“What is sin, anyway?” asks a inquirer in cyberspace. To which another reader responds: “It is when people hurt themselves and destroy others.”
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That is a comment about sin, not a definition, and it is true as far as it goes. The stories contained in Genesis 1-7 reveal more fully the reality of moral darkness, in light of who we are — both in ourselves and in relation to our Creator. The creation stories tell us that we are creatures formed of earthly elements, yet made in the image of God (Gen. 1-2). This double truth about our nature creates an internal tension. Because we are made in God’s image, we are tempted to claim godhood for ourselves at the expense of God who made us. But because we are mortal beings made of dirt, we really are thoroughly dependent creatures who cannot exist even a moment apart from God who gives us life. At its core, sin is a human being’s decision to be self-sufficient without the Creator, to declare independence from the Maker. Sin results from the self-delusion of supposing that we can function as the center and fulcrum of our world.
The Serpent-in-the-Garden story, recorded in Genesis 3, tells us that sin is also any attempt to make moral choices as if we can decide what is “good” and what is “evil” based on our own personal experience rather than by taking God’s word for it. That is the meaning of the name of the tree in the middle of the Garden: “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” In Hebrew usage, “knowledge” suggests insight gained by experience, and the phrase “knowing good and evil” regularly refers to the process of making moral decisions for oneself.
Paul uses this ancient story from Genesis 3 as a backdrop when he encourages his converts not to repeat the mistake originally made by Adam and Eve (Rom. 16:17-20). Our own “appetites” still cry out for unbridled satisfaction (v. 18). Tempters still use “smooth” speech to “deceive” (v. 18). The key to resisting temptation still lies in our willingness to be “wise” experientially about what God calls “good” but to remain naive (“innocent”) about whatever God says is “evil. (v. 19). This is in contrast to the story of Adam and Eve, who decided that they must discover and define “good” and “evil” by experiencing it all for themselves. God will still “crush” Satan beneath the feet of the person who trusts and obeys God — clearly an allusion to Genesis 3:15 (v. 20).