Are ‘Sins’ Primarily Sins against God or against Other People?

Some believers think all sins are primarily sins against God. Stephen Witmer makes that very statement:

All sin is primarily sin against God.

Where sin is understood as merely a moral concept rather than mainly a religious one, where it is seen primarily as a person-to-person problem rather than as primarily ‘theocentric,’ motivation for fighting sin is decreased and confusion about the character of God is increased.

I cannot agree with the assumption that sin is primarily sin against God. Nor can I agree that understanding sin as a person-to-person problem decreases motivation for fighting sin or increases confusion about the character of God.

Offenses against others are offenses against the Father in one sense: the Father does not wish us to experience this pain and alienation; he does not want people to be hurt. But he cares equally for the offended and the offender. So, absent our offenses against others, all offense against the Father disappears.

I have three major objections to the view that sins are sins against God:

  1. It promotes a legalism of following religious rules
  2. It ignores the weight of sins we commit against each other
  3. It casts God as a thin-skinned, egotistical entity

Cima da Conegliano, God the Father

Attributed to Cima da Conegliano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sin is not Violating God’s Rules

When I was growing up, all the preachers I knew preached hard against sin. They constantly badgered their audiences and warned them of terrible coming judgment against their sinful behavior. But they were mistaken about what sin is; they thought sin was breaking religious rules, but it is really our hurting people and causing pain, suffering, and alienation.

Sometimes our offenses in hurting others are very clear, such as murder, theft, and sexual assault. These acts are illegal in every society because society cannot exist without controls against them. But many of our offenses against others are not so clear: salesmen taking advantage of buyers; employers squeezing workers for extra profit; church members gossiping. These are also offenses because they cause pain and suffering.

I submit that anything we do that diminishes, exploits, or disadvantages someone else is an offense—a sin; it is an offense even if the wronged person is unaware of it. In the animal world the stronger prey on the weaker; it is the natural order of things. But we are not animals. Harming others in any way is an offense.

We are also often the source of our own pain and suffering. We hurt ourselves by self-destructive behavior or making decisions that harm us. These are offenses against ourselves. We do not deserve this pain and should stop hurting ourselves.

Belief that Sins are Offenses against God Tarnishes God’s Character

Contrary to Witmer, those who consider sin to be offense against God are the ones who create confusion about God’s character.

A common observation is that sin is an affront to the Father’s holiness. It is said that the smallest sin is an offense against God’s infinite holiness and has infinite significance. This is why eternal punishment in a burning hell is necessary—sin against God’s infinite holiness requires infinite punishment. But this is not what Jesus tells us about the Father who, instead, demonstrates infinite love and seeks to resolve our suffering and alienation.

Some believers see the Father as author of a host of commands for us to obey, some of which seem quite arbitrary. They think disobedience against his rules drives God into a positive rage against us. They imagine the Father is easily offended and intolerant of disrespect or slights against him and that we must be careful not to anger him.

We all know people with these overly sensitive characteristics and try to avoid them. They are petty, full of themselves, and can never be pleased. Have you ever known someone who must have their own way down to the last detail? It is difficult for me to see the Father in this way. He is not thin-skinned, insecure, or jealous; he is not egotistical. He understands our pain, our limitations, and our difficulties; and he seeks our healing, peace, and happiness.

We learn from Jesus that there are no legalistic commands; there is only one rule and that is to love others as we love ourselves. The real response of the Father’s character regarding our offenses is his overwhelming, unconditional love for us. The Father wants us to avoid our hurting others for their good and for us to avoid hurting ourselves for our own good. If we coöperate with his love, the Father helps us achieve these two goals.

The Father’s work in us is not to reduce slights against him but to reduce suffering and alienation in us. We need to promote this healing, but the way to do it is not by railing against ‘sin’ but by growing as followers of the loving Jesus.

How do We Avoid Causing Offense and Respond to Offense against Us?

Jesus points to two wonderful principles that address all offenses: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. These pre-empt all rules about offenses.

As we respond to the love of the Father, and start to love ourselves properly, we can begin to love others from our heart as we love ourselves. As we begin to see others as the Father sees them, our offenses toward them will decline as we seek their good like we seek our own good. We might adopt helpful practices and personal habits to guide us, but we can never rely on lists of rules.

When we feel hurt or victimized by another person, our first inclination might be to seek revenge or retribution, but part of our growth as followers of Jesus is to put those feelings aside and choose a better response. When Jesus taught his followers to pray in Matthew 6, he focused on one specific point, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’. Forgiving others helps us to forgive ourselves for offenses we cannot repair. And this is not just for friends or the general public. Jesus also says in chapter 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Sins are our offenses against other people, not offenses against God. Jesus tells us to treat others appropriately so we can enjoy healing, peace, and reconciliation. But Witmer speaks for others when he says, “Where sin is…seen primarily as a person-to-person problem rather than as primarily ‘theocentric,’ motivation for fighting sin is decreased.”

We will talk about that next time.

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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This entry was posted in alienation, behavior, God, Jesus, legalism, love, love your enemies, sin, sinners, The Father and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Are ‘Sins’ Primarily Sins against God or against Other People?

  1. sheila0405 says:

    Reblogged this on …..temporary…. and commented:
    Wow, this one is so good that I’m reblogging! I agree that “sin” is what we do to each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tonycutty says:

    Great piece Tim. I wanted to expand on where you said, “But we are not animals”. We are indeed animals in the biological sense, but I know what you mean. Because God has made us ‘a little lower than the angels’, He has given us the ability to be different from the other animals to whom we are related biologically. This means we are capable of sin, whereas the other animals are not. C. S. Lewis illustrates it beautifully in the Narnia books where he has ‘talking beasts’ and ordinary beasts….one has a conscience and the ability to be like God (who in the books is Himself a talking Beast) and the other does not. Hope that makes sense! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I agree, Tony. I like what you say, and I particularly like your reference to the talking beasts in Narnia. Good connection!


  3. tonycutty says:

    In fact, behaving differently from the animals is one of the evidences that humanity does indeed have a higher calling than merely being a beast. However, where intelligent animals such as rats, dogs and apes come in to it is unclear to me. Personally I think that all creation will be redeemed when Man is finally redeemed at the end of the age. But that’s all conjecture…

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I have no speculation on how intelligence in animals relates to morality. But as to our relationship to animals–see next week’s post.


      • Chas says:

        Tim, I well recall our dog, a working sheep dog, slinking around with his tail between his legs, because he knew that he had done something wrong. This could not be called his conscience, as he knew that he would be punished by my Dad, when he found out what the dog had done. My Dad was unlikely to have hit him, but he might have poked at him with the stiff bristles of a yard brush, knowing that that would be unpleasant enough.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. cmgatlin53 says:

    Any metaphor for sin or for sins (not always the same thing) that uses a sort of “economic” model of offenses and deficits is going to be subject to legalism and other systems of salvation that attempt to balance the books. They will usually require a concept of punishment. However, concepts of God, sin, sins, and salvation or separation from God that don’t primarily use the balance-sheet metaphors may still include that pesky concept of possible separation of a sinner from a just God. I suppose what I mean is that, despite the approach to scholarship represented by Bart Ehrman’s corpus of publications, there’s a rational approach to scripture that is not fundamentalist or inerrantist that still insists that the teachings of Jesus are authenticity and truthfully recorded in the Gospels, and everything else contained in the Old and New Testaments can be used to our edification if properly contextualized in relation to Jesus.
    Wow, that seems to have wandered pretty far from the point, which is that the warnings about separation from God, metaphorically called Gehenna, may represent real warnings about a real state after death without casting God into the lesser role of a vengeful tyrant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Very interesting comment, Chuck. I have only read one book by Ehrman and have been wanting to read another. Do you have a suggestion for a particularly good volume?


      • cmgatlin53 says:

        I don’t encourage anyone to read Ehrman, because I think his presuppositions, although the opposite of those held by inerrantists, are just as riddled with the poison of certainty as any fundamentalist theologian.
        By that I guess I mean that when he was a fundamentalist, he was certain that the Bible was inerrant and that every part had to be just as true as any other. Now that he likes to describe the Bible using words like “forgery” and “lies,” he’s just as certain as ever that he’s got the right angle on it.
        My position is that we can trust the Bible to contain everything we need to lead us toward eternal union with God. I believe we can trust that Jesus taught everything actually attributed to him in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament (that is, he said those words or something very close to them). However, the example of his own disciples getting it wrong about what those words mean is a caution to us about any particular extension of the actual things Jesus said, and a caution to us any time we are certain we’ve got the message right—because we imperfect humans have a tendency to take a little something and extrapolate and run with it, until we have formulated a complicated system that we fool ourselves into imposing on everyone (think of legalism).
        I realize that this puts me in opposition to a substantial number of modern Biblical scholars and theologians. However, knowing that my own field of English Literature has gone in a number of scholarly directions that yield results relatively free of truth, I am unconvinced by a lot of the conclusions drawn by Biblical scholars, although I recognize that there’s a lot of benefit in the actual knowledge they have uncovered. (I would say that the things they’ve learned about creation, transmission, and preservation of texts, or about linguistics, or archaeological discoveries, are facts but a lot of their interpretation of those facts are speculations that don’t hold up.) But former fundamentalists are often even more stubbornly assertive about their new beliefs as they were about their old ones, because they haven’t really changed anything but their opinions.
        (This comment may be straying a bit from the thread.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Thanks, Chuck. I know Ehrman and I do not agree on the approach to the Bible, but I like to read people who disagree but have substance. The book of his that I read was not theological; it was on the existence of the historical Jesus, and I thought it was very good.


          • cmgatlin53 says:

            Ehrman’s latest book is JESUS BEFORE THE GOSPELS. I browsed through it in Barnes and Noble, mainly to see what he had to say about Bauckham’s JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES (which is my go-to book on the reliability of the Gospels). My hasty scan gave the impression that Ehrman faults Bauckham for thinking that there is any reliability in eyewitness testimony, although B. rather thoroughly, to my mind, discusses how and how not to trust eyewitness testimony—it’s good for some things, poor for others, having unique advantages in some respects. Maybe a thorough reading of Ehrman would show that he’s not using unreliability for some things to establish unreliability for any reason, but I’m reminded again of the fundamentalist method in Ehrman’s scholarship. He doesn’t seem to be able to tolerate mystery or even ambiguity—it’s got to be clearly an on/off phenomenon, not a spectrum. He’s more Richard Dawson than Stephen Jay Gould.

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Thanks you for this, Chuck.


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  15. JoshWay says:

    Another excellent post, and a very important clarification. The idea that sin is only serious because it offends God misses the more fundamental point of why it offends God. It’s because God is primarily concerned with our well-being, not with our conformity or obedience!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Chas says:

    Tim, as has happened before, this post brings so many things to my mind. The first is that, while I agree that sins are primarily against people (or animals) they are also against God. The reason is that God applies influence against our doing things that lead to suffering, so if we do them we are not only causing suffering, but going against His wishes. That is not an unimportant factor, as He is the Almighty – the Creator of all things, including the life that we enjoy. To go against his wishes will damage our minds, but we do it to ourselves; God does not do it to us. One form in which that damage will manifest itself will be a hardening of our attitudes, making us less compassionate and less tolerant toward others. By contrast, our minds might be damaged by things in our upbringing, such as the deprivation of love, verbal intimidation, sexual abuse, or violence. These can make us despise ourselves, even though we have done nothing wrong and do not deserve to suffer in this way. If we can respond positively to God by resisting doing things that lead to suffering (where we can see that this is a likely outcome) then we are healing our minds, making us more tolerant and compassionate. We can then see that loving other people also helps us to love ourselves. To do things that we know will cause suffering is a self-destructive action and it will make us feel worse about ourselves. (This first point actually covers all of the things that came to my mind!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I agree. You have some good points, and I think they are all consistent with what I tried to express in the article. God does desire that we treat ourselves and others from a perspective of love, concern, and goodwill. When we do not do that it does go against God’s wishes, but I don’t think they are offenses directly against God in that he is angry with us or will punish us.

      In stead, God works with us, as we allow him, to begin to love ourselves and others more properly. God wants to provide healing of our inner and outer wounds from being hurt; he brings about reconciliation within ourselves, with others, and with God himself.

      In suggesting that we should treat other people properly, I do not mean to imply that we do not do the same with animals, and in fact the world around us. I think as we develop empathy, compassion, and care for other people, it will also affect our attitude about all the world around us.


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  18. fiddlrts says:

    I may be getting ahead of your series a bit here, but I think that the reason the phrase “motivation for fighting sin is decreased” is used is that it is a formulation of vital importance to that worldview. Namely, there are times where one is forced to choose between committing an offense against God and one against fellow man. I would say in my own experience, as well as historical experience, this dilemma occurs primarily in the area of sexuality. (Although, historically, it also occurred quite a bit more often in the area of theology.) One might, in the old days, for example, feel compelled to burn a “heretic” or a “witch” at the stake. Why? Because they had sinned against God, and justice was required. In our more modern times, we may not exact the punishment quite the same way, but still have the dilemma of whether we should (to choose an example) deny housing, jobs, or civil marriage to those who don’t follow certain sexual rules. (Whether these are LGBT folks, or single mothers…) By framing sin primarily as “against God,” we justify harming others to avenge God’s supposed honor. If we frame sin as primarily as against others, though, then we have a problem. The “heretic” hasn’t hurt anyone in most cases, so perhaps he is just wrong, or different. At worst, the single mother has made life harder for her child – which means that making the child’s life worse would be a lousy approach to righting the wrong. And this then circles back to your legalism argument – which I do find persuasive. By making it more important to know *exactly* what God defines as sin against himself than to do good to others, we harm others, and call it “preaching against sin.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chas says:

      The definition of sin as doing something that one knows will cause suffering to others is a useful one, because there is then no difference between what God would want and what we ought to do. In the example given, of a single mother (if she has chosen to enter into motherhood without a partner) it can be argued that she has done something that might cause her child to suffer, since the available studies show that a child raised in a stable, loving family, comprising a female mother and male father, fare better in life (defined by success in school, success in life, better mental health and better general happiness). I now expect to be subjected to attack for writing that; nevertheless it is true.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        This would sometimes be valid, but there are usually more issues to be considered.


        • Chas says:

          Tim, I think the example shows that we need to be very careful, if making a life changing decision, that we don’t make the decision from a selfish viewpoint.

          Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            I agree. I think for us to do this requires consistent concern and being attentive as possible to other people and to possible consequences of our actions. We should do the best we can do, but the best we can do is all we can do. Further growth and experience, thought, can help us do better in the future.


    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Fiddlrts, I like the way you think! And your examples are right on target. There is an example I sometimes use from my own life.

      As a fundamentalist, I was taught to tell the straight truth no matter whatme. There was even a strong dust-up in my church when a youth Sunday school teacher suggested otherwise in a specific case.

      Later, when I read Corrie TenBoom’s book about helping Jews in the Nazi occupation, I realized that if I were in that situation, and a Nazi asked me if there were any Jews in the house, I would have replied, ‘They are behind that false wall’.

      Because lying is a sin, and there are no exceptions–not even to save Jews from death.


  19. tonycutty says:

    “….and warned them of terrible coming judgment against their sinful behavior”. And then probably in the next sermon preached about total forgiveness. I wish these people would make up their minds…. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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