April 21, 2020


Barry Cooper

When we sin, we strive to substitute our own authority for God’s. Today, Barry Cooper explains what makes our sin so devastating and points to another substitution as our only source of hope.


“It was once such a strong word . . . an ominous and serious word. . . . But the word went away. It has almost disappeared—the word along with the notion.”

That’s a quote from Karl Menninger, and the word he is talking about is the word sin.

And he has a point. Outside the Bible, the word sin is something of an endangered species. These days, if you want to see the word sin in the wild, your best bet is to check out the dessert menu in your local restaurant. You know the kind of thing: “This chocolate fudge brownie is positively sinful.” It seems that for many of us, the “sinfulness” of a thing is measured in calories.

I remember reading an article about sin in a national newspaper a few years back, and it said: “In this day and age, sin has lost its sting. A bit of sinning is much more likely to be seen as a spot of grown-up naughtiness, the kind of thing that sends a delicious shock through the system.”

It’s no big deal. It’s naughty but nice. A bit risqué maybe, but hey—no harm, no foul.

Others have downgraded sin by describing it as if it were a curable moral illness that can be medicated away with positive thinking or certain kinds of therapy or certain kinds of education. To quote one recent author, sin is merely “a refusal to grow” as a human being.

But what does the biblical concept of sin really mean?

Romans chapter 1 reveals that the essence of sin is substitution.

All of us, by nature, want to substitute ourselves for God. We want to decide for ourselves what we will or won’t do. We want to do what God prohibits and not do what God commands. Apart from His grace, none of us want to obey God’s law.

That is the essence of sin. It’s an act of substitution. Our authority for His.

And this substitution is a deep and indelible characteristic of the human race. It affects every one of us and every part of every one of us. We can’t quarantine it or avoid contamination by it, because it’s already inside us. As Jesus says in Mark chapter 7: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” In other words, sin has already taken up residence in you and me, and it has made itself very much at home. But maybe that makes it sound like we’re the innocent victims of some awful virus or cancer. And that’s not the case. Each one of us, by default, freely chooses to substitute our authority for God’s authority. We just prefer it that way.

What’s the result of sin? Well, it’s devastating both horizontally and vertically. Sin doesn’t just poison our own lives and the lives of others and the world we live in. It also alienates us from—estranges us from—God, because God in His goodness is implacably opposed to sin.

R.C. Sproul describes sin as “cosmic treason” against our Creator, and treason, of course, isn’t something you can just talk your way out of. What makes sin so truly heinous is that we receive the most extraordinary gifts from our Creator—life and breath and every good thing we enjoy—and then we wield those gifts as weapons to try and depose Him and seize His throne. As well as being God-defying, this is self-defeating. When we sin, we are effectively trying to kill the very One who gives us life. One author describes it as being like the scent of a flower trying to destroy the flower.

Sin deserves the heaviest penalty, and that penalty is death.

Death, with its universal, unavoidable, sullen persistence throughout history, keeps reminding us God’s judgment on sin will eventually find us out, however hard we might want to pretend that everything is fine.

So, sin is substitution.

But salvation is substitution too.

God the Son enters the world as our substitute. What I mean by that is that God the Son lived a sinless life, and He did it on our behalf. He also died a sinner’s death, and He did that too on our behalf.

He lived like that so that we could be credited with the sinless life that we find it impossible to live. And He died like that so that we would never have to face the condemnation that our sin deserves.

Sin is when man substitutes himself for God. But salvation is when God substitutes Himself for man.

So let me appeal to you: if you haven’t yet come to Him, please, come to Christ, while there’s still time.

As it says in Romans chapter 6, verse 23, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”