When is sin a sin? Isn’t that the most asked question in church today? What about playing the lottery, is it sin? Where do we draw the line? You will agree with me that chalking the line to what qualifies as sin and what doesn’t is not a piece of cake. Especially so, in a culture that, instead of ‘finding the truth, chooses to create it.’

Thankfully for us, there is God’s word—the Bible, to help us answer this question. Since sin is disobedience towards God, then God Himself is better qualified to respond to the question “What is a sin?”

It is important to note that a statement like “sin is to dishonour/disobey God” will be sufficient until we go down to brass tacks—or the ‘cogs in the wheel,’ so to speak—of what disobedience really is. To help us answer this question will be Genesis chapter three, probably the most pivotal chapter in all of scripture. In this, we are going to see that sin challenges truth, moral standards, and identity.

1. Truth

 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. (Genesis 3:4)

The serpent’s approach in the garden was first to dispute what was true—namely—God’s Law. We are aware that God had commanded Adam and his wife to eat from every tree in the garden except one. So the Devil used that to sow seeds of doubt in our ancestors. Sin is always birthed when we choose to suppress the truth, in favour of a lie (Romans 1:24-25).

2. Moral Question

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)

When it comes to God’s moral standard, it’s always a question of what is right. Sin, therefore, attempts to answer it differently. It was right not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil; it was right not to worship the golden calf in the desert, and it was also right not to have relations with Bathsheba.

A young man who had been kidnapped and forced into homosexuality and pornography was narrating the ordeal to us a few years ago. He told us that all those who were forced into these actions were first convinced of how right­ these acts were. He gave an example that a green plastic bottle will be placed before you and you are asked which colour the bottle is. They then went on to convince you that this green bottle was actually red!

When you believe this, then something else becomes right for you.

3. Identity

For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5)

Who am I? Paul, in Romans 1:25 makes it clear that I am either the Creator or a creature but not both and that orders my worship, you too. After sin has distorted the questions of “what is true?” and “what is right?” it goes on to make us the “authors and finishers” of our salvation. We then assume the place that can only belong to God.

This is evident in the serpent’s words to the Woman that if she ate from that tree, she would be like God herself. Sin, therefore, is man substituting himself for God.

Sin is not what we do

“The sin underneath all our sins is to trust the lie of the serpent that we cannot trust the love and grace of Christ and must take matters into our own hands.”—Martin Luther

There is a growing, and a rather simplistic tendency to limit sin to our actions, that is, what we do. The problem with that approach is that if sin is an activity (what we do), then inactivity (not doing) will be the way we overcome it. Sadly, this is not the way the Bible defines sin.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tears to shreds this simplistic moralisation of God’s Law by saying that before God, anger and lust are the same as and carry the same punishment like murder and adultery, respectively. What Jesus does is to drill sin down to our minute motives and intentions. Therefore, to murder is to bear the motives which are demonstrated in anger, and to commit adultery is to have the intentions to do so which are expressed in lustful desires.

Sin is not what we do, it is what we are—our thoughts, desires, motives, and intentions expressed inwardly and most of the time unconsciously (Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Mark 7:20-23). Before it flows outwards in actions, sin has its nursery bed inwards—in the human heart. That is why, from Genesis 3, the ground work to picking and eating the fruit happens internally (Luke 6:45), in Adam and his wife’s hearts, that is where the questions of What is right? What is true? And Who am I? are asked and answered (albeit very wrongly) before they are acted out.