John’s Definition of Sin
In our spiritual journey, we must all leave Egypt at Passover and come to Horeb for Pentecost before we can enter the Promised Land at Tabernacles. This sequence involves three stages which are seen as justification, sanctification, and glorification. John speaks of justification in terms of being begotten by the Spirit and sanctification in terms of purification.
Purification comes after leaving Egypt—that is, after we have been justified by faith in our great Passover Lamb. In the story of Israel under Moses, the people first crossed the Red Sea, signifying baptism (as 1 Cor. 10:1, 2 indicates), and then went to Horeb to receive the law, which was the revelation of truth given by the Holy Spirit. In other words, Horeb was Israel’s Pentecost.
This is a universal truth that applies to all of us in all generations. Baptism is a public confession of our faith where the priest or minister bears witness on behalf of the congregation. It speaks of our intention to leave Egypt, to adopt a new way of life, and to become citizens of the Kingdom. But it is only the start of a long training period. The real sanctification (Pentecostal purification) comes later and continues throughout our journey to the Promised Land.
Mount Horeb is the place where the law was first given. There God began to instruct Israel formally by the revelation of the Spirit, for as Paul says, “we know that the law is spiritual” (Rom. 7:14). If the people had not been afraid to hear the voice of God at that time, God would have written the law upon their hearts instead of upon tables of stone. But the people were too frightened by the fire of God, the earthquake, and the loud trumpet, so they sent Moses up the Mount to hear God on their behalf (Exodus 20:19). The people wanted Moses to tell them what God said, rather than hear from God directly.
As a result, the people did not sanctify themselves properly, for they remained lawless. Although they were given the law, it remained external, for they had not received it in their hearts. But John says that “everyone who has this hope” of the Promised Land “purifies himself.” He must be cleansed by the blood of the Lamb and then purified daily by the water of the word (law).
Most of the Israelites at that time lacked the faith to enter the Promised Land when the twelve spies finally returned to give their report (Heb. 3:19). Faith comes by hearing the word (Rom. 10:17), and the word is the water that purifies us under the New Covenant. Without the ability to hear the word, the people could not be cleansed, so they were unprepared for Kingdom life.
The Law Defines Sin
1 John 3:3, 4 says,
3 And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. 4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness [anomia]; and sin is lawlessness [anomia].
The problem of anomia defines the history of the world since the beginning of time. It is the attitude that despises the law of God, replacing it with traditions of men. For unbelievers, anomia is expressed as an outright disagreement with the law, for the desire of the flesh is to sin. Hence, they justify sin as a normal way of life.
But there are also believers who are lawless. They too disagree with the law, usually due to their misunderstanding its New Covenant applications. Neither do they understand the biblical definition of sin. Most do not knowingly claim the right to sin, but they give themselves the right to violate whatever law they think is evil or irrelevant, thinking that the New Covenant gives them that right.
The biblical definition of sin varies, but John gives us the most fundamental Hebrew definition: “sin is lawlessness,” or, as the KJV reads, “sin is the transgression of the law.” Paul says in Rom. 14:23, “whatever is not from faith is sin.” This definition does not disagree with John, for Paul says also that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). In Hebrew thought, to hear (shema) also means to obey. So Paul was telling us that we should have the ability to hear God’s voice and obey the leading of the Spirit, for if we fail to do that, it is sin.
John would agree wholeheartedly.
Likewise, James 4:17 says,
17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does it not, to him it is sin.
Both John and Paul would agree with James. Sin is about failing to do the will of God. The will of God is expressed in the law. Paul says in Rom. 2:17, 18,
17 But if you bear the name “Jew,” and rely upon the Law, and boast in God, 18 and know His will, and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law…
Paul acknowledged that the will of God was something that the Jews should have known, “being instructed out of the Law.” Further, he says that these are “the things that are essential,” not essential for justification, but essential for sanctification—learning how to be obedient to God and learning not to be lawless.
Spiritual People are Obedient to God’s Law
The world as a whole follows after the flesh and the “old man.” Religious people are those who identify with the “old man” but in a religious manner. They try to make their “old man” do good things, hoping to reform the old man and turn him into a true believer. But the old man has already been condemned to death, and no amount of good works can change that. We must agree with the law of God, crucify the old man, and live according to the “new man.”
Even those who give assent to the law and try to be obedient are not always identifying with the new man. When the old man tries to follow the law, he tends to be legalistic. The new man is lawful. There is a difference. The difference is that legalism approaches the law through the veil of the Old Covenant, whereas the lawful ones approach the law with unveiled faces through the New Covenant.
From Paul’s perspective, sin is a fleshly slave master that drives us to be lawless. So he says in Rom. 6:19,
19 I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members [body parts, such as arms and legs] as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness [anomia], resulting in further lawlessness [anomia], so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.
Paul said further that if we identify with the inner man called the “new man,” and are thus led by the spiritual man that is saturated by the Holy Spirit, then we, like Paul, will “joyfully concur [agree] with the law of God” (Rom. 7:22). But Paul confessed that his flesh, the “old man” was at war with the “new man.” So he says in Rom. 7:25,
25 … So then, on the one hand I myself with my [spiritual] mind am serving the law of God, but on the other hand, with my flesh the law of sin.
We see, then, that if we are truly doing the will and works of our “new man,” which has been begotten by the Holy Spirit, then we will serve the law of God. But if we continue in sin and anomia, it is evident that we are still serving the flesh and the “old man.”
Jesus did not give His followers the right to be disobedient or lawless. In fact, He warned us and even prophesied that many believers would become lawless. He says in Matt. 7:21-23,
21 Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” 23 And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness [anomia].
Thus, Jesus too was concerned about antinomian believers, even those who had such great faith that they could “prophesy” and “perform many miracles.” Would their faith bring praise from Jesus? No, Jesus said that He would disavow them, saying, “I never knew you.”
Anomia was a problem in the first church under Moses. The “church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38, KJV) often rioted and wanted to stone Moses. Why? Because the law was not written on their hearts, and so they showed little evidence of faith. The Scriptures were written for our instruction, and the lawlessness of Israel serves as a warning to the church today.
Whereas Israel refused to go up the Mount when invited, we ought to reject their example and draw near to God to hear His word and His law. It is only by hearing His voice that the Holy Spirit begins to write the law upon our hearts, transferring it from external pages of stone tablets (or books) to the internal pages of the heart.