Afternoon Sermon: What Is Sin?, Baptist Catechism 17, 1 John 3:1–10

Baptist Catechism 17

Q. 17. What is sin?

A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God. (1 John 3:4; Rom. 5:13)

Scripture Reading: 1 John 3:1–10

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” (1 John 3:1–10, ESV)



I should remind you of what the last question and answer said, for this one builds upon the last one. 

Question 16 askes, “Did our first parents continue in the estate wherein they were created?” Answer: “Our first parents, being left to the freedom of their own will, fell from the estate wherein they were created, by sinning against God.” We discussed the meaning of this Q&A last Sunday. Here I want you to remember that our first parents fell from their state of innocence…  “by sinning against God.” Now, or catechism asks, “what is sin.”

By the way, this is one reason a catechism like this is such a useful tool for Christain discipleship. Not only is the teaching of Holy Scripture summarized for us in this document, it is done so in an orderly way so that we might understand the Christian faith. The most foundational truth are laid down first and then they are built upon. And as you can see, important terms are defined along the way. 

“Sin” is one of those important terms. In fact, you cannot understand the gospel of Jesus Christ without understanding what sin is? Why did Jesus Christ come to live, die, and raise again? Why do the scriptures tell us that we must trust in him to be saved? Saved from what? My point is this: The story of scripture and the Christian faith do not make sense without this concept of sin and its consequences. 

Our first parents, Adam and Eve, fell from the state of innocence and into a state of corruption, guilt, and depravity by sinning against God. 

All who are born into this world after them are born into this same condition. We are born corrupt, depraved, and guilty before God because Adam was our representative, as we will soon learn. In other words, we are born into a state (or condition) of sin. 

And all who are born into this world in this state of sin do they themselves sin (Christ was not from Adam’s seed, remember. He was born into this world, yet without sin, being virgin-born).

And sin, as we will soon learn with the help of our catechism, has devastating and eternal consequences. I’ll refrain from saying more. We will come to all of this in catechism questions 18 through 22. Each of these questions and answers will help us to learn more about sin and it effects. 

But we must begin here with the most basic question, “What is sin?” Again, the answer: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”


The Law Of God Is The Mark

The first thing that I want you to understand about sin is that to sin is to miss a mark, and God’s law is the mark. 

Here I am using archery terms to describe what sin is. Can you picture an archer with a bow and arrow in their hands? In a tournament, what will the archer try to do except hit a mark? We might call the mark a bullseye. And when an archer misses the mark, we may say that the archer has sinned. That is what the word means. To sin is to miss the mark. 

But we are not talking about archery, are we? No, we are talking about hitting the mark of God’s moral standard for us. And here I am asking, what is God’s standard? What is the bullseye, if you will? What is the mark that God has called us to hit? 

The answer that our catechism gives is the right one. The mark is God’s law. If I were to speak in a more technical way, I would say that the mark is God’s law, and that includes both the moral law (which was written on man’s heart at creation)  and any positive laws that God chooses to add to it. The command that God gave to Adam to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is an example of a positive law. God added that law to the moral law (which was written on man’s heart when God created him) when he entered into the Covenant of Life (or Works) with him. 

So then, the standard is God’s law, both moral and positive. And we sin when fail to hit, or live up to, that standard. 


Want Of Conformity Unto, Or Transgression

But that is not all our catechism says. Again, the answer to the question, what is sin? “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”

Want means “lack” or “failure”. So “sin is any [lack] of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”

The word “any” seems important to me. Men and women sometimes fool themselves into thinking that only the “big” sins are a problem. Yes, it is true that there are bigger and smaller sins. But both big and small sins are sins. 

The phrase, “want [lack] of conformity unto… God’s law” helps us to understand that God’s law requires us to do certain things. Some laws are stated positively. For example, “honor your father and mother” and “keep the Sabbath day”. These laws are stated positively so they are telling you what must be done. The negative side – that is to say, that which ought not to be done – is implied. And some commandments are stated negatively. “You shall not murder” and “you shall not steal” are examples of these. When commandments are stated positively, the negative things that should not be done are implied. 

The point is this: God’s law requires us to do things. His law does not only tell us what not to do, but what we are to do. We are to love God with all that we are, and our neighbor as ourselves. That requires action. And sin is “any [lack] of conformity unto… the law of God.” In other words, we sin when we fail to do what God has commanded us to do. Children do not only sin when they dishonor their parents. They also sin also when they fail to give the honor to their parents which is due to them.  We call these “lack-of-conformity” sins, sins of omission. For in these we omit or fail to do that which God’s law requires. 

The phrase, “sin is any…  transgression of, the law of God” helps us to see that we sin when do that which God’s law forbids. When God’s law says, don’t do this or that, and then we do this or that, we sin against God. When Adam was told not to eat of that one tree and he ate of it, he sinned. And when we lie we sin, for God’s law has told us not to lie. We call these “transgression-of-God’s law” sins, sins of commission, for these are sins that we do actively commit.   



I hope you can see why it is important for us to have a proper understanding of what sin is. 

Not only will we be unable to properly understand the gospel of Jesus Christ – and indeed, the whole story of scripture, and the Christian faith – without a proper understanding of sin.  A deficient understanding of sin will lead to many other problems too.

Brothers and sisters, if you take anything away from this little sermon I hope it is this: Our standard for right and wrong, good and evil, is not for us to determine. Our standard is not the opinions of man, or the customs of culture. No, our standard is God’s law, and he has revealed it in nature and much more clearly by his Word. We sin when we fail to conform to, or transgress, that standard – the standard of God’s law.

If we understand this, we will be in a good place to understand why we need a Savior, Christ the Lord, and how it is that we are to live in this world in a way that is pleasing to our Great God and King. 

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