Shorter Catechism Qs. 14 & 15
Q. 14. What is sin?
A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.
“If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity.” (Leviticus 5:17)
“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:17)
“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” (1 John 3:4)
Q. 15. What was the sin whereby our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created?
A. The sin whereby our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created, was their eating the forbidden fruit.
“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)
Sin is a biblical teaching we have to handle carefully, because mishandling this biblical truth has terrible consequences. For example, some prefer that we not talk about sin at all. God, some say, is the God of love and we should focus on his love. This is nonsense. God is indeed a God of love. But his love is great not in a vague and abstract sense. His love is great because he loves sinners who ought to be condemned (John 3:16). Without a sober understanding of sin, God’s love is emptied of its meaning and we are left with only platitudes.
Some people mishandle the doctrine of sin in other ways when sin loses its God-ward orientation. Note how Q.14 carefully defines sin as “any want of conformity unto, or the transgression of, the law of God.” When sin is defined not in terms of God’s law, but in terms of our likes and dislikes, it is nothing but forcing upon others burdens and guilt which are not found in the Bible. Think of how the ancient Pharisees crushed their hearers, demanding observance of man-made rules which had nothing to do with righteousness before God. Thus instead of keeping people from sin, they rather led people further and further away from true righteousness. Sin’s bondage became stronger, not weaker.
Then, having replaced what pleases God with what pleases man (i.e. himself), he thinks he is righteous. But true righteousness received from God by faith in Jesus Christ brings humility. Delusional righteousness of man makes him hypocritical judge of his neighbors. He mercilessly judges others according to his own standards.
Man-made righteousness is cruel, simply because there is no mediator. While God’s righteousness is perfect, there is hope because God has given us a perfect mediator. Jesus has made perfect atonement for all our sins. His righteousness has been credited to us. Thus for believers God’s perfect righteousness is not a source of vain pride or despair, but salvation in Jesus Christ. But there is no savior from man-made righteousness, and those who live under it will either become hypocrites, or will be utterly crushed under its heavy burdens.
Perhaps you know this. Maybe you are constantly feeling guilty. Maybe you know people who always make you feel guilty. I am not talking about the Holy Spirit chastising you to make you holy (see 2 Tim 3:16). Rather, maybe you are made to feel like a miserable nobody because you do not read the “right” books, listen to the “right” music, dress the “right” way, drink/don’t drink alcohol, do/don’t this and that. Or, worse, you judge people. Maybe criticism comes more easily than encouragement to you, and gossip before prayer.
It is so important to understand sin in relation to God.
G.I. Williamson explains sin helpfully in terms of the sin of omission and the sin of commission (see G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Shorter Catechism, 54-58). The sin of omission is any want (i.e. lack) of conformity to the law of God. That is, there is a failure to adhere to God’s law in that what God commands man to do is not done. For example, the fifth commandment commands us to honor our parents. When we do not honor our parents, we are not doing what God commands us to do, and is thus a sin of omission. This is the failure to conform unto God’s law.
The sin of commission, on the other hand, is doing something which God forbids. It is a transgression of the law of God. For example, the seventh commandment forbids adultery. Thus when we commit adultery (in what ever form it takes), we are doing something that God forbids. It is therefore a transgression of the law of God.
In case of Adam and Eve, their sin was most obviously doing what God had forbidden them. They ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But I think we can see how they also failed to do what they were commanded to do, even if it was an implicit command. After all, wasn’t it their duty to love and obey their Creator? Wasn’t it their duty to judge the serpent who was twisting God’s word? Even if these duties weren’t explicitly spelled out - although how one can read Genesis 1-3 and miss these is beyond me - Adam and Eve surely understood. Thus their sin was both the sin of commission and omission.
Thinking soberly about sin also opens up the depths of the gospel. We understand what Jesus did in the following two senses. First, his passive obedience. Here “passive” or “passion” does not mean a strong emotion or lack of activity. It means rather Jesus’ suffering. Jesus suffered and died to pay the penalty of our failure to do what God commanded and our doing what he forbade. We are equally guilty of not doing what God has commanded as well as doing what he forbade. But Christ has paid for our sins by suffering and dying in our place.
Secondly, Jesus’ active obedience means Jesus did all that God commanded in his law, and he did nothing that God forbade. Jesus’ obedience was not a grudging obedience, but an obedience which came from his love for his Father. Thus Jesus, born without sin through virgin birth, lived without sin his whole life. He honored God in our place, and for us obeyed God in our place.
That is why there is no more condemnation for those in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:1). We stand before God with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ (Phil 3:9). Are you burdened with guilt? Look to Jesus. Are you wearing yourself out trying to earn a good reputation with God? No need! We have Jesus. He is all we need.