The Nature of Sin: Action or Desire?

Sin is an interesting topic and not one limited to Christian conversation. I am often amazed at how freely the word is used and the subject is addressed in literature, in entertainment, and I suppose sometimes in art. How sin is defined and applied will vary depending upon the persons’ religious convictions,[1] presuppositions, assumptions, biases, etc.

I spent the greater part of my life growing up in a theological tradition[2] that tended to limit the sin of the individual to acts of wrong behavior. Such sins were described as being unloving (selfish) or merely missing the mark. I suspect that this viewpoint is what became popular over time in the culture of the denomination, over and above the writings of the past. Nonetheless, this seems to be the prevailing attitude expressed in much of American Evangelical Christianity.

An example of this is seen in the current sexual revolution now taking place in this nation. Desire is separated by action. In short, desire is okay, understandable and maybe even legitimate (“that’s just the way you are”), as long as we do not act out those desires. Often the argument is laid out in this fashion, “I was/am tempted to do this or that, but I did not, therefore, I am not guilty of sin.” Sounds reasonable. Many believe it. Yet, we need to ask, “Is this true?” How does God’s Word deal with our sin? Does the Bible only condemn the act and not the desire?

The scriptural definition of sin is pretty straightforward, “Sin is lawlessness” (1John 3.4). Jesus summed up the fulfillment (upholding) of the Law of God in two points: 1) Love the Lord your God with all that you are, 2) Love your neighbor as yourself.[3] The logical order of these two points is that loving God your Creator enables you to love human beings your fellow creatures.  Or to put it another way, loving your neighbor is the natural outflow of having a heart devoted to the Lord.

Thus, we are told these truths consistently in Scripture:

  • “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1John 4.7-8).
  • Therefore, “the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1Tim 1.5).
  • “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5.14).

Now if the law is fulfilled by loving God and fellow human beings, and the breaking of the law is refusing to do what is right—for sin is lawlessness—then does it not follow that only our actions are condemned and not our desires? No. Surprising to say that is wrong. This smacks in the face of what many Evangelical Christians believe to be logical. The idea that only our actions are wrong and not our intentions is blatantly false.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exod 20.17; cf. Deut 5.21). Coveting something is desiring something that is not yours, and it is the desire which is labeled as a breaking of the law of love…a sin. Based upon this law, Jesus makes the following conclusion: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matt 5.19-20a). The desires of the heart are what the Lord identifies as sinful, not just the action. “The devising of folly is sin…” (Prov 24.9a), not just the things we do.

Many of the Ten Commandments focus on the action[4], but less we say that only our deeds are weighed as evil before God, He clarifies the true source of the problem and condemns the very desires that we have. As a child I grew up to think that sinning in “word, thought and deed” was a ridiculous notion; an extremely legalistic view of sin. However, now that I am a man I see that God is the one who condemns our words, thoughts and deeds. Our actions are driven by our thoughts (desires), and when our desires are that which are contrary to our Creator’s they give birth to sin; the list of which seems to know no end (cf. James 1.14-15; Rom 1.24, 26, 28-32).[5]

Christians who have a malnourished diet come to erroneous conclusions. Identifying sin as only an action of the body (theft/murder) and not an action of the mind (thoughts/desires) is not only inaccurate, but damaging to the Christian lifestyle and witness. When we tell people that it is okay to have this or that desire just as long as they do not act on it, we do two things. First, we mislead them. Second, we become liable for the sins that they commit as a secondary accomplice.

We who are teachers, who claim to be mature in the faith, ought to do a better job instructing members of our household (the Body of Christ) in keeping even the least of the commandments lest we turn the Lord’s anger in our direction (cf. Matt 5.19; 18.6). Our goal ought to be obedience and adherence to God’s Word, not pacifying the masses both inside and outside our churches.


[1] In the future we shall discuss the religious nature (affiliation) of all people, even those who prefer the category of atheism or secular humanism.

[2] Wesleyan-Arminian; particularly that found within the Church of the Nazarene.

[3] Cf. Matt 22.40; also see Deut 6.5; 10.12; Mark 12.29-30; Luke 10.27. The non-believer is found in open hostility to these precepts: Rom 8.7; Col 1.21.

[4] This is where most people tend to lean in study the Law of God. That the Ten Commandments are only concerned with external action and do not really address matters of the heart is a false notion; although, it remains a fairly popular one in much of Christian thought. This is sometimes expressed with the common phrase, “Christianity is a relationship not a religion” that is to say true Christians are only concerned about matters of the heart and not externals as if the two are opposed to one another.

[5] The Roman passage is often cited to condemn the perverse sexual sins that we see in society, but a thorough study will reveal that being turned over by God to the desires of our sinful hearts (which in itself is the expression of wrath described in v.18) is not limited to sins of a sexual persuasion. A vast list of various covetous behavior has been identified with the turning over of one’s mind.