Everybody knows what it means to do bad things. Either we break the law, or harm others, or violate our own consciences. Everyone experiences this.
The Bible calls this universal problem “sin,” and it describes sin and its effects in countless ways. People who are honest with themselves know there are things about us that aren’t quite right. We need fixing. That’s why the Bible’s declarations about sin ring true.
As we consider the Bible’s teaching on sin, we’ll take a look at how sin operates, so we can better recognize it and guard against it. For those looking for an article that defines sin, read this.
Sin Begins with Me
The writer of the book of James describes sin using the analogy of birth, development, and death:
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:13-15 NIV)
While God uses trials to develop character and perseverance in his children (James 1:3-4, 12), he can never be blamed for directly tempting people with sin (James 1:13; 1 John 1:5). We also can’t blame Satan for our sin by adopting a “the devil made me do it” mentality, because James later says that if we resist the devil he will flee (James 4:7).
James wants us to know that when we sin, it is our fault. Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul concurs when he writes that God provides a way out when we are tempted (1 Corinthians 10:13). We sin because we want to.
All of this biblical teaching shows us that we choose to sin. Like Eve in the garden of Eden, who saw the forbidden fruit and “desired” it (Genesis 3:6 ESV), temptation comes from “our own desires, which entice us and drag us away” (James 1:14 NLT). And once sin is conceived, it begins to grow.
How Sin Grows
A superb analogy of the deadening effects of sin comes from geology.
An object subjected to highly mineralized (silica) water or another medium such as lava can undergo petrification. Petrification involves two processes. The first is permineralization. This is when the cavities and pore spaces of an object are filled by silica, while a large amount of the original material remains. The second step is called replacement. This is where the original substance is gradually substituted by the silica at the microscopic level. Over time virtually nothing is left of the original material.
Paul describes the process of sin in a similar way when he writes to believers in Ephesus:
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. (Ephesians 4:17-19 NIV)
Paul envisions four stages of the seeping silica of sin: (1) darkness, (2) hardness, (3) deadness, and (4) recklessness. A person’s perspective on life—why we are here and how we should live—will either produce a life that’s worthwhile and pleasing to God or one that is not.
In order to establish how sin works in this way, we need to go back to the beginning of the Bible.
1. Darkened Mind
After Adam and Eve committed humanity’s first sin (Genesis 3), in the very next scene recorded in Genesis we see Cain killing his brother Abel. Two chapters later we read about Noah and the flood, and the entire world corrupted. Sin’s spread was rapid and thorough.
When Cain presented an unacceptable sacrifice to God, he was told to correct himself and offer a proper sacrifice like his brother Abel. God warned Cain, though, that if he did not, “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7 NIV).
We know the rest of the story. Instead of doing what was pleasing to God, Cain lured his brother into the fields and killed him. But murder was not Cain’s first or primary sin. It was his poor view of God. Cain did not love God enough to honor him with his best when it came time to sacrifice.
This is why Paul begins with futile thinking (Ephesians 4:17) and darkened understanding (v.18). As with Cain, those who do not know and love God will be mastered by their sinful inclinations, thus becoming “separated from the life of God” (v.18).
This is what the godless men of Jude’s day did when they took “the way of Cain” (Jude 11 NIV), which led to polluting their own bodies (v.8). It is why Paul writes elsewhere to renew our minds (Romans 12:2), remembering God’s mercy towards us, his kind character, and his deserving of our very lives. All godly action begins with thinking right about God.
2. Hardened Heart
From this darkness of mind comes hardness of heart. The Greek word for “hardness” is poros, which literally means hard as marble. It’s the same Greek word employed in the Gospels referring to those in the synagogue who wanted to kill Jesus after seeing him heal the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:5–6). Despite the great miracle, their hard-as-marble hearts produced murderous thoughts.
Then come people who have “lost all sensitivity” (Ephesians 4:19 NIV). It’s the picture of a person who has so exposed himself to sin that it no longer bothers his conscience. Therefore, sin continues to grow in this person’s life. Greater thrills are likely to be sought through greater, riskier behavior. The old sins don’t quite satisfy, something bolder, deeper, more sinister is needed.
Perhaps the accounts of Jesus healing leprosy have a spiritual analogy to these people. Much like healing the blind and deaf has a parallel to people who spiritually cannot see and hear, leprosy could be equated with sin’s deadening effects, slowly killing all sensitivity and eventually destroying the person.
4. Reckless Behavior
The last stage in the petrification of a person’s soul by sin is recklessness. These people have “given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity,” with continual greed for more (Ephesians 4:19).
This slide from darkened thinking to reckless behavior is usually gradual. A person doesn’t typically wake up one morning and randomly decide to commit depraved acts. Such a descent usually takes time. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turning, without milestones, without signposts.”
These four stages can occur on both the individual and corporate level. How long does it take a society to move from natural views about sexuality, for example, to more depraved ones? Once we move the line of acceptability, the temptation is to move it further. If we recognize anything from the Bible’s teaching about the nature of sin, we must understand that sin is never content to stop. It will pursue us relentlessly until it has consumed us entirely.
Sin will pursue us relentlessly until it has consumed us entirely.
Sin Produces Death
As James says, sin gives birth to death (James 1:15). Death was the promised outcome when God warned Adam to not eat the forbidden fruit (Genesis 2:17).
Active rebellion against God always has consequences. Because God’s design for our lives is for our good, stepping outside his boundaries is destined to bring disaster. All we have to do is look around our world today to see the consequences of sin: violence, murder, rape, scandals—and these all start with simple heart-level thoughts like hatred, anger, lust, and envy. Sin brings destruction. It’s why Paul writes, “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV).
That verse from Romans doesn’t end there. Here’s the full verse: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Yes, sin is the universal problem of mankind (Romans 3:9). Because there is one illness, there can only be one cure: Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Jesus died to take away our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). Believers in Jesus’ atoning death on the cross are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6:1-7), but God’s Spirit sets them free from its power when they believe. And as we regularly confess our sins to the Lord, he actually cleanses us (1 John 1:9) as we rely on God’s Spirit to help us “put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13 ESV).
If you feel overwhelmed by all the bad things you have done in your life, take heart! God has provided a way for you to be reconciled to him.
It begins with admitting that you’re a sinner in need of his forgiveness. Then, you receive the free gift: Jesus’ sacrifice for your sins on the cross and his perfect record of righteousness given to you. Will you embrace the free gift that God offers?