Once you have read this, don’t miss my next essay, which looks at the implications of sin as rebellion for a classic question regarding salvation and hell: How Can Murderers and Rapists Go to Heaven While Good People Go to Hell?
“Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” –C. S. Lewis
This generation struggles with the idea of sin. We don’t like it. We don’t like talking about it. We don’t like hearing about it.
The reasons for this are no doubt complex and multi-faceted. But one of these reasons, which I come across often, traces back to a basic misunderstanding of the nature of sin. We see sin as a list of rules, a litany of dos and don’ts. Most problematically, many seem to see this list of encouraged or prohibited actions as being arbitrary, as though God decided at random what behavior was and was not acceptable, creating rules simply because there should be rules (if, indeed, they believe that it is God who determines right and wrong at all).
But rule-breaking is not the nature of sin. The nature of sin is rebellion.
Lucifer, the angel who tried to usurp God’s throne, led a rebellion in heaven. He lost and was cast out, renamed Satan, and he remains the greatest adversary and enemy of God. In Genesis 3, as the serpent, he tempted Eve with the same sin, enticing her with the opportunity to be like God (Genesis 3:5). Sin is not simply a case of naughty little children doing what they shouldn’t, like my son touching the computer screen. It is the creation rebelling against its creator (Isaiah 29:16, 45:9; Romans 9:21).
Sin, then, is the exaltation of self over God. It is choosing to supplant God from his rightful place in our lives, so that we can play the part of God for ourselves. We want to be in control; we want to determine our own fate. We want to be the center of our own existence, even though we know better.
Sin is rebellion, not in that we rebel against God by disobeying an assortment of arbitrary rules he established; rather, sin is rebellion in that, in essence, we say to God, “You are not God.”
The free will that God has given us is the opportunity to choose him—or not to. To choose the latter is to rebel against the order of creation and the nature of life itself—but it is a choice that God honors, even as it breaks his heart, because without free will none of it would have any meaning.
But we’re only halfway to a proper understanding of the nature of sin, because we also need to understand why certain actions are sins and others are not. Often, it seems we act as though those actions labeled sins are only considered wrong because they’re on an arbitrary list of things that God decided he didn’t want us doing—as though God simply doesn’t want us to have any fun. But the reality is that there is nothing arbitrary about what is sin and what is not. God didn’t sit back at the beginning of time and say, “Let’s see, we need some rules… How about, Though Shalt Not This, That, and the Other. Why? Because I said so, that’s why!”
True morality flows from the nature of God, the nature of man, and the nature of our relationship to God and to each other. Seedbed’s Andy Dragos captures sin as it relates to our relationship to each other and the rest of creation with these thoughts on the social nature of holiness:
Take, for example, the “Seven Deadly Sins.” In lust we objectify a person made in the image of God and strip them of their personhood; in gluttony we eat beyond our satisfaction to the neglect of those who hunger; in greed we abuse resources offered us to steward for the blessing of others; in sloth we set our own rest above the needs of others; in wrath we treat others in a way that is reserved for God’s judgment; in envy we desire things that don’t belong to us; in pride we exalt ourselves while lowering others around us.
Similarly, as the author and sustainer of all life, who created each of us in his image, God alone has the right to take life. To commit murder is to destroy a person who bears the image of God (Genesis 9:6), and in so doing to place ourselves above God. Conversely, to create and worship idols is to deny that God is God, and that is was him that made us, instead elevating the creation over the creator (see Isaiah and Romans above).
The definition of sin is not arbitrary. And while some sins, in the gradations that we apply to them in our human thinking, may seem relatively harmless to us, all sin is at its core rebellion against God. Therefore, since all of creation is in rebellion against God, redemption isn’t just about making us better rule-followers—it’s about ending our rebellion against God, and instead relinquishing back to him his rightful place in our lives and submitting our will to our Creator. This is what it means to restore order to creation.
To deny the existence of absolute morality, then—to suggest that morality is relative, up to each of us to determine “for ourselves”—is to deny the nature of God and of our relationship to him and to each other as his creation. Moral relativism only holds water when morality is seen as a mostly arbitrary list of shoulds and shouldn’ts. If true morality flows from who God is and who we, both individually and corporately as human beings, are in relation to him, then it is based on a reality that exists outside of ourselves. That is, it is absolute. If it is based on the nature and character of God as both king and creator of the universe, then morality is unchanging, for God does not change. To insist that morality is relative and ours to determine for ourselves is to deny God, in that we both claim for ourselves authority that belongs only to God, and also claim to be able to decide things that cannot be decided by us because they flow from the character of God.
Be sure to check out my next essay, which incorporates ideas from this one: How Can Murderers and Rapists Go to Heaven While Good People Go to Hell?