Definition of Sin: 1 John 3:4
The Bible talks about sin in a variety of ways. It uses words like lawlessness, rebellion, transgression, offense, evil, missing the mark, and a variety of other words to describe things that are sinful. And each of these words adds something to our understanding of sin.
But when Scripture speaks of sin abstractly — when it offers its own definition for sin — one word tends to rise above the others: lawlessness. In the Bible’s vocabulary, sin is most fundamentally a violation of God’s law. As the apostle John wrote in 1 John 3:4:
Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4).
We see this same emphasis on sin as lawlessness in places like Romans 7:9-25, and 1 Corinthians 15:56. This basic concept of sin is also reflected in the theology of many different Christian traditions.
As just one example, consider the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s question and answer number 14. In answer to the question: What is sin?
The Catechism answers: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.
Notice that this answer identifies two general types of violations of God’s law: want of conformity unto the law, and transgression of the law.
On the one hand, want of conformity unto the law is failure to do what Scripture commands. This is often called sin of omission because we omit or neglect what we should be doing. On the other hand, transgression of the law is doing what Scripture forbids. This kind of lawbreaking is often called sin of commission because we actively commit sin by thinking, feeling or doing something that Scripture forbids.
Now, when we talk about the law of God as the standard that defines sin, it’s important to point out that God’s law is not arbitrary or random. On the contrary, the law is a reflection of God’s perfect character. Consider the way Paul described the law in Romans 7:12:
The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:12).
As Paul said here, God’s commandments are always holy, righteous and good, just like God himself. God’s commands always accord with his nature.
This is why Scripture teaches that if we love God, we’ll keep his commandments. If we love God, we will also love those things that reflect God, such as his law. We see this in Deuteronomy 5:10 and 6:5-6, Matthew 22:37-40, John 14:15-24, and many other places. Consider the what John wrote in 1 John 5:3:
This is love for God: to obey his commands (1 John 5:3).
Love for God is manifested in obedience to his law. So, when we break his law, we are not acting in love for God. And therefore, we are sinning.