I John 3:4-6
What is sin? The answer may surprise you: “sin is lawlessness” (I John 3:4) In other words, at its most fundamental level sin is an attitude of defiance – the attitude that says, ‘God can’t tell me what to do’. It’s an attitude that starts very young – in fact, we’re born with it. As all parents know: if you tell a small child, ‘Don’t touch that,’ what’s the first thing they’re likely to do as soon as your back is turned? Human beings are hard-wired to be disobedient and to resist authority! Obedience and self-discipline don’t come naturally to us; we have to be taught them. And however well we learn the lesson, there’s always a streak of lawlessness in us. It manifests itself in different ways in different people. It may only show itself when we’re under stress, or when we’ve drunk too much alcohol. But we all have it. There’s only ever been one exception to this universal rule: Jesus. John says, “In Him is no sin.” (verse 5)
It’s this underlying streak of ‘lawlessness’ inside us that causes us to break God’s law, represented by the Ten Commandments. So sin is stuff like idol-worship, murder, theft and adultery. But that’s not all. If sin is just ‘doing things’, then that excludes a lot of what the Bible classifies as sin. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us that sin can be thoughts as well as actions – hatred is sin, as well as murder. So sin includes things that go on inside our heads, like the so-called ‘seven deadly sins’ – pride, anger, envy, greed, lust, gluttony, and sloth. That means I can sin before I’ve even got out of bed in the morning!
Why does this matter? God’s original intention for us was that we should not die, but live in His presence for ever – and our sin prevents us from doing that. Now if you’re not concerned about being on good terms with God – which the outside world isn’t – you won’t worry about sin. But for Christians our relationship with God is much more important than being able to do whatever we want – it’s literally a matter of life and death! And sin spoils our relationship with God like nothing else. How can I explain it… In times past, if you were leaving a job or a bedsit where the other people had made your life miserable, you might get your revenge on them by taping a kipper to the underside of a large heavy piece of furniture (such as a piano). It wouldn’t actually hurt anyone or do any damage, but after a few days it would stink to high heaven – and it could take them weeks to find where the smell was coming from. And sin of any kind – even if it’s just happening inside our heads and ‘doesn’t harm anybody else’ as far as we can see – is like an unbearable stink in God’s nostrils. We aren’t that much aware of it because we’re all natural sinners from birth and we live in a sinful environment; but God is absolutely pure and holy. If we’re Christians, we’re supposed to be living, breathing, walking temples of God’s Holy Spirit – but the Spirit will eventually be ‘stinked out’ of us if sin is festering away somewhere in our lives.
I John 3:7-10
Here John explains something of the background to this whole issue of sin. There is in fact a war on – a war in the spiritual realm – and it all started with the devil. “The devil has been sinning from the beginning” (verse 8) – in other words, he was the original sinner. Now the Bible nowhere explains exactly why the devil declared war on God, but almost right from the beginning, there have been these two sides fighting each other, and now everyone (including all of us) is either on one side or on the other. In John’s language, we’re either “children of God” or “children of the devil.”
‘Children of the devil’ sounds like something out of a horror movie, but John isn’t talking about psychopaths, or people who are involved in witchcraft. He’s talking about perfectly ordinary, normal people – they may not believe that there is a devil, they may never even have heard of the devil, but they simply follow his lead in not wanting their lives to be under the authority of God.
And it has nothing to do with how ‘good’ you are (because even the devil’s children do a lot of good things); it’s a more fundamental question than that, a question of allegiance. The devil’s children happily “do what is sinful” if they want to, because they don’t care what God thinks; but if we’re God’s children we want to please Him, so we resist sin and fight against it.
The default option for human beings is to be children of the devil: we’re all born with that streak of lawlessness, whether we like it or not.