What is Sin?

I was sitting in a disused maths classroom one lunchtime when I was first told about sin. It was a lunchtime club for high-school teens and the leader had stuck a large target against one wall. We were asked to make paper airplanes and throw then at the target.

Nothing less than a perfect bullseye would be accepted.

We all launched our paper planes at the wall. None hit the mark.

Sin is failure to hit the mark.

I must have thrown that plane a dozen times before the leader stepped in to tell us the truth. Try as we might, our flights were as doomed as our actions.

That is: permanently incapacitated, condemned to failure and bound by a force I never understood nor chose to participate with.

Every act, every word and every thought judged against a standard I do not know. After every conversation, questioning myself: Did I sin? When? Which word was it? Which action was it? The minute details and subtleties of life on planet earth make such an existence impossible, or impossibly complex.

Just as well that the youth leader had his handy pat answer ready to soothe the existential despair such a confession so easily whips up.

The Gospel

The Good News of Jesus is that all my failures died with Jesus on the cross.

This of course gives the Christian leader enormous power. He creates a burden for the young person and immediately proposes a solution.

The problem is that in the world, sin is just fine. 

Well, not all sin. Acts of theft, rape and murder are still disapproved of by society. And especially white, middle-class society.

Yet upon leaving the context of a Christian youth group, each young person will realise that the consequences of sin are as good as imaginary: That is, they are a matter of faith. In terms of existential impact, the two are often indistinguishable.

Of course faith dissolves the tension completely, since Jesus paid the price and allows human beings to encounter God despite their sins.

Upon reflection, the whole thing can come across as rather contrived.

That might be why so many young people leave the church.

If sin is considered to be the failure to perform the acts proper to a person in relationship with God, then a sinner is anyone who fails to do as God requires.

Or, everyone.

This whole Christian conversation about sin can happily remain in the realm of the imagination, scarcely impacting the reality of the community in their life together, their life in society whilst simultaneously enforcing a defining narrative.

We can call ourselves Christians without being any different.

We might never hit that imaginary mark, but we get to not feel any guilt about our actions either.

The title of this post asks the question “what is sin?”

I did not ask “What is a sin?” or “What are sins”.

I want to know what sin is made of, what is it’s essence.

Sin is: before God or with the conception of God, in despair not wanting to be oneself, or wanting in despair to be oneself.

-Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death

Here is the possibility of understanding the real substance of sin. That is, the way in which it impacts the human experience (beyond the obvious acts of evil which affect us all).

Kierkegaard identifies 3 types of despair:

  1. Despair which is being sort of blissfully ignorant that one is in despair, or ignorant that one is/has a self.
  2. Despair in not wanting to be oneself. Have you ever been upset, and then realized you were upset about being upset at all, as if you should be above being upset about such petty things? That is what this type of despair is sort of like.
  3. Despair in wanting to be oneself. This is like knowing you are in despair & reveling in it. Kind of like playing a bitter, poor-me victim.

These kinds of despair arise from the refusal to acknowledge God or be known by him. It is the setting of the self up as the Only One, the One who generates the Self and governs it.

The effects of sin can then be clearly seen. They are seen in the one who goes along with the prevailing ethical winds of the moment, never acknowledging that he is an eternal Self created by God.

They are seen in the one who finds himself despairing that his existence is finite, and endlessly distracts himself from the idea of eternity. He fills himself with earthly things, as if to constantly remind himself that he does not stand eternally before the face of God.

They are seen in the one who despairs in the face of God, knowing himself to be finite and bound to the earth he spites the God he once knew by clinging to the pain his life has brought him. He rules himself as king of the trash heap, spitting in the face of the One who truly established him.

If this is the effect of sin, if this kind of tortured and life-swallowing existence the sinner endures then the response must be more than an idea of forgiveness for arbitrary missing of the mark, but a new existence grounded in the new life of the resurrected Christ.

We know that  everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but  he who was born of God  protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.  We know that we are from God, and  the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.  And we know that the Son of God has come and  has given us understanding, so that we may know  him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and  eternal life.  Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

1 John 5:18-21

And be kept from the idol of yourself.


Add yours →

  1. A handy pat answer? Is this truly what you see and believe the evangelist was telling you? What Jesus did for you is a handy pat answer?
    Gives the Christian Leader enormous power – only if he is a very very bad Christian Leader totally incapable of actually telling the Good News. When Paul told the Good news people asked – OH GOOD DOES THAT MEAN I CAN SIN LOTS. Unless that is your response to the Gospel you haven’t heard or understood the Gospel.
    Can come across as contrived? Again only because the true Gospel has not been preached or heard. What has been preached or heard is a mishmash of old and new covenant – with law prevailing to make you still feel guilty and thus power can be wielded by the church..

    I would suggest that young people who truly hear the gospel don’t “leave the church” because its not even about being “in the church” it’s about having a personal relationship with Jesus.

    get to not feel any guilt about our actions either……. Yes actually that’s exactly what Jesus wants for us – Romans 8 v 1 – no condemnation Hebrews 10 v 2 – no more conscience of sins. Once people start living the way God wants and desires them to live – with no sin consciousness –then at last the work of the church/Christians/followers of Jesus can start – we can start being Jesus to the world and seeing results. It’s satan’s plan to keep church folk so wrapped up in contemplating sin that they are not able to help a dying world. Why? Because they judge their actions and still feel part of the dying world. The blind leading the blind.

    I want to know what sin is made of, what is it’s essence…….. exactly my point above – why oh why oh why are you Ian so conscious of sin – why are you trying to examine something that is sorted done and dusted? It’s like your dad or mum having thrown away something you broke – having forgiven you for it and told you it’s all ok – but you insist on retrieving it from the dustbin and pointing out to them you broke it all over again – how arrogant and prideful is that – self centred me ness with a false shroud of humbleness.

    The bible tells us what sin is quite clearly – you don’’t have to quote some theologian. Why don’t you ever quote the book you profess to believe in and on to answer questions – the bible says pride is sin – pride is the root of sin – (just do a search on the word pride). So pride is self yes – self centredness includes examining your own sin even though God tells you it’s sorted.

    So problem sorted – stop focusing on sin = pride and start focusing on who the bible tells you you are – and go out into the world and be that person – you are the Christ to your area of influence – now shouldn’t you be out there doing what Christ did – and greater works than him? Healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons and ushering in the GOOD (and I stress Good – not your depressing) NEWS of the Kingdom of God freely available to all without effort. Only believe.


  2. “why are you trying to examine something that is sorted done and dusted?”

    In what sense? We live in a world of poverty where a great many people will die today of starvation or worse while I discard food which I bought but forgot about. Sin most certainly is not “done”.

    God, in Christ, eternally bears sin on himself and thus liberates the believer and shows the way to freedom. It is a drama which must constantly be believed, turned toward and responded to.

    Yes, I think pride being the root of sin is what I said. It is the elevation of the self in rejection of God, yet the tragedy is that we can only truly be ourselves in the face of God our maker.

    If you find that news depressing, I can recommend you go on Joel Osteen’s website for something a little more uplifting.


    • Wouldn’t touch Joel Osteen – his father John was a preacher – he’s a cognitive therapy helper. God in Christ is not “eternally bearing sin” – present tense – he “eternally BORE sin” once for all on the cross – and you’d better hope he did because he’s not coming back to do it again . I wonder what you understand by all the new testament teaching of it being in the past and a done deal and all the prayers and instructions to walk in what you’ve now got and not your old past dead and buried life?

      I agree totally that we look around us and see the effects of a society that doesn’t yet know what has been purchased for it. You must know the story of the japanese soldier who continued fighting the second world war long after it was over. DId the fact that he continued fighting negate the truth the war was over = or what the problem one of knowing? Does the fact that you see the results of sin negate the truth that GOd’s word tells you sin is dealt with – could it be the world still living in its old habits because the problem is it doesn’t KNOW what’s been done for it? Because Christians aren’t telling and doing the Gospel.

      When will you let the truth of God’s word fly higher in your esteem – mean more to you – in your heart than experience? Does not the Word of God tell you that satan’s trick (only trick!) is to lie to you – so that you never experience the wonderful truth of GOd’s blessing. Satan comes to steal kill and destroy – unless you already HAVE something there is nothing for him to steal kill and destroy. The battle we are told is in our minds. We are told to transform our minds – not to solve the world’s sin problem. The world doesn’t have a sin problem – Jesus sorted that – the world has a knowledge problem – it doesn’t know it it now free to live another way


  3. Just to confirm what I have written – see Ephesians 4 v 17 onwards. The only difference paul distinguishes between the Christians he is writing to is knowledge (not “born again” not “repentence and confession of sin” nothing spiritual – just they still walk in the futility …. OF THEIR MIND. – learning Christ frees you from walking in this futility – you CAN put off your former conduct – just because you now know the truth – where should we be renewed – in the spirit of our MIND – and actively choose to PUT ON the new man ……. so the world’s problem isn’t a sin problem it’s a knowledge problem. Hope this helps and clarifies

    Answers to any problem or question we can ever pose is in His Word – amen – hallelujah for his Word – living and written.


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