The most penetrating and devastating definition of sin that I am aware of in Scripture is the last part of Romans 14:23: “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” The reason it is penetrating is that it goes to the root of all sinful actions and attitudes, namely, the failure to trust God. And the reason it is devastating is that it sweeps away all our lists of dos and don’ts and makes anything, from preaching to house-painting, a candidate for sin. In the original language, this is stressed even more than in our versions: it says, “Everything which is not from faith is sin.” Anything, absolutely any act or attitude which is owing to a lack of trust in God is sin, no matter how moral it may appear to men. God looks on the heart.
There are three implications of this definition of sin given by Paul, which I think are very important.
1. Unbelief is the Root of Sin.
First, the all-pervasive fault in every sin is its character of unbelief. Let there be no confusion here. By unbelief I do not mean a refusal to accept the truths of the Bible. We are not saved by giving mental assent to the promises of God. We are saved by whether we hope with our hearts in those promises. The failure of the heart to be confident in the promises of God and to rejoice and find pleasure in his provision for the future is the root and essence of all sin. Unbelief is what mainly displeases God in every sinful act. As Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”
And rightly so, because unbelief is a terrible insult. If a friend offers to do you a favor and promises by his honor to see it through, but you decline the offer and say, “No, friend, I’ve decided I just can’t trust you any more,”—if that is your response to his promise, the friendship is over. You have insulted his integrity and robbed him of his honor. And there is just cause for animosity against you to rise in his heart. Moreover, the offensiveness of your insult would increase in direct proportion to the dignity of your friend. In other words, the greater his wisdom and honor and dependability, the uglier and more inexcusable would be the insult of your failure to take him at his word.
This helps me feel a little bit of how horrid sin is, because God is infinitely wise and infinitely honorable and infinitely dependable, and has paid an infinite price to put all this at our disposal for our good. What an intolerable offense it is then for a puny little human, absolutely dependent on this God’s grace for every breath he takes, to say with his behavior to God, “I don’t really think you can be counted on to make a better future for me than I can make in following my own way.” If such unbelief persists there will be judgment (which is what I want to talk about next week). A failure to delight and trust in the promises of God is the greatest insult you can pay to God and therefore the primary offense in all sin.
2. Sin Is Not a List
The second implication of Romans 14:23 is that we cannot view sin any more merely as breaking the ten commandments or transgressing a list of dos and don’ts. “Everything that is not from faith is sin.” Coming to church may be sin, staying home may be sin. Eating steak may be sin and not eating steak may be sin. Sexual intercourse with your own wife may be sin and the refusal of sexual relations may be sin. One of Satan’s most successful lies is that sin can be limited to a manageable list of dos and don’ts. The reason this is so satanic is that it causes thousands of churchgoers to think that things are OK between them and God because they avoid one list of don’ts and practice another (much shorter) list of dos; but in fact may be sinning all day long, incurring the wrath of God, because their attitudes and actions do not come from faith in the promises of God.
Please don’t think that this cannot happen to people in the church, in our church. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “When I could bear it no longer, I sent that I might know your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor would be in vain.” Among churchgoers, Satan is primarily in the business of replacing vital faith with mere morality. He loves to take a life flowing from happy confidence in God and turn it into a perfunctory religious regimen. Don’t let him do it! For “whatever is not from faith is sin,” including religion.
The real battle of life is not fought at a low-lying delta where the river of our inclinations flows into action, but at the high, less accessible spring of faith. If the stream doesn’t start in the spring of faith, it does not matter where it flows, it will issue in sin. Therefore, as Proverbs says, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (4:23).
3. All Things Are Sin for the Unbeliever
The third and final implication of Romans 14:23 is a warning to those who have not sought Christ for forgiveness or placed their hope in him. If there are any among you like this, do not say to yourself, “‘My sins are slight, or my sins are few.” For according to Romans 14:23, everything you do is sin. If you are not trusting Christ for forgiveness and are not resting in his daily work on your behalf, then none of your actions comes from faith, but every one of them (even the most noble) is sinful and an insult to the infinitely trustworthy God. And I hope, if you have not received Christ with all his forgiveness and all his hope, that this week you will not be able to shake loose the thought that everything you do is sinful in God’s eyes, for whatever does not come from faith is sin.