What Is Sin?

Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017

WSC 13-15 of 107

Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. 

1 John 3:4

WSC 13. Did our first parents continue in the estate wherein they were created? 

A. Our first parents, being left to the freedom of their own will, fell from the estate wherein they were created, by sinning against God.1

1Gen 3:6-8,13; Eccl 7:29

 WSC 14. What is sin? 

A. Sin is any want of conformity unto,—or transgression of,—the law of God. 1  

11 John 3:4 

WSC 15. What was the sin whereby our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created? 

A. The sin whereby our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created, was their eating the forbidden fruit. 1  

1Gen 3:6, 12 

What is sin? Ask anyone man in the street what sin is, and you will probably hear, “Sin is doing bad things,” “Sin is doing things that hurt other people,” or “Sin is doing things that society frowns upon,” or “sin is violating the moral standard and order accepted by society.” Most of us may know Christians who would give such answers too. 

But what is the biblical answer to the question? “What is sin?” The answer, I believe, is most beautifully and succinctly expressed in our Shorter Catechism, question 14: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” 

Where is this idea taken from? It is taken from 1 John 3:4, our text for this sermon.  

The first epistle of John is written to help true believers obtain assurance of salvation. But the Lord himself, and experience, teach us that not every member of the visible church is a true believer. Indeed, in every local congregation, we can expect wheat and tare, good and bad fishes, wise and foolish virgins, sheep and goats etc.  

For this reason, John does not simply encourage but admonishes as well. He warns us to examine ourselves so that we may not be fooled into thinking we are for real when we may,  in fact, be still in the bonds of iniquity.  

John, in other words, would not give us any false assurance; and he would not have true believers be complacent.  

Thus, in chapter 3, we see John comforting true believers of the tremendous privilege of being adopted as the sons and daughters of God. He reminds us that though we fall short of the glory of God today, we shall be like Christ in the day that He comes again (v. 2). 

But as soon as he assures us, so soon does he remind us again that not everyone who claims to be a believer is born again and can enjoy this hope. 

He tells us that a true believer will purify himself as Christ is pure (v. 3). That is to say: a true believer, i.e., one who truly looks forward to meeting the Lord, will pursue after holiness as Christ is holy. 

But what does it mean to purify ourselves? Or positively, what does it mean to do righteousness (as John puts it in 2:29)? What is the connection between purifying oneself and doing righteousness? To do righteousness is to do what is opposed to sin: “All unrighteousness is sin,” says John (1 Jn 5:17); and purifying ourselves is to rid ourselves of sin. “Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?” asks Solomon (Prov 20:9).  

But the big question is: What is sin? It is in answer to this question that John says, 1 John 3:4: 

“Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” 

From this verse, we may derive three propositions. First, sin is lawlessness against God. Secondly, all transgression of the law of God is sin. Thirdly, all lack of conformity to the law of God is sin.  

1. Sin is Lawlessness Against God 

This is implied in our text. Sin “is the transgression of the law,” says John. The Greek original for “transgression of the law” is only one word: ‘anomia’, which means lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness. Verse 4 may be translated: “Anyone who does sin also does lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.” 

We must not think that lawlessness here refers only to serious crimes such as theft, murder and arson. No, no; lawlessness is simply not being according to the law or being against the law. 

Sin is living as if there is no law. But what law are we talking about? Is it the laws of nature, the laws of society, the laws of the state, or the laws of God? No doubt, John is talking about the laws of God. God made man to glorify and enjoy Him, or in other words, to love Him. But loving God involves keeping His commandments.  John says in Chapter 5: 

2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.

1 Jn 5:2-3

God’s commandments are essentially the dictates of God’s law. God gave us a law in order that we may love Him in response to His love. Sin is, therefore, a failure to love God in the way He expects of us. 

Therefore, sin is always against God. Thus, when David sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba, he says in his confession, “Against thee [God], thee only, have I sinned” (Ps 51:4). Did he sin against Uriah? Of course! Did he sin against Bathsheba? Of course! Did he sin against his wife? Of course! Did he sin against the nation? Of course!  

But David says that it is against God and God only he sinned. Why? Because technically, sin is always against God, who gave us his law. We can hurt another person, but whether it is sin or not depends on whether it violates God’s law.  

  • So a father may spank a child for disobedience, but he would not have sinned against God and against the child unless he spanked him in a fit of anger and out of selfish motives.  
  • So a judge may sentence a person to die and yet not sin against him unless it was an unfair judgement.  
  • Conversely, a man may not hurt another man by coveting his wife, but he sins against God.   
  • Likewise, a man may lie to another to make him feel better about his situation. His lie does not hurt the other man, but he sinned against God. 

This is why John says that sin is lawlessness. Sin is defined by the law of God and is always against God! If God had not given laws, there would be no sin. The apostle Paul states this principle when he says: “Without the law sin was dead” (Rom 7:8). Sin is meaningless except that God has given us laws. Sin is lawlessness against God. 

But now, let’s consider how we sin, or more specifically, how we are lawless. 

First, let us understand that all transgression of the law of God is sin. 

2. All Transgression of the Law Of God is Sin 

John says literally, “Sin is lawlessness,” but our translation has it as “Sin is the transgression of the law.” Perhaps our translators chose the phrase because ‘lawlessness’ would have carried a connotation of unruliness, anarchy or disorderliness. Using ‘lawlessness’ in the translation would have suggested that sin is only sin if it is a serious and open civil law violation. 

But the truth is that all transgression of God’s law is lawlessness, which is sin. 

What is it to transgress? To transgress is to violate a prohibition. It is to trespass across a set boundary. In many places in Singapore, government properties are surrounded by a fence with prominent signs indicating that it is a protected area. Usually, the graphics are pretty threatening, for they picture a man being shot! The warning is clear. Transgress the boundary or trespass into the protected area, and you a liable to be shot! 

Now, in so far as the law of God is concerned, the idea is very similar, except that instead of being shot, one would incur God’s judgement.  

Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were commanded not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But they did. As a result, they fell from the estate wherein they were created “by sinning against God” (WSC 13). How did they sin? They sinned by transgressing God’s explicit commandment. Thus, we are taught in the Shorter Catechism, question 15: “The sin whereby our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created, was their eating the forbidden fruit.” 

The fruit itself is not sinful or poisonous, but God forbade them to eat it: therefore, when they ate of it, they sinned against God! 

Now, from that time onwards, God made known many other laws. In general, we can classify God’s laws into three categories. There is the moral law. This was inscribed in man’s heart as man is created in the image of God. But later, God summarised it in the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. He spoke it in the hearing of His people and inscribed it on two tablets of stone, not once but twice. Then He had it kept in the Holy Ark of the Covenant, which is in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. 

It is clear that God intends the Ten Commandments to be universal and perpetual. God has other laws that were obligatory upon His people for a season. They may be known as the ceremonial law and the civil law. The Jews under the old covenant were required to observe these laws. For example, since the law dictated that God’s people might not eat pork, any Jew eating pork would have sinned against God.  

Today, the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ. They are abrogated and no longer binding to anyone. Likewise, the Old Testament civil law is no longer obligatory on any further than the general equity thereof may require.  

But the moral law remains in the form of the Ten Commandments. Indeed all the laws of God found in the Bible may be reduced to one or more of the Ten Commandments. All transgression of the Ten Commandments is sin. 

  • What is the first commandment? It is “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This means that if a man serves any other gods than the Living and True God of the Bible, he has transgressed God’s law and is a sinner. 
  • What is the second commandment? In short, it is, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image… nor bow down thyself to them.” This means, for example, that if you use images of Jesus Christ to pray to Him, you would transgress the Law of God and sin against God. 
  • What is the third commandment? In short, it is: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Thus, if you take the name of God in vain by swearing falsely, then you sin. 
  • What is the fourth commandment? In short, it is: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” This means that if you forget the Sabbath and use it for work, shopping or recreation like any other day, you sin against God. 
  • What is the fifth commandment? It is “Honour thy father and thy mother.” This means that if you speak rudely to your parents, you sin against God. 
  • What is the sixth commandment? It is “Thou shalt not kill.” Thus, murder is a sin, and so is cursing someone with swear words. 
  • What is the seventh commandment? It is “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Thus adultery is a sin no matter how much Hollywood glamourises it. Indeed all sexual activities outside of marriage, including pornography, is sin. 
  • What is the eighth commandment? It is “Thou shalt not steal.” Thus taking something that does not belong to you without the owner’s permission is a sin.  
  • What is the ninth commandment? It is “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” This commandment teaches us that it is a sin to tell lies. Telling lies is a transgression of the law. 
  • What is the tenth commandment? In short, it is “Thou shalt not covet.” Thus, if you covet another person’s wealth or wife, you sin even if you do not act to obtain it. 

All transgression of the law is sin! But let us realise that lawlessness is not only the transgression of the law. There is, we must remember, the flip side of the coin too. So, thirdly, let us understand that all lack of conformity to the law of God is sin. 

3. All Lack of Conformity to The Law of God Is Sin 

Our text says: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” But always remember that “transgression of the law” is just one word in the original. It is the word ‘anomia’ or lawlessness. One can be lawless by transgressing the law. A person who sins in this way may be said to commit a sin of commission. But one can also be lawless by failing to conform to the demands of the law. A person who sins in this way is said to sin a sin of omission. 

Thus, God’s law is given in such a way that the same commandment prohibits something but requires something simultaneously. This is why the exposition of the Ten Commandments in our Shorter and Larger Catechism has at least two questions for each commandment. One question is what is forbidden by the commandment, but the other is what is required by the commandment. Sin is not only transgressing God’s law but also not meeting the requirements of God’s law. 

The apostle Paul says: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). To come short of the glory of God is to fail to meet God’s standard. It is to sin.  

In man’s archery, you score points so long as your arrow hits the target board. In God’s archery, you get demerits points unless your arrow hits the dead centre of the bullseye. 

Or to use another illustration which our children may understand. If you are in school, you must meet a certain percentage in your examination score before you are considered to have passed. If 50% is the passing mark, you will fail if you get 49% or less. You will pass if you get 50% or more. But the passing mark for God’s test is much higher. It is 100%. We sin when we fall short of the glory of God. The law requires 100% conformity. A lack or want of conformity to God’s law is sin. 

  • The first commandment not only forbids idolatry. It requires wholehearted worship of the Living and True God. Thus, if you love your career as much as you love God, then you sin. You sin if you omit to pray every day. It is a want of conformity to God’s law. 
  • The second commandment not only forbids the use of images. It requires us to worship God in the way that He has appointed. Thus, a refusal to sing psalms to worship God is sin. It is a sin of omission.  
  • The third commandment not only forbids the wrong use of God’s name, it also requires the holy use of God’s ordinances. Thus sleeping and chit-chatting during worship is sinful because you are outwardly worshipping God, but your heart is not there.  
  • The fourth commandment not only forbids work and recreation on the Sabbath. It requires that we keep the day holy by worship and holy conversation. So idleness on the Sabbath is sin. 
  • The fifth commandment not only forbids dishonouring our parents. It requires us that honour them with courtesy, love and respect. To fail to do so is a sin of omission. 
  • The sixth commandment does not only forbid murder. It requires us to look after our health, including having sufficient sleep. To neglect your health by eating unhealthily or not sleeping enough is therefore sinful.  
  • The seventh commandment does not only forbid adultery and immorality. It requires us to be chaste in our conversation and demeanour. To dress unbecomingly or provocatively is sin.  
  • The eighth commandment does not only forbid theft. It requires us to seek gainful employment if we are able. To refuse to work is sin.  
  • The ninth commandment does not only forbid lies. It requires us to tell the truth. If we know someone to be walking in sin and we do not admonish him, then we sin by way of omission. We do not love him as we ought. 
  • The tenth commandment does not only forbid covetousness. It requires full contentment with whatever the Lord has given us. Discontentment is sin. It is a lack of conformity to God’s Law. 


John says:  

Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.

1 Jn 3:4

From this verse, especially as it is stated in Greek, we learn that sin is lawlessness against God and that “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” This is the answer to question 14 of our shorter Catechism, “What is sin?”  

We considered how our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created by sinning against God and how they sin simply by eating the forbidden fruit God had commanded them not to eat. 

We also considered many examples of how we can sin today by way of transgressing the Ten Commandments and by way of failure to conform to the Ten Commandments. I hope some of what was said struck a chord so that we are made aware of our sin, for it is only when we are aware of our sin that we are aware of our need for the Saviour. 

But now, as we close, let me suggest three applications for us to take home. 

First, let us pay attention to God’s law, especially the Ten Commandments. We are made to love God, but to love God is to keep His commandments. Only when we are keeping God’s law are we walking in freedom.  

Our first parents were free as long as they obeyed God’s commandments. But they were tempted by the devil. The devil insinuated that they were not free as long as they had to keep God’s commandments. He told them they would be like God if they ate the forbidden fruit. They would be autonomous. They would be free. He lied. They ate the fruit and fell into the bondage of Satan, sin, and death, and we fell with them. 

You see, man is designed to live within the bounds of God’s law. God’s law is to man what water is to fish. Think of a fish in a fish tank. It looks like it is very restricted. But if the naughty fish jumps out of the water, what happens? It is now on the floor. It is no longer free. It can’t swim and will die unless returned to the water. 

So it is with us. The Ten Commandments are like the ten sides of a decagonal aquarium for us to live in. The law is the “perfect law of liberty” (Jas 1:25; cf. Jas 2:12) in the words of James. To live within the boundary that God has set is to live in freedom. To live without regard to the law is to live lawlessly and to live in sin. To live in sin is to live in bondage and to walk the broad way that leads to death. 

So pay attention to the Ten Commandments. They are not unimportant. It is against the Ten Commandments that you may measure sin or righteousness.  

Righteousness is like a balance. One side is the law of God, which is summarised in the Ten Commandments. The other side is your words, deed and thoughts. Righteousness is when you have a perfect balance. No transgressing God’s law, not failing to conform to God’s law. Righteousness is not what people say of you or how honest or gentlemanly you are. To be righteous in God’s eye is to be perfectly aligned with God’s law. Therefore, pay attention to God’s Ten Commandments. If you want to know whether you are righteous in God’s sight, you must measure yourself against God’s Ten Commandments. 

b. Secondly, if you are a Christian, may I urge you to walk gratefully in righteousness. 

When Adam and Eve sinned against God, they essentially jumped out of the water of life. Today, all men descending from Adam by natural generation are dead outside the water of life.  

Christ came to rescue His elect from death and bondage in this dry desert of sin. He came to put us back in the water. If you are a true believer, Christ has enabled you, by the Spirit, to live in the water of the law again. Therefore, you must not despise the commandments. You must live in it in love and gratitude. If you are a believer, you will love God. But remember that loving God is not merely feeling love for God, but keeping God’s commandments. 

You will daily be tempted to jump out of the water because of the remnant of corruption in your heart. But pray, resist the temptation, and remember to confess your sin daily so that you may return to freedom. And remember that there is forgiveness in Christ! 

He lived and died for you. He kept God’s law for you and died to pay for your failure to keep God’s law. Therefore, He will not cast you away because of your failures. Indeed, His righteousness covers you. Though your heavenly Father may sometimes chastise you if you backslide or are stubbornly walking in sin, He will never cast you away. He loves you as His sons and daughters. No father will cast away his children. His love for you is not dependent on how well you keep His commandments. His love for you is fixed and unconditional, for Christ’s sake. But if you would seek to please Him, will you not keep His commandments gratefully and lovingly.? God is pleased when His children walk in freedom and love! 

c. Thirdly, if you are still an unbeliever, may I remind you that you are still in bondage to sin. You are a fish out of the water. You are transgressing against God’s law and failing to conform to it every moment of your life. All your perceived good works and righteousness are filthy rags in God’s eyes. You have no desire to obey God’s commandment, and you have no way to save yourself. You are like a fish on the floor. You will die unless someone rescues you.  

The Lord Jesus Christ is the only one who can rescue you. Oh, will you not cry out to Him? He says, “My sheep hear my voice.” If you hear His voice, will you not cry out to Him to save you? He will not cast out anyone who comes to Him sincerely, no matter how sinful he may have been. 

Some of the most beloved saints were formerly idolaters, murderers and adulterers. Cry out to Him, therefore, for forgiveness and salvation. Why would you die? Why would you continue to be deluded by Satan to die in sin? Amen.  

—JJ Lim