by the Rev. Larry Wilson
17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
"Sin is the transgression of the law" (1 John 3:4 KJV). When God commands, "Thou shalt not…" but you do it, that is sin. Accordingly, when God commands, "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain" but you use his name irreverently, that is sin. When God commands, "Thou shalt not bear false witness" but you tell a lie, it is a sin.
But sin does not consist only in doing that which God forbids. Sin also consists in failing to do that which God commands. "Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin." When God commands you to do something but you do not do it, then that too is sin. And so, when God commands, "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" but you use the day mainly for yourself rather than keeping it holy (consecrating it) unto God, then that is sin. When God commands, "Honor your father and your mother," but you neglect this duty, then that is sin.
We call the former type—what the Bible calls "transgressions" (or "trespasses") —"sins of commission." We call the latter type, "sins of omission." In fact, this is what the Bible word, "sin," means. It means missing (or falling short of) the mark.
God's diagnosis is, "For all sin and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). That is, we each fail to be and do that which we were essentially created to be and do. We were created to be "the image and glory of God" (1 Cor 11:7). Therefore, every moment of every day—in our every thought, in our every word, in our every deed—we are to be miniature, creaturely replicas of God, manifesting his glory. It is sin to fall short of the glory of God, i.e., to fail to be "godly" (a contraction from "God-like").
When Martin Luther came under conviction of sin, he reasoned that since the greatest commandment of all is "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength," therefore the worst sin of all is to fail to do just that. "Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin."
The Bible also frequently uses another term to describe our sin—"iniquity" (related to the word "inequity"). It means that not only do we commit both sins of commission and sins of omission, but also that we have the inner bent to do just that. We are bent and need to be saved from both the guilt and the power of sin, and only the grace of God in Christ can do that. Like the rich young ruler, Saul of Tarsus (who later became the apostle Paul) genuinely believed that he had kept all God’s commands—until he came to the one that searched his heart and exposed his impure desires. See Romans 7:7–8.
"Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin" (Ps 51:1–2).
Click here for background on the author of Are You For Real?: Meditations in the Epistle of James for Secret or Family Worship.