“How can I know if something is a sin?”There are two issues involved in this question, the things that the Bible specifically mentions and declares to be sin and those the Bible does not directly address. Scriptural lists of various sins include Proverbs 6:16-19, Galatians 5:19-21, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. There can be no doubt that these passages present the activities as sinful, things God does not approve of. Murder, adultery, lying, stealing, etc.—there is no doubt the Bible presents such things as sin. The more difficult issue is in determining what is sinful in areas that the Bible does not directly address. When the Bible does not cover a certain subject, we have some general principles in His Word to guide us.First, when there is no specific scriptural reference, it is good to ask not whether a certain thing is wrong, but, rather, if it is definitely good. The Bible says, for example, that we are to “make the most of every opportunity” (Colossians 4:5). Our few days here on earth are so short and precious in relation to eternity that we ought never to waste time on selfish things, but to use it only on “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” (Ephesians 4:29).A good test is to determine whether we can honestly, in good conscience, ask God to bless and use the particular activity for His own good purposes. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). If there is room for doubt as to whether it pleases God, then it is best to give it up. “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). We need to remember that our bodies, as well as our souls, have been redeemed and belong to God. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). This great truth should have a real bearing on what we do and where we go.In addition, we must evaluate our actions not only in relation to God, but also in relation to their effect on our family, our friends, and other people in general. Even if a particular thing may not hurt us personally, if it harmfully influences or affects someone else, it is a sin. “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall….We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves” (Romans 14:21; 15:1). Finally, remember that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, and nothing else can be allowed to take priority over our conformity to His will. No habit or recreation or ambition can be allowed to have undue control over our lives; only Christ has that authority. “Everything is permissible for me—but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
How can I know if something is a sin?
The Bible is clear on a great many sins. Proverbs 6:16-19 mentions pride, lying, and murder, among others. Galatians 5:19-21 adds sexual immorality, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, and jealousy. And 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 includes stealing, swindling, and drunkenness. But there are many more circumstances that are not as clear. Part of maturing as a Christian is recognizing that the freedom we receive in Christ comes with a responsibility to live as Christ. We are not children to be given a list of do’s and don’ts and gold stars and check marks. We are adults, or we are to become adults (Hebrews 5:11-14), who live in Christ, motivated by love for God and others.Romans 14 is a key passage on this subject. It starts by saying that outside of the basics, people will have different opinions about right and wrong, and neither side should judge the other. God has placed each individual in specific circumstances which may endorse different standards. There are tribes in South America where shirtless women are not considered nude. But a woman who displays her armpits is because she is exposing hair that developed during puberty. Women in that culture keep their arms down while others of us would require a shirt, but both actions are expressions of godly modesty. Verse 4 explains we are judged by God, and should be gentle with each other.A sure sign that something is a sin is if it is not personally edifying. In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul says, “Everything is permissible for me—but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me—but I will not be mastered by anything.” He would not be “mastered”—that is, he would not allow a gray area to become more important than his relationship with God. John Wesley’s mother put it this way: “Whatever weakens your reasoning, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes away your relish for spiritual things, in short if anything increases the authority and the power of the flesh over the spirit, that to you becomes sin, however good it is in itself.”In Romans 14, Paul details how our actions may affect others. Verse 15: “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.” In all things, not just eating, we should consider what will edify those around us. We should not destroy the work of God for trivialities (vs. 20), but value others more than our own desires (Romans 15:1).Verse 8 states, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Living to the Lord means obeying His commandments to love Him and love others. We are to live our lives in a constant state of love, and that is what determines our actions when the road is less clear. Everything we do should be driven by faith (vs. 23)—conviction or firm persuasion. If we are not completely convicted about the act itself, we should be governed by something we are convicted of—God wants us to love Him and love others. If the act in question does not meet those criteria, it should not be done.