Dune du Pilat, France, Simon BuchouToday we popularly equate the word “sin” with someone doing something wrong. But there is more at stake than this common understanding.
We best understand the concept of sin at its most fundamental level—as deriving from the nature of God. No, not that God has sin in his nature. But the reason sin exists is because of his nature.
Many theological concepts derive their proper meaning and significance only as understood as being generated in the one perfect source of all that is, namely, God. Since God is the Creator, he is the one who sets the standard; but more specifically, a standard exists because of who God is by nature.
God’s existence sets this standard by default. As God is righteous (which means he always conforms to who he is in his nature), it could not be any other way. Whatever nature this Creator has would be the ultimate standard for righteousness.
Since it is impossible for there to exist a divine or moral law higher than God himself, he is righteous only to himself in accordance with his nature (Heb 6:13-18). And whatever that nature is, it is the standard for all of his creation. No one can achieve higher.
God is righteous to his own nature in that it is impossible for him to go against himself. God cannot one day decide he no longer wants to be loving, because God is love (1 John 4:16). This is why scripture says it is impossible for God to lie—because he always conforms to who he is in his own nature (Heb 6:18). This is also why scripture says God cannot be tempted by evil (James 1:13). It is not possible for God to sin, because he cannot violate his own nature.
Think about the word righteous for a moment. When we hear this word as used in every day common language, we equate it to mean good, or right, or moral, or something on those lines. This is not incorrect. However, the traditionally accepted definition of “righteous” is more precise:
acting in accord with divine or moral law : free from guilt or sin1
So, someone is only as righteous as he or she keeps to whatever standard they are being compared to. It is only possible to be righteous if there is some standard that exists. If there is no standard, then there is no possible righteousness.
And further, the traditionally accepted definition of “sin” is:
transgression of the law of God 1
Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). To transgress means to violate. Apart from a standard of righteousness, sin cannot exist, because there is nothing to violate.
Righteousness and sin go hand in hand. Righteousness keeps in accord with the law of God, and sin breaks that law. Hence the numerous examples of sin found in the New Testament (Gal 5 for example.)
So how does sin exist because of God’s nature?
God, by being a supreme, perfect, all-powerful Creator, has a nature that is not only his own standard, but by default becomes the pinnacle for righteousness for any beings he creates—you and me. Because God indeed has a nature, sin then can exist. All concept of law stems from the nature of God because God is the pinnacle of existence. There is nothing in existence that is not a direct or indirect result of his beingness. The reason anyone has any kind of sense of what is right and wrong is because God exists and has a nature that defines what is moral.
Does God need to introduce a specific law commandment (whether moral2 or positive3) in order for sin to be possible? Because, remember, the Apostle Paul said, “where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15), and “apart from the law, sin lies dead” (Rom 7:8). While specific law commandments do introduce the possibility for sin, there is something more fundamental that serves as a law, not in the form of a specific God-given commandment.
God himself in his nature is in general an all-encompassing law for his creation. By default of his existence and nature, and act of creation, God himself is the pinnacle standard. This is seen from what he created:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Rom 1:18-20)
Further, every human with capacity for understanding knows these “invisible attributes” (i.e. his nature) in their heart:
14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness…. (Rom 2:14-15)
No one with a capacity for understanding needs to be told that murder is wrong. Why? Because we just evolved to value life? No. It is because God exists.
At its most fundamental level, we can only understand sin in the context of a greater being than ourselves. God in his very nature is the pinnacle standard for righteousness in relation to his created beings. By the fact of creation itself, mankind perceives the nature of God. And while the Bible is full of dos and don’ts, these commands have their genesis in the nature of God.
Is breaking a command of God in the Bible a sin? Yes. But what is the totality of it? What stands behind the command? Or, who stands behind the command? God in his holy and good nature. When we sin, we are not only breaking a law of God, but are violating his very nature.
The going against the very nature of God is the most fundamental understanding of sin.
2 Moral law: commandments that reflect God’s holy nature
3 Positive law: in a biblical context, commandments that God gives for specific reasons of his will (for people, places, times, etc.)