A Biblical View of Sin
In the last issue we looked at various Hebrew words used for sin. As far as I can determine, only the books of Ruth and Esther omit the subject of man’s depravity, and even Esther refers to it indirectly when Mordecai asked Esther to participate in a beauty contest for the hand of a pagan king, as well as the actions of Haman the Amalekite. The Old Testament authors assume their readers understand the transfer of Adam’s sin to the human race and the moral degeneracy that ensued. “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
In this issue I want to look at the relationship between sin and God’s law. We explored this, in part, in the last series on The Nature of Law, so some of this will be review.
Sin Defined by the Law
People have always known right from wrong because of their conscience. In this sense James defines sin: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” Jesus defines sin by the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” You sin when you treat people differently from how you wish to be treated.
If a person believes in a multiplicity of gods he does not have to worry about eternal accountability, for which of the gods holds him accountable? Where does he find his standard of conduct? Where does he find God’s law?
Paul said, “For by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Again he says, “If it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin.” The law defines sin. For the first and only recorded time in the history of the world, the Creator spoke to a whole nation at one time. The nation acknowledged that it had heard God and affirmed what He said. When God gave the law, He defined sin.
After the flood, God said to Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” Prior to the Law of Moses, I can find no other command given by God to His people regulating how they must treat each other.
In the law God reveals His will to the people of Israel. When Israel broke the law they sinned against God. This connection between law and sin is exact; in the Old Testament, the law defines sin. Nothing else does.
Various Kinds of Sin in the Old Testament
You can catalogue the different kinds of sin in the Old Testament in a variety of ways. Let me suggest four categories or kinds:
1 – Flagrant misdeeds. These include obvious infractions of the law, such as David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah.
2 – Acts of rebellion. Saul’s unwillingness to obey God’s command to destroy utterly the seed of Amalek, affords a good illustration. When Samuel the prophet confronted Saul, he began to argue with Samuel. Samuel said to him, “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.” Finally backed into a corner, Saul admitted that he sinned.
God distinguishes between flagrant misdeeds and acts of rebellion. In the first you disobey; in the second you disagree with God’s command. Let’s use the illustration of a fence. A flagrant misdeed happens when you drive your auto through the fence. God asks, “What have you done?” You reply, “ I broke the fence and I have no excuse.” David did not try to justify himself or argue that he was not wrong. In an act of rebellion you drive through the fence, and then argue with God over the deed: “I didn’t really drive through the fence; it just appears that I did. Besides, a fence should never have been placed there.” When King Saul rebelled, God took his kingdom from him.
3 – Unwitting offenses. When you break the law unwittingly, God provides sacrifices to cover your sin. As we saw in an earlier issue of this series, God provided cities of refuge for the unwitting crime of manslaughter.
When referring to the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, the author of Hebrews says, “But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people.” The word used for “errors” means, “to sin in ignorance or unwittingly, an error, an oversight.” Flagrant misdeeds and acts of rebellion had no chance to be atoned through sacrifice: “But anyone who sins defiantly, whether he be a native or an alien, insults the LORD, and shall be cut off from among his people. Since he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, he must be cut off. He has only himself to blame.”
4 – Idolatry. This was a special category of sin for the Old Testament people of God. The creator God of the universe reveals Himself to the nation of Israel. The people know that they cannot supplant God. They exist to serve Him, not vice versa. Still, they create gods who ostensibly will give them their autonomy. As we saw in the sin of Adam, they wanted to determine “good and evil” for themselves. Someone said, “Idolatry is the essence of rebellion; it is committing every sin.”
Sin separates. It always has, and it always will. A man cheats on his wife and separation results. Two men are partners; the one steals from the other, and separation results. In society we separate criminals from the rest of the people by incarcerating them. In the Bible, when the individual and/or the nation sins, separation results.
In the Old Testament, the temporal destiny of the individual was tied to the nation and vice versa. During the days of the Theocracy, the Bible says, “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served Baalim” During the days of the Monarchy, the Bible says, “In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash king of Judah Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel began to reign in Samaria, and reigned forty and one years. 24 And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD: he departed not from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin.”
When the people answered directly to God during the Theocracy, He says, “And the people sinned.” When the people rejected the Theocracy in favor of a Monarchy, He says, “ And the king sinned.” God tied the fate of the individual and nation together. In some sense, this has always been the case, as illustrated by the man who bores a hole in a boat full of people at sea. Individual sin has corporate implications.
Intentional Sin in the Old Testament
When God gave Israel the law at Sinai, He assumed that the people could and would keep it. For example, the Apostle Paul says to the Galatians, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” If Paul had said these words to Israel after they received the law, I am confident that Moses would have told him that he was mistaken. If God had said that His law could not be kept, then He would be saying to His people that He asks them to do the impossible.
God made no sacrificial provision for the willful violation of His law. As we saw earlier, such people were either executed or banished from the community. You can easily see why He did not provide for the violation of His law: The purpose of the state is to ensure justice. If the violation of the laws of the state can be overlooked through sacrifice, then injustice and oppression reign.
When King David sinned in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah, he prayed: “For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” David understood that there was nothing in the Old Testament arsenal of sacrifice that could solve his problem of murder and adultery. So he threw himself on the mercy and grace of God.
Obviously, God wanted him to go there. But if the sacrificial system addressed willful sin, the people would have trusted in sacrifice rather than grace, and sinned with impunity. This is antithetical to all God teaches.
Prior to these words in the Psalms, the Old Testament believer had no hope, of which I am aware, that God would restore the willful sinner who comes to Him with a broken spirit and contrite heart. Isaiah picks up this theme, but it originates with King David.
The word sin is not a widely used term in society today. Rarely, if ever, do you find it used by the magistrate in a court of law. Even in interpersonal relationships, you seldom find it used. Society has relegated it to the nomenclature of religion, in man’s relation to God rather than man.
As we progress in this study, we will call attention to some reasons for this, but note that without accountability, sin is a meaningless concept. He who gives the law must judge the transgressor. Otherwise the law is vacuous.
Jesus warned: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Of course, the only One that can do this is God. Thus, David prayed: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.” As an absolute monarch, only God could hold David accountable. In a very real sense, this is true for you as well. Jesus said to fear God, for He alone gets to define sin.
 Genesis 6:5
 James 4:7
 Matthew 7:12
 Romans 3:20
 Romans 7:7
 Genesis 9:6
 I Samuel 15:22-23
 Hebrews 9:7
 Numbers 15:30-31
 Judges 2:11
 II Kings 14:23-24
 Galatians 3:24
 There are certain sins, mostly property cases, for which sacrifice could be made. Cf., e.g., Leviticus 6.
 Psalm 51:16-17
 Cf. also Psalm 34:18
 Cf. Isaiah 57:15
 Matthew 10:28
 Psalm 51:4