by John W. Ritenbaugh
Why do the Bible's writers illustrate sin in such strong terms? The Bible is unequivocal in its warnings and denunciations against sin from beginning to end. Part of the reason for this strong stance is because the writers perceived sin within the big picture of why God created mankind in the first place. They do not picture sin as a minor, momentary act but as a major impediment to achieving God's purpose for creating us.
Jesus' charge to us in Revelation 2:11 provides some insight: "He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death." He similarly encourages each of the churches to overcome, clearly implying that success within God's purpose is tied to it. God did not create us and call us into His purpose for failure. The Greek term for "overcome" here is nikáo (Strong's #3528), which means "to subdue, to conquer, to prevail, to get the victory."
Jesus indicates that Christian life is challenging. The Bible does not view the worship of God as a passing activity on which a person spends a few hours one day a week. Rather, it shows the worship of God to be a full-time responsibility, a work requiring dedication and discipline. God calls upon each of us to be "a worker who does not need to be ashamed" (II Timothy 2:15). Sin impedes proper worship.
The reasons for the use of such strong terms does not become directly apparent until the New Testament, where Jesus and the apostles give specific instructions to individual Christians on avoiding it at all costs. The Bible's writers see us in a battle for our very lives! In whatever context it appears throughout Scripture, sin is viewed as failure—as succumbing, not overcoming. Each time we sin, we suffer a defeat in life's overall purpose.
Besides defeat, Isaiah 59:1-2 provides us with another reason why sin is perceived so dreadfully: "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear."
This second reason is in no way secondary in importance; it is in every way equal to or greater than the sense of failure. Sin creates estrangement from God. This is extremely important because our relationship with Him is the source of our power to succeed. He created us to have an everlasting relationship with Him in peaceful and productive harmony.
God does not sin because sin destroys relationships. As sinners, we would not fit within a non-sinning relationship. Despite human reasoning to the contrary, whether the relationship is with fellow humans or with God, sin always works to produce separation. A continuing life of sin destroys any hope of oneness. It never makes matters better; it never heals. Lasting success and sound relationships are never achieved through sin.
God teaches us this right at the beginning of His Book, in Genesis 2:15-17:
Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
Death is the ultimate in separation, but to make His point clearer, Adam and Eve sinned, He also physically removed them from His immediate presence, as Genesis 3:22-24 shows:
Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"—therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.
Just in case anyone thinks God was kidding at the beginning of His Book, the end confirms that He was not. He is as serious as ever.
For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city and from the things which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)
The lesson is clear: Sin destroys life!
Sin, an Implacable Enemy
God's warning to Cain in Genesis 4:7 adds another reality regarding sin's menacing presence: "If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it." In all its forms, sin is marked as mankind's enemy. It must be defeated to God's satisfaction for Him to accept us. If not, our relationship with Him will not be continued for eternity.
Because sin is an ever-present reality of life, it is essential that we have sufficient knowledge to recognize it before its fiery darts strike us down. This requires consistent, thoughtful study of God's Word and effort to build an awareness of its presence, enabling us to beat it to the punch, so to speak.
Overcoming sin is indeed a formidable task, but not a hopeless one. One reason why it is not hopeless, when rightly thought through, is quite encouraging. Jesus teaches in Luke 12:48:
But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.
We are admonished to be alert because our enemy is at the door, stalking us as we make our way through life. However, we are also encouraged to understand that we are all judged individually. God judges everyone against the same standard, yet He judges individually according to our natural talents, gifts, dedication, faithfulness, discipline, time sacrificed, and energies exerted to overcome against what God knows we are capable of.
We stand alone, as it were, not measured against any other person. Though the ultimate standard is the holy, righteous character of the Father and Son, we are neither measured against their performance nor any other human's performance. We are not in competition against others.
Though not measured against the performance of the Father and Son, we are nonetheless urged to strive to be at one with them. They are in complete and total agreement with each other. It is to this oneness that God wants to bring us, not merely intellectually, but also in attitude and conduct. They do not sin, and imitating this sinlessness becomes our great challenge in life.
The Bible displays their standard in a multitude of word-pictures that reveal their nature and characteristics in word and deed. Just in case we have difficulty understanding clearly what sin is from the word-pictures of God's attitudes and conduct, He provides us with specific and clear statements. For instance, Romans 3:20 reads, "Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin." He has made it even simpler by inspiring I John 3:4 (KJV): "Whosoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law."
At its simplest, sin is a deviation from what is good and right. However, within any given context, the deviation and especially the attitude involved in the conduct are often revealed more specifically by other terms. It helps to be aware of these terms so that we can extract more knowledge and understanding.
Several Forms and Levels of Sin
The most common verbal root in Hebrew for the noun sin literally means "to miss, to fail, to err, or to be at fault," and it is often translated by these terms depending upon context. It is chata' (Strong's #2398). Job 5:24 does not involve sin, but chata' appears in the verse: "You shall know that your tent is in peace; you shall visit your habitation and find nothing amiss." Here, chata' is translated as "amiss": Nothing is wrong; the habitation is as it should be. Chata' is also used in Judges 20:16, translated as "miss." Again, no sin is involved.
Solomon writes in Proverbs 8:36, "But he who sins against me [wisdom personified] wrongs his own soul; all those who hate me love death." Here is a context that involves moral or ethical issues, requiring chata' to be translated as "sin." The person is failing to live up to the moral or ethical standard.
Genesis 20:9 also contains it:
And Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, "What have you done to us? How have I offended you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done."
The word "offended" is translated from chata', and "sin" is translated from a cognate. Abimelech charges Abraham as having missed the standard of behavior against him and his nation.
Jeremiah writes in Lamentations 5:7, "Our fathers sinned and are no more, but we bear their iniquities." Here, the fathers missed achieving God's standard, that is, the level of conduct He would have exhibited were He involved in the same situation as they. "Iniquities" is translated from the Hebrew avon, which suggests "perversity."
Leviticus 4:2 presents us with a different situation: "If a person sins unintentionally against any of the commandments of the Lord in anything which ought not to be done, and does any of them. . . ." Chata' appears as "sins," but it is modified by the Hebrew shegagah (Strong's #7684), which means "inadvertently, unintentionally, unwittingly, or by mistake." It can also indicate that "wandering" or "straying" is involved. These suggest weakness as the cause of missing the standard. The descriptor defines the sin more specifically, helping us to understand that God's judgment includes more than the bare fact that a law was broken. It more clearly delineates the deviation.
David writes in Psalm 58:3-4: "The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born speaking lies. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent; they are like the deaf cobra that stops its ear." Also, Ezekiel 44:10 reads, "And the Levites who went far from Me, when Israel went astray, who strayed away from Me after their idols, they shall bear their iniquity." In both contexts, the people sinned through ignorance, wandering, and other weaknesses. Even so, it in no way tempered the effect of them as minor. The sins wreaked destructive results, even though they were committed by simple carelessness, laziness, indifference, or not considering the end.
Another level of sin is devastating, to say the least, to the judgment of the sinner. Presumptuous sins are normally committed by those who know better but willfully commit them anyway. The Hebrew word describing these sins, pesha' (Strong's #6588), is translated as "transgress," "transgressions," "transgressors," or "transgressed" many times.
The word contains a sense of expansion, of breaking away, or of continuousness, thus leading to its meaning "to revolt or rebel." It is translated as "transgressions" (plural) 48 times in the Old Testament, and interestingly, ten of those 48 occurrences—almost 20% of them—are in one book: Amos, which prophetically describes modern Israel.
Notice Amos 1:3: "Thus says the Lord: 'For three transgressions [pesha'] of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because they have threshed Gilead with implements of iron.'" It may be surprising to realize that God makes this charge against a Gentile nation—those who are supposedly without the law and therefore somewhat excusable. Yet He charges them with "transgressions"—rebellion. In other words, on some level, they really did know better.
God's charge indicates a sin so bold, so vicious, so in-your-face, and so continuous in its revolting attitude that it cannot be passed over on the basis of ignorance or inadvertence. Of special note in this level of sin is its continuous nature. In other words, the sinner is not really fighting it. I Kings 12:19 says, "So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day." "In rebellion" is translated from pâsha', the root of pesha'.
Amos 2:4-6 carries God's charge against both Israel and Judah:
Thus says the Lord: "For three transgressions [pesha'] of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because they have despised the law of the Lord, and have not kept His commandments. Their lies lead them astray, lies after which their fathers walked. But I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem." Thus says the Lord: "For three transgressions [pesha'] of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals."
In contrast to the Gentiles, it is not so much the vicious intensity of Judah's and Israel's sins, but their continuous, revolting, grasping nature that so incenses God. In other words, the Israelitish people give every impression from their long history that they made little or no effort to stop sinning. Israel's problem is not so much an in-your-face willfulness, but a persistent, casual, hardheaded, self-centered, "I'll take care of it later" attitude.
In Romans 10:1-3, Paul describe the Israelites' problem:
Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.
It is not so much a lack of the availability of true knowledge as it is a lackadaisical, careless, "it really does not matter all that much," "any way is as good as any other," "sin is not really all that bad" approach. It at first might seem to be a gentle form of stubbornness, but the real problem here is two major spiritual sins: pride and covetousness. In effect, Israelites are guilty of telling God that He does not know what He is talking about. As a nation, we are somewhat like teenagers who tell their parents that they are "out of it" old fogies, but it is far more serious than this.
Generally, Israelites are not a particularly violent people. However, our pride influences us, as Amos shows, to be deceitful and sneaky and to take advantage of those weaker than ourselves. We are masters of competitively seeking advantage, not for the purpose of sharing, but to get for the self. Consider Jacob's characteristics in his dealings with Esau and his father-in-law, Laban.
However, these sins are just as much deviations from God's standards as the violent and vicious sins of the Gentiles. Sin is sin is sin. God nowhere says, "This level of sin is passable"; sin will always be failure. "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). The continuous nature of these pesha' sins strongly indicates that they will not be repented of.
A Surprising, Necessary Motivation
Sin comes in many levels of intensity. Once we begin to identify sin in us, how are we to find the motivation to overcome them? It would be convenient to be able to say some magical word like "Shazam!" and everything would be solved, but that is not the way God has designed things.
Sin must be overcome, and character in the image of God's must be created through cooperation with the Creator. It is not developed overnight. There are qualities, mostly attitudes, generated within us that are most helpful toward accomplishing this task.
These qualities exist because God is with us in helping produce them so we can use them. One attitude is an absolute necessity because the others are the fruit of its existence, yet many Christians wrongly think that it has no part in Christianity.
The psalmist writes in Psalm 2:10-11: "Now therefore, be wise, O kings; be instructed, you judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling." David adds in Psalm 34:11, "Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord." A hundred other verses say essentially the same thing: We must have the fear of God in us. Nevertheless, many persist in believing that, in Christianity, the fear of God has been replaced by love for God.
There is no doubt that God wants us to fear Him. Notice that Psalm 34:11 says that the fear of God is a quality that we must learn, indicating that we do not have this characteristic in us by nature. The fear of God, then, is different from the fears we normally have in life. Thus, it must be learned.
Fear is a powerful motivator. Our normal understanding of fear spans from being a mild apprehension or awareness of anxiety all the way to outright, bowel-moving terror. As an extreme, it creates the "fight or flight" response. Why, then, does a loving God want us to fear Him? Would He not rather want us to snuggle up to Him with no thought of fear?
Many people have that conception, but it is a mistaken one. We must not forget that God is not a man; He is God. He reminds us in Isaiah 55:8-9 that He does not think like a man. Yes, He wants us to love Him, but even in that love the sense of fear should always be present.
Recall that Psalm 2:11 commands, "Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling." To a Christian, fearing and rejoicing seem to be an odd couple. Paul writes in Philippians 2:12 to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Ordinarily, we associate "trembling" with fear, of being frightened. What is there to fear and tremble about in taking salvation to its conclusion?
Deuteronomy 6:4-5 says, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength." Within a Christian setting, we are much more comfortable with this command to love, yet notice verses 1-2:
Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the Lord your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the Lord your God to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged.
Immediately preceding and following (verse 13) His command to love Him, He also affirms that we are to fear Him. The sense of verses 1-2 is that this fear is produced as we keep His commandments, not before! Clearly, fear of Him and love for Him cannot be separated from our relationship with Him.
Isaiah 8:13 adds another interesting aspect. "The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread." Surely, we might think that someone as close to God as Isaiah did not need to fear Him, but here God commands Isaiah to fear Him. Why? Because the fear gained within the relationship with Him always motivates movement in the right, godly direction, regardless of the intensity of life's circumstances.
What about I John 4:17-18? Does it not contradict the assertion that our relationship with God should contain godly fear?
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.
This passage does not contradict in the least, once we understand the kind of fear the apostle John is writing about. The clue to this fear appears in verse 17 in the term "boldness." John is referring to being bold in spite of the circumstances we face from life in this world once we are converted. The love of God works in us to dispel the fear of disease, oppressions, persecution, and death, but it does not drive out the fear of God. If it did, John would be contradicting what the Bible says elsewhere about the necessity of continuing to fear God. Christianity has not replaced the fear of God with the love of God, as many wrongly believe. Instead, the two work hand in hand.
Mark 4:37-41 provides insight as to how the proper fear of God is nurtured within our relationship with Him:
And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling. But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow. And they awoke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?" Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace, be still!" And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. But He said to them, "Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?" And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, "Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!"
The disciples feared exceedingly! They were learning that God is not a man, and the proper level of respect was beginning to be nurtured in them. We never become so familiar with God that we lose the edge of proper apprehension mixed with reverential awe and respect.
Psalm 130:4 provides more insight: "But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared." Notice the direct connection between being forgiven and fearing Him. We are forgiven so that we might learn to fear Him after experiencing His mercy! Does this not suggest that the fear of God is in some regards different than our normal perception of fear?
Christians: Those Who Fear God
While still pregnant with Jesus, Mary praises God in Luke 1:50, saying, "And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation." A Christian is a person upon whom God has shown mercy, and here Luke also identifies Christians as those who fear God. In Luke 18:2, 4, Jesus reveals in a parable that it is the unconverted who do not fear God. His followers fear God.
Elsewhere, the Bible identifies Christians as those who fear God. Notice Acts 9:31: "Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied." Later, Luke writes: "And they said, 'Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you" (Acts 10:22). Cornelius, a Gentile prepared for baptism, is called "one who fears God."
Hebrews 5:7 describes Jesus' fear of God: ". . . who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear." Even Jesus, who knew God better than anyone who had ever walked the face of the earth, feared God. Note the special attention paid to the fact that God answered His prayers because He did.
God is holy. He is different to a level so far above mankind that those who truly know Him do not lose that apprehension and awe that comes from the privilege of being in the presence of sheer, powerfully pure holiness. Fear plays a large part in a good relationship with God.
Genesis 3:10 is the first time a form of fear appears in Scripture, and interestingly, it is in the context of sin. Adam responds to God, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself." Elsewhere, the English word "fear" and its cognates appear in many contexts and forms: "feared," "fearful," "fearfully," "fearfulness," "fearing," and "afraid." These terms appear over 720 times in Scripture.
We tend to be uncertain about fearing God because we think of fear as a negative characteristic. We feel that we should love Him rather than fear Him. However, as we study God's Word and experience life with Him, we come to understand that, at the foundation of loving God, godly fear modifies our highly variable faith in God and love for God in significant ways.
All of those forms of "fear" express a wide range of emotions. Feelings such as dread, distress, dismay, trouble, terror, horror, alarm, awe, respect, reverence, and admiration may all appear as "fear" in Scripture. The fear that God desires in us is a good, positive, motivating quality.
This fear is one that we do not naturally possess. Recall Psalm 34:11: "Come you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord." How do we learn the fear of God? Psalm 33:8-9 gives insight: "Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast." Godly fear is one of a deep and abiding respect that grows as we learn—from within a continuing, intimate relationship—of His character, His purpose, and His powers. The unconverted do not have this relationship as a sustaining presence.
In John 17:3, Jesus states an all-important piece of understanding about why our relationship with God is so important: "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." The fear of God is a deep and abiding respect for His loving character and purpose. At the same time, we are also deeply concerned about His power to save. Thus, we dread losing our intimate relationship with Him by dishonoring Him in any way by our conduct and attitude. As Christians, we bear His name and greatly fear tarnishing it.
Proverbs 15:28 reads, "The heart of the righteous studies how to answer." The Hebrew word for studies means "to ponder, meditate, or imagine," and to answer means "to pay attention, respond, testify, or bear witness." As we seek Him within our intimate relationship, we gradually begin to relate Him more directly with His creation of things in the heavens and earth—and especially in His dealings with those whom He is creating in His image.
Gradually, we begin to see and appreciate the power of His vast intelligence. We begin to relate to the magnificent beauty of His handiwork as we stand in awe of the phenomenal size and grandeur of the universe He has created and of the prodigious quantity of plant and animal life on this earth. In Psalm 139:14, David exclaims, "I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." What a marvelous physical creation! When we realize more fully what He has already mercifully done for us and what He is working out in us, creating us in His image, it is breathtaking. We gradually begin to grasp the power of His love, of His merciful forgiveness, of His healing, and of His providence.
We begin to understand His determined willingness to provide as our Savior the one Being with whom He shared life as an equal. We grow to appreciate His day-to-day upholding of everything and keeping it moving "by the word of His power" (Hebrews 1:3). We all admire, even stand in awe, of displays of positive human qualities, such as artistry in voice or instrumental skill, in sculpture, in painting, or in writing of those gifted by Him. All of these and much more He has made and sustains, not just for His pleasure, but for ours as well.
So, how is it that the fear of God and joy are not really an odd couple? The fear of God motivates us to obey God. In turn, keeping God's commandments produces the fruit of His Spirit, one of which is joy. Further, there is a direct connection between fearing God and all of the fruit of God's Holy Spirit.
Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? You stretched out Your right hand; the earth swallowed them. You in Your mercy have led forth the people You have redeemed; You have guided them in Your strength to Your holy habitation.
Is there anybody like God? He is supreme in artistry and creative power and in every aspect of every good quality and its use that there is. So obvious is it that there is a Creator God to whom reverential awe should be given that men are without excuse (Romans 1:20). How much more should we fear Him who has called us to complete His purpose in us? His children are those who are learning and growing in these qualities through their relationship with Him.
If we are learning and growing, we should have an intense desire never to sin again so that we will be like Him. This intense desire has godly fear at its foundation, a fear that is a mixture of the entire span of terms used to describe fear: from mild apprehension even to outright terror at times. Such a one, under no circumstance, ever wants to see this relationship destroyed and lost because he has done something to bring dishonor to Him. Thus, the fear of God produces a strong and steady sense of obligation combined with an intense, humble appreciation and gratitude that One so great is paying attention to one so undeserving.