Sin Is Defined by the Law – Aaron Eby’s Boundary Stones, Part 2

A couple of weeks back I introduced you fine blog readers to Aaron Eby’s new book, Boundary Stones, a short book written for Christians in a non-condemning manner and in simple language describing how ordinary Christians ought to approach God’s Law.

This week we are discussing part 2 of Eby’s book, which argues for the position that sin is defined by the Law.

At first glance, for many Christians this doesn’t sound too terrible a proposition. I rarely encounter resistance from Christians when stating that the Law defines sin. Most folks are on board with that. It’s only when this premise is taken to its conclusion that this idea becomes a theology-shaker.

Eby starts off with some foundation-building statements from the New Testament. He recites Scripture, saying, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. The wages of sin is death. Jesus came to save us from our sin. We’re sinners saved by grace.


Now I must admit to you, fine blog readers, I hear these oft-repeated statements so much I have a hard time taking them in with full meaning. I mean, they’re almost religious clichés now that I’ve heard them so many times. It’s kind of like John 3:16 – you’ve heard it so many times that its all too easy to take lightly these powerful and meaningful statements. I have to read it 4 or 5 times and let it sink in to make it meaningful again. I almost have to re-word those phrases so they become less cliché.

“Everybody’s done evil sinning, so none of us are like God. If we keep sinning, it leads to a death sentence. Messiah took away that death sentence. We sinning people are set right with God because of His undeserved forgiveness of our sin.”

There, better.

Your Honor, what did I do wrong?

Ok, so that all sounds good, right? But what, exactly, is sin? I mean, if sin leads to a death sentence, we’d better have a darn good understanding of what sin is, right? If sin is so terrible that Messiah had to die, taking our sin on himself, we sure as heck should know precisely what is and what is not sin. Eby argues, if sin is such an ugly thing to God, there must be a clear definition of what is right – not a sin – and what is wrong – a sin.

Eby likens this to a guilty man standing before a judge. When the guilty verdict is read, the judge does not simply state a verdict (e.g. “You’re guilty!”) Rather, the judge is specific, stating precisely what law was broken (e.g. “You’ve been found guilty of grand theft and larceny…”).

Likewise, we need specifics, we need a something that tells us exactly and with great painstaking detail what sin is. Without such a document, the judge can hardly be called a righteous judge if the defendants don’t know right from wrong.

Fortunately, our Righteous and Just Law-Giving God has given us such a document. Eby lets Scripture explain:

“It is the Law that brings wrath; where there is no Law, neither is there transgression.”

-Romans 4:15

Paul is saying, if the Law didn’t exist, if there were no commandments to break, no one would be guilty; sin wouldn’t exist. But because God did give the Law, it is possible to sin, and therefore, God’s punishment is justified.

Eby again cites Paul:

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.

-1 Corinthians 15:56

And 1 John also makes this explicit:

“Everyone who sins also breaks the Law; in fact, sin is Lawlessness.”

-1 John 3:4


The Law is the document that tells us what sin is

And to dispel any foolish notions that some other law, rather than the Law, is being spoken of here, Eby explains the Greek word here, anomia, comes from the prefix a- meaning “without”, and “nomos”, meaning Law. The Hebrew equivalent of nomos is Torah, that is, instruction. In Scripture, these nearly always refer to the books of the Law written by Moses.

The books of the Law contain the precise, painstakingly detailed list of what God considers right and wrong – God’s commandments. This list includes the famous 10 Commandments. The books of the Law list the acts God considers sin: stealing, murder, and certain sexual unions, for example. It contains fine-grained laws dealing with everything from destruction of property, inheritance issues, prohibition against eating certain kinds of animals, idolatry, holidays, marriage, when to work and when to rest, giving to the poor, wages and compensation; nearly every issue of human conduct is addressed in some form in the Law.

And praise God for it! The Righteous and Just Judge, our God, has detailed exactly what he finds right and wrong, an explicit list of things He considers sin. And praises to God that this standard is not a relative one, shifting with the times to whatever the downward-spiraling world finds acceptable. Wahooo! Praise Him!

But some Christians raise a good question: If the Law is really God’s standard of right and wrong, why wasn’t it around from the beginning?

Eby answers this with proof from Scripture that the Law was around, in rudimentary form, from the beginning. It had yet to be revealed on a national level, but it existed. In Scripture, God says that Abraham “obeyed My voice, kept My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” Likewise, Noah knew which animals God considered clean and unclean long before the Law was revealed on a national level to Israel.

We have, from the beginning, known what God considered right and wrong. Whether this was revealed to the early patriarchs or on a national level to Israel, or on a global scale to the world as it is today, God’s standard of right and wrong – the Law – remains.

Condemning, judging, sin…ugh, I don’t want to hear it!

All this talk about judging and condemning and sinning isn’t a popular message. It is common for Christians to bemoan, “This isn’t why I came to Christ. Jesus set me free from all this. If the Law condemns, and the Law is the power of sin, let’s just get rid of the darn thing! Jesus is grace. Jesus is love. Jesus is all I need.”

The above message is difficult to combat. It’s kind of like how, in the recent US Presidential election, a certain candidate talked almost exclusively about positive things. People like to hear that kind of thing. People don’t like to hear about tough realities. We like to hear about sunshine and rainbows.

sunshine rainbows

We like to hear about the Health, Wealth, and Prosperity Gospel. We don’t like to hear about the bad things we do, and the Law spells out just how bad we really are.

It’s an uphill battle defending God’s commandments.

Eby states that the Scripture warns us against such flowery views; a Godly life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Back in the real world, our ugly sin is highlighted by the Law, and we’re judged accordingly. Hard as it is to face this reality, we must resist the urge to dismiss God’s Law, as much as some of us would like to. This is why Paul defends the Law, saying,

What should we say, that the Law is sin? Certainly not! If it wasn’t for the Law, I wouldn’t have known what sin is. I wouldn’t have known coveting to be a sin, for example, if the Law hadn’t said, “You shall not covet.”

-Romans 7:7

Just as earthly laws give power to the prosecutor to prosecute, power to the jury to convict, and power to the judge to sentence, by no means is this a problem with the laws! On the contrary, that is a purpose of the laws. Laws are good and healthy and necessary for society.

Likewise, God’s Law serves to keep us from doing wrong, to show us where we’re wrong and to give power to the Judge to sentence us when we do wrong. The Law is good and healthy and necessary for the people of God. This prompted Paul to say,

The Law is holy, and the commandments are holy and righteous and good.

-Romans 7:12

Scripture defines sin as any failure to obey the commandments in God’s Law, and these laws are necessary and good and healthy for us.

But we’re all guilty…so what’s the point?

We’re all criminals according to God’s perfect standard in the Law. No person, outside of Messiah Himself, has been able to perfectly follow God’s standard of righteousness defined in the Law.

Eby writes, “It’s a good thing the story does not end there! We’ve all broken the commandments in the Law, and so we’re all guilty and all deserving of sentencing. Only the Messiah, Jesus Himself, fully obeyed every applicable commandment found in the Law. In His death He paid the penalty for breaking the Law that was due us, and by faith in Him, we receive the gift of eternal life. Thank God that our eternal status does not depend on our ability to perform all the commandments!”

After Messiah’s death, the Law’s punishment does not apply to us due to the grace of God. Now we’ve found freedom. We were once in bondage to sin, says Eby, but now we are free.

We must be careful so as not to abuse this freedom. This freedom in Jesus is not a freedom to sin – that is, to break the commandments in the Law – instead, this freedom is freedom from the law of sin and death. Because we’re free from sin, we’re free from its penalty: death. We are not free to commit sin now that we have God’s grace. Because this is such a tempting thought, Paul had to address this explicitly:

What then, are we to sin because we’re not under the Law, but under grace? By no means!

-Romans 6:15


Now that we’re new creations, we shouldn’t continue sinning, we shouldn’t continue breaking God’s commandments. On the contrary, to show an affirming sign that we love God, we should be keeping His commandments in the Law.

Eby cites Paul again,

Don’t let sin in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Don’t present your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who’ve been brought back to life from the dead, and your body to God as instruments for righteousness. Sin will have no dominion over you, since you’re not under law, but under grace.

-Romans 6:12-14

In Jesus, we’re free from our bondage to sin, and no longer under the penalty of breaking God’s Law, which is death. The Bible defines sin as breaking God’s commandments. Now we’re able to serve God as instruments of righteousness and obey His commandments.

Eby paints a picture of the opposite result: if we continue to lead a life of unrepentant sin, it would appear we’re still in bondage. And if we’re in bondage to sin, we must not be new creations. And if we’re not new creations, then we certainly haven’t received God’s gift of grace by faith in Jesus. If we’re obedient to sin, then we’re slaves to sin. If you’re obedient to God’s commandments in the Law, then we’re slaves to God. This is why Paul says,

Don’t you know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey. It’s either sin, which leads to death, or obedience, which leads to righteousness.

-Romans 6:16

Jesus came to take away our sins, not just forgive them. If they’re taken away, they shouldn’t be in you. John states,

Jesus came to take away sin and in Him there’s no sin. No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning. No one who keeps on sinning has seen Him or known Him.

1 John 3:5-6

In the Bible, “sin” is breaking the commandments in the Law. The Law is God’s righteous standard of right and wrong. The penalty for breaking the Law is death. But the penalty has been paid for those who have faith in Jesus. We are now free from sin, and free to serve God by obeying His commandments.


  1. Wow. This is a really good post, and it presents "freedom from sin" in a way that I hadn't even thought of it before. Thanks for taking the time to post this.

  2. Hey Robyn,

    Glad you enjoyed it and got something from it.

    I encourage you to get the book, Boundary Stones. It's an easy read that helps disciples of Jesus understand their relationship to the Law. I think it's invaluable as a resource for Christians.

    But I'm not trying to be a saleman; I can send you one of my copies free of charge. If you like, email me judahgabriel at gmail and I'll send you one.


  3. By the way, congrats on your marriage! You and your new hubby look beautiful together. Congrats!

  4. That picture is totally FAKE! Rainbows never appear in the same direction as the sun. Also, the shadow's under the unicorn are all wrong.

  5. I have just one question: is there any distinction between crimes and sins in the Torah? For example, the regulation to put a parapet around your rooftop so no one will fall to their death (Deuteronomy 22:8) seems like more of a civil regulation, such that breaking that law is primarily and always a civil crime in Israel, but also a sin of rebellion against God-given authority (in most cases).

    I should probably get the book....

  6. Hi,

    Good question. I've strugged with this myself. Short answer is, I haven't seen anywhere in the Torah that distiguishes between a crime and a sin.

    On the other hand, there are certainly some commandments of greater importance than others. For example, the Torah allows for breaking certain commandments if it means saving a life. Jesus allowed for this too, saying that healing on the sabbath was acceptable, as well as picking grain to eat. Jesus highlighted the "weightier matters of the Law", telling the Pharisees,

    "You tithe the dill and the cumin, but you neglect the weightier matters of the Torah: justice and mercy and faith. You ought to have done these without neglecting the others."

  7. By the way, Nathan, if want the book, let me send it to you free of charge. If you like, email me at judahgabriel at gmail and I'll hook you up.

  8. Shabbat Shalom Judah,

    I look forward to reading Eby's book. As someone who leads a messianic prison ministry, I am often caught between the roles of grace and law. Usually we spend time discussing the meaning of sin, but there might be a more important thing to define. What is the biblical meaning of death? Since death is the result of sin (breaking the law), maybe it would help the discussion if we discussed the meaning of “death”.

    Adam was told that if they took of the “tree of knowledge” that they would die. However, when they did, they did not die, but instead they were cut off from the “tree of life”. Now most people will say they “died spiritually”, but that is not what is described here. What happened when they sinned? They were cut off from the presence of God. Prior to their sin, they “walked with God”, but afterwards they were blocked from the “Tree of Life”. Many talk of the “Tree of Life” as Torah, but it makes no sense that Yahweh would cut us off from that which explains sin because we sin. Interestingly, Kabalah says the “Tree of Life” is the “path to God”. So by that definition, Adam and Eve’s sin cause them to be blocked from free access to Yahweh.

    Does that make sense? Well how many times are we shown this? If you sinned in Moses’ day, you were removed from the camp, from His Presence. If you were in sin, you could not “draw near” to Yahweh with your offering. Cain was not killed, but put out of the garden for murder. Throughout the bible we see examples where if we sin we are separated from God, which should be a punishment worse than death. But do we think of separation from God as worse than death? I don’t think so. Most Christians today think that being in the perfect presence of God is what Heaven is, and that is what happens after death. Yet the bible shows Yaweh’s desire for us is to be in his presence here on earth. The Kingdom of Heaven (God) is Near or should be.

    Maybe if we did a better job of helping the family desire the presence of God, then they would fear separation (death) and would desire to avoid death by understanding His Torah. So maybe the discussion should be how do we make them want the presence of God?