What is Sin?

Seventh-day Adventists take great pride in knowing what sin is. Our friend Evan Sadler tells a story of a person who was trying to find out what sin really is. He asked a clergyman, but the clergyman could only say that it was something bad. Then he met a Seventh-day Adventist and was told that sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). Yes, Adventists know what sin is. Or do they?

It is a dangerous thing for a Seventh-day Adventist to be mixed up about what sin really is. We cannot rest upon the assurance that our sins will be blotted out in the judgment, leaving our eternal life in jeopardy, if we don’t fully understand what sin is.

“Those [Seventh-day Adventists] who have permitted their minds to become beclouded in regard to what constitutes sin are fearfully deceived. Unless they make a decided change they will be found wanting when God pronounces judgment upon the children of men. They have transgressed the law and broken the everlasting covenant, and they will receive according to their works.” Testimonies, Vol. 9, 267. Mrs. White wrote this specifically to the Seventh-day Adventist leadership.

We must understand that we have sinned and are sinners, and as such, the Bible tells us what we must do: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive to us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9. It is a prerequisite that, before we are forgiven and cleansed from unrighteousness, we must first repent of and confess our sins. But how can I confess a sin if I don’t even know that I have committed one?

It is very important for us to understand what sin is. And because we can quote 1 John 3:4, it’s very easy for us to say that we know what sin is. But does the Bible give us more information about what sin is than what we find in this text alone?

Jesus warned His followers that in the last days it would be possible that they could be deceived. “False christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” Matthew 24:24. Peter told us the same thing in 2 Peter 2:1. Notice that these destructive heresies are done in secret because Inspiration tells us that Satan must deceive in order to lead astray. This deception is so imperceptibly accomplished that those who will be caught up in it will unwittingly deny the Lord and speak evil of His glory.

“And Peter, describing the dangers to which the church was to be exposed in the last days, says that as there were false prophets who led Israel into sin, so there will be false teachers, ‘who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them. … And many shall follow their pernicious ways.’ … Here the apostle has pointed out one of the marked characteristics of spiritualist teachers. They refuse to acknowledge Christ as the Son of God.” Patriarchs and Prophets, 686

1 John 3:4 tells us that sin is the transgression of the law. Paul says, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’ ” Romans 7:7. Paul is clear, the law makes known the knowledge of sin and without the law, we would not know what sin is, nor would we know that we were breaking the law.

“All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.” 1 John 5:17. Sin is the transgression of the law and all unrighteousness is sin, therefore all unrighteousness is the transgression of God’s law. But the sin described in this text is one that “is not leading to death,” rather it is a sin confessed and forsaken.

“The law requires righteousness—a righteous life, a perfect character.” The Desire of Ages, 762. If the law requires a perfect character, then what exactly is character? “If the thoughts are wrong, the feelings will be wrong; and the thoughts and feelings combined make up the moral character.” The Review and Herald, April 21, 1885. God’s law requires a perfect character made up of pure and perfect thoughts and feelings.

“The law requires us to present to God a holy character. It demands of men and women today just what it demanded of Adam in Eden—perfect obedience, perfect harmony with all its precepts in all relations of life, under all circumstances and conditions.” The Signs of the Times, May 30, 1895

If the thoughts and feelings in all relations of life, under all circumstances and all conditions must be holy and in harmonious agreement with the precepts of God’s law, then anything other than this is sin, transgression of God’s law.

“In the precepts of His holy law, God has given a perfect rule of life; and He has declared that until the close of time this law, unchanged in a single jot or tittle, is to maintain its claim upon human beings. Christ came to magnify the law and make it honorable. He showed that it is based upon the broad foundation of love to God and love to man, and that obedience to its precepts comprises the whole duty of man. In His own life He gave an example of obedience to the law of God. In the Sermon on the Mount He showed how its requirements extend beyond the outward acts and take cognizance of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” The Acts of the Apostles, 505

“Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest … .” Hebrews 4:11, first part. If you look at the context of this verse, it is clear that Paul is writing about the Sabbath rest, a symbol of a rest from sin. Jesus spoke of the same rest in Matthew 11:28, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Paul continues in Hebrews 4, “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.  For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.  And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” Verses 11–13

“The law of God is presented in the Scriptures as broad in its requirements. Every principle is holy, just and good. … They reach to the thoughts and the feelings of the soul; and they will produce conviction of sin in everyone who is sensible of having transgressed them. If the law extended only to the external conduct, men would not feel guilty over their wrong thoughts, desires, and designs. But the law requires that the soul itself, the spiritual agent, be pure, the mind holy, that all thoughts and feelings shall be in accordance with the law of love and righteousness. By its light men see themselves guilty before God.” Manuscript Releases, Vol. 10, 287, 288

We must understand that the law does not cover actions only, but extends to our thoughts and feelings as well. Sadly, many Seventh-day Adventists don’t understand this. They have been taught that you do not sin until you actually do something. They don’t understand that our actions are simply an outward expression of our thoughts and feelings. What we say and do come from the thoughts and feelings that are constantly in our minds. These are thoughts, desires, intentions, and feelings that can, and do, constitute sin, and our actions are a result of the things we harbor in our minds.

The great controversy is a war being waged over the soul. Mrs. White explains, “Two powers are at work. On the one side Satan is working with all his forces to counterwork the influence of the work of God; on the other hand God is working through His servants to call men to repentance. Which will prevail?” The Youth’s Instructor, May 17, 1900

“In every soul, two powers are struggling earnestly for the victory. Unbelief marshals its forces, led by Satan, to cut us off from the source of our strength. Faith marshals its forces, led by Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.” Ibid., January, 10, 1901

“Every mind is controlled either by the power of Satan or the power of God.” The General Conference Bulletin, March 30, 1903

What happens if God isn’t the One who has control of our minds? The Bible tells us in John 8:43, 44, first part: “Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do.” Notice, when Satan has control over your life, you want to do as he does.

Probably the most recognized example of this in the Bible is when the Jews, who had been longing and looking for the Messiah for millennia, demanded that Christ be crucified. They believed they were doing all the right things—tithing, sacrificing, keeping the Sabbath—but they didn’t realize who was really in control of their minds and hearts.

Some people believe that it is possible to allow God to be in control of your mind and feelings sometimes, but also allow the devil to be in control at other times. However, the truth is, if you allow the devil to control you even some of the time, it will become so easy to let him be in control all the time, and then you will continue to sin, all the while believing that you are obeying and following God. If we expect to spend eternity in the kingdom of heaven, our minds must be under the control of God all the time.

A rich, young man came to Jesus and asked what he should do to gain eternal life. Jesus’ response is recorded in Matthew 22:37–40 and Luke 10:25–28. “He [Jesus] said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?’ So he answered and said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said to him, ‘You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.’ ” Jesus presented the ten commandments to this young man as two basic principles: loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and loving your neighbor as yourself.

But, the carnal, fleshly, mind is unable to do this.

“ ‘The carnal [natural] mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.’ Human nature could not keep the law, even if it would.” The Signs of the Times, May 30, 1895.

“By nature man has no love for God. It is not natural for him to think of heavenly things.” The Review and Herald, March 12, 1901

Human nature, the carnal mind, cannot keep the law even if it wanted to.

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve by nature loved God. So why does man now have a nature that does not love God?

“When man sinned all heaven was filled with sorrow; for through yielding to temptation, man became the enemy of God, a partaker of the satanic nature.” The Signs of the Times, February 13, 1893

Notice, once man sinned, he no longer had the pure, perfect nature God had given him at creation.

“But when man fell, the law of self was set up.” Ibid., January 25, 1899. Paul explains that in Romans 7:23. “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” The law of self harmonizes with the will of sinful humanity. There is no strife between them. The charm of obedience was broken by Adam’s disobedience. To the carnal nature, the importance of obedience as an absolute necessity ceased to exist in the mind. Man now thinks that he can choose when to obey God and when he can disobey Him. But this is a lie fostered by the father of lies because even if you choose to obey God, you are not capable of doing it unless you receive divine aid from the Holy Spirit.

“You must remember that your will is the spring of all your actions. This will, that forms so important a factor in the character of man, was at the Fall given into the control of Satan; and he has ever since been working in man to will and to do of his own pleasure, but to the utter ruin and misery of man.” Testimonies, Vol. 5, 515

“Until the requirements of the holy law were applied as the rule of life, fallen man could not understand his own guilt, nor realize his condemned, lost condition. Jesus made application of the law directly to the soul, and laid under its jurisdiction the will and desires and works of man. Wrongdoing and all thoughts and feelings condemned by the law are to be overcome.” Manuscript Releases, Vol. 9, 235, 236

Thoughts and feelings combined make up the moral character, and God’s holy law requires that love be the ruling principle of life. But at the Fall, selfishness took the place of love in man’s heart. Inherited from Adam, we are now born into this world with selfishness as the ruling principle of life.

“As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death.” Ibid., 236. We have been taught that we are not guilty of sin until we have committed a sinful act on our own, but this statement says that man is inherently sinfully guilty.

“Adam was required to render perfect obedience to God, not only in his own behalf, but in behalf of his posterity. God promised him that if he would stand the test of temptation, preserving his allegiance to the Creator during the great trial to which he would be subjected, his obedience would ensure his acceptance and favor with God. He would then be forever established in holiness and happiness, and these blessings would extend to all his posterity.” Ibid., 229

Adam was required to obey God not only for himself, but also for the benefit of future generations. He was the father of the human race. Had he remained obedient, his holiness and his happiness would be guaranteed forever, and this same blessing would extend to all his posterity. “But Adam failed to bear the test. And because he revolted against God’s law, all his descendants have been sinners.” Ibid. Even a baby who is born and never comes to conscientiousness and dies, is, by nature, still a sinner who cannot be saved except through the blood of Christ.

“Never should we lower the standard of righteousness in order to accommodate inherited or cultivated tendencies to wrongdoing. We need to understand that imperfection of character is sin.” Christ’s Object Lessons, 330. If imperfection of character is sin, then who can be saved?

God does not deal with actions so much as with the heart that prompts them. “Christ desires nothing so much as to redeem His heritage from the dominion of Satan. But before we are delivered from Satan’s power without, we must be delivered from his power within.” Ibid., 174, 175

Until our sins are blotted out at the end of the final day of atonement, all human beings will have sin within. It is our nature. Paul is crystal clear. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells.” Romans 7:18, first part

“The danger has been presented to me again and again of entertaining, as a people, false ideas of justification by faith.” Faith and Works, 18

Those who do not have a clear understanding of what sin is, how permeated with sin we are, and how desperately we need to be cleansed, will have an incorrect understanding of justification by faith. The doctrine of justification by faith makes it clear that we cannot earn our way to heaven. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves fit to spend eternity with God. “It is a work of God … doing for man that which it is not in his power to do for himself.” Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 457

Man cannot stop sinning by himself. It is only by the surrender of his will and by an act of the Holy Spirit in creating in him a new heart, mind, and spirit, that man has the ability to resist temptation and develop a perfect character.

Even more so, man is incapable to remove from his nature the principle of selfishness which makes him inherently sinful, and replace it with the principle of love and righteousness which creates within him pure devotion to God. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9. This is a finished work only God can perform.

It is not enough to understand the law of God as it was written on tables of stone. To understand what the law of God really is, you have to understand what it is when you see it in a person. Jesus Christ came to this world to reveal the law of God. Christ kept the law of God so that we would know how to keep it, too.

“What speech is to thought, so Christ is to the invisible Father, He is the manifestation of the Father, and is called the Word of God. God sent His Son into the world, His divinity clothed with humanity, that man might bear the image of the invisible God. He made known in His words, His character, His power and majesty, the nature and attributes of God. Divinity flashed through humanity in softening, subduing light. He was the embodiment of the law of God, which is the transcript of His character.” The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, 1131

Unless we understand what the law is in relation to who Jesus Christ is and what His life means to us, we do not really know what the law is nor what sin is. Studying the life of Christ is how we are able to understand what sin is. Jesus Christ is the law lived out in the life. Anything in our lives that is not Christlike is sinful, because if we are to live in harmony with God’s law, our lives must be a reflection of the life of Christ.

“The Lord Jesus is the embodiment of the glory of the Godhead. The light of the knowledge of the glory of God is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. God has revealed Himself to men; He stooped to take upon Him our nature, and in His Son we see the glory of the divine attributes. Those who see not in Christ the divine character are in the shadow of Satan’s misrepresentation of divinity. ‘The god of this world hath blinded the minds of them that believe not, lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.’ ” The Signs of the Times, December 12, 1895

For six thousand years, the devil has misrepresented the divine character, painting God as having his attributes and describing himself to the human race as having the attributes of God so that people would be deceived. This is why the devil hated Jesus so much, and caused Him to be tortured and killed. Through Jesus, Satan’s deception was unraveled and revealed to the whole universe. Through Jesus, it was revealed that God is not at all like Satan had described Him to be to the universe or to human beings. Christ is a living representation of God’s law, and by His life on earth, He shows man that he can become Christlike by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“Since ‘the law of the Lord is perfect,’ every variation from it must be evil. … The Saviour’s life of obedience maintained the claims of the law; it proved that the law could be kept in humanity, and showed the excellence of character that obedience would develop.” The Desire of Ages, 308, 309. Man can only keep the law by receiving the Holy Spirit.

“Sin could be resisted and overcome only through the mighty agency of the Third Person of the Godhead … .” Ibid., 671

“To human eyes, Christ was only a man, yet He was a perfect man. In His humanity He was the impersonation of the divine character. God embodied His own attributes in His Son—His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His purity, His truthfulness, His spirituality, and His benevolence. In Him, though human, all perfection of character, all divine excellence, dwelt.” The Youth’s Instructor, September 16, 1897

“All righteous attributes of character dwell in God as a perfect, harmonious whole, and everyone who receives Christ as a personal Saviour is privileged to possess these attributes.” Christ’s Object Lessons, 330. God says, My thoughts will be your thoughts, and My law will be written in your heart by the Holy Spirit, not just on tables of stone, but on the fleshly tables of the heart.

Perfection. The world freely admits that no one in it is perfect, and they seem perfectly happy not to be. If I say I can be perfect, then I’m claiming to be like God because only God is perfect. Yet, Jesus was perfect and He said that He and His Father are one. He also said that we are to be perfect, even as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48). And finally, as the Father was in Him, He asked that we all might be one in Them (John 17:21). Jesus’ life guarantees that we, too, through His power, can be perfect as He is. And although we may achieve perfection of character, at heart, we remain sinners, by nature, until the final day of atonement.

To be perfect means two things: to love God with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. If I take a thorough inventory of my thoughts and feelings, words and actions, and if I am truly honest with myself, I have to admit that every single sin I commit is breaking one of these two principles. And I cannot escape it, not alone.

Jesus is the express image, an exact personification of the Father. Perfection personified. No matter if you are the weakest person and the greatest sinner, that only means that you need Jesus as your personal Saviour all the more. He has enough power, enough wisdom, and enough love for all the righteous attributes of His character to become part of your character.

This requires, however, a complete surrender of your will to God. Only then can the Holy Spirit perform a complete transformation of your character. No more will you be trapped under the sway of the devil, helpless to resist his temptations and deceptions.

The Great Controversy, in its closing chapter, tells us that there will finally be a group of people who have been made spotless by the blood of the Lamb, who possess not one defect of character. “The great controversy is ended. Sin and sinners are no more. The entire universe is clean.” Don’t you want to be part of that group? [All emphasis supplied.]

Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: historic@stepstolife.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.