What Sin Is and What Sin Does (Ezekiel, part 1)

I heard a story recently about President Calvin Coolidge. As the story goes, he returned home one Sunday afternoon after attending morning worship services. His wife was unable to attend, so she asked her husband what the preacher’s lesson was about that morning. He said, “Sin.” His wife asked for more details and Coolidge said, “Well, I think he was against it.”

If you don’t remember anything else about the sermon this morning, please remember, first of all, that I’m talking about sin and, secondly, that I’m against it. But hopefully, there will be something else that will stick with you.

In our study through the Bible, we come now to the book of Ezekiel and the Bible Project has divided the study of this book into two parts, so this morning I’ll be looking at chapters 1-33 where the focus is sin, and then next week we’ll look at the last half of Ezekiel where the focus is hope. And I hope you’ll be back here with us next week, because if all you hear is the message of sin without a message of hope, it can be quite depressing.

As I was thinking about what to preach this morning, I realized that when I was studying in college and took a class on sermon preparation, I think my very first sermon in front of that class came from the book of Ezekiel, chapter 33. I considered sharing that sermon with you this morning, but I feel like you’ve all suffered enough already with the COVID crisis the past few months.

But there is a valuable lesson for preachers in Ezekiel 33. God describes the prophet or preacher as a watchman in the city. He’s the guy who stood up in the tower and watched the horizon to see if any enemies were approaching. And if the watchman saw any enemies coming, he would blow the trumpet warning the people so that they could come in out of the fields into the city, close the gates and be safe.

God said that it’s the watchman’s job to sound the warning. If he blows the trumpet and nobody comes inside the gates, that’s on them; he’s not responsible for anything that happens to them. But if the watchman sees the enemy coming and he doesn’t blow the trumpet, then he is going to be held responsible for any deaths that occur.

God said that the job of a preacher is basically the same. It’s our job to warn people about sin in their lives. God said, “If I announce that some wicked people are sure to die and you fail to tell them to change their ways, then they will die in their sins, and I will hold you responsible for their deaths. But if you warn them to repent and they don’t repent, they will die in their sins, but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezekiel 33:8-9)

So, if you’ve ever wondered why preachers talk so much about sin, that’s the reason why.

Let’s take an overview of the first part of the book of Ezekiel, and then I’ll be back to talk some more about sin.

VIDEO (Ezekiel, part 1)

There are certain words, like people, that get old and tired, they lose their vitality and impact. And whenever that happens, there are times, like people, when they need to be retired from active service. And so, every year, printed dictionaries drop certain words simply because they’re not used much anymore.

For example, recently the word “snollygoster” was dropped from the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. It appears that nobody uses that word anymore which is a real shame because the word “snollygoster” means “an unscrupulous politician”, and it seems to me that there would be a lot of appropriate occasions to use that word, if only people would.

But if we’re going to drop words from the dictionary simply because we don’t use them anymore, then perhaps the word “sin” is in danger of being dropped, because people don’t talk about sin much anymore. We make mistakes, we mess up, we make bad decisions, but hardly anyone says, “I’ve sinned.”

And that’s not a new thing. Back in 1973, Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled “Whatever Became of Sin?” He wrote in that book, “The word ‘sin,’ which seems to have disappeared…was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word…But the word went away. It has almost disappeared—the word, along with the notion. Why? Doesn’t anyone sin anymore? Doesn’t anyone believe in sin?”

And it’s true. People don’t talk much about sin anymore, and when they do, it’s almost a joke. When country or pop artists sing songs about sin, it’s always taken lightly, never seriously. Like The Kendalls in 1977 who had a hit with “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away”. Or more recently, Sam Hunt who sings, “I never felt like I was sinning with you…If it’s so wrong why did it feel so right? If it’s so wrong why’d it never feel like sinning with you?”

The word “crime” actually has a much bigger impact on us because it’s more visible and it often has a more immediate result. Crime makes us feel apprehensive, so we do things to protect ourselves. We install locks on our doors and stay away from certain areas. We take steps to warn other people of the dangers of crime.

But, sin, not so much. Sometimes sin isn’t as visible as crime, and very often, it doesn’t have an immediate impact. And so, as a result, we don’t feel threatened because of sin. In fact, sometimes, sin looks like fun – and so, we don’t take steps to stay away from it or warn other people to do the same.

And while most crimes are also sins, for the most part, the world only recognizes the most obvious of sins – murder, theft, rape, kidnapping. Worldly people tend to live only by what they can see, and because the effects of sins like adultery, anger, gossip and covetousness are not always immediately evident, most people in the world don’t understand that there’s anything wrong with those sins.

But it’s not just the world. There are many churches where sin is never discussed. It’s all about what God can do for you, and lessons to make you feel good about yourself, and talking about the love and grace of God. But we need to realize that grace has no meaning apart from sin. If I tell you that I forgive you for all the ways that you have offended me this past week, that won’t mean a thing to you if you don’t know what you’ve done to offend me. And if we talk about the grace of God without first being aware of the sins that we have committed, then that grace doesn’t really mean that much to us.

So, this morning, I want to do two things. First of all, I want to talk about what sin is. And then, I want to talk about what sin does.

What Sin Is

What exactly is the definition of sin? The dictionary says that sin is a “transgression of divine law.” And that’s not a bad definition. But I like how Augustine described sin. He said, “Sin is believing the lie that you are self-created, self-dependent, and self-sustained.” And while that may not be a very good dictionary definition of sin, I think it captures the essence of sin. Sin is when we do whatever we want to do because we don’t feel like we’re accountable to God, we don’t feel a responsibility to listen to anything he tells us to do.

There are quite a few different words for sin in the Bible. In fact, depending how you count, there are about two dozen Hebrew and Greek words for sin. Let me share with you just a couple of the most important.

First, there’s the Greek word “hamartia” which means “to miss the mark”. It uses the imagery of an archer who releases his arrow but the arrow fails to hit the target. And that’s a good visual of what sin is all about. We aim for righteousness, we aim to be like God, but we all miss the mark. We all sin. As Paul said in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

This Greek word “hamartia” also contains the idea of making a wrong turn. We’ve all done this while traveling. We’re going down the road and suddenly realize that we’re not where we need to be. We missed a turn, or we made a wrong turn. And no, you can’t blame it all on your GPS. And this happens to us spiritually as well. We take a wrong turn and we end up somewhere that we didn’t intend to be. Like Paul said in Romans 7, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15). Even with the very best of intentions, we can take a wrong turn.

Then there’s the Greek word “parabaino” which is usually translated as “transgression” or “trespassing”. It conveys the idea of going somewhere that we’re not allowed to go. It’s like a piece of property that has a sign up that says “no trespassing”. And if you go onto that property, you are trespassing or sinning. It’s the same thing spiritually. God has lots of things that he tells us not to do. “Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t covet.” Any time we cross over and do something where God has posted a big sign saying “No trespassing”, we’re guilty of sin.

As I’m sure you know, we often divide sin into two categories – sins of commission and sins of omission. I heard about one little boy whose Sunday school teacher was talking about the difference between sins of commission and sins of omission. The little boy explained to his teacher that the sins of omission are, “Those sins that we want to do but we just haven’t gotten around to yet.” Which is not quite right.

Sins of commission are those sins where God says, “Don’t do this”, but we do it anything. For example, Paul lists the works of the flesh in Galatians 5, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21). Here are some things that God says, “Don’t do these things.” When we do them, we commit sins of commission.

Sins of omission are those sins where God says, “Make sure you do this”, but we don’t do it. For example, John says in I John 3:17 that “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need”, but he doesn’t do anything to help him, he’s not showing the love of God. He’s sinning. It’s a sin of omission. James goes so far to say in James 4:17 that “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” And I think you would all agree that even if we can avoid doing those sins of commission, the sins of omission will get us every time.

There’s one more big difference between sin as God defines it and sin as most people in the world see it. Most people believe that sin is an action, it’s something you do. And this is the really big difference between crimes and sins. I don’t suggest you go to the police and say, “I’d like for you to arrest my neighbor. I bought a new car and he’s been looking at it with jealousy and covetousness.” The laws of our land deal with actions, not attitudes.

But, as God makes clear throughout the Bible, and as Jesus made so especially clear in the Sermon on the Mount, sin isn’t just confined to our external conduct. More than that, it’s what takes place in your heart. God says, “Don’t murder”, but he also says, “Don’t hate anyone.” God says, “Don’t commit adultery”, but he also says, “Don’t covet and desire something that’s not yours.” Sins like pride, greed and ingratitude are just as wrong as anything we may do with our bodies.

So, when we understand how God views sin, we can begin to see why sin is so universal. People like robbers, murderers, drunkards, rapists and child-abusers are obviously evil, and we’re quick to agree that they’re sinners. But, in our hearts we often consider ourselves to be good respectable people because we don’t do any of these things.

But when we understand that sin is “missing the mark”, it’s making a wrong turn, it’s going where we shouldn’t be going. It’s doing things we shouldn’t be doing and failing to do the things we should be doing. And sin isn’t just what we do, sometimes it’s the attitude in our hearts, attitudes which we can keep hidden from a lot of people.

And so Jeremiah 4:22 expresses far more truth than we would like: “The LORD says, ‘My people are…like foolish children; they have no understanding. They are experts at doing what is evil, but failures at doing what is good.’” (Jeremiah 4:22, GN)

But it’s not just what sin is that makes it so bad, it’s what sin does.

What Sin Does

1. Sin Always Affects Others

One of the things that Ezekiel teaches about sin is that no one is punished because of someone else’s sins. In Ezekiel 18, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” (Ezekiel 18:20).

But that doesn’t mean that our sin doesn’t affect other people. And I’m sure you’re aware of this, because all of us have been affected by the sins of others, whether it’s abuse at the hands of sinful parents, or hurtful words from the mouth of a sinful co-worker, or divorce at the hands of a sinful spouse who failed to keep his or her covenant promise. We all know that the sins of others affect us daily.

But we somehow like to believe that whatever sins we may commit don’t affect anyone else. We like to whatever I do is okay as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. “It doesn’t affect anyone else, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that sin always affects others, even if we don’t realize it.

Committing a sin is like tossing a rock into a lake. That rock causes ripples, sometimes a great distance away. Sin always has ripples. It always has an impact on the lives of others. When a person sins, it affects a spouse, children, extended family, friends, co-workers, and all of the relationships connected to those people.

The reason for that is that sin is not just the breaking of a random set of laws that God threw together. God’s laws are an expression of his love, so sin is always a violation of God’s love. That means that any time I sin, I’m focused on doing what I want to do with my life, which is not showing love. Sin will always prevent our relationships from being all that they can be.

2. Sin Always Affects Us

That’s just another way of saying that sin always has consequences. God’s rules are designed for our good. God created us and he knows what is good for us and what is not. He doesn’t create rules or give commands just for the fun of it. And so, any time we rebel against what God tells us to do, it’s really a rebellion against what is best for us.

It’s like a parent who knows that too much sugar will result in health problems for their child, and that a lack of sleep will result in that child being irritable. So, the parent limits candy and sets a bedtime, not for the fun of it, but for the benefit of that child. And so, whenever a child disobeys, he or she suffers the natural consequences of engaging in destructive behavior. It’s the same way with us and God. God lays down guidelines for our good, and when we disobey, we suffer the natural consequences of engaging in destructive behavior.

But we like think that we’re different from everyone else. Yes, people who do this or that end up with bad things happening to them, but I’m the exception. Nothing bad will happen to me. There won’t be any consequences in my life.

Or sometimes we think we can avoid the consequences as long as nobody finds out what we’re doing. Achan made that mistake when he stole the gold, silver and clothing from Jericho. He buried it in his tent thinking that no one would ever know. Of course, he forgot that we can’t hide what we do from God. But he quickly learned what Moses told the Israelites in Number 32, “You have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out.” (Numbers 32:23).

There are always consequences for sin, and sin will always affect us in ways that are harmful.

3. Sin Rebels Against God

We all need to learn to pray like David did, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” (Psalms‬ ‭51:3-4‬)‬‬‬

Someone might say, “Well David didn’t just sin against God. He also sinned against Bathsheba. And he certainly sinned against Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah.” And that’s true. But at its very core, every sin is a rebellion against God. Sin is man’s futile attempt to be God.

Somehow, we think we know better than God, we don’t believe God’s rules and laws are good for us. Every time we sin, we usurp God’s authority. Remember what Augustine said about sin? “Sin is believing the lie that you are self-created, self-dependent, and self-sustained.”

Every time we sin, we’re saying, “God, you’re not as smart as I am. You don’t know what’s best for me. You don’t know what it would take for me to be really happy.” We put ourselves above God because we tend to make decisions based on what will happen immediately without taking into consideration the long-term consequences.

And so, sin rebels against God.

4. Sin Always Leaves Us Wanting More

The reason we sin is because we think it will make us happy. And it might, for a while. Hebrews 11:25 talks about “the fleeting pleasures of sin.” But the key word there is “fleeting.” It’s only temporary. It might be helpful to think about it this way – all sin is an addiction. We know how an addiction works. You take a drug, you feel good – for a while. But to feel good again, you need to get another hit. And, as time goes on, you need more and more to get that elusive feeling, which always fades. And, before long, you’re addicted. You’re a slave to that drug.

Every sin works the same way. We commit sin because it makes us feel good (if it didn’t make us feel good, then we wouldn’t be tempted to do it). But, in order to keep getting that feeling, we have to keep committing that sin. And, as time goes on, you need more and more to get that elusive feeling, which always fades. And, before long, you’re addicted to sin. You’re a slave to that sin. That’s why Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34).

Don’t be deceived. Committing sin will not bring you happiness. It will only leave you wanting more.

5. In the End, Sin Will Destroy Us

It destroys our innocence, it destroys our ideals, it destroys our relationships and ultimately, it destroys us because “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)

You may leave here complaining that this morning’s sermon didn’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy and, if that’s the case, then I’ve succeeded. Because the role of the watchman is not to make everybody feel good while the enemy comes in and destroys them. The role of the watchman is to warn. Not so that he can make people feel bad about themselves, but so that they can make some changes and save their lives.

Let me read one more passage from Ezekiel 33. Beginning in verse 30, God said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, your people talk about you in their houses and whisper about you at the doors. They say to each other, ‘Come on, let’s go hear the prophet tell us what the Lord is saying!’ So my people come pretending to be sincere and sit before you. They listen to your words, but they have no intention of doing what you say…. You are very entertaining to them, like someone who sings love songs with a beautiful voice or plays fine music on an instrument. They hear what you say, but they don’t act on it! But when all these terrible things happen to them—as they certainly will—then they will know a prophet has been among them.” (Ezekiel 33:30-33)

It’s not a pleasant thing to preach about sin. But it’s not until we clearly see what sin is and what sin does to us that we can fully appreciate our need for God’s grace. A few moments ago, I read part of Romans 6:23. Let me close by reading the whole verse. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23). That grace is available to those who confess their sin and come to Jesus Christ for cleansing.

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