If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
Knowledge is a dangerous thing. Both Paul and James have things to say on this matter. And neither is very encouraging.
Paul says that if we think something is a sin, then for us it is regardless of what it is. If I think wearing hats is sinful, and I do it, then it is a sin for me. If my brother doesn’t think its a sin and does it, it is not a sin for him. This leads us to some very interesting theological considerations. Are there, then, two lists of sins: one list of all activities that are universal sins for everyone regardless of what they think about them (murder, adultery, idolatry) and another list of those things that are specifically sinful for a person (eating meat, wearing hats, saying certain words…)?
James here speaks similarly. He says if we know there is something good we are to do yet we don’t do it, we are sinning. It is an echo of Paul’s writing and includes the same concept of “sinful for you”. It is this subjectiveness that we find so disturbing. How can something be sinful for one person and not for the next? How can we possibly be sinless then?
And there is where the rubber hits the road. This entire line of thinking still assumes that we can be sinless. Any list of sins implies that our sinfulness is about behavior, about checklists, and about works. It implies that it is possible to be sinless if we just behave correctly, do the right things/avoid the right things on the checklist, or work hard enough. This is the ultimate hubris.
We have been saved not from our sins but from our very sinfulness. We have been saved by Jesus Christ not from the list of things we’ve done wrong but from our very nature of selfishness. We have been saved by Jesus’ death on the cross not just from our swearing in church but from our need to put ourselves first in every situation. That is salvation for real.
Whether a sin is sinful for all of just for some is the wrong question. Whether you have put your trust in Jesus as the only means by which you can be free from your sinful nature is the right one.