What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!

As followers of Jesus, it doesn’t matter much what the Old Testament writers thought about sin and forgiveness. We take our cue from Jesus who has the clearest insight into the Father. And it is his words and actions in the gospels that guide our understanding of Jesus’ approach to sin and forgiveness.

Actually, we find that Jesus doesn’t say much about sin and sinners, which is a tremendous contrast to the Old Testament, the New Testament Pharisees, and to the emphasis on ‘sin’ and ‘sinners’ among many believers today. Jesus is not so much interested in petty definitions of sin and how to solve it but in people having richer lives.

Jesus is about people—not rules. He relieves us of our burdens of guilt and alienation rather than judging us. Let’s look at highlights of Jesus’ words and actions regarding sin and forgiveness.

Cristo y la mujer adultera

Cristo y la mujer adultera, Pieter van Lint [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus Demonstrates His Response to Sin

Many of Jesus’ comments on sin and sinners are action-related. For example, in Mark 2 Jesus heals a paralyzed man; but before he heals him he says, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

Notice that Jesus does not specify the man’s sins, nor does he ask him to repent or to accept him into his heart. He just forgives him. This action angers the Pharisees who ask who can forgive sins except God.

In the same chapter, the Pharisees confront Jesus for violating their religious rules about eating with ‘sinners’. They ask his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But Jesus, himself, responds:

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

To the Pharisees ‘sinners’ were those who didn’t observe their legalistic requirements, and Jesus was breaking religious rules himself by eating with them. But Jesus isn’t concerned with their accusation. The Pharisees were masters of judgmentalism and exclusion, whereas Jesus was the master of acceptance and inclusion.

Jesus calls sinners; the Pharisees push them away.

Luke 7 describes a similar case in which a Pharisee objects to his allowing a woman to anoint his feet with tears and perfume, saying ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.’

Jesus answers the Pharisee (who was hosting the banquet) with a story. Then he turns to the woman and says,

Your sins are forgiven.

She hadn’t asked for forgiveness. Jesus didn’t lecture her about her sins. He just forgave her.

Go and Sin No More

John shares two stories that bring additional perspective to Jesus’ attitude toward sinners. In chapter 5, Jesus encounters a man who was an invalid for 38 years; so he told him to pick up his mat and walk—which he did. However, Jesus caught up with him later and said,

See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.

This reminds me of the famous story of the adulterous woman in John 8. You know the story: knowing how Jesus felt about ‘sinners’, the Pharisees set a trap for him by planning to stone her to death and ask Jesus if he approves:

In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

Jesus doesn’t answer their question but confronts them with a test of his own, and they left without stoning her. After they were gone, Jesus tells her:

“Neither do I condemn you…Go now and leave your life of sin.”

In both cases Jesus warns them not to continue sinning. Is this a threat that if they sin again he will reject them? Many believers assume this, but I don’t think so. I think that Jesus, knowing the damage of self-destructive behavior, warns them of those natural consequences. ‘Go and sin no more’ is not a threat but gentle warning to not be self-destructive because it leads to negative consequences.

Jesus Talks with His Disciples about Sin

The Pharisees thought they had all the answers on sin, and Jesus’ own disciples wanted answers too. The entire chapter of John 9 concerns a man who was born blind. The disciples ask,

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus replies that his being born blind was not caused by sin; then he responded with his usual compassion and healed him. But the Pharisees got hold of the man who was healed and interrogated and insulted him for most of the chapter. At the end of the chapter Jesus states:

 “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”

Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

Jesus was gentle and accepting with sinners but often opposed those self-righteous religious leaders who claimed sinlessness while condemning common ‘sinners’. The Pharisees loved to pray in public, but Jesus told his disciples in Mark 11,

When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

This is consistent with Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s prayer of Matthew 6. We should pray, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ He goes on to say,

If you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

I don’t think Jesus makes the point that the Father is harsh about forgiving sin, rather he emphasizes the importance of our forgiving others so that our own forgiveness is effective. Peter was beginning to understand this in Matthew 18 when he asked for a bit of clarification:

Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?

You know the answer: 70 times 7 (490). This doesn’t mean that at offense #491 we can withhold forgiveness; Jesus is saying there is no end to forgiveness. We should forgive freely even as the Father (and Jesus) forgive freely. We learn from these passages that sin has to do, not with religious rules, but with self-destructive behavior and our offenses toward each other.

Finally we discover Jesus’ response to offenses against him.

Jesus’ Ultimate Word on Forgiveness

Luke 23 describes how Jesus was captured, mistreated, and sentenced to death. Luke says,

When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him…Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Who could be worse sinners than those involved at every level leading to Jesus’ death? And yet, Jesus responds to their atrocity by asking the Father to forgive them.

This is always Jesus’ response to sin—to forgive. Let us do the same.

Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness

The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What Does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails
Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?

See also:

What Does Jesus Think of Sinners Today?

*****

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56 Responses to What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!

  1. tonycutty says:

    Superb, Tim. Thanks for this piece 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Tim, this is a really interesting one and I like your approach here. I think you’re absolutely right that Jesus’ teaching and example ushers in a profound sea change in our attitude and response to sin, and even our definition of what it is.

    As you point out, he’s not saying that ‘sin’ (however we define it) is now okay and anything goes. There *are* still behaviours, attitudes and lifestyles that in the long term may be injurious to our (or other people’s) emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing. But often these aren’t the ones religious people get hung up on as ‘immoral’.

    It strikes me that Jesus takes at least two approaches to sin, depending on his audience. To those who believe themselves to be favoured and righteous, he challenges them to realise that they’re still imperfect and still need grace. But with those who are all too aware of their failings and believe that their sins make them worthless, he welcomes them and tells them their sins are forgiven.

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thanks Harvey. I agree with every point of your comment; I just wish that those believers who spend their energy and anxiety dealing with sin in terms of observing a multitude of religious rules would experience the message of Jesus on sin in his teaching and example.

      I particularly like your statement, “Jesus’ teaching and example ushers in a profound sea change in our attitude and response to sin, and even our definition of what it is.” Well said!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. sheila0405 says:

    This is a really good description of how many progressive Christians are seeing Jesus and his message. Very well written.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Sheila, you are right that many Progressive Christians understand sin more like this. I think it is because this is what the gospels indicate.

      Like

  4. Pingback: What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much! - Jesus is Lord

  5. Chas says:

    Tim, your points on forgiving others led me to think more about this. While it is clear that, if we do not forgive people who have offended us in some way, we remain in bitterness, but perhaps more importantly, it really leaves our attention focused on ourselves and how we have been wronged. It is a form of self-harm.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. JoshWay says:

    Amen to this post! The Jesus I grew up on withheld forgiveness until we performed our religious duties. Now that I’ve read what Jesus really says about sin and forgiveness, I see that I was misled! Forgiveness is God’s posture toward us, not a reward to be won.

    Luke 23 was a real aha! moment for me. If Jesus could forgive his unrepentant murderers, then everything I thought I knew about God was wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      You and me both, Josh. I was raised under the cloud of God’s constant judgment but it turned out that it wasn’t God judging me at all–it was my teachers, my pastor, and my church. It was also I who judged myself because that’s what I was taught to do.

      But no more. Now that I know the Father loves me unconditionally I can love myself and others too!

      Like

  7. Chas says:

    Tim, again I have been led to think more about these passages. As you rightly point out, the first two point to forgiveness, not to the nature of sin (‘your sins are forgiven’). However, in two other examples (‘stop sinning’, and ‘go and leave your life of sin’) a need for repentance is shown (i.e. turn away from sin and no longer do these things). This shows action by God (forgiving our sins) and action by ourselves (turning back from our old ways, which caused suffering). When seen in this form, the message seems like the traditional one of a need for repentance in order to receive forgiveness. It seems to me that we cannot keep clear of doing things that lead to suffering unless we have God’s help. I know people who speak in tongues, but still cause suffering to themselves, which suggests either they have not been willing to receive God’s help, or they have been unable to overcome something from their past, despite God’s help. (This presumes that God always acts to minimize suffering).

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I agree that we need to repent but this does not mean confessing our sin, demonstrating that we are ‘sorry’ for our sin, or asking for forgiveness. As you say, it is changing our perspective and our orientation.

      We will always be imperfect in our relationships with people–and we will hurt people, but if we really internalize the love of the Father, whose love is unconditional for everyone, we should grow in our behavior toward others and hurt people less and less as it becomes more natural for us to love as the Father loves.

      Like

      • Chas says:

        Tim, It seems reasonable to assume that Jesus was able to hear and obey the Father. If we are to truly follow Jesus, shouldn’t we expect to hear and obey the Father too?

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Perhaps, but I focus on hearing and obeying Jesus. I hope that all I do is based on the leading of the Father, but I cannot determine when I am specifically being ‘led’; I cannot identify the difference between his voice and my own ideas–even those I think are unique or inspired. I don’t sense specific leadings from the Father, but I am satisfied that changes in my thinking and actions are from his leading. I am fine with the ambiguity of not identifying his specific voice.

          On the other hand, I have often known people who were absolutely certain that the Father was speaking to them and through them, while I was equally certain that they were mistaken. It is so easy to confuse our thoughts with the Father’s voice.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Chas says:

            Tim, what do you feel was happening when you interpreted tongues for other people. It would be reasonable to assume that you were giving the Father’s words to the those for whom they had been sent. They would be receiving His specific words, although it would be for them to use them as they thought fit. From experience, it is necessary to be willing to do what you believe you have been asked. Not all of God’s commands are contrary to what you would expect; it is easy to discern that those did not come from you..

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Chas, in my 20 years or so as a Pentecostal I only interpreted twice. I felt I had a sense of the content, but it was in my words and I would not claim authority for what I said; it might have been from God or it might have been from my deeply energized thoughts at the time.

            As far as ‘assuming’ I was giving ‘God’s words’, I would not assume that–for myself or anyone else. In fact, one of those occasions my interpretations was to counter the first interpretation which I thought was in error. Paul, himself, warns that we should be wary of prophecies and interpretations. The one clear prophecy in the NT was given to Paul by Agabus, and Paul ignored the advice included in it.

            I think such messages can be thought provoking or inspirational, but they are not authoritative and not necessarily the voice of God. I know you feel differently, but I think we can agree to disagree on this issue.

            Like

  8. Lee says:

    Sin is the result of allowing our feelings to control our behavior. It breaks the relationship we have with God because we are following someone or some thing rather than Him. Repentance is choosing to reestablish the relationship with God.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Well said, Lee! I would add, though, that if we grow in love as we internalize the Father’s love for all of us, our feelings will increasingly be those of empathy and concern for the well-being of others. Of course, we will always need to be alert to negative feelings that come over us from time to time.

      Like

    • There’s certainly truth in this – however, I think the full picture is more complex.

      Sin isn’t always to do with our behaviour – it can simply be our attitudes and the way we view other people. And I believe that feelings (emotions) can often be very important, even the ones we see as ‘negative’. Though of course acting on them impulsively often isn’t the best idea! 🙂

      There are many ways of understanding sin, but for me the best description is that it is simply a failure to love as God loves.

      Sin does damage and impede our relationship with God (and with others), but I don’t believe that it breaks it – not any longer, not in Christ.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Carl says:

    Very interesting article…You are right on Jesus didn’t define what was sin or not…But you missed the mark completely as to why…He didn’t need to because he was preaching to the choir on what a sin was or wasn’t. Remember they are all in on the joke so the parts of the joke do not need to be present to make it funny for all involved with the story. The Pharisees, Scribes, and other Jewish people there knew what a sin was based on the law…What Jesus did was redefine how we deal with the reconciling or repentance for those sins…What Jesus did was reestablish a closer relationship with God and the people by breaking the barriers that were being placed between them and God via the Law and Mishna

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Carl, are you saying that Jesus rejected sin as the keeping of the law in favor of sin being how we treat each other?

      Like

      • Carl Benge says:

        No I am saying he rejected the ways the Teachers of the Law reinterpreted the Law to keep people oppressed while allowing themselves to look righteous….You know like liberation theologians do

        Like

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          I see. Thanks for clarifying. How should the teachers of the law have interpreted it?

          Like

          • Carl Benge says:

            Its simple yet hard for our egos at the same time….Instead of interpeting the law to justify our own cirmcumstances…We are called to look to the law as a way to stretch ourselves to improve our relationship with God.

            Like

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Carl, it seems to me that it is more effective to internalize the love of the Father for us all so that love penetrates our heart and our behavior flows out of that. I don’t think following religious laws does that. And I agree that we should not interpret the law to justify our thoughts and behavior.

            Like

          • Carl Benge says:

            more effective to internalize the love of the Father for us all so that love penetrates our heart and our behavior flows out of that.

            While that is nice warm and squishy idea…
            Too bad the reality is, what we think love is and what the Father thinks love is are not necessarily the same thing….The Law was meant as a guideline or plumb bulb if you like into where our heart truly lays….It was never meant as a means of salvation as there is no Grace in it. As Jesus said you cannot follow two masters..The Pharisees and Sadduccees claimed to be in love with God but what they were really in love with was the trappings of the Law, not why they followed the Law. To put this in modern context…post modernist liberal progressive Christians…claim that because of the love they “feel” for God they can deny what God has said, because Love prevails.. This is a total crock…There is no Grace and Mercy in this kind of thinking either. Dietrich Boenhoeffer called that cheap grace..No sacrifice or purpose to the false salvation it offers.

            Like

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Carl, I am not sure whether we disagree about the law or not. I believe Jesus’ words and example produces behaviors that go far beyond the law without requiring of religious rules. What is your opinion on HOW we should ‘look to the law as a way to stretch ourselves to improve our relationship with God?’ What does that look like? How does it play out in our lives?

            Like

          • Carl Benge says:

            Our personal opinions are irrelevant to the reality

            Like

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            What do you think the reality is of HOW we should ‘look to the law as a way to stretch ourselves to improve our relationship with God?’ What does that look like? How does it play out in our lives?

            Like

    • Interesting point Carl, and I hear what you’re saying. It’s certainly true that Jesus didn’t need to define sin to his original audience as much as we might have to in secular society, as they mostly had a shared understanding.

      However, I think Jesus *does* often quite radically challenge his original audience’s understanding of sin. For Jesus, it’s never about outward actions so much as about our underlying heart and attitudes. And it’s not about rule-keeping or anything that we can chalk up as our own achievement, but rather about accepting in humility that all our ‘righteousness’ comes from God alone. At least, that’s my understanding.

      And the bottom line is love – the supreme commandments are to love God with all you are and have, and your neighbour as yourself. Which means that all ‘sin’ is really an offence against love, rather than against law.

      Liked by 1 person

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  28. Manny says:

    I used to believe that God forgave all sins, past, present and future, because Jesus took them upon himself on the cross. Now I’m wary and confused… some denominations say this is not the case, like the Catholics and their mortal sins. I don’t know what to believe anymore. I would love to believe that all sins are forgiven but I keep doubting because I keep running across this fundamentalist/conservative ideology.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Manny, I think I know what you mean. I have been there many years ago. I would say that conservative circles that emphasize ‘sin’ and ‘sins’ in this way are piling burdens and guilt on people. I no longer believe that God is angry, harsh, and vindictive as I used to as a conservative. Instead, God wishes to bring each of us peace, healing for our brokenness, and reconciliation in place of alienation.

      God is not petty. God takes us as we are and helps us develop into better individuals. As we begin to comprehend the unlimited love of God for each of us, we begin to change from the inside to love ourselves and then love others as ourselves with empathy, compassion, and care instead of hurting ourselves and others.

      And this is all ‘sin’ is–hurting people. Sin is NOT keeping a bunch of religious rules. I hope this is helpful, but feel free to further clarify you concern and continue the conversation.

      Like

  29. Laura says:

    From Jason Jackson: One of the most memorable sayings of Jesus on sin is found in Matthew 26:28. It reminds us of the purpose for which Christ left heaven and took on flesh. Jesus said, “For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto the remission of sins.” This ought to enlighten us regarding what Jesus taught about sin. Sin is so horrible that only the spotless blood of Jesus can atone for it. His love for the sinner is so deep, he was willing to pour it out. Thanks be to our Lord for teaching us the truth about sin and providing the ransom.

    Liked by 1 person

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