The Heart of Sin
What is sin? It is not a particularly popular topic, but it is essential to understanding the central storyline of the Bible, what is wrong with the world, and what is wrong with ourselves. Quite frankly, our thinking about sin typically consists of oversimplifications and illustrations we learn so that we can share the gospel. But the doctrine of sin is a crucial component of the foundation of a comprehensive Christian worldview. Shallow views on what sin really is have led to veneer Christianity and little love for the God who redeemed us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
If you asked a cross-section of people the question, “What is sin?” what kind of answers would be given? Many would answer that it is the breaking of God’s law. Some might point out that it is both an action, as well as an indwelling power within human beings. Others might respond that it is self-centeredness or failing to keep the golden rule. While these are all true, our common ideas of sin fail to get at the heart of what sin really is. In Romans 1:23 Paul, the inspired Apostle, gets at the heart of what is wrong with the world and provides an analysis of the human condition that you won’t find anywhere else outside the Bible.
In Romans 1:18 Paul begins the body of Romans by declaring that God is angry at the way humanity has suppressed the truth. What truth have they suppressed? “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (1:20). As human beings gaze out upon the created world, we can’t not know (as one philosopher has put it) that there is a God who made us and all things. However, while this knowledge is unavoidably present in every one of us, our natural tendency is to push that knowledge down and refuse to acknowledge it. Some do this so effectively that they actually do not believe that God exists – at least consciously.
After explaining this, Paul gets to the heart of why sin is so ghastly. Paul writes, “[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (1:23). What is at the heart of sin, both the power within each of us as well as every individual sinful act? It is this – we prefer created things over the living God who made us!
Paul’s language is meant to shock us. A more literal translation of the original Greek might go like this – “They exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for a likeness of an image of a corruptible man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Do you see it? We exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for a likeness of an image of a corruptible image of God! If you have the original Mona Lisa worth millions of dollars, and you make a copy of a copy of a copy, you might be able to sell it for a couple of dollars in the museum gift shop! The point Paul is making is difference in value.
If we fail to see that at the heart of sin is the exchange of the infinitely valuable eternal God for created things which rot away, we will not understand what is wrong with the world and ourselves, and neither will we love the gospel. Paul introduces verse 18 with the little word “for”. If we read our Bible rightly and look back to how this “for” connects to the previous passage, we will see that understanding sin has everything to do with the gospel summarized in 1:17. In other words, we need the gospel of 1:17 precisely because God is angry at the way human beings have traded him in for $5.00 copies of Mona Lisa. The more we understand the horror of this foolish exchange we have made, the more we will love the God who has made a way for us to have this heinous crime pardoned.