by J. Wenger

In the Bible sin is regarded as any transgression of, or any lack of conformity to, the holy will and nature of God, the basic cause being the lack of a perfect love for God. Sin may consist of deeds, thoughts, attitudes, or even states of character. The Bible teaches not only that all men have sinned, that is, have committed acts that are wrong, but that all are sinners in their nature: all men by nature "children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3), that is, they have a nature which if followed places them under the disfavor of God. The Bible nowhere attempts to give a formal or comprehensive definition of sin. On this subject as on all others the Scripture is concrete and specific rather than philosophical and abstract. The Apostle John calls sin lawlessness (I John 3:4, Greek), by which he undoubtedly means an attitude of defiance to the commandments of God. He also speaks of sin as unrighteousness or wrongdoing (I John 5:17), a lack of that positive moral excellence which God desires to see in men. Paul declares that any action which does not spring from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23): God wants man to live with a face continually turned toward Him in love, devotion, and obedience. The Apostle James indicates that not only are there sins of commission but also of omission, for whoever "knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin" (Jas. 4:17).

Throughout the Bible much stress is placed on sin as being a condition of one's nature, rather than viewing it atomistically. The prophet Jeremiah stated that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). With deep pessimism Bildad asks: "How then can man be righteous before God? How can he who is born of woman be clean?" (Job 25:4). When Isaiah received a vision of the Holy One of Israel he cried: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Jas. 6:5). The reaction of Peter to the Lord Jesus when He displayed His deity was similar: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luke 5:8). David becomes the mouthpiece of the race in conviction for sin when he cries:

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit (Ps. 5:6-12).

The letter to the Hebrews warns against anyone "an evil, unbelieving heart" (Heb. 3:12). And Jesus declared that "what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man . . ." (Matt. 15:18-20). Sin is, therefore, not merely the characterization of an act; it is the evil condition of the unregenerated man's inner self, his true character. This inner depravity condemns all men outside of Christ. More exactly, all men outside of Christ are condemned for their sin of choosing to remain unregenerate rather than being willing to accept the free salvation which is offered them in Christ. This is what Menno Simons meant when he declared that only one sin can damn a man, namely, unbelief" (Complete Works, I, p. 159). What man needs is the creation within him of a new nature, a nature which inclines one to love God and to desire to do His will. This is exactly what was prophesied through the prophet Jeremiah: "I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer. 31:33). This is what Jesus meant when He told Nicodemus that "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5; cf. Titus 3:5).

Theologians have somewhat tended to emphasize sin in the formal sense as being a transgression of law, rather than to view it as a lack of love for God. Augustine, for example, said that sin was "any thought, word, or deed against the law of God" (A Catholic Dictionary, p. 490). Presbyterian standards define sin as "any want of conformity unto, or transgression of the law of God" (A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, p. 490). Similarly, the Lutheran theologians define sin as "a departure from the divine law" (The Lutheran Cyclopedia, p. 447). It should be noted, however, that when Jesus was asked what sort of commandment in the law was the greatest He replied: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:37-40). Since the entire moral law of God is according to the words of Jesus merely a commentary on the great principles of love, is it not the case that sin ought to be defined in terms of a lack of love, rather than as a formal transgression of a code? According to this point of view sin is any failure to love God and man with a perfect heart, which lack of love leads to attitudes and deeds which are displeasing to God.

If an Israelite loved the Lord with his whole being he would not wish to worship any other deities, nor would he want to materialize that worship by making an image of his god, nor would he take His name in vain, nor violate His Sabbath. If a person loves his neighbor as himself he will give honor to whom honor is due, he will not take life, nor commit adultery, nor steal, nor bear false witness, nor covet" (Exod. 20:2-17; Deut. 5:6-21). This is the meaning of Paul when he writes: "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,' and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13:8-10). And in the Galatian letter Paul writes: "For you were called to freedom, brethren, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Gal. 5:13, 4). In a similar way James declares: "If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors" (Jas. 2:8, 9).


The above is from J. C. Wenger, Introduction to Theology, Copyright 1954, renewal 1980 by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA 15683, 1996 reprint, pp. 90-93. ISBN 0-9616919-5-0. Available from

J. C. Wenger taught at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, and at the Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana.

Introduction to Theology is available from Biblical Viewpoins for $20.00 plus $2.50 postage and handing. See below address.


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June 22, 2000