea of sin throughout Mark’s Gospel, should we have any of these meanings in our heads? Mark doesn’t give a definition of sin within his Gospel, so we need to understand it in the wider context of the rest of the Bible. When we do that we see that sin is described in lots of different ways. Let’s look at some of them.

Falling short

The Bible often explains sin with the idea of failing to live up to a required standard.

‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23).

Like an arrow that doesn’t reach its target, ‘sin’ means to live a less-than-perfect life. We aren’t as good as we should be. The Bible says God created humans to be like him – that is we ought to always display qualities such as love, faithfulness, justice and mercy, and not display any opposite characteristics such as selfishness, dishonesty, unfairness. God displays these qualities always and in every way; he is the source of all goodness. We were created to share and reflect this glorious character, but we fall short of this. We may think that we are generally ‘good’ – but what about the times we’re not? If we’re honest we have to recognise we all fall short of thinking, speaking and acting as we should.

Going our own way

Another picture of sin in the Bible is the idea of wandering or going astray.

‘We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way’ (Isaiah 53:6).

Often we assume that sin is mainly about breaking rules. But the Bible says the problem is deeper than that; we don’t just fail to live up to a standard, we’ve decided to make up our own. Like a child running away from home because they want to make the rules, we’ve turned our backs on God and put ourselves in charge.

Exchanging God

Another part of the Bible describes sin as an exchange. We’ve swapped something else into God’s place: ‘They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles…They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the creator’ (Romans 1:23,25). The heart of sin then is an exchange – we have swapped something (often good things) into the place that only God should occupy. The verses just quoted use the idea of worshipping physical idols, but we can do the same with anything – money, sex, power, career, family, politics. These are all good things, but put any of them (or anything else) in God’s place and they become distorted and they distort us and damage those around us.

A problem for everyone

As you read Mark’s Gospel, it will help to have these three ideas in mind whenever you read the word ‘sin'. The other important thing to have in mind is the Bible is consistent in saying that sin is something that affects everyone without exception. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, we’re all in the same boat.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day labelled some people ‘sinners’ – they were seen as outcasts who should be shunned (see e.g. Mark 3:16). Rather than trying to help or restore them, the leaders stood in judgment over them. They assumed they were better than others, but were blind to their own state as sinners before God.

But Jesus didn’t come to tell everyone he’s better than them (even though he’s the only one who has the right to say such a thing). To those ‘sinners’ he didn’t come to judge but to heal: ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ (Mark 2:17). Jesus says the same to us today.

Sin is not some outdated concept, it is a way of describing the imperfection of humanity and our alienation from God. Because of this we live in a way that harms ourselves and harms others. This is what Jesus came to rescue us from. Rather than standing in judgment, Jesus offers restoration, forgiveness and hope.