What Is Sin?
Much of Christianity concentrates on sin and forgiveness. It’s hard to define exactly what sin is, but in general, sin is either doing something God says not to do or not doing something God says to do. The way much of Christianity looks at sin is that sin is an offense against God. God is seen to be a “just” God who requires payment for sin. God requires that justice always be done; in other words, God requires that the scales of justice must always be balanced.
Sin tips the scales of justice over to one side, and God requires that payment be made to bring the scales back into balance. When that payment is made, the scales are once again in balance, and then God can offer what is called “forgiveness.” Just like sin, forgiveness, in this context, is hard to define, but a general definition of forgiveness is that forgiveness means to stop feeling angry at someone; to stop blaming someone. So when God forgives a sin, He stops blaming you for it, stops being angry at you for doing it. But remember, forgiveness can only come into play after payment is made. God will not forgive unless payment is made. God will not stop being angry at you and blaming you for your sins unless your sins are paid for.
Jesus Paid for Sin on the Cross?
The way many Christians look at it, Jesus paid the penalty for sin by His death on the cross. This puts the scales of justice back into balance, and now God can extend an offer of forgiveness. You have sinned, Jesus paid the penalty for your sins by dying on the cross, so now the scales of justice are back in balance, and God extends an offer to stop being angry with you because of your sins, to stop blaming you for your sins.
Jesus paid the penalty for your sins and put the scales of justice back into balance, but it is up to you as an individual to get forgiveness. Although Jesus paid the penalty for your sins by His death on the cross, that does not guarantee your sins will be forgiven; it simply makes it possible for you to get forgiveness. You must do your part and “get” forgiveness.
To many Christians, that’s what Christianity is all about—to get forgiveness for your sins. Why is it so important to get your sins forgiven? Well, unless your sins are forgiven, when you die, you’ll go to hell. According to this idea, unforgiven sin is what sends people to hell. If your sins are not forgiven, you go to hell. If you get forgiveness for your sins, you go to heaven.
So, many Christians see the purpose of Christianity as being to get your sins forgiven so you can go to heaven instead of hell.
This is the Protestant idea. If you have been in Protestant Christianity in the United States, that’s probably what you’ve been exposed to. In Roman Catholic Christianity, the idea is somewhat different, but even so, it still all revolves around sin. And so in both Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity, the idea is that in some way or another, the sins you commit get you in trouble with God, and if you don’t do something about that, you’ll go to hell. That’s the concentration of Christianity.
If we look in the Bible though, how important is forgiveness? How much is forgiveness actually emphasized in the Bible? Well, not very much, especially considering how so vitally important it is in American Christianity.
Sin and Forgiveness in the Old Testament
First, let’s think about forgiveness in the Old Testament. If you read through the Old Testament, you’ll notice that the Hebrew people strayed from God time and time again. It seems like they never did as God wanted. Because of that, according to the authors of at least some of the books of the Old Testament, God caused bad things to happen to them.
It’s tempting to say that God caused these bad things to happen to them in order to punish them—to get back at them and make them pay for their sins. It’s very tempting to look at it that way, that God gives tit for tat for sin. You sin, God gets back at you by causing something bad to happen to you. God gets even, in other words.
But, if you look closely at the Old Testament, and by closely I mean look at it in the broad sweep, it actually seems that God caused the bad things to happen to them not to make them pay for their sins but to try to get them to change their ways.
When I read the Old Testament, I don’t see God trying to get revenge or trying to make people pay. What I see is God trying to get the peoples’ attention and get them to turn from doing bad. Second Chronicles 7: 14 says this, “If my people, which are called by My Name, shall humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin.”
That’s interesting, not only for what it says, but for what it doesn’t say. The whole emphasis is to turn from sin and turn back to God. God did not say, “If my people, which are called by My Name, shall humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, I will punish them severely and make them pay, and then I will forgive their sin.”
God didn’t say anything about making them pay for their sin. All He wanted was for them to turn away from their sin, to quit doing it.
I think, when the Old Testament presents God causing bad things to happen to the Hebrews, all He ever wanted was for them to turn from their wicked ways and turn back to Him. Making them pay for their sins, getting back at them, was never the issue, and neither was forgiveness the issue. It was not that God made them pay and waited for them to come groveling back to Him begging for forgiveness. It was not even that they needed to seek forgiveness. All they needed to do was turn from their wicked ways. If they did that, if they turned from their sin, forgiveness was assured.
If they quit doing it, God didn’t hold it against them, God didn’t blame them, God wasn’t angry with them. If they quit doing it.
It’s not that God demanded payment for sin and then might forgive them if they came on their hands and knees groveling and begging. All God wanted was for them to turn from their sins and turn back to Him, and forgiveness was a given. God would forgive. That was never in question.
Let’s think about the Old Testament prophets. The whole reason for God sending the prophets in Old Testament times was to warn the people to turn from evil or God would destroy them. But, it wasn’t that God wanted to destroy them, it wasn’t that God wanted to make them pay for the evil they did, it was that God wanted them to stop doing what they were doing. God was trying to get their attention.
In the book of Jonah, God sent Jonah to prophesy to the people of Nineveh. They were doing evil, and God told Jonah to warn them that unless they turned from evil, they would be destroyed. The people of Nineveh heeded Jonah’s warning, turned from evil, and God did not destroy them. It wasn’t that God was going to destroy them to make them pay for their evil ways. He only wanted them to turn from their evil ways, and when they did, God spared them from destruction. They heeded the warning, turned from their evil, and God did not destroy them. They quit doing the bad things they were doing, and that’s all God wanted. God didn’t punish them.
And you know what happened? Jonah got mad at God. Jonah got mad at God because He didn’t destroy the people of Nineveh. Jonah got mad at God because He didn’t make them pay, because He didn’t lash out at them and get even.
From Malachi 3 we hear this, “Even from the days of your fathers, you have gone away from my ordinances and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, says the Lord.” The people were not following God. They were following another way. All God wanted was for them to turn around and return to Him.
God wasn’t going to punish them and make them pay. God didn’t say, “Return to me on your hands and knees groveling for forgiveness, and after I’ve made you pay dearly, I might forgive you.” God just said, “Return to Me, and I will return to you.” All God wanted was for them to turn from their bad ways and come back to Him, and all would be well.
From the book of Zechariah we hear this, “The Lord has been very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, return to Me, and I will return to You.’ Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets preached saying, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, turn now from your evil ways and your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear nor heed Me, says the Lord.”
Here we see the same thing. All God wanted was for them to quit doing their evil deeds.
We see this over and over again in the prophets. God sent the prophets to warn people to turn from evil and turn back to Him. And that’s all God wanted. He didn’t want to punish them and make them pay. He just wanted them to turn from their evil ways and turn back to Him, and then all would be well.
From the book of Jeremiah we hear, “Return to Me, and if you will put away your abominations out of My sight, then you shall not be moved.” In other words, God is telling them to quit their evil, return to Him, and all will be well. God was not telling them He was going to make them pay. God was not telling them to come back groveling for forgiveness. God was simply telling them to stop doing evil. That’s all He wanted. He didn’t want to make them pay, He didn’t want to punish them, all He wanted was for them to quit doing evil, and if they quit doing it, God would put it all in the past and forget about it.
It was never a question of getting forgiveness. This same theme is found over and over again. If you quit doing it, God forgets about it.
Sin and Forgiveness in the New Testament
This same theme is found from Jesus. What did Jesus preach? Did Jesus preach about getting forgiveness? No. Jesus preached repentance. That was the theme of much of what Jesus talked about. He told people to repent, to turn from doing bad and start doing good. Jesus did not tell people to ask for forgiveness. He did not tell people to go to God and seek forgiveness. He told people to quit doing bad things and start doing good.
The same is found in the book of Acts. In Acts chapter 3, Peter and John heal a lame man at the Temple gate. Peter speaks to the crowd, and he tells them the same thing Jesus told people. He tells them to repent, to turn around. And, he tells them that if they turn from their sins, if they quit doing them, their sins will be blotted out.
Notice he did not say their sins would be forgiven. He said their sins would be blotted out. That means gotten rid of, erased, gone, just like they had never happened. The issue was not forgiveness; it was turning from sin and turning to God.
The implication is that’s all God wants. All God wants you to do is turn from doing bad and turn to God. If you do that, God blots out your sins, and it’s like they never happened. The issue is not forgiveness. The issue is to turn from sin. If you do that, God forgets. Forgets, not forgives. There’s a difference.
Get out a Bible and read the Gospels for yourself and see what Jesus preached. See if you can find Jesus going around preaching, “Get your sins forgiven.”
But although Jesus didn’t preach about getting forgiveness, Jesus did say something very important about forgiveness. When Jesus talked about forgiveness, He did not talk about it in the sense of us asking God to forgive us. He linked God’s forgiveness of us to whether we forgive others. If you forgive others for what they do to you, God will forgive you.
Even with that, though, Jesus didn’t talk about forgiveness very much. As much emphasis as some Christians put on forgiveness, you’d think the word “forgiveness” must have come out of Jesus mouth every other breath. But it didn’t. He talked about it only seldom.
We hear so much about forgiveness from some parts of Christianity that you’d expect it to be found all over the Bible, but when you actually read the Bible, you don’t see that.
How to Go to Heaven
If you ask a lot of Christians, “How do you go to heaven?”, they’ll tell you that you have to get your sins forgiven. Do an internet search on how to go to heaven, and you’ll be bombarded with millions of results that tell you that in order to go to heaven, you have to get your sins forgiven.
But I don’t see that specifically stated in the Bible. I don’t see where the Bible connects getting your sins forgiven with going to heaven. I do see “believe in Jesus” connected with going to heaven. I do see “repent” connected with going to heaven. I do see living right connected with going to heaven. I do see being born again connected with going to heaven. But I don’t see getting your sins forgiven connected with going to heaven.
Have you ever thought about that? As much as many Christians say that in order to go to heaven, you must get your sins forgiven, I’ve never found anywhere in the Bible where it says that. Maybe I’ve just missed it. There may be a little phrase in there I’ve missed that somebody could point to and say this means your sins must be forgiven in order to go to heaven, but even if somebody pointed out a little phrase of a few words, I would still stand on the weight of the biblical witness and say that the Bible does not declare in its essence that the key to going to heaven is getting your sins forgiven.
Sure, there are things people will point to and say, “Well, this obviously means that your sins have to be forgiven to go to heaven.” There are things people will point to and after some creative twisting derive a belief that your sins have to be forgiven in order to go to heaven, but nowhere does the Bible flat out, clearly state that.
An example is Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. It’s found in Matthew. A servant owes his master a huge sum of money but can’t pay. He begs forgiveness, and the master forgives the debt. But then he goes out and has a fellow servant who owes him money thrown in prison. The master hears about it and has this guy turned over to the torturers. Some say that means you’ll go to hell if your sins aren’t forgiven.
But the very people who say that don’t follow what the parable says about how to get your sins forgiven. According to the parable, the way to get your sins forgiven is to forgive others, but yet the very ones who use this parable to say unforgiven sin will send you to hell don’t tell you the way to get your sins forgiven is to forgive others. They use part of the parable that fits their belief and then throw out the other part that doesn’t fit their belief. Because of that, I don’t pay their interpretation any attention.
The Bible does say, “Unless you repent, you will perish.” The Bible does say that those who believe in Jesus will have eternal life. But nowhere does the Bible say that the key to going to heaven is to get your sins forgiven. Nowhere does the Bible say that your sins have to be forgiven in order for you to go to heaven.
According to what the Bible does say, the issue is not to get forgiveness for your sins, the issue is to quit doing those sins.
What Is Repentance?
We do not have to worry and worry about whether we have gotten forgiveness from God for the things we have done in the past. If we have quit doing them and have turned and started doing right, it’s a given that God forgives those things from the past.
But keep in mind that repentance, turning from sin and turning to God, is something we have to do over and over again, all the time. It’s not that we see we’re in sin, and then turn from it, and then never sin again. It’s that we are constantly falling into sin, and constantly turning from it. We find ourselves falling into sin, we turn from it. Later we find ourselves again falling into sin, and we turn from it. This goes on and on a million times until the day we die. We will never reach the state where we never again fall into sin. Sin is something we will do over and over again. That’s why repentance is something we will have to do over and over again.
And be sure and understand that repentance does not mean being sorry. There’s nothing about being sorry about repentance. Repentance does not mean asking for forgiveness. There’s nothing about asking for forgiveness about repentance. Repentance means to quit doing it. Pure and simple, that’s all repentance is—quit doing it.
The most important thing I want you to get from this is that when thinking about the bad things we’ve done in the past that we’ve turned from, we don’t have to worry about forgiveness. We are assured that God has forgiven us. All God wanted was for us to turn from those things. We’ve done that. And so it’s over. God doesn’t hold it against us.
In First Corinthians chapter 6, Paul lists the kinds of people who will not inherit the kingdom of God; in other words, the people who will not go to heaven. “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolators, not adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, will inherit the kingdom of God.” He then goes on to say, “And such were some of you.” The people Paul were writing to had done those things, but they had turned from them. They had done them in the past, but they no longer did them, and so it was not held against them.
I know many people today who are burdened by things they have done in the past. They are worried that God may not forgive them, and they carry around the guilt and worry. I think sometimes churches have fed into that worry and guilt by incessantly talking about forgiveness. “You’ve got to get forgiveness.” “You’ve got to get forgiveness.” “You can’t go to heaven unless you get forgiveness.”
I’ve known people who lived their lives worried to death that God would not forgive them for things they had done in the past. I know people who lived to be in their 80’s and had worried 60 years or more that God would not forgive them for things they had done as a teenager. How horrible, to live your entire adult life worried that God will not forgive the things you did in the past, that you will be condemned to hell because of things you once did but no longer do.
When you look at the Bible, it seems that all God wants is for us to quit doing the bad things. God wants us to turn from the bad things and turn to the right things. When we do that, the slate is wiped clean. Our past evil deeds are wiped away.
It’s not about forgiveness; it’s about repentance. It’s not about forgiveness for your sins; it’s about turning from them—stop doing them.