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An act that places your own self-interest above the interest and well-being of another and above showing your love of God.

As I was musing for my sermon two weeks ago, I happened upon a definition of sin that raises a lot of questions about those things we find sinful.  How does the law apply to the modern world?  How about what Paul says in his letters?  What does context have to do with sin?

I’ve spent many a shower since then thinking about that and I decided to put a multi-part series together about sin and apply to these different questions.  The beginning part of that series then needs to be a definition.  What defines sin, and what makes a sin a sin?

To start, I need to describe what this definition is.  As much as I would love to claim that I am some deep, theological mind, I’m not.  What I am, though, is fairly logical.  When I struggle with something, I try to follow a logical path to find an answer to it.  I’m a lot like House, M.D.; I like the abstract problems that I can logically explain, even if that logic stretches me farther than I’m used to.

So to define sin, I am using a logical ideal.  That ideal is this: sin is the inverse of God’s call in our lives.  If you are doing the opposite of what God wants, you are sinning.  Simple enough, really.  I don’t know of a theological tradition or theologian who would disagree with me at this point.

So what is God’s call in our lives?  Again, pretty simple.  I call your attention to Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-31, and Luke 10:25-28 (I use Matthew because I need 22:40):
35One of them, a legal expert, tested him.

36“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. 40All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” – Matthew 22:35-40 CEB (emphasis mine)

You should recognize this as “The Greatest Commandment.”  If you are familiar with Christian life and theology, it comes up quite a bit.  Part of why I used the account from Matthew is that I need that last thought the other synoptic gospels don’t include.  “40‘All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.'”  My logical process works from this verse.  If every commandment and every word of the prophets can be distilled down to these two commandments, than every sin can be distilled down to the inverse of these two commandments.

So what is the inverse of them?  Is sin an act or a state of being?  Or both?  These questions are often best left to people much smarter than me but I will put my two cents in by saying it’s both.

Don’t you love how I take positions?

Why I say it’s both is because of how we are.  I am a sinful person by nature and I commit sins on a daily basis.  If I use that as my starting point, than sinning is a state of being.  At the same time, though, not every action I take is sinful.  I would like to think that standing up, preaching is not a sinful act.  James tells us that teachers will be judged more harshly (James 3:1, you may just condemn me yet) but doesn’t say that teachers are sinning my teaching.  So not every act is a sin, per se.

Thus, sin must also be defined as an act.  So what actions are sins?

Well, let’s inverse that greatest commandment.  “Don’t love the Lord your God with all your heart, being and mind and don’t love your neighbor as yourself.”  That seems a bit unwieldy, though.  It’s awkwardly worded, at least.  We need to interpret that a bit and make it more practical.

Like I said before, I would define it as a “selfish act.”  Frustratingly, though, a pithy definition of sin is wildly vague.  What is selfish?  How far can we go with acts of survival before we start sinning?  It is vague, and I find that vague definitions ask to be abused.  Give a person a reason to say you are going to Hell because your sins make them uncomfortable and they will.  Trust me.

So let’s make it a bit less pithy and more “wordy.”  I would define sin as this:

An act that places your own self-interest above the interest and well-being of another and above showing your love of God.

This also needs a corollary.  That “another” doesn’t necessarily have to be a specific person and a sin doesn’t necessarily have to harm someone.  If you are just acting in the good of your own pleasure and your own survival, ignoring the plight of anyone else (even the abstract “another) and ignoring that God exists and God loves you, you have sinned.

The thing is that this is the broadest definition of sin.  Everything that is sinful is captured in this (at least in my thought process).  It doesn’t specify which specific acts are sins, which also opens it up for use and abuse by people who want to condemn everyone but themselves to Hell.  It also doesn’t touch the whole concept of forgiveness and repentance.  All this does is give us a working definition of sin to build upon.  But, as a working definition, it is a good start.

So from this we can look at multiple things.  Off the top of my head, I can think of Leviticus as a whole, ritual purity and spiritual purity, specific sins, repentance and forgiveness, and death.  In the coming days, look for my take on context as it is applied to “The Law” and how the working definition of sin applies to how we read the Old Testament.

Until then, just read it like this: if you are being selfless, helping people, and loving God, you are probably doing pretty okay.  And Jesus loves you.

– Robby