Question 7: Sin and Sins

Gospel Dialogue, CFP white covers, 21-30, Watchman Nee

How are “sin” and “sins” differently used?


The difference between sin and sins is that between sin stated in the singular number and sin stated in the plural number. In the Old Testament there is no distinction made of sin in singular and plural numbers. Only the New Testament expresses this difference, and it is a very significant difference too

Let us list all the places in the New Testament where sin (Gk. hamartia) both in the singular and in the plural is used.

“Sin” in singular number: Matt.12.31; John 1.29; 8.34 (twice), 46; 9.41 (twice); 15.22 (twice), 24; 16.8,9; 19.11; Acts 7.60; Rom. 3.9,20; 4.8; 5.12 (twice), 13 (twice), 20,21; 6.1,2,6 (twice), 7,10,11,12,13,14,16,17,18,20,22,23; 7.7 (twice), 8 (twice), 9,11,13 (thrice), 14,17,20,23,25; 8.2,3 (mg., thrice), 10; 14.23; 1 Cor. 15.56 (twice); 2 Cor. 5.21 (twice); 11.7; Gal. 2.17; 3.22; 2 Thess. 2.3; Heb. 3.13; 4.15; 9.26,28 (the second “sin”); 10.6,8,18; 11.25; 12.1,4; 13.11; James 1.15 (twice); 2.9; 4.17; 1 Peter 2.22; 4.1; 2 Peter 2.14; 1 John 1.7,8; 3.4 (twice), 5 (the second “sin”), 8,9; 5.16 (twice), 17 (twice).

“Sins” in plural number: Matt. 1.21; 3.6; 9.2,5,6; 26.28; Mark 1.4,5; 2.5,7,9,10; Luke 1.77; 3.3; 5.20,21,23,24; 7.47,48,49; 11.4; 24.47; John 8.21, 24 (twice); 9.34; 20.23; Acts 2.38; 3.19; 5.31; 10.43; 13.38; 22.16; 26.18; Rom. 4.7; 7.5; 11.27; 1 Cor. 15.3,17; Gal. 1.4; Eph. 2.1; Col. 1.14; 1 Thess. 2.16; 1 Tim. 5.22,24; 2 Tim. 3.6; Heb. 1.3; 2.17; 5.1,3; 7.27; 8.12; 9.28 (the first “sins”); 10.2,3,4,11,12,17,26; James 5.15,20; 1 Peter 2.24 (twice); 3.18; 4.8; 2 Peter 1.9; 1 John 1.9 (twice); 2.2,12; 3.5 (the first “sins”); 4.10; Rev. 1.5; 18.4,5.

After we have read these many Scripture verses we may detect how wise is God in writing the Bible. We will truly say to Him: “O God, we worship You!”

The distinctive uses of “sin” and “sins” are as follows. Whenever the Bible refers to man’s outward sinful conduct such as pride, jealousy, lying, and so forth, “sin” in the plural number is always used. “Sin” in the singular number is never used in the Bible for outward sin; instead, it is employed in two different ways: (1) It points to the sin that reigns within or its power and dominion. This is also commonly known by the terms: the root of sin or the denominator of sin. Actually these terms are not scripturally accurate; they are merely borrowed for the sake of convenience. The Bible never uses either of them, it instead speaks of sin as reigning like a king or having dominion like a master. “Sin” in the singular number is usually employed to specify the power which reigns over us and drives us to commit sins.

(2) As a collective term, it sometimes refers to the whole problem of sin (such as is found in John 1.29 and 1 John 1.7 which we discuss later). Whenever the Bible speaks of God forgiving sin it always uses the plural number “sins”, because what we need to be forgiven of are the sins we commit in outward behavior. As regards the sinful nature within us, it cannot be solved by forgiveness. It would be a mistake to say God forgives “sin” and use the singular number. For God only forgives “sins”. Since “sin” in the singular number is a master, a power, it is something we are not directly responsible for and is not to be settled through forgiveness. But “sins” in the plural number need forgiveness because these are our conduct for which we are held responsible, and they will cause a penalty to be levied against us if not forgiven. For this cause, whenever the Bible mentions the matter of confessing our sins, it should always be expressed as  “confess our sins” (1 John 1.9), using the plural and not the singular number. “Sin” does not refer to man’s conduct, and therefore does not require confession; but the term “sins” does signify man’s conduct, requiring confession to be made. Christ’s death is to save us from “sins” in the plural number. “Thou shalt call his name Jesus; for it is he that shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1.21). This means that the Lord Jesus saves us from all the sins in our conduct.

The Lord Jesus declared to the Jews: “Ye shall die in your sins” (John 8.24). Once again, this refers to sin in the plural number, and not to sin singular. Never once does the Bible say that Christ has died for our sin as expressed in the singular number; it always says that Christ has died for our sins plural.

“Ye were dead through your trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2.1). Note that the word “sin” here is in the plural form and not in the singular. It means that we spend our lives in sins such as pride, uncleanness, jealousy, and so forth. We were dead in plural “sins”, not in “sin” in its singular number. Two more examples are these: (1) “should take away sins” in Hebrews 10.4 is a taking away of sins in the plural number; (2) “had no more consciousness of sins” in 10.2 is also an expression of sin in the plural.

Why do we have no more consciousness of sins after the blood of the Lord has cleansed our conscience? Because the sin which our conscience accuses us of before God is sin in the plural number; that is, one sin after another, such as ill-temper, pride, and so forth. Since the blood of the Lord Jesus has already obtained forgiveness for these our sins, naturally our conscience will no longer be conscious of them. Sins there most certainly are, but the blood has dealt with them. Had the blood of the Lord cleansed sin in its singular sense, no one would have been able to experience personally such a cleansing; because in cleansing sin in the singular number, it would have meant that we would never have again been conscious of the power of sin, that power which drives us to sin. But we know that such is not the case at all. The blood of the Lord Jesus has so cleansed us that our conscience no longer accuses us of our past sins. Yet this does not imply that we no longer have sin; it only affirms that there is no more consciousness of sins. Through the cleansing of the blood we are no more condemned by our conscience.

How, then, are we to be delivered from the sin that masters us, the sin which we have been speaking of in the singular number? “Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away [literally, unemployed], that so we should no longer be in bondage to sin” (Rom. 6.6). Here we have three items: (1) the body of sin, (2) the old man, and (3) sin. The body serves as a figurehead, for what causes the body to sin through the old man is sin. Sin works in the body, so that this body is called the body of sin. The old man stands between sin and the body. It accepts the instigation of sin on the one hand and directs the body to sin on the other. The old man is our personality. Sin tempts, the old man agrees, and accordingly the body acts. Some people have suggested that the death of the Lord Jesus has eradicated the root of sin. This is not true. For what the Lord Jesus has done is to get rid of the old man. Sin is still here, the body of sin is also here; only the intermediary old man is gotten rid of. Man as a person still remains; yet sin is now unable to push the new man around, because sin can never direct the new man. Sin in the singular is still here, though we are no longer in bondage to it. Why are we no longer slaves to sin? Because the old man who directly charges the body to sin is already crucified. How about the body? It is presently unemployed.

“He [the Lord Jesus] had made purification of sins” (Heb. 1.3). The sin here is again cast in the plural, for the passage points to the penalty and not to the root of sin that is purified.

Yet what about the passage in John 1.29: “Behold, the lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world”? Since the sin of the world which is taken away is singular in number here, does it really indicate that the root of sin is eradicated? If so, then not only the root of sin of the saved but also that of the whole world is eradicated. Obviously, this cannot be the meaning. What it means here is that the Lamb of God has solved the whole problem of the sin of the world. This agrees with the words “as through one man sin entered into the world” of Romans 5.12. Just as sin had entered into the world through one man, so it is taken away by another man. The Lord has already solved the problem of the sin of the world.

How do we deal with sin in the singular number? “Even so, reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin” (Rom. 6.11). Sin in the plural is solved by the death of Christ; sin in the singular is solved by co-death with Christ. This co-death is a reckoning as dead. If we reckon ourselves to be dead to sin, we will no longer be under the dominion of sin.

“If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1.7). Once more, the word sin is expressed in the singular. Yet this certainly cannot mean that the blood of the Lord Jesus cleanses the root of sin from us because the cleansing spoken of here is conditional on our walking in the light as He is in the light so as to have fellowship one with another. Had this verse been a reference to our sinful nature, how would we have the sin for the blood of the Lord Jesus to cleanse from us, since we are already able to walk in the light as God is in the light? The truth is: as we walk in the light of the gospel as God is in the light of revelation, we begin to realize that the blood of the Lord Jesus has already solved our whole problem of sin. In the following verse, which is the ninth verse, it uses sin in the plural, showing that we yet have sins. We therefore conclude this: that sin in the singular refers to sin as master in us, sin in the plural refers to the various expressions of outward conduct. Sin in the singular points to the whole problem of sin, while sin in the plural points to sin as individual acts.

 “Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5.21). The word sin here is singular in form. The Lord was made sin for us, not sins (plural) on our behalf. Why is sin in the singular used here? Because God made Jesus, who knew no sin (that is, who never knew what sin was and who had never served sin nor known the power of sin), to be sin for us, that is, to be made the whole problem of sin so that God could judge it by judging Him. His being made sin simply means that God dealt with Him as God would deal with our own sin problem. If the Lord Jesus should have been made sins, He would have known sinful conduct; and thus He too would have been one who had committed sins, He too would have known sins such as pride, jealousy, uncleanness, and so on. Thank God, He had not made the Lord Jesus sins, He only dealt with the Lord Jesus as He would deal with the problem of sin. Hence when the Lord Jesus died, the problem of the sin of the whole world was solved.

Finally, let us conclude the discussion of this question by referring to the book of Romans. Its first eight chapters treat specifically the question of sin. Romans 1-5.11 is the first section, and it deals with the problem of sin in the plural number, not with sin in the singular. Romans 5.12-8 forms the second section, which deals with the problem of sin in the singular number (for please notice in the second section that, aside from the one instance in Chapter 7 where sin in the plural is mentioned, that is, verse 5, all the rest of the section speaks of sin in the singular). The first section speaks of sins as individual acts, that is, the outward expressions of sinful conduct. These sinful cases and their penalties need to be taken away and eliminated. Hence the Lord Jesus came to bear our sins and to take them away. The second section speaks of how God delivers us from the sin which reigns over us just as He has forgiven us our many sins. He not only forgives our sins and removes their penalty but also delivers us from the power of sin that we may not sin. The first section dwells on the precious blood, while the second dwells on the cross. The resurrection in the first section is the Lord being raised for us; the resurrection in the second is our being raised with the Lord. The first section focuses on the Lord Jesus being crucified and having shed His blood for us; the second focuses on our being crucified with the Lord. The first section treats of forgiveness, the second, of deliverance. The first section deals with justification, the second, with sanctification. The first section solves the penalty of sin, the second dissolves the power of sin. We need to pass through both of these two sections.

When you first believe in the Lord, you are worried about the many sins you have committed. One sin after another is laid before you, and you realize that there is nothing good within and without you. You begin to wonder how the all-just God could forgive your sins. But as you come to know that the Lord Jesus has borne your sins, that His blood has cleansed you of all your sins, and that He has forgiven you of all the sins you committed, you rejoice in Him. Having had your sins forgiven you now stand in the grace of God, expecting joyously the glory of God. You are fully persuaded that you now can do good.

Yet day by day you discover that, for example, you can still lie as you did before. What should be done? You come to the Lord, asking for forgiveness. The Lord is still willing to forgive, and His blood is always efficacious. You make up your mind that you will never lie again. You subsequently seem to do all right during the first few days, but then you begin to relax, and once more you lie. Again you ask the Lord to forgive your sin, and again you will not to sin. After a while, you lie once more and fall. Again and again you ask the Lord to forgive you, and over and over again you sin. Formerly you felt the sinfulness of outward sins; now, after you have become a Christian, you are aware of the sin that reigns within you as well as the sins committed without. To illustrate further, let us consider the person who loves to gamble. Formerly he acknowledged this as a defect in his conduct. But after he has believed in the Lord, he begins to sense that there is a hard master in him who has the power to force him to do what he does not want to do and he cannot but do it.

Each of us has his own peculiar sin which entangles him. You may recall how happy you were at the time you were saved, but now you are even more miserable than before you were saved. How can you overcome these sins? You inquire of God if He has a greater salvation. That which is described in Romans 5.12 to 8 is that greater salvation. If blood is all that God requires, He could cause the Lord Jesus to shed His blood in a different way. Why must Christ die on the cross? It is because God wants to show you how as a person you were brought to the cross to be crucified with Christ just as the penalty of your sinful acts of conduct was pardoned through Jesus the Savior. The Lord Jesus Christ was crucified for your sins, but at the same time He brought you to the cross with Him. Not only the sins of the sinner, but also the sinner himself; not just our sins, but also all of us in Christ, were on the cross. Just as the Lord Jesus Christ has shed His blood to cleanse your sins, so God has reckoned Christ’s death over 1900 years ago as being your death.

At the beginning you believed that the Lord has died for you; today you reckon His death as your death. Since the Lord has died, you too have died. As you believe in His death, so you also believe His death as your death. Though sin is still alive it cannot tempt a dead person, because he who is dead is freed from sin. The person being dead, sin can no longer baffle him. God can forgive our outward sinful acts of conduct, but He cannot forgive our inward sinful nature. Instead, He has crucified our old man so that sin in us has no more power to drag us down. We must therefore believe that we were dead. Believe that we already died, not that we are going to die. Believe that we have died, not that we should die. When you are conscious of your weakness and uncleanness, you should know that the cross has already dealt with these things. If you look at Christ with believing eyes and believe that you have been crucified with Him, you will see the power of Christ in saving and delivering you from the power of sin in you.

The first step in salvation gives us peace and satisfaction and causes us to experience much joy. The second step in salvation gives us power to overcome sin and to walk in His way. Do you sense the power of sin oppressing you within? It is well that you experience the victory over it. Overcoming the power of sin in you is deliverance and emancipation, not forgiveness. Since the master within you has been changed, you are no longer under the rule of the old master. We must all go this way.


Question 8: God’s Grace and God’s Righteousness in Salvation

Gospel Dialogue, CFP, 30-31, Watchman Nee


Are we saved by the grace of God or by the righteousness of God? Which part of salvation is done for us by God’s grace, and which part of it by God’s righteousness?


“By grace have ye been saved” (Eph. 2.8), thus indicating that we are saved by grace.

“Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation [literally, mercy seat], through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness . . . ; for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3.24-26), thus signifying that we are also saved by God’s righteousness.

The grace of God provides for us a Savior that we may be saved (see John 3.16). The righteousness of God causes salvation to come upon us, for He cannot but save us. That part of God’s provision which extends from the birth of the Lord Jesus to His death and resurrection is done for us through God’s grace. And the part from the ascension of the Lord Jesus to the present moment is done for us through God’s righteousness.

Grace may be given or withheld according to God’s pleasure; but righteousness must be dispensed without favor. Since Christ has died and been raised from the dead, God cannot but save me if I believe. Otherwise, God would be found to be unrighteous. How does 1 John 1.9 read? Does it say: “If we confess our sins, he is merciful and loving to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”? No, it says that “he is faithful and righteous . . .”

The blood of God’s Son has already cleansed us from all our sins. As we believe, God must save us. God cannot be unfaithful, because His word has already been spoken. He cannot be unrighteous, because the blood of His Son has already been shed. We thank and praise God, for He cannot but save us!

Whatever is unrighteous is sin. God cannot be unrighteous, hence He cannot but save us. Suppose we say that God may or may not forgive us. This would almost be like saying that He is unfaithful and unrighteous. Let us lay hold of God’s righteousness. How God is pleased indeed with our laying hold of His righteousness! For to lay hold of His righteousness is truly honoring Him.