Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. 1 John 3:4NKJ
Question 24 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What is sin?” It gives the answer, “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.” After having considered the doctrine of original sin and the effects of sin in this world, we now turn to examine the nature of sin itself.
The question seems almost too easy to bother answering; “What is sin?” Everyone knows what sin is, right? Actually, nearly every mistake in doctrine or misunderstanding of any article of faith either begins with or results in some error in identifying or defining what sin is. The colloquial use of the word sin, though often silly, nevertheless indicates the confusion and points to the necessity of having a formal definition. We hear people say things like, “It’s a sin to wear that dress with those shoes,” or “That ice cream is sinful.” Christians should know that sin is not resisted by impeccable fashion sense, nor is it identified by what causes us to transgress our diets! Sin is breaking the law of God, by not doing the good God requires of us or by doing the evil God forbids. Apart from God’s law there is no sin. As the Scripture puts it, “Apart from the law sin was dead” (Rom. 7:8), and also, “Sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom. 5:13).
Sin can only exist as a corruption or perversion of righteousness, and righteousness is defined by the law of God. Thus, the apostle Paul, “I would not have known sin except through the law” (Rom. 7:7). Even the righteousness of the gospel, which is revealed apart from the law (Rom. 3:21) is understood as being the law-obedience of Christ imputed to His people by faith. The righteousness we get is a law- righteousness, for there is no other kind. But it is Christ’s obedience that has achieved it, not ours. In Jesus alone “there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). Only He kept God’s law perfectly. Accordingly, “iniquity,” a synonym for sin, is defined as a misdeed, an error, or a going astray from the right path, a lack of the good one should possess. Likewise, “transgression” means to go beyond rightful boundaries, to wrongly break with or to wickedly rebel against. Both of these synonyms for sin are defined by their hostility toward something that is good. And that good thing is the law of God.
God’s law is the one and only standard of righteousness. It is the measure of perfection. Apart from God’s law, the words “good” and “evil” can have no possible meaning. The words “good,” “right,” “just,” and “true,” when used to describe human behavior, speak of conformity to some moral code or standard of desired conduct. This code or standard is the law of God. God’s law communicates to man, as a moral and rational creature, what is required of him in every thought, word, and action. Any action that meets that standard is righteous, all that fall short of it or miss the mark is sin: “All unrighteousness is sin” (1 John 5:17).
Consequently, the Catechism delimits sin as a lack of conformity and transgression of that law of God which is “given as a rule to the reasonable creature,” in order to differentiate sin from a lack of conformity to other “laws” of God or of man. The Westminster Standards recognize the ceremonial and judicial laws (WCF 19:3-4), which were given exclusively to the people of Israel for a particular time and purpose within the unfolding plan of redemption. While these laws were in place it was sinful for a citizen of Israel to transgress them, but since they were not given as the standard of the perfection of man’s moral nature they could not be permanent, and so when they served their purposes they were removed. A similar qualification must be placed on all manmade laws or traditions. It is sinful for a citizen of a country to break the laws of the legitimate magistrate, unless those laws conflict with God’s moral law, then they must be broken! Moreover, the regularity we see in the creation, sometimes referred to under the rubric “laws,” though from God is not “given as a rule to the reasonable creature.” Thus, man can use his abilities to counter the natural forces of weather, wild animals, the environment, and etc. so long as he does not do so in order to break God’s moral law. But of all those laws God has given to man, as the Catechism says, “any want of conformity… or transgression of any law of God” is sin. Every transgression of any law of God is a sin and every sin requires the blood of Christ to forgive. As James says, “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jam. 2:10). Only as we know what sin—our enemy—is, can we seek God for the grace to resist it. And the more we study God’s law the more we will recognize sin.