The Definition of Sin

Often when people ask what is sin, a common answer is to give the direct translation of the Hebrew “to miss the mark.” An archer missing a target is a common example, and the logic goes that God is perfect and sets an example for us. And when we miss the mark of living up to that example, it is sin.

Now, there is not anything truly wrong about this definition but it has always grated me on me a little bit. It seems to carry a subtle implication that God’s perfect standard is a list of rules of things we should do and not do and some we should definitely never do. And so long as we follow that list we are golden.

So there you have it, in order to avoid sin and get into heaven, all you have to do is be perfect and follow the rules. Please refer to Leviticus and Deuteronomy for more detailed instructions.

Except, that we know that Jesus abolished (read: fulfilled) the necessity of the old law, and we are not bound to it anymore. (I’m writing this from Baltimore and I’m probably going to go eat some Leviticus 11 defying crab cakes after I’m done here.)

How then are we to know what is and is not a sin without our stone tablets that have all the rules etched into them? (And more importantly, how will we know when our neighbors are sinning so that we can feel superior and judge them?)

This line of reasoning leads to a lot of problems when trying to answer more complex moral questions, such as is the accumulation of wealth immoral in a world where poverty exists? Is homosexuality a sin, as described in the Old Testament, or are we free from that aspect of the law under the new covenant? Should a Christian vote for a liberal politician who advocates strong welfare for the poor but also is in favor of allowing abortions?

These are hard questions. This is why I think the “miss the mark” definition of sin is too rudimentary. We don’t have lists of specific rules anymore. We do have God’s example to try to live up to, but we don’t have a parable for every situation that we might encounter in the modern world. It’s often difficult to discern “what would Jesus do?” in a number of situations.

But we DO have a very powerful tool for helping us decide these things called the Holy Spirit. I’ve written before about reliance on the Spirit for discerning God’s will for you. When we have read the Bible and studied all the commentaries and concordances and blog posts, and we still don’t know what we should do, we fall back on the intercession of the Spirit.

This brings us to my preferred definition of sin, which is “purposefully living outside of God’s will for us.” This comes from a place of pride and egotism. When we have access to the Spirit’s guidance, and we know God’s will for our lives, but we choose to ignore it because we want to go our own way, that is sin.

I’ll point out that I am not the only person who uses this definition. Billy Graham himself said the following: “A sin is any thought or action that falls short of God’s will.”  So I’m not totally out in left field with this thinking.

In a very real sense, this definition implies that there is actually only ONE fundamental sin, and that is refusing to submit to God’s will.

Another implication is that the notion of what things could be sinful is vary with different circumstances. Perhaps the Spirit tells you to give five bucks to the panhandler on your side of the street, but tells me not to engage with the guy on my side of the street. If we both follow the Spirit’s guidance, there is no sin.


This does not mean that we each get to decide for ourselves what is right for us and what is wrong. In fact, it is just the opposite of that. We are submitting to the will of an omniscient Lord who we believe sees more of the consequences of our actions and has divine plans for our lives. He knows best, and we should follow His advice. If we choose not to, because of our stubbornness or pride or our own desires to fulfill our plans, that leads down the road to sin.

We shouldn’t judge our neighbors who struggle with issues that we deem sinful because we don’t know what aspects of their lives the Spirit is working on in that moment. I might think my friend Bill is not generous enough with giving to charity, but perhaps God is working on his heart with some anger issues or working on his marriage at the time. My lectures about what I in my limited, prideful mind think Bill should be doing differently, will do nothing to sway Bill if the Spirit has not prepared him to hear it. In fact, it will almost certainly lead to resentment and division. The best thing to do is love Bill and support him as God transforms his life according to his own plans.

Remember, Christ’s love is meant to be transformative and we are all works in progress. So God has his own agenda for each of us.

Now, this is not to say there are not appropriate moments for brothers to approach and rebuke another brother from a place of love. Sometimes that is necessary and constructive, and Jesus and Paul give clear instructions for how these situations. Again, also, there will be clear guidance from the Spirit here and it should come from a place of love, not judgment.

This has become my universal answer for any questions of “Is this a sin? Is this okay? Should I do this?” The question we should be asking first is always “What is God’s will for me in this situation?” Read the Scripture, pray, meditate, and wait for the Spirit’s guidance, and then you will have your answer.

(Hint: it will probably involve furthering the kingdom through a Christlike display of sacrificial love.)