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What is sin?

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The Bible expresses the complex concept of sin from various standpoints through several Hebrew and Greek words. This article will explore some of those words to understand the nature of sin and its relation to God’s character. Nevertheless, a central idea in Scripture is that sin is a human condition of separation or estrangement from God stemming from an inner attitude of rebellion against God (Mark 7:20–23; Luke 13:34).

The origin of sin traces back to Adam and Eve’s refusal to obey the explicit command of God (Genesis 3). Rebellion exists at the root of sin, and a rebellious, sinful nature has infected all of humanity ever since the fall (see Deuteronomy 9:7; Isaiah 30:9; Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:3). Sin is nothing to toy with. As Spurgeon said, “A little thorn may cause much suffering. A little cloud may hide the sun. Little foxes spoil the vines; and little sins do mischief to the tender heart” (Morning and Evening, Morning, May 30).

One biblical perspective of sin relates to breaking or violating God’s divine law (1 John 3:4; James 2:8–11). God established the law as the ideal or standard of righteousness for human behavior (Deuteronomy 6:24–25). Any “transgression” (‛ābar in Hebrew; parabasis in Greek) or “overstepping of God’s set limits” on human freedom is sin (James 2:8–11). Other Greek and Hebrew words in the Bible describe sin as lawbreaking, lawlessness, a false step, and trespassing on forbidden ground (see 1 John 3:4; Romans 4:15; 7:10–25). According to the ATS Bible Dictionary, sin is “any thought, word, desire, action, or omission of action, contrary to the law of God, or defective when compared with it.”

The most frequently used words for “sin” in both the Old and New Testaments are ḥāṭā’ in Hebrew and hamartanō in Greek, which meant initially “to miss the mark” or “fail in duty” (see Romans 3:23). From the Greek word derives the theological term hamartiology, which denotes the study of sin. Sinners rebel against God and violate His standard for righteous behavior. They step out of bounds, miss the mark, and fail to fulfill God’s good purpose for their lives.

Other facets of sin expressed in the Bible are a lack of faith in God (Romans 14:23); doing evil (Deuteronomy 32:5; Romans 7:21–24); ungodliness (Jude 1:14–15); suppressing the truth or speaking falsely about God (Hosea 7:13; Romans 1:18); disobedience (Ephesians 5:5–6); and straying from God’s way or turning to “our own way” (Isaiah 53:6).

Words for “sin” vary according to English translations and context: ungodliness, transgression, trespass, iniquity, unrighteousness, and others. The Bible also speaks of “the flesh,” which is the evil root of all sin, the depravity transmitted from Adam to all his children.

God is perfectly righteous, holy, and sinless (Habakkuk 1:13; Deuteronomy 32:4; Joshua 24:19; Isaiah 6:3; 1 Peter 2:22). He hates sin and its corrupting effect on humans (Psalm 11:5; 2 Samuel 11:27; Proverbs 6:16–19; Zechariah 8:17). Sin condemns people to death: “For sin is the sting that results in death” (1 Corinthians 15:56, NLT; see also Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12–14; Ephesians 2:1).

It is important to let the Bible define sin and not ourselves. It’s a human tendency to mark things as “sinful” to conform to our own aversions and distastes. The Bible provides the objective standard we need. If the Bible says something is a sin, then we must agree with that assessment. If the Bible does not say something is a sin and it violates no biblical principle, then we are free to form our own convictions about it.

God, in His lovingkindness, mercy, and grace, provided the solution to sin through the atoning sacrifice of Christ His Son (Matthew 26:27–28; Romans 5:6–9; 6:21–23; 8:1–4; Ephesians 1:7). Jesus came to set us free from sin and the curse of death (1 John 1:7; 3:3–10; Romans 6:18). When we do fall short of the mark as Christians, we have a faithful Advocate to whom we can confess our sins and receive His loving forgiveness (1 John 1:8—2:2).

We praise God in His absolute sinless perfection because He loves us (John 3:16; 1 John 4:7–8, 10–11). He revealed the magnitude of His love “by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8, NLT). “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NLT). In Christ, we are washed, sanctified, and justified (see 1 Corinthians 6:11). God has forgiven the rebels and reconciled the enemies. He has “lavished on us” the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1:8), and He heaps on us mercy upon mercy, kindness upon kindness. How can we not praise and “thank God for this gift too wonderful for words!” (2 Corinthians 9:15, NLT)?

While we were running away from Him in complete rebellion, He called us “out of the darkness into his wonderful light” to become “God’s very own possession” so that we might “show others the goodness of God” (1 Peter 2:9, NLT). We praise God because He loves us despite our weaknesses and tendency to fail. As sinners redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, we can “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (Hebrews 4:16. NLT).

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This page last updated: December 7, 2023