When Is a Sin Really a Sin?

It’s our corrupt motives that mark us as sinners, not the sins we commit.

As a pastor, it’s a question I get all the time—is that a sin? People inside the church ask about sin because they’re trying desperately to stay “good,” while people outside the church ask about sin because they’re curious to know what church folks are going to judge them for next. Unfortunately, the question itself betrays a misunderstanding of what sin really is.

People, both inside the church and out, think of sin primarily as something you do…or, if you’re good, something you avoid doing. The way we usually look at life, every potential behavior is either “good” or “bad,” “righteous” or “sinful.” Stealing is a sin. Helping someone shovel his sidewalk isn’t. Simple enough, right?

But what about lying? Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. Lying seems like a sin, but what about telling your daughter that her piano recital was wonderful (when it wasn’t) or telling your wife you love what she made for dinner (when you don’t)? Suddenly, whether or not something “is a sin” becomes a little murky, and we must begin to consider something deeper than what we do (or say) on the outside.

We must consider motivation. Why are you helping your neighbor shovel his sidewalk? Do you hope he’ll do something similar for you? Are you trying to get in his good graces? Maybe you just want to be perceived as a good neighbor. Notice that all of these motivations are about you. They are all self-focused, casting your neighbor as a pawn—someone you can use to get what you want, even if it’s just a feeling-good-about-yourself glow. These selfish motivations mark us as sinners.

Read more in Tullian Tchividjian's book.
More from Tullian Tchividjian in his new book.

If it really is our corrupt motives (our constant self-focus) that mark us as “a sinner,” rather than the “sins” we commit, we must look inside of us for the problem. Jesus famously said that, in God’s eyes, anger and murder are the same and that lust and adultery are the same, suggesting that the issue is not our behavior, but our hearts.

In another place, Jesus said that if your eye causes you to sin, you should pluck it out, and that if your hand or foot causes you to sin, you should cut them off. Harsh as this is, it makes sense to get rid of the thing that’s causing the problem. We translate that to avoiding certain websites or television shows, asking Sports Illustrated to hold the swimsuit issue, and avoiding the person in the office who really makes our blood boil.

But is this really solving our problem? Of course not. We still lust. We are still angry. We have to go deeper.

Let me suggest something radical. Sin isn’t primarily about what you do. Sin is a product of unbelief.

The Christian gospel is the blessed announcement that God’s free, one-way, no-strings-attached gift to bad people is that everything we long for was secured by Jesus. Jesus came to grant unworthy people like you and me all of the validation, value, and meaning we long for and desperately look for under every rock and behind every tree. The Good News about Jesus is that he came to give us what we could never get for ourselves. Unfortunately, we just can’t believe that could be true. We are so used to a tit-for-tat, I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine world that the idea of a good God giving great stuff to bad people for free sets our teeth on edge. We just can’t accept it. So we set about trying to acquire those things (the value, the meaning, the validation, and so on) for ourselves.

That’s sin.

The lie that the serpent told Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was that if they ate the forbidden fruit, they would “be like God.” In other words, they’d be in charge! They’d be in charge of their lives (which most of us want) but that would also mean they’d have to be in charge of saving themselves (which none of us want).

We eat the same fruit every day. We are addicted to self-salvation projects. So much of what we do, from putting in extra hours at the office to rededicating ourselves to a workout regimen to vowing to spend more time with our children to giving more to charitable causes, is done in an effort to save ourselves. We busy ourselves with all kinds of things in a desperate attempt to secure for ourselves the worth, approval, love, and significance we crave. And it makes life a burden to bear rather than a blessing to enjoy.

So sin doesn’t always look “bad.” In fact, it often looks quite good. But what sin always does is attempt to gain for ourselves what Jesus offers us for free. We reject God’s gift and try to earn it on our own. Thankfully, God has promised that Jesus came to save train wrecks like us while we were busy trying to save ourselves.

A proper definition of sin makes us all sinners. Incredibly, sinners are precisely who Christ came to save.


Image courtesy of Sue Hasker.

Tullian Tchividjian
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  • http://www.jobathome.in/killervideos.html John Wealth

    Well, this made an interesting read. But at the same breath it’s intriguing too.

  • shanea7

    wow–I can’t believe this sort of theological eccentricity and higher-life piety is being taught and promoted in the PCA–

    • saneandreasonable

      wow, you better pay attention. Sin is a primary theme in the N.T, do you actually read the Bible?

      • shanea7

        Thank you, yes, I do happen to read the Bible. And yes, sin, and preaching against sin, is a primary theme there–though not in Tullian’s preaching, since he sees that as a “focus on the Law” rather than “love” and the gospel.

        I’ll repeat and clarify my criticism of this article: Pastor Tchividjian’s doctrine of sin (as expressed in this article) is eccentric and unhelpful. When he contrasts motives and actions, and when he says “Sin isn’t primarily about what you do. Sin is a product of unbelief.” He creates a dichotomous view that doesn’t exist in Scripture. Yes, unbelief and prideful autonomy are the roots of all actual sins. But it is not simply the motives that need changed in Christian mortification, it is also the “deeds of the flesh.” Sin in its roots and fruits must be put to death by the Christian in the Spirit’s strength. Without this sanctification, no one will see the Lord.

        These truths are clearly taught in our confessions and catechisms, yet many conservative Presbyterians in our day are busy trying to be fancy and create new and innovative ways to win the world—in the meantime they are muddying what ought to be plain.

  • Episteme

    The concept of classifying so many of the implicit motivations of quiet sinfulness as “self-salvation projects” and explicitly part of the Serpent’s “be like God” promise is an ontological masterstroke. I never would have thought of it that way, but it actually does make perfect sense to consider it that way.