Have you ever
seen an ad for a restaurant that says something like this?:
Just what sort of definition of “sinful” did the
ad writer have in mind?
Most people connect the term “sin” in their mind
with something that is evil to do, such as killing or stealing.
But how do we get from that to the notion that the taste of an
ice cream sundae is somehow sinful?
The implication seems to be that “fun” things—if
they are too much fun—are somehow sinful. And thus
perhaps a person who indulges in too much fun is sinning.
Is this what the Bible says?
The Bible describes a heavenly messenger telling
Joseph, the husband of Mary:
She will give
birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because
he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21)
Surely this can’t be meaning that Jesus will save
people from eating banana splits!
Jesus spoke of the issue of sin and people
needing saving from perishing:
Now there were
some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus
answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners
than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I
tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or
those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do
you think they were more guilty than all the others living in
Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent,
you too will all perish.”
Surely He couldn’t have been meaning that
everyone needs to repent of
chocolate fudge cake! Words such as repent
and sin, which were once used
primarily in religious settings, have tended in modern times to
for other uses that may cloud their original
The reality is that, when God created mankind, He
built into men and women the ability to experience pleasure.
Those feelings of pleasure can come from many sources. Eating
delicious food is pleasurable. Looking at beautiful things is
pleasurable. Having fulfilling relationships with other people
is pleasurable. But built into God’s creation, from the very
beginning, were “laws” which expressed how each of these kinds
of pleasures should “work” to the ultimate good of men and
women. For sometimes those pleasures which are a blessing in
moderation can be a curse in excess. Unless one has a health
problem such as diabetes, there is probably no harm in enjoying
the pleasure of eating a banana split or a big piece of triple
chocolate fudge cake on occasion. But indulging in such rich
desserts daily and ending up morbidly obese can be a curse
rather than a blessing in the long run.
And sometimes things that are pleasurable for a
short time can have repercussions that, in the long run, bring
grief. A sexual encounter with a stranger can seem pleasurable
for the moment. But contracting a sexually-transmitted disease
that lasts the rest of a lifetime makes it very clear that such
pleasure can be deceptive, and a curse in disguise rather than a
There is a wise saying in the Bible's Book of
There is a way
that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.
When a man doesn’t have the wisdom that comes
from God, his way, the things he aims at doing,
can lead him away from the blessings of God both now and
throughout eternity. God’s intent is for us to “aim” at becoming
like Him, perfect in understanding, perfect in making the right
choices, perfect in attitude. He gives us guidance and help to
perfect our aim, that we can be “right on target.” And so we
come to the meaning of the Hebrew word chata in the Old
Testament and the Greek word hamartia in the New
Testament, that are both translated as “sin.” These words
actually imply “to miss the mark.”
We usually use the term “on your mark” to
indicate the beginning of a contest, such as a race. It comes
from the practice of putting a mark on the ground at the point
behind which each contestant should position himself so that,
when the signal to start the race is given, all have the exact
same distance to cover. Contestants usually put their toe right
“on their mark”—rather than behind it—so they will have full
advantage of not starting even a footstep behind the other
But there is another use of “on your mark” that
is related to the concept of sin. The word mark also indicates a
goal or a target. Thus if an archer’s arrow hits right “on his
mark” he has succeeded in his aim. If he “misses the mark,” his
aim was off. It is this kind of being “off your mark” that is
implied by the term sin.
Thus the truth is that a sin, as the word
is used in the Bible, isn't something that gives us so much pleasure
that it feels like we must be acting naughty! That’s a very
cheap use of the term, in the way that the ad men
use it regarding high-calorie foods.
At the same time, sin isn’t just an act that is
against a narrow list of dos and don’ts, such as card-playing,
that some religious group may give to its followers to keep them
in line. Whenever we “miss the mark” of perfection of being like
God, we are sinning.
But wait! That sounds pretty scary! For is there
any regular human being who has ever been or can ever be, until
the he or she dies, “perfect”? The Bible says that there isn’t:
… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God ...
1 John 1:8
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the
truth is not in us.
For the wages of sin is death ...
That isn’t just speaking of the physical death
that all living things will experience. Dogs and cats and
daisies don’t “miss the mark” of the perfection of God, because
that mark was never set for them. Yet they will all die. No,
Romans is here speaking of the permanent death of those who are
not resurrected to eternal life. And other Bible passages make
clear that the only way that we could personally avoid these
“wages” on our own is to have been perfect from birth.
In other words, we are all, like the old hymn
“Love Lifted Me” puts it, sinking in sin! And we cannot
save ourselves from this fate, because we have brought it on
ourselves. Even if we could somehow “change our ways” in our own
mind by a superhuman effort to quit doing a whole list of “bad
things,” we've still already earned those wages. And besides,
our list of what we would need to change would be pathetically
short compared to the full list of every single aspect of life
that would make us somehow perfect as God is perfect. For
instance, the Bible clarifies in many places a wide variety of
things that really are sins, and miss the mark, including this:
Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do
The Greek phrase translated “good he ought to do”
here doesn't just mean “obey a law” like “don't steal.” It
implies accomplishing something beautiful, virtuous, or
valuable. In other words, have you ever recognized something
good or noble you could do that would bless someone, but
neglected to follow through and do it? This passage says that
this is also missing the mark.
How, then, can we be saved by Jesus if we are all
sinners? How can we have any hope of salvation and eternal
life—if we are promised in the Bible verses above nothing but
death? We can have hope because there is more to each of those
passages than it appears in the abbreviated section quoted. Here
are the full versions of each:
... for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
and are justified freely by his grace
through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
1 John 1:8-10
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the
truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful
and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all
unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out
to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
For the wages of sin is death, but the
gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus can save us because He first promises that
if we confess that we have fallen short of the mark, and repent,
He is able to “purify” us from those sins, making us able to
stand before God with a righteousness that isn’t our own:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made
known, to which the Law and the Prophets [the writings of the
Old Testament in the Bible] testify. This righteousness from God
comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is
no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory
of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the
redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
In other words, we are not able to somehow make
ourselves righteous by perfectly keeping the laws of God and
never missing the mark. But “if we confess our sins, he ... will
... purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Yet in the passage about the men who died when
the tower fell, Jesus also made it clear that there was a
“condition” to this offer of salvation: repentance.
Sometimes people use the word repent to
indicate that they are really sorry about some very specific
“bad thing”—a sin—that they did, and plan to never do it again.
Or perhaps they had a bad habit like cigarette smoking that they
have decided to “give up,” and thus they would say, “I've
repented and no longer smoke.”
This is a valid use of the term in English. In
our day it can even mean just “being sorry” or “regretting” that
you did something.
But the Greek word translated “repent” in the New
Testament has a slightly different emphasis. Its primary meaning
is to “change your mind” or to “think differently.”
It appears that Jesus is not just asking people
to make a list of some bad things—that they might define as
sins—that they had been doing, feel sorry for them, and try
harder not to do them in the future. Instead, He is insisting
that they need to have a complete change of mind so that
they think differently. But think differently about what?
Remember what Proverbs 16:25 said? “There is a
way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to
death.” Without God in our life, we each have a perspective on
how we ought to or want to live our life. It is based on many
things, including society’s expectations, the teaching of our
parents, our own desires, our own weaknesses, the opinions of
our friends, and more. It seems right to us. But all of these
influences, including our own minds, can lead us to do things
that far miss the mark of what God’s perfect will for our life
Jesus says that we need to have a complete change
of mind (and heart) about our lives. We need to think
differently about how we make choices in our life. We need to
let go of that “way” that may have seemed so right to us, and
turn to God to understand and yearn to follow His way. To
repent in this way will include recognizing some specific
things in our life that blatantly go against the teachings of
God’s Word in the Bible, and beginning to view those things in
the way God does—as sins. If someone has been a veteran thief,
he needs to come to repent and change his mind about whether he
should continue stealing. If someone has lived a life of
striving for wealth at all costs, because of greed for all the
things and activities he has thought would give him ultimate
pleasure, he needs to recognize that greed falls short of the
mark of God’s perfection, and will ultimately lead not to
unending pleasure, but eternal death. He will need to repent and
change his mind about the path he has been on.
Every one of us has numerous aspects of our
lives that are not in line with God’s perfection. We all need to
repent. It’s not just the greedy white-collar criminal and the
violent felon who need a change of mind and heart—they are just
easier for others to spot as needing repentance. A suburban
housewife who has a quick temper needs to repent. A husband who
is impatient with his wife and children needs to repent. A
grandmother who indulges regularly in self-pity needs to repent.
A male or female of any age who is lazy needs to repent. A
father who is a workaholic, never having time to build a healthy
relationship with his sons and daughters, needs to repent. And
each of those shortcomings, those “missing of the mark”
characteristics, is only one aspect of what each of those people
needs to repent about. The bottom line is that we all need to
repent, because none of us is perfect. Only Jesus lived the
perfect life, exhibiting the full character of God, never
falling short of the mark of perfection in any way.
And that’s why salvation is only available
through faith in Him, not through any human, puny efforts to
become “good enough” to “merit” eternal life. We’ve all earned
the wages of death.
At the same time, we have accumulated a debt of
obligation to pay for our sins. We can repent regarding the sins
of our past, but that doesn't make the record of them go away.
The Bible makes it clear that only Jesus has the ability to
cover that debt for us, which is what makes possible our
As a popular Christian song of the 1970s put it:
He paid a debt
He did not owe,
I owed a debt I could not pay.
I needed someone
To wash my sins away.
And now I sing a brand new song,
Christ Jesus paid the debt
That I could never pay.
(“He Paid a
Debt” Gary McSpadden 1976 Magnolia Hill Music)
There is nothing that you can “pay” Jesus to
induce Him to cover your debt of sins. But the one thing you are
admonished to do that is your part in the process is to
At the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we
see in the Bible a description of John the Baptist preaching the
need for repentance.
People went out to him [John] from Jerusalem and all Judea and
the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were
baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But when he saw
many of the Pharisees and Sadducees [religious leaders of the
time] coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You
brood of vipers! [offspring of snakes] Who warned you to flee
from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in
keeping with repentance.
Sometimes people who are seeking guidance from
the Bible on what they should do about their need for salvation
read this passage, and wonder just what John meant by “fruit in
keeping with repentance.” Some religious teachers insist that it
means that a person who wants to be saved must work very hard to
change his ways and stop all his bad habits by sheer effort of
will-power, all on his own, to show that he has truly repented—before
he is allowed to be baptized.
But John was not speaking to the whole crowd
when he addressed this issue. As a matter of fact, the religious
leaders he was addressing were no doubt very scrupulous about
following the “letter of the Law” of the Old Testament
commandments, and may have appeared to others to have no
bad habits! Nor was he speaking about them changing specific
personal habits in any event. He was speaking of their
hypocrisy, and noting that they had rotten
Repentance is a whole attitude of mind, agreeing
with God about how far short we fall from His perfection, and
asking humbly for His forgiveness, and help to become more like
Him. It isn’t a matter of us using human perseverance and
determination to break bad habits, even though bad habits do
need to be broken.
King David in the Old Testament committed a
number of very horrible sins at one time in his life. He took
another man’s wife in adultery, got her pregnant, and then
secretly had her husband killed to cover up his actions. He
finally came to his senses and realized the enormity of what he
had done. At that point he could have worked to frantically do
all sorts of righteous deeds to somehow “make up” for what he
had done, and show God that he was a changed man.
But that isn’t the solution he realized was
needed for the situation. In one of the Psalms that he wrote at
that time, a prayer to God in song, he gave us an example of how
God really wants us to deal with sin. He knew that he had no
real power to truly change himself. Instead, he asked God
to change him:
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit
within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your
Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and
grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach
transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. Save
me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue
will sing of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my
mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice,
or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt
offerings. The sacrifices of God are a
broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not
But of course, God had been an important part of
David’s life for many years. Maybe this approach worked for him.
But what about people who are just starting to study the Bible,
who have never really had a relationship with God before? Some
religious teachers will insist that this kind of plea to God
isn’t enough for such a person. They claim that someone cannot
truly come to the required kind of repentance without studying
the Bible for a long time. The person seeking salvation must
find out every sort of behavior that God could possibly consider
a sin, and vow to strive mightily to ferret such sins out of
their life, again before they are ever baptized and become a
part of God’s Family. Is this the way to a true, Godly
repentance that leads to the initial experience of salvation?
If so, this is very discouraging for many people.
They may have been struggling for years against bad habits and
weaknesses, and wondering if they can ever be “good enough“ to
in any way “qualify” for salvation. They may be convinced that
salvation is based on how much they know about everything
that is wrong about themselves, and how much they can “change
themselves” by diligent efforts at reform.
But this is not a Biblical perspective on how
repentance and salvation comes about. Salvation is based on
whom we know and to whom we give our allegiance.
There is a story in the life of the Apostle Paul
in the Bible that is an example of this. Paul and his associate
Silas had been thrown in prison in the city of Philippi in an
attempt to keep them from preaching about Jesus.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to
God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly
there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the
prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and
everybody's chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he
saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to
kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But
Paul shouted, "Don't harm yourself! We are all here!" The jailer
called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and
Silas. He then brought them out and asked, "Sirs, what must I do
to be saved?" They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you
will be saved—you and your household." Then they spoke the word
of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that
hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds;
then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer
brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was
filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his
This Philippian jailer had absolutely no time to
work on “changing himself” between the miracle that caught his
attention, the short time in the middle of the night that Paul
and Silas preached to him and his family, and his baptism still
in that same night! What he changed was not his behavior, but
his mind and heart. He realized that he was a sinner in
desperate need of a savior, accepted Jesus as that Savior and
Lord, and received salvation—all in one night.
So it is clear that it is possible for a person
to have a sincere change of heart and mind in a very short time.
This is probably more common in a situation of crisis, such as
that faced by the jailer. And without the kind of miracle that
he experienced, it is understandable that the average person
would require more information and Bible study to come to a
conviction about the reality of Jesus and the steps to
salvation. So it is common for this kind of repentance to be the
result of a period of seeking and introspection, that may take
days, weeks, or months. There is no one-size-fits-all salvation
But there is indeed a one-size-fits-all Savior!
He is Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
If you would like to know more about Him and the
plan of salvation, you are encouraged to read the next booklet
in this Steps to Salvation series:
From Bondage To Freedom
Use the navigation buttons at the top left of
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the other articles in the Steps to Salvation series.
Unless otherwise noted, all Biblical quotations
in this article are from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL
VERSION (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International
Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.
All rights reserved.