Sin or sins?

18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.  –Romans 5:18

22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. –Romans 7:22-25

I know I’ve done my job as a preacher when I get lots of interesting questions after a sermon. This past week was a wonderful example. Some were a little confused by what I had said. In response, I encouraged them, as I do you, to consult Scripture. I am not infallible. You should always measure what any teacher or minister says about articles of our faith by the witness of Scripture. That said, I turn to the question at hand: what is sin? Is there a difference between “Sin” and “sins”?

In my sermon, I said that acts like cursing a neighbor at a stop light aren’t “sin,” per se. Quite a few didn’t get the point because they thought that such instances are sin — that sin is the tally God keeps on God’s scoreboard of wrongdoing. In one light, you can say that those things are little “s” sins (plural). Such acts are certainly not the things that God would have us do or say. However, those instances are symptoms of the larger problem, the “disease” or “infirmity” which is “sin” proper. (Isaiah 53:4)

Sin (singular) is a condition, a spiritual disease, not a bad mark on God’s checklist to see whether you measure up. Sin is the engine driving our transgressions. Sin is the condition that drives us to discern the good from the bad for ourselves (see Genesis 3) because we love things that are beautiful in our own eyes. Our “flesh,” or hearts turned in on themselves, are at war with God’s will for our lives. (Romans 7:22-23) In that war, we are inclined to curse our neighbor and disobey God’s commands because we want to call the shots all by our lonesome. On our own, we suffer separation from God’s will for our lives, self-deception, and blindness to our own motivations. (see Calvin, Institutes, II.1.1-2)

Understood in this way, we commit “sins” (plural) because we are, by nature, sinners. (Romans 3:10-18) You cannot escape sin for it is part of the human condition. In Romans 7, Paul talks at length about this desperate struggle. Like Paul, we are all caught up in this cycle of disobedience and struggle, and when our best efforts fall apart under their own weight, we, too, despair: “who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24b) Why can’t I get it right all the time? Why do I keep falling into the same old mistakes, again and again?

What we desperately need is renewed and right relationship to God. We need to be healed of our condition. As Scripture gives witness, the faithfulness of Jesus Christ is the cure for our sin-sick souls. (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24 & Romans 5:18) Jesus Christ’s perfect righteousness and obedience to God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. As we live in Him by faith, he makes us whole, delivers us, saves us and gives us the power to resist sin’s hold on our hearts as he conforms us into His image through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 8:29) He renews our minds and hearts so that we can live in the power of His love, turning away from “sins” (plural) that are really symptoms of the underlying condition. (Romans 12:1-2)

In light of all this, what then are we to say? A couple of things. One, we can’t win the war by ourselves. We need God’s grace in Jesus Christ to save us from our desperate condition. Two, Jesus Christ has won the victory for us, so clinging to Him is our only hope. When we slip and fall into our old ways of being, this isn’t a call to beat ourselves up or point fingers. Instead, it is a call to plead to Him for help. Three, because He has won the victory already, we are, as Paul tells us, “more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37) Whatever you are facing; whatever your trial; whatever falsehood the accuser (the devil) whispers in your ear, you have the power to resist it in His name, and in His name alone. Glory be to God!

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