The Sinfulness of Sin

by Chris Pennington

hand holding apple

Some days parenting feels like an exercise in discipline. When it’s barely 8am and you’ve already dealt with blatant disrespect, a biting toddler, and a kick to the shin, it’s easy to lose perspective. How many times do you have to discipline your children before they learn?

It’s especially in these times of constant discipline that dads need to realign their perspective on sin. In those moments, why are you troubled at your kids’ sin? Here are some of my honest answers:

  • I don’t like being interrupted.
  • I don’t like my authority questioned.
  • I don’t like my wife to feel stressed because of the kids.
  • I don’t want my kids to face the consequences of the rebel’s life.
  • I’m busy working on something and am frustrated that my kids have broken my concentration.
  • I’m concerned that my kids will act up in public and don’t want people to think I’m a bad parent.

Most of those answers aren’t inherently wrong, but they’re not quite the central concern that should be ever-present when we’re facing sin. What is it that makes sin so sinful anyhow? Why is sin so serious?

Biblically, the gravity of sin isn’t primarily in the seriousness of the offense but in the Person sinned against. Who is sin against? The Bible’s answer is equally clear: sin is always chiefly against God.

The Person Sinned Against

Puritan Ralph Venning (1621–1674) puts it like this in his famous work on sin: “The sinfulness of sin … consists in this, that it is contrary to God.”1

A small lie or a word of disrespect is, in truth, not a serious offense if you’ve only broken a rule in the books. But sin is never impersonal like that. Even in the garden, the sin wasn’t about breaking fruit-eating laws, but defying God.

Our default is to view God’s laws like a high schooler views school rules—arbitrary regulations that sometimes are worth breaking if the benefit outweighs the consequence. But God’s laws are not arbitrary or capricious. God’s rules and statutes extend from his character. God is love, and so his rules against hatred, murder, and the like flow from his nature. To hate is not only to break a law code, it is also an act of rebellion against the Law Giver.

In other words, the rankest stench of every sin is this: God is offended. As D.A. Carson writes,

What makes sin so heinous, what makes sin so wretched, is precisely that it defies God. Certainly it is awful when we hurt our friends. It is awful when we wound one another, so when we wake up in the middle of the night with those feelings of huge shame, it is not surprising that we are embarrassed because of what our friends will think of us now on account of what we have said or done that was so insensitive or cruel. But beyond all of this horizontal shame lies a much bigger guilt that we are rarely aware of and rarely squirm over: guilt before the living God….In any sin that we commit, whether it’s genocide or cheating on our income taxes, the most offended party is always God.2

This is the way the Bible speaks, particularly when the sin appears to be only horizontal (human-to-human). For example, Genesis 20:6 records how God keeps Abimelech from sinning against Him by keeping Abimelech away from Sarah. Genesis 39:9 describes how Joseph resists sexual temptation because he does not want to sin against God. In Acts 5:4 Peter stunningly replies to Ananias, “You have not lied to man but to God” (even though Ananias had just lied to Peter and all assembled).

When David mourns his sin in Psalm 51, he writes, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” At first glance, nothing could be further from the truth. Carson exclaims,

That is a stunning comment. At one level you want to say that it is not true. David sinned against Bathsheba: he seduced her. He sinned against Bathsheba’s husband: he had him bumped off after sleeping with his wife. He sinned against his own family: he betrayed them. He sinned against the military high command: he corrupted them. He sinned against the people: he was not acting as a righteous king. It is hard to think of anybody that he did not sin against. Yet he has the cheek to say, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (51:4). At the deepest level, David’s words speak the exact truth.[^3]

Biblically, God is the precise target of every sin to such an extent that David can say, “Against you only have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4).

Parenting the Gravity of Sin

When I discipline our kids, I ask a series of three questions.

  1. Who did you sin against?
  2. Who is the most important Person you’ve sinned against?
  3. How is God thinking about you right now?

To the first question, my children always list the humans they’ve sinned against—mommy, my sister, etc. I think our world would count that as a success. If you raise kids who try not to hurt anyone else, you’ve done your job as a parent. That’s how we tend to think of sin as well. Sin is ugly to the degree that you hurt others in your sin.

So how can we parent our kids toward a more biblical view of sin? Each time I follow up my first question with a second: “Who is the most important Person you’ve sinned against?” That question acts like a bumper, always redirecting my thoughts and my child’s thoughts to the Reality that is God.

We intuitively understand that the person sinned against has a great deal to do with the seriousness of the sin. Punching a random person, punching a police officer, or punching the President of the United States are intuitively different sins because they’re committed against different people.

If every sin—no matter how small or great—is an act of open rebellion against the most important, weighty, glorious Person in the Universe, that changes the conversation entirely.

Because we are born thinking we can earn God’s love and because we are born suspicious of grace, I think it’s important to take the discussion one step further. I follow up the first two questions with a third: “How is God thinking about you right now?”

The answer? “He wants me to run to him and ask for forgiveness.”[^4] I think two biblical images are particularly helpful to communicate God’s heart:

  • I’ll often describe God like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32). God is holding out his hands and running towards you. He wants you to turn and run to him.
  • I’ll remind my child of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. What do shepherds do when their sheep are in trouble or hurt (especially because of their own missteps)? They run to rescue their sheep. And so I remind my child, “God wants to rescue you. He wants to heal you. He’s calling for you right now. Will you turn, confess, and accept his forgiveness and love?”

Sin and the Gospel

The true stench of any and every sin is that each sin is an offense against God. Only when we know the true blackness of sin can we begin to more fully love and cherish the beauty of forgiveness through Christ.

We don’t enjoy fellowship with God because he brushed over our sin or excused it with some perverted sense of justice. We have pardon because Jesus was condemned. We receive welcome because Jesus was cast out. We are loved because Jesus was cursed. We have peace because he took our wrath. Truly, “He is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2a)!


  1. The Sinfulness of Sin (Page 29). He continues later on, “In short, sin is the dare of God’s justice, the rape of his mercy, the jeer of his patience, the slight of his power, the contempt of his love, as one writer prettily expresses this ugly thing. We may go on and say, it is the upbraiding of his providence (Psalm 50), the scoff of his promise (2 Peter 3. 3–4), the reproach of his wisdom (Isaiah 29. 16). And as is said of the Man of Sin (i.e. who is made up of sin) it opposes and exalts itself above all that is called God (and above all that God is called), so that it as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing itself as if it were God (2 Thessalonians 2. 4)” (Page 32).

  2. The God Who Is There, page 97.

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