The Target of Sin


The Target of Sin

Psalm 51:4
by Bob Burridge ©2012

When I was about 13 or 14 I took my first archery lessons. It took quite a few arrows before the first one got stuck in the target. The first few didn’t even make it all the way to the hay bale where the target was mounted. I put a lot of holes in the ground. The target was the safest place on the whole archery range.

In the Old Testament, the primary Hebrew word we translate as “sin” is khata’ (חטא). It literally means to miss the target. It is used in that original way in Judges 20:16, “Among all this people were seven hundred select men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss.” There the word “miss” is this same word used in other places for “sin”.

When we sin, we are missing the moral target God sets for us. This is exactly how sin is defined in the Bible. The King James Version of 1 John 3:4 says, “… sin is the transgression of the law.” The ESV has, “… sin is lawlessness.” It is when we fail to conform to the ways God has revealed as being right and good.

One way people often try to soften the ugliness of their sin, is to change the target. If sticking arrows in the grass was the goal of archery I would have been a gold-medalist right away! But if the target was that round dot surrounded by circles, I sinned a lot — I missed the mark.

If our moral target is to feel good about ourselves, or not to do great physical harm to others, we might convince ourselves we are pretty good. But if the standard is the high and perfect moral principles God tells us about in his word, then we discover, as did King David, that we all have sinned grievously.

In Psalm 51 David cried out for God’s grace. The sins he had committed in connection with his involvement with Bathsheba had just been exposed by the Prophet Nathan. The Psalm begins with these words in the first three verses.

Psalm 51:1-3, “Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me.”

In Romans 3:23 The Apostle Paul wrote, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We come short of the target, the target God sets. We do not get to pick the target. David, Paul, and the other writers of the Bible were well aware of the mark we are to hit, and of how impossible it is for any of us to even come close, aside from the amazing work of God’s grace that transforms our unworthy hearts.


As Psalm 51 continues David admits that at its root,
his sin is a crime against God.

Psalm 51:4, “Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight — That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge.”

In fallen man’s attempt to redefine the target, he has invented the “victimless crime”. Some sins are excused simply by asking, “What harm does it do?” What they mean is, if something does not cause direct harm to another person, then it is morally OK. They excuse it as a private matter that is not very important.

Several years ago I read the party platform for a political group that was promoting the repeal of all laws it classified as “victimless crimes”. It did not leave it to the imagination to guess what this group believed those crimes include. The platform specifically demanded the repeal of several existing laws.

They wanted to repeal all laws restricting the sale and use of drugs of any kind, all laws relating to sexual relations such as prostitution and solicitation, all laws that allow homosexual acts and unions not to be fully accepted by everyone, all laws limiting the sale, use and production of sexually explicit material, and all laws interfering with the right to commit suicide, which it said is our ultimate right.

David Euchner is a doctoral candidate and teacher at Rutgers School of Law. He lists examples of what he says are victimless crimes, “… prostitution, the use and distribution of illicit drugs, gambling, obscenity and pornography.” Then he says, “Every participant in these illegal activities is willing and consensual, and therefore no participant is a victim of a crime nor a perpetrator of a crime against another.”

He argues that these are victimless activities and cause no detriment to society. He insists that an individual’s wishes or rights are the only proper basis upon which we should determine what should be considered to be criminal. He goes on to reject any religious moral standards by saying that, “Faith amounts to nothing more than a renunciation of reason and logic. … Faith will allow an otherwise rational person to accept contradictions in the universe.”

He obviously has not considered the actual biblical definition of faith, or of its moral standards. We easily recognize the man of straw constructed by his presumptions, a target constructed out of imagined logical errors, but nothing resembling the real set of beliefs he says he is opposing. Biblical faith is neither an irrational act nor an escape from reason. Biblical faith will not accept contradictions in the universe. It seeks to know God’s creation as it really is, not as each individual would like it to be to relieve his awareness of responsibility and guilt.

Faith is an implanted firm confidence which God gives to those for whom Christ died. That implanted ability enables the persons to trust the direct teachings of God in Scripture.

The victimless crime is a modern myth. It implies that these things which are offensive to God ought not to be considered wrong. What King David learned, and what every sinner should understand, is that someone other than the perpetrator and a human victim is always involved. God is offended. He, the Creator, is the center and definition of morality. Every sin, private or public, is an offense against him. Though no one else is directly harmed, even when no one else knows about it, that which defies God’s moral principles is still wrong.

David understood the central target of his sin — it was against God only. As we just read in 1 John 3:4, sin is the violation of God’s law. According to the Creator Himself, anything that violates his eternal moral principles is wrong and offensive. It brings guilt upon the offender, whether it is known by others, or directly hurts others, or not.

God’s moral principles lie at the root of every good law in civilized society. The sin of murder is not fundamentally wrong just because it hurts another person. It is wrong because every human life bears the image of God, and is to be respected from conception. If murder is only wrong because of an accepted technical definition, or is justified because we imagine it is kept painless to the individual killed, or because it might actually minimize hardships in the long run, then abortion and suicide are removed from the list of wrongs. That is exactly what our secular society does once God’s moral standards are taken out of the picture.

Stealing is not a sin just because of its inconvenience to another person or society. It is wrong because it defies God’s distribution of ownership and stewardship. If stealing is justified when it does no serious outward harm to society or to others, then we allow many thieves to be set free with insignificant penalties if they are punished at all. An oppressive government taking what we earn in the form of unjustified and intrusive taxes to redistribute our wealth becomes acceptable.

Sexual sins are not wrong because of their harm to some culturally defined sense of decency. They are wrong because they defy the command of God concerning the sexes. Marriage is the only moral place for sex since it is ordained to represent Christ’s relationship with his church. If sex is simply for pleasure or for personal satisfaction, then extramarital sex, and divorce for personal reasons, become acceptable. Pornography becomes an acceptable business for consenting adults. Pornographers are then held only to cultural standards, such as not aiming at minors as part of their consumer target. It becomes a first amendment right to promote bestiality, child sex, and erotic pictures displayed publicly.

We could say similar things concerning all moral principles. It is not just civil crimes that land us in jail that are offensive to our Father in heaven. What offends him includes many more behaviors and attitudes. The list that follows is a very small set of examples of non-criminal offenses which miss the mark God sets for us morally.

  • lies said to promote ourselves, lies no one ever detects or suspects
  • apathy about our neighbors, and brothers and sisters in the Lord
  • inward anger when we are challenged
  • pride when we see others struggle with sin or fall from spiritual weakness
  • silence when we are brought into the lives of those in need of the gospel
  • covetousness in our heart when God’s plan is not what we think it ought to be

We could add many more things to that list. It would include all we do that is contrary to or neglectful of God’s revealed ways and principles. That is what makes it so wrong. Sin is defined as missing the moral target revealed to us by our Creator. It undermines and offends the glory of God, and it builds up a heavy weight in our conscience.


David adds that he had done what is evil in God’s sight.

There are two biblical truths that come to mind in this confession:

The first is that evil is what God sees it to be. It is not just what people or scholars think it should be. This parallels what David had just said in the first part of this verse.

There is another lesson in these word too. All our evil is done before the watching eyes of God himself. Nothing goes unnoticed.

Did David really think that his sin with Bathsheba, the deceit, and the plotting to murder, had all gone unseen? The fact of the ever-seeing eyes of God was something David had learned already in his life. When he sinned, had he forgotten this fundamental truth? or did he just put it out of his mind? or did he think God would “understand” his need to violate clearly revealed moral law?

When we consider the all-seeing eye of God, every sin is clearly irrational. There is no good explanation except to admit that every heart, redeemed ones too, are still imperfect in this life and tend toward excusing sin for a season. When we consider the evil we do, what an impudent affront it is, to break the law right in the face of the lawmaker who is also our loving Savior.

Children have been known to stretch the rules of their family a bit when they know their parents aren’t around or are not paying attention. They might eat more of the things on the limited eating list, watch TV shows that are a bit less wholesome than the usual family viewing, stay up a little later than they are supposed to, and maybe socialize over the phone a little more than is allowed.

Adults might also try to get away with some questionable behaviors. They might at times drive less lawfully when no one is around to see them. They might show less patience in line at the grocery store than when a fellow church member is waiting in line behind them, or when the cashier is a good family friend.

Do we stop to think when we sin, when we make excuses, when we neglect what we know what we ought to be doing, that we are as clearly seen by God at those times as when we assemble together for worship on the Lord’s Day?

God is always present and aware of our doings and thoughts. It is not the harm done to others, or the immediate damage to society that determines morality. It is the offense to God that makes something wrong. It is the violation of his eternal moral principles.


David then turns to the fact of God’s justice.

Psalm 51:4b, “… That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge.”

When God speaks to us in judgment, we of ourselves have no defense. God has every right as Creator to demand perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience. His creatures were made to be held to the moral principles he revealed. Judgment is more than a divine right. It is a divine necessity. To allow sin to go unpunished would contradict the nature of God. The fact of his justice, demands that the penalty of sin be paid in full.

What a wonderful gospel we have! It explains how God, as Savior, experienced death in place of his people satisfying the high demands of their infinite offense. Justice is met, while at the same time guilty sinners become the loved children of God, clothed in a righteousness that is not their own, but is the merit of their Redeemer, Jesus Christ. As loved children, their offenses bring them humbly to the throne of grace. As David discovered, God is not only ever present as judge, as one we must obey, he is also ever present with his children to forgive them and to deliver them from sin.

In Psalm 139:3 David wrote, “You comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways.” Then in verses 7-10 he asked, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me.”

Psalm 51 was not written for those who believe they never sin. It was recorded for us who know we offend our marvelous Creator, and who need to deal with our guilt in the only right way; by humble and honest confession, and by a trusting appeal to the completed work of Jesus Christ who represented us on the cruel Cross of Calvary.

(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Bible unless otherwise noted.)

About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
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