What is Sin?

Whether you self-identify as a follower of Christ or not, how have you defined “sin” in your own mind? The stark reality is that many, if not most people hold to a misunderstanding of what sin actually is, as God defines it and describes it in Scripture. There are several places where God does so but there is perhaps no better passage than 1 Peter 2:1-3 …

So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

For most people, verse one essentially summarizes their perspective of sin: if you want to be saved or if you want to be a good person, don’t do this, put away that; don’t touch this, stay away from that. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In the previous chapter, Peter spends an entire chapter talking about the power of being “born-again,” a gracious work of God that produces a new existential reality for any and all who entrust themselves in who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for them. For Peter to follow up an entire chapter about grace with an imperative to do seemingly the opposite, wouldn’t make much sense. Instead, in light of how profound the “born-again” experience is, Peter also provides a profound look into why someone needs to be born again to begin with: sin.

An Architecture for Sin

While it’s common to consider sin as a list of behavioral no-no’s, Peter dismantles this assumption by architecting sin itself. Consider the list of sins Peter mentions: in Paradigm 1, we list out the sins Peter calls born-again Christ-followers to “put away.” In Paradigm 2, this list is simplified and listed in reverse order (it will become clear why we do this now). Paradigm 3 is an even simpler and more pragmatic perspective of the verse.

Word Greek Definition
Malice κακία Nature or circumstance (Mounce) of evil; commitment to evil
Deceit δόλος Deceit; adulteration of truth
Hypocrisy ὑπόκρισις Dissimulation; stage-playing
Envy φθόνος Envy or jealousy
Slander καταλαλία Speaking against

When we understand verse one using the paradigms above, suddenly sin becomes much more than a religious kind of disobedience or a moral “missing the mark.” Instead, sin becomes something like a tree, bearing fruit as a result of its roots.

An Example from the Workplace

Consider the following example from the workplace in light of the Sin Paradigm above.

John slanders Jane at work because Jane received a promotion that John believes is undeserving. At lunch, John tells his coworkers that he is a far better performer than Jane and that Jane does not do her job as well as he does, suggesting that he was the rightful person for the promotion. In this instance, the modern secular Church may identify the behavior of John’s slander as the sin; however, according to the paradigm provided by the Apostle Peter, the text would consider why John was led to slander to begin with. The text quickly identifies that John slandered Jane because he was jealous or envious of her promotion—he desired what she ultimately received while, simultaneously believing she did not rightly deserve what she received. The behavioral sin of slander has suddenly deepened into an internal reflection of value and personhood—John believes Jane is a person who does not deserve the promotion and the loss of the opportunity has lessened the value of his life; John believes he is a person who deserves the promotion and that such a promotion would bring value to his life.

If John’s slander was ultimately because of his envy, then where does John’s envy come from? The passage proceeds to portray John’s envy coming from a form of hypocrisy. Much like the Apostle Peter’s audience in the first century, John is assumed to be a self-identifying Christian (someone who is, as described thoroughly in chapter one, “born-again”). As a born-again Christian, therefore, John would be considered a co-heir with Christ and, by faith, a recipient of the fullness of righteousness and wealth that Christ has achieved through His earthly ministry, sacrificial death, and supernatural resurrection. In other words, John’s value has been maximized to the extent of Christ’s own divine value, having been made a new creation. In slandering Jane, however, John has not only conveyed the presence of envy but his envy reveals an existential form of hypocrisy: John is not living like he is truly maximized in value because of Christ’s finished work on the cross; rather, John is living like there is still value to be gained—and in this instance, gained by means of a promotion. As such, John is living like someone he is not; John is living as a hypocrite.

What started as a seemingly simple act of slander at work has suddenly revealed a dramatic compromise in John’s system of value and existence—and yet, the paradigm in the passage dives even deeper as it considers where John’s hypocrisy comes from. In doing so, the Apostle Peter reveals that an existential crisis in one’s identity comes from a compromise in truth’s reality (or, when applied, one’s worldview). For John to slander Jane means he must have allowed himself to believe that he was not who Christ has claimed him to be and, therefore, needing more value in life, John was led to slander Jane. This allowance, with its existential and value-system compromises, extends from a crisis in truth: for John, he did not believe that Christ’s work was true in the moment, such that he allowed himself to believe that a lie (that he is not maximally valued) to become a kind of fundamental truth that would create the opportunity for envy and, in turn, permit the behavior of slander. In other words, John’s hypocrisy was rooted in deceit and deception—the belief that a falsity was true and that the Truth was not true.

Finally, in diagnosing the very core of John’s behavior, the paradigm in the passage roots John’s broken value-system, existential identity crisis, and detrimental compromise of truth in one singularity: desire for what God calls evil. According to the Apostle Peter, all sinful behavior is ultimately rooted in a version of soulful affections that has gone awry; it is out of the seed of one’s deepest affections—what Martin Luther once called “worship”—that fruit is forged. That physical, palpable, and visible thing that, according to Jesus in Matthew 7:15-20 (cf. Luke 6:43-45), quantifies the goodness or evil of a tree ultimately stems out of deep desire and soulful affection—and when that affection is given to what God deems evil, there is but malice. Altogether, the Apostle illustrates that sin is not so much a series of behaviors but a system no different than a plant that grows from a seed that is rooted deep beneath a visible surface.

According to this paradigm of sin, the visible sin is slander but the visible behavior is an extension of one’s value system, produced by one’s identity, which is produced by one’s definition of truth, rooted and motivated by one’s deepest affections. Saint Augustine of Hippo called these affections “cupiditate,” suggesting that all sin is actually rooted in one’s affections. Pastor Pete Scazzero taps into a similar understanding of truth with the following:

“In our honest moments, most of us will admit that, much like an iceberg [or a tree and its fruit], we are made up of deep layers that exist well beneath our day-to-day awareness. [As an illustration of an iceberg shows], only about 10 percent of an iceberg is visible. This 10 percent represents the ways we conduct ourselves and the changes we make that others can see. We are nicer people, more respectful. We attend church and participate regularly. We ‘clean up our lives’ somewhat by addressing any issues with alcohol and drugs to foul language to illicit behavior and beyond. We begin to pray and share Christ with others. But the roots of who we are continue unchanged and unmoved. Contemporary spiritual formation and discipleship models address some of that 90 percent below the surface. The problem is that a large portion…remains untouched by Jesus Christ until there is a serious engagement with what I call ‘emotionally healthy spirituality.’”

Download the following worksheet for you and/or your group to use each time you meet. You are encouraged to keep your answers confidential but remain as honest and reflective as possible—the more honest your answers are, the more impactful the next sections will increasingly become.