What is a sin?

How do we decide what things to avoid?

Susanna Wesley (1669-1742) on practical Christian living

Questions often arise about specific lifestyle choices ("standards," as they were called at one time).

College students struggle with deciding what behaviors would weaken their commitment to living a holy life rather than enhancing that commitment. I have fielded questions such as "Where in the Bible does it say it's a sin to drink beer?"

I like John Wesley's mother's advice on how Christians can decide what habits and lifestyle patterns they should avoid or eliminate. Since the Methodist Church was born out of the ministry of Susanna Wesley's son John, she is often called "the mother of the Methodist movement." When her son John was 22 years old, she wrote him a letter in which she said:

"Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself."
   — Susanna Wesley (Letter, June 8, 1725)
of Susanna Wesley
Susanna Wesley painted by an unknown artist (Epworth Rectory)

Although John Wesley did believe that all transgressions of divine will need God's forgiving grace, his working definition of sin was "a willful transgression of a known law of God" [ more on Wesley ]

Sin's seat: The heart

Check out the self-examination questions used in discipleship groups spawned by John Wesley's Methodist movement.

What do Nazarenes believe about sin?

The official Nazarene doctrinal statement defining sin includes these words: "We believe that actual or personal sin is a voluntary violation of a known law of God by a morally responsible person. . . . We believe that personal sin is primarily and essentially a violation of the law of love and that in relation to Christ, sin may be defined as unbelief."
   — excerpt from the Articles of Faith of the Church of the Nazarene

Discussion starter questions suggested by a student group discussing how to define "sin"

  1. Is murdering someone more of a sin than harboring ill will toward a person and delighting in their suffering?
  2. Which is more sinful?
    1. Committing adultery
    2. Having lustful thoughts toward someone
  3. If we claim to keep the Sabbath but do not fellowship with other believers, have we fulfilled God's wishes?
  4. Are people who are not able to regularly keep a traditional weekly Sabbath by worshiping on Sunday with other believers supposed to be classified as transgressors of one of the Ten Commandments?

John Wesley's criteria for a right heart

John Wesley composed a set of questions to help believers self-evaluate their heart condition. Here they are:

  1. Do you believe in God? In His wisdom, power, justice, mercy, and truth? Do you walk by faith and not by sight?
  2. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, and are you found in Him?
  3. Is your faith filled with the energy of love? Has love for God cast out love for the world?
  4. Are you doing the will of God with an attitude of "not my will, but Thine be done"?
  5. Is your heart right toward your neighbor? Do you love your enemies?
  6. Do you show your love through your works?

Entertainment: Biblically-based moral choices

A spiritually healthy Christian life cannot be built on negatives. However, doesn't saying "yes" to some things (such as holy living) mean we will be saying "no" to some other things? The question is: Are we saying "yes" to the right things and "no" to those things that would damage or obliterate our "yes" choices?

The following material has been adapted from the contents of a publication by Focus on the Family.

Some years ago, Francis Schaeffer wrote a book titled How Should We Then Live? The question the book title asks is a good one. If we believe what we say we believe, then how should we live, particularly as it involves our entertainment choices?

A good starting point:

How would I feel if Jesus were to physically show up at my dorm room or home? Would I feel pride or embarrassment at having Jesus see the movies I watch or see my video game collection?

Here is some guidance

"I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it." -- John 17:14-16

Some Nuances of the Word "Sin"

More for you on "sin"

What's your level of commitment?

nextAfter an African pastor's martyrdom, those packing up and disposing of things in his home found a statement he had written expressing his Christian commitment. [ read more ]
-- Howard Culbertson,

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