The question, “What is sin?” is raised in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The answer provided to this catechetical question is simply this: “Sin is any want of conformity to or transgression of the law of God.”
Let us examine some of the elements of this catechetical response. In the first instance, sin is identified as some kind of want or lack. In the middle ages, Christian theologians tried to define evil or sin in terms of privation (privatio) or negation (negatio). In these terms, evil or sin was defined by its lack of conformity to goodness. The negative terminology associated with sin may be seen in biblical words such as disobedience, godlessness, or immorality. In all of these terms, we see the negative being stressed. Further illustrations would include words such as dishonor, antichrist, and others.
However, to gain a complete view of sin, we have to see that it involves more than a negation of the good, or more than a simple lack of virtue. We may be inclined to think that sin, if defined exclusively in negative terms, is merely an illusion. But the ravages of sin point dramatically to the reality of its power, which reality can never be explained away by appeals to illusion. The reformers added to the idea of privatio the notion of actuality or activity, so that evil is therefore seen in the phrase, “privatio actuosa.” This stresses the active character of sin. In the catechism, sin is defined not only as a want of conformity but an act of transgression, an action that involves an overstepping or violation of a standard.
In order to grasp the meaning of sin, we cannot define it apart from its relationship to law. It is God’s law that determines what sin is. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul, particularly in Romans, labors the point that there is an inseparable relationship between sin and death and between sin and law. The simple formula is this: No sin equals no death. No law equals no sin. The apostle argues that where there is no law, there is no sin, and where there is no sin, there is no death. This rests upon the premise that death invades the human experience as an act of divine judgment for sin. It is the soul who sins that dies. However, without law there can be no sin. Death cannot enter into the human experience until first God’s law is revealed. It is for this reason that the apostle argues that the moral law was in effect before God gave Israel the Mosaic code. The argument rests upon the premise that death was in the world before Sinai, that death reigned from Adam to Moses. This can only mean that God’s moral law was given to His creatures long before the tablets of stone were delivered to the nation of Israel.
This gives some credence to Immanuel Kant’s assertion of a universal moral imperative that he called the categorical imperative, which is found in the conscience of every sentient person. Since it is God’s law that defines the nature of sin, we are left to face the dreadful consequences of our disobedience to that law. What the sinner requires in order to be rescued from the punitive aspects of this law is what Solomon Stoddard called a righteousness of the Law. Just as sin is defined by a lack of conformity to the Law, or transgression of the Law, the only antidote for that transgression is obedience to the Law. If we possess such obedience to the Law of God, we are in no danger of the judgment of God.
Solomon Stoddard, the grandfather of Jonathan Edwards, wrote in his book, The Righteousness of Christ, the following summation of the value of the righteousness of the Law: “It is sufficient for us if we have the righteousness of the law. There is no danger of our miscarrying if we have that righteousness. The security of the angels in Heaven is that they have the righteousness of the law, and it is a sufficient security for us if we have the righteousness of the law. If we have the righteousness of the law, then we are not liable to the curse of the law. We are not threatened by the law; justice is not provoked with us; the condemnation of the law can take no hold upon us; the law has nothing to object against our salvation. The soul that has the righteousness of the law is out of the reach of the threatenings of the law. Where the demand of the law is answered, the law finds no fault. The law curses only for lack of perfect obedience. Yea, moreover, where there is the righteousness of the law, God has bound himself to give eternal life. Such persons are heirs of life, according to the promise of the law. The law declared them heirs of life, Galatians 3:12, ‘The man that doth them, shall live in them'” (The Righteousness of Christ, p. 25).
The only righteousness that meets the requirements of the Law is the righteousness of Christ. It is only by imputation of that righteousness that the sinner can ever possess the righteousness of the Law. This is critical for our understanding in this day where the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is so widely under attack. If we abandon the notion of the righteousness of Christ, we have no hope, because the Law is never negotiated by God. As long as the Law exists, we are exposed to its judgment unless our sin is covered by the righteousness of the Law. The only covering that we can possess of that righteousness is that which comes to us from the active obedience of Christ, who Himself fulfilled every jot and tittle of the Law. His fulfilling of the Law in Himself is a vicarious activity by which He achieves the reward that comes with such obedience. He does this not for Himself but for His people. It is the background of this imputed righteousness, this rescue from the condemnation of the Law, this salvation from the ravages of sin that is the backdrop for the Christian’s sanctification, in which we are to mortify that sin that remains in us, since Christ has died for our sin.