What is Sin?

For far too long, this has been my definition of sin: “The breaking of God’s commands.” Somehow, I got it in my head that sin was either active rebellion or my passive indifference to the law of God. God has high standards of conduct, and if we "fall short," or “miss the mark” of that moral conduct, we have sinned. I had defined sin in juridical terms. The problem with humanity is that we can never live up to God’s “glorious standards,” so God, as just Judge, must sentence us to a destiny in Hell. But God, as merciful Savior through Jesus Christ, lived the perfect life of obedience to the moral law and then died the death that we each deserve because we all fall short of that perfection. Those who place their trust in this juridical transaction are saved from Hell and assured of Heaven.

It all sounds so biblical—it’s straight out of Romans. But it is not the whole story.

Leonard Sweet, in his incredible book, Out of the Question…Into the Mystery, defines sin this way: “Sin is a relational concept. It is a violation of and damage done to our relationship with God and others and ourselves. God’s grace is the gift of relationship. Both sin and grace are defined biblically more in relational than juridical terms…Sin is not a breaking of commands; sin is a breaking of relationships. When we sin we do not break stone-bound laws, but heart-carved love.” (pp. 144-45)

So, God’s commands are given to ensure relationship. I recently had my kids draw their own stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Trey, my six-year-old, asked me why these commandments were so important. I thought, “What a great question!” I said to him, “the first four commandments tell us how we can love God—how to have a great relationship with Him. The other six commandments tell us how we can love people—how to have great relationships with them.” He liked that answer better than, “Thus sayeth the Lord!”

There is a reason for the commands; there is a reason for God’s law. They are there to ensure healthy relationships—with God and with others. Sin is the breaking of relationships. That is why Jesus was able to sum up all the commands as simply as this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (see Mark 12:28-31; Matt 22:34-40)

If I can move my thinking away from simply “law-keeping” to the more all-encompassing “relationship-keeping,” the law-keeping will come more naturally, for the law is all about relationship-keeping. If I focus on law-keeping and not relationship-keeping, I won’t accomplish either.

Jesus said, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command." (John 15:9-14)


Anonymous said...

Hi Bob,

Cool post! Do you think your articulation is slightly different from Sweet's though, given that he explicitly says sin is not a breaking of commands? Sweet seems to work with either/or, whereas you are saying both/and and trying to expose the relationship between them?

The John 15 quote seems to say quite clearly that we remain in Jesus' love by keeping his commands ... and thus that we fall out of his love by not keeping his commands. Granted the command which follows in the chapter is the love command, but it's still a command! It seems friendship with Jesus is explicitly predicated on command keeping. Command keeping is essential to my relationship with Jesus.

Would Sweet agree with this?


Scot McKnight said...

I'm basically with you on this. Commandments are expressions of what our love for God and others ought to look like, so breaking commandments will nearly always violate love. Which is probably what Sweet is getting at -- I've got his book on my "next books to read" shelf.

But, it is entirely juridical thinking to say that sin is just breaking commandments. Sin is bigger than that and, frankly, deeper than that.

Nice idea to blog about. What is sin?

Bob said...

I'm not sure Will's jump "The John 15 quote seems to say quite clearly that we remain in Jesus' love by keeping his commands ... and thus that we fall out of his love by not keeping his commands." is valid.

I think that is called "conditional love" which God is not about at all. It also leads very quickly down the path of justification by works.

To me, the John 15 verse more says "If you love me, you won't have to worry about keeping my commands--you'll do them as an extension (fruit?) of that love." This fits more with the relational God who wants nothing more than the love of His people (not to mention the rest of Scripture).

"Love me above all else", anything less is sin.

Anonymous said...

"If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love"

How does this square with
"If you love me, you won't have to worry about keeping my commands--you'll do them as an extension (fruit?) of that love"??

Notice the reversal in the second quote which is saying that if you love me, you will actually be keeping my commands. That may be theologically true but it is not what John 15 says. If we keep Jesus commands, we remain in his love. If we don't keep his commands do we still remain in his love?

According to D. A. Carson in his "The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God" we must be careful not to absolutise anyone of the (at least five) different ways the Bible describes God's love. If Carson is right, isn't there at least a sense in which God's love is conditional and predicated on obedience? To deny this is to absolutise one aspect that needs to be held together with other aspects (cf. Jude v21). You state that God is not "at all" about conditional love.

Further you say of your understanding of John 15: "This fits more with the relational God who wants nothing more than the love of His people". Bob's understanding of John 15 may fit with this but how do the quoted verses from John 15 actually fit with this? The quote is not about OUR love for Jesus but HIS love for us (15:9)... and an aspect of our ongoing experience of Jesus' love for us is predicated on command keeping. The issue is not that WE keep loving Jesus by keeping his commands, but that we stay in HIS love by keeping his commands. Don't keep Jesus' commands, don't remain in Jesus love.

Our ongoing experience of Jesus and his love (personal, relational) is via command keeping (juridicial). This is a much closer relationship between juridicial and personal than I think Sweet was suggesting and is simply what pricked my initial interest.


Bob said...


Great points! A lot for me to think about. The thing I wonder now (and I'm sure some high-caliber Greek scholar could help out) is what it means to "remain in my love"? Does it mean to "continue to receive His love"? Which is the conditional/predicated love view. Or does it mean "to find rest in His love"? Again, I don't know the original language just my experience. If I sin (disobey commands), the peace I find in Him is disturbed. It will remain disturbed until the sin is confessed and repented of (joy made complete again). But my original position (in His love) has not changed.

Of course, without a reference and I'm a little uncomfortable pursuing "my own" thoughts here.

DA Carson has a great point: the harder you try to absolutise a thing like love, the more quickly it turns to sand in your hands.

Bob Robinson said...

Great dialogue Bob and Will!

Since D.A. Carson has been brought up, let me quote from his commentary on John:

"The injunction to remain in Jesus' love (the aorist meinate does not require that we think of the moment of entrance into the act of remaining, but looks at remaining globally, as a complete act) presupposes that, however much God's love for us is gracious and undeserved, continued enjoyment of that love turns, at least in part, on our response to it...

If obedience is the condition of continuously remaining in Jesus' love, it is no less important to remember that in 14:15, 21 our love for Jesus is the wellspring of our obedience to him, as our obedience is the demonstration of the reality of that love." (p. 520)

Bob Robinson said...

And, let me add one more thought:

Yes, we MUST OBEY the commands of God. But Jesus Himself told us that all the commands of God are boiled down to "Love God" and "Love others."

So, the ULTIMATE form of obedience is that of having RIGHT RELATIONSHIPS.

This is what it means that sin is ultimately the "breaking of relationships" and not simply the "breaking of commands."

When most of us think of sin as the "breaking of commands," we are filled with the worries of dotting all our "i"s and crossing all out "t"s when it comes to living a sinless life of perfect obedience to the nitty-gritty rules and regulations of being a "godly person." What I think Sweet is getting at is that in our worrying about all that, we miss the real essence of sin--the breaking of relationships.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys,

Yes, I agree with Bob's last post above. I think what's interesting is that throughout you have been more nuanced Bob than Sweet, even in your original post. Whether you did this deliberately or not I don't know - I would guess you actually did this without explicitly realising it simply because you have operated with the Romans type framework of understanding sin that you outlined ... and this won't die easily!

And my point the whole way along is that it shouldn't!! Don't let it!! Notice that Sweet himself explicitly says sin is NOT the breaking of commands but breaking of relationships. You are able to give a more nuanced take on Sweet (unconsciously or not) because of your theological understanding and education ... but many who read him will not. I have recently read Carson's new book on the emerging church where he says this: "Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ" (p234).

Notice that Sweet works with a false antithesis and could lead to an unhelpful pendulum swing ... of course this may seem harsh on my part and the stuff of scaremongering but it is possible for error to be only an inch wide but a mile deep. It's not so much Sweet's own position that's worrying (although it is) but the long-term consequences: where will the next generation stand on this issue? Calvin says in Book I of Institutes that all right knowledge of God is born from obedience and by this he means the obedience of submitting to Scripture as the source of our knowledge of God. I would submit that Sweet's position is capable of generating, on the long term view, incorrect knowledge of God by setting up a false antithesis.

Words have consequences.


Anonymous said...

Just to throw something out there... have any of you thought much about the two trees in the garden of Eden? The tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was the tree that God did not want Adam and Eve to eat of. I think that ever since then humans have craved fruit from that tree. We want to be "good", we want to "know" what is right and wrong. If we can somehow "know" then we will be ok. We will be in the "right" with God. Satan decieves us with the same old lies. God wants us to eat of the Tree of Life, His Son, who is Life. When I try to "figure it all out" I end up confused, stressed, whatever, but when I look at Jesus all I see from Him is love. He does not condemn. To me it seems that when I sin, which I do and we all do, it is because I lose sight of God's love for me. I think that if we are going to talk about sin then the biggest sin I have is that of unbelief. I just don't believe how much He loves me. The stupid things I do that we call "sin" are things that try to take the place of love or things we do out of frustration because of a lack of love or whatever. When we really understand how great His love for us is, we don't want to sin anymore. Trying not to sin so that He will love us is backwards. He loved us first! Nothing can separate us from that love! I believe that is what Jesus did, not even sin can separate us from His love. Maybe I am totally wrong here. I am no scholar and have hardly any experience in life, but I do know that He loves me! He really truly loves me! And He loves us all.

Bob Robinson said...


I think that Sweet's book is one of the best I've ever read. Period. I offered but one quote. Before you criticize it, you'd better understand the whole argument behind that one quote. Sweet states it the way he does in that quote to wake us up. That's okay. Carson states things that way all the time (so I find the quote from him almost laughable).

In this book, Sweet offers a very holistic view of the Gospel...one of the best "Theologies" I've ever read, since it focuses in on the relational aspect of the Gospel.

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for your input!

Yes, I think that you're onto a key aspect of the grace of the gospel when you said, "Trying not to sin so that He will love us is backwards. He loved us first! Nothing can separate us from that love." That's straight out of Romans 8.

And I hear your heart about the misguided notion that makes our knowledge the center of our faith. We can know the best theology, yet it may never really penetrate the heart.

And you're right on about the power of understanding God's love..."when we really understand how great His love for us is, we don't want to sin anymore."

But be careful of misinterpreting the Trees of Eden. Jesus tells us to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” There is nothing wrong with theological study. I am to love God with all my mind. I should study Scriptures to get closer to thinking rightly about God; I should interact with others to test and nuance the thinking that my mind is doing in seeking to love God.

The Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil is better understood (I think) as the God's desire for his children to never know what "evil" is. He wanted us to never experience the "bad" (or evil). He just wanted us to know "good." He didn't want to burden us with the ability to differentiate between the two (and everything in between). And, more importantly, He wanted us to trust that kind of knowledge to him and him alone. But the "original sin" was that we wanted an autonomous life, an individualistic life, without a trusting relationship with God.

It is all about relationship.

The Tree represented our trust that God could be God and that we should rest in that. But instead, Adam and Eve chose to take control and no longer trust.

Christ brings us back into that trusting relationship again!

--Bob (Husband and Daddy)

Roger said...

Great conversation guys!

Just a thought about the trees:

I've always focused on the "evil" side of the tree. Is it possible that God does not want us to know, not only evil, but also "good" outside of a relationship with Him?

My best intentions, my best thoughts, my best efforts toward good will wind up with "evil" results if God is not in it...

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob,

I know Carson states things that way all the time and I think it's makes him prophetic from the center of evangelicalism ... may God give him and others the clarity and courage to keep doing this. I see that Scot McKnight on his blog does not think that quote is almost laughable, despite his questions about Don's book. In what way is it laughable - or do you mean that it's laughable because he himself is prone to over-statement and false antitheses? If that is what you're suggesting then that's a very unhelpful ad hominem argument as you're not providing any evidence. One of the last things I would think we could ever accuse Carson of is operating with false antitheses, whatever his faults. I am not sure why it's helpful to create false antitheses to wake us up? How do they? They arrest and startle and then lead us off down the path of the false alternative. Again, Calvin's words are vital - all right knowledge of God is born of obedience (to Scripture). Sweet's quote does not promote right knowledge of God as it is not obedient to the whole of Scripture. Why support such a position?


Bob said...


I'm getting a little concerned about the "idolization" of Scripture here. Do we submit to Scripture (as you mentioned here and a few posts ago) or do we submit to the One Scripture reveals? [This in no way diminishes the value and integrity of the Scriptures, merely places them in their proper position relative to God. It also reveals another command-breaking/relatinship-breaking paradigm.]

Words have consequences.

Anonymous said...

Bob Robinson,

Thanks so much for responding to my butting in. :-) I know I don't really know much about what I am talking about, but I think what you said is what I was trying to say. It has been a new thing for me to realize how much God wants me to come to Him and how very often I try to find answers, truth, the "way" to do things outside of Him or instead of looking to Him. I have been amazed to realize that He really is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I am learning to trust Him in a whole new way. The relationship thing is incredible. But even my knowledge about things relational can become an idol that I run to instead of running to God. I laugh at myself because it is so stinking easy to try to "find" the next thing, that will make everything all right or better, when He has already done it all, when He is what I need. Is it really that simple? Can I point people to Him and trust that He is who He says He is and that I don't have to add a bunch of stuff to "make sure" people get it? This is where I am at in my journey. Sorry to get windy on you, I'll let you get back to your discussion of sin. :-) Be blessed!

Anonymous said...

I think what Bob (holding the fish) is gettiing at is what prompted my first comment.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob,

"Do we submit to Scripture (as you mentioned here and a few posts ago) or do we submit to the One Scripture reveals?"

Why the false antithesis here? In what way is submitting to Scripture not submitting to the One Scripture reveals?


Bob said...

Submitting to Scripture is a subset of submitting to the One revealed. There is no part of "submitting to Scripture" that is not part of "submitting to the One". That's why I tried to stress that this statement in no way diminishes Scripture. Rather, I am trying to magnify God.

Ern Baxter's book, Restoring the Balance Between The King, The Kingdom, and the Holy Spirit, discusses the need to compliment the study of the Word with the reliance on the Holy Spirit. The Bible is Spirit and Truth. Either one without the other can lead to "idolatry". One of thought, the other of emotion.

I'm pretty sure I'm rambling now. Hope you can discern what I mean in all of this.

Anonymous said...

Ok. "Submitting to Scripture is a subset of submitting to the One revealed." That's different from your first statement re. do we submit to one or the other; here you have both.

"The Bible is Spirit and Truth"

In what way is the Bible Spirit?


Bob said...

In the same way Moses, Paul, David, Daniel, Peter, etc. break into "song" in the middle of "thought". In the same way a sunset makes me cry. In the same way a hug warms my heart. In the same way sin breaks a relationship.

I don't mean to be tangential and I'm not dodging the question but it is not something you can state. It is something you feel.

I'm reading the Gospels this summer and I'm amazed at how hard Jesus tries to describe in words that which is too marvelous for words.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me there is a two-way street on this issue. When it comes to sin, the action of sin is the breaking of commandments (Adam was given a command, and disobeyed), and the consequence of sin is the breaking of a relationship (after the sin, they could no longer walk with God). The consequence, however, is far worse than the action. The problem is when we try to rectify the situation, we can't follow the same process. Fixing the action doesn't fix the consequence. We can never follow enough commands to restore the relationship, so when it comes to restoration we have to focus on fixing the relationship first. And God does that for us. Obedience in action is then a product of the relationship through faith (as James talks about).

At least that's the way I seez it.

Anonymous said...

I think that's very helpful indeed and avoids the false antithesis that Sweet seems to work with. It's a far more careful presentation of the issue and rightly expresses the correct dynamic in the way our obedience works.


Bob Robinson said...

Thanks Will for your thoughts. They make you pause, scratch your head, and go, "hmmmmmmm."

I understand your skepticism of the Sweet quote, since it is pulled out of the context of the whole flow of the book (it comes at page 145 in a 200 page book).

My next blog will be about the "positive" side of the equation, "what is faith?" which is the key overall theme of the book. I hope in doing so, you'll better understand Sweet's point about sin.

Bob Robinson said...

I am blessed to have your comments on my blog! Please stop in any time. What you have to say is really a breath of fresh air.

What you are saying lines right up with what I've experienced a lot in my Christian life as well.

Bob Robinson said...

Here's a quote from Sweet that further clarifies his stand:

“The power of living is incarnational and relational. God is present with us, which means that holiness itself is relational. Holiness doesn’t lead to the dogged mastery of rules, principles, or practices, but to a dynamic, life-giving communion with God. Seek holiness and you seek a relationship with the God who accomplishes holiness in you.” (p. 60)

Scot McKnight said...

Will and Bob,

This has been a fun thread to run with. Will's regular appeal to "false antitheses", which comes out like a mantra, is not the whole story (which is not accusing Will of a false antithesis himself).

I've blogged on this, and there is a rhetorical strategy here called the via negativa. Describing something by saying what something is not. What comes of this is hierarchy, not exclusive opposites.

To say that faith is not knowledge but personal relationship might mean no more than that personal relationship is the heart of the matter and knowledge is next in line (or somewhere like that).

In saying this, I'm defending neither McLaren (whom DA Carson accuses of false antitheses) nor Sweet (whom I've not yet read on this one). What I am saying is that it simplistic, and potentially damaging to the rhetoric and substance, to limit "not this" "but this" type statements to antitheses. Sometimes, yes; always, surely not.

Frankly, I find McLaren intentionally teasing and rhetorical -- and as the postmodernists would say -- all the way down. I'm not so sure about Sweet.

Bob Robinson said...

That blog post in which Scot McKnight talks about the via negativa can be found HERE.

Sweet speaks in the rhetorical via negativa at times to make his points, but not at all times. He makes a more nuanced statement on page 182 of Out of the Question…Into the Mystery, one that should help critics like Will feel more at ease:

“Christianity is much more than a mastery of texts and traditions. But that does not minimize those texts and traditions. The richness of Christian theology is expressed through relationships more than doctrines. But that does not denigrate the pastoral guidance that doctrines give. Beliefs are not the narthex to relationships, but the sanctuaries in which relationships develop and deepen. Creeds and confessions help us get an intellectual grip and put things together into a Big Picture.”

Anonymous said...


I have been fighting racial predjudice for forty years, and I just can't believe how hard it is for people to let go of it.

Today I find myself a little upset at seeing black quarterbacks in the NFL. That's OUR position!

It is hard.

Anonymous said...

I was searching the 'web' Googling, actually on the subject "What is Sin?" and I came across your website. Good work.

I also found this simple definition of 'Sin' at this little website:


it's in the article "Uncommon Definitions of Common Words".

No real point here, Just sharing.

Keep up the good work.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks, "Anonymous."

Come back soon and identify yourself!! Love to chat about other stuff on the blog.

Kelly said...

As a mom of a 4 and 5 year old I have thought quite often about the struggle between being/feeling physically and emotionally close to my children and the feeling of being separated -either physically or emotionally/relationally. It is on-going and continually changing as I pursue and persist in my love for them and they struggle for autonomy. Whether they intentionally or unitentionally do things that are against my standards, I respond with a variety of emotions which seem to parallel the emotions of God. Similiarly a standard of God... is that we would "love one another".... Spoken from a parent of a young child that standard sounds a little bit like, "No, you may not take your brother's things". Consequently, God says if you do not love one another you will not abide in my love. A parent thinks to himself, if you take his toy, I am for sure I'm not going to pick you up and give you lots of kisses just for being my beautiful little child. No, I probably won't give you any eye contact rather look with compassion on the victim of injustice. I have read in scripture that in God's anger he looked away. In the Psalms, the word for 'forsaken' is used to describe the action of God toward the future Messiah. As with a parent turning away from their child in anger, disappointment, frustration or in taking care of the devastation of the 'sin' (picking up the glass off the floor, comforting a crying child or taking some time to think up a Plan B [hint: New covenant]) For a time we are not in right relationship (the discipline doesn't seem pleasant) and if the child doesn't figure out what he did wrong and turn toward the parent in loving regret, what is a parent to do? Their love remains unchanging but they are still not embracing and experiencing a right feeling relationship. I see the steps that need to be taken to get back in harmony are like the moves in a dance that has never been danced before. Thank God He's the one leading.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for those excellent insights. It really is instructive to think in terms of a parent-child relationship!