The first step in answering any question is asking the question clearly. When we're having a debate that just seems to go around in circles, there's a good chance that we aren't clear about what we're debating. Asking the right question gets us more than half way to good answers.
I'd have to rank the question of sin as one of those many issues where there's a lot of confusion because we're not quite sure what we're talking about. What is sin? I can't answer whether it's something I can avoid unless I know what it is.
The Bible talks about sin in different ways, which adds to our confusion. What are the "unintentional sins" of Numbers 15? What does Hebrews 4:15 mean when it says Jesus was without sin, if he was fully human like me? What is a "sin unto death" in 1 John 5:16 in contrast to a "sin that does not lead to death" in the same verse?
The Bible is not presented to us as a textbook of theology. Even Romans fits at a certain point of Paul's ministry, and it is only later theologians who have distilled it into a theology textbook. What I'm saying is that the Bible never sets about giving us absolute, philosophical definitions of things. This is a task we do in theology class after we have looked at all the different ways God spoke to different people about an issue in the Bible. Our theologians then synthesize all the individual teachings in Scripture in the light of 2000 years of Christian history, hopefully with a good dose of the Holy Spirit behind them.
But I would say we got lucky on this issue. 1 John has a statement about sin that seems like an excellent starting point for discussion: "All wrongdoing is sin" (1 John 5:17). We could get more profound, but this just seems like a great starting point. It leads us to what I think is the best way of formulating the right questions. When I ask "What is sin?", I am asking "What is wrongdoing?"
Formulating sin in this way--"sin is wrongdoing"--leads to what I think are the right questions on this issue:
1. How do I know what "right" and "wrong" are? What is the standard that tells whether or not a wrong has been done?
2. Who is wronged? God? My neighbor? Can I sin against myself?
Once I have answered these questions, other questions will follow. Can I wrong someone unintentionally? What are the consequences of wrongdoing--are they all the same or are there different consequences for different sins? Can I live without sinning on one level or another?
These are the questions I hope to address in the next few blog entries.