The Meaning of Sin

     The MeaningThe word sin is found throughout Scripture, and both the Hebrew and Greek share the same basic meaning. The Hebrew word חָטָא chata means “to miss the target, or to lose the way,”[1] and the Greek word ἁμαρτάνω hamartano is defined as “miss the mark, err, or do wrong.”[2] In Judges 20:16 the Hebrew word is used of skilled soldiers who do not miss their target, and in Proverbs 19:2 of a man who hurries and misses his way.[3] Sin is when we transgress God’s law and depart from His intended path.[4] The apostle John states, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). “Sin may be comprehensively defined as lack of conformity to the law of God in act, habit, attitude, outlook, disposition, motivation, and mode of existence.”[5]

     Divine laws are a reflection of the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God may be defined as the intrinsic, immutable, moral perfection of God, from which He commands all things, in heaven and earth, and declares as good that which conforms to His righteousness and as evil that which deviates. God’s character is the basis upon which all just laws derive; either divine laws from God Himself or human laws which conform to His righteousness.[6]

The underlying idea of sin is that of law and of a lawgiver. The lawgiver is God. Hence sin is everything in the disposition and purpose and conduct of God’s moral creatures that is contrary to the expressed will of God (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 7:7; James 4:12, 17). The sinfulness of sin lies in the fact that it is against God, even when the wrong we do is to others or ourselves (Gen. 39:9; Ps. 51:4).[7]

     God permits sin, but is never the author of it. Sin is the expression of a creaturely will that is set against God. The sin we commit may be mental, verbal, or physical. It may be private or public, impacting one or many, with short or lasting results. Below are biblical examples of sin:

  1. Lucifer sought to place himself above God (Isa. 14:12-14; Ezek. 28:11-18).
  2. Adam and Eve disobeyed the command not to eat the fruit from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-7).
  3. Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had sex with him (Gen. 19:30-38)
  4. Aaron led the Israelites to worship an idol (Ex. 32:1-6).
  5. Moses struck the rock when the Lord told him only to speak to it (Num. 20:8-12).
  6. Samson slept with prostitutes (Judg. 16:1-4).
  7. David had an affair with Bathsheba and conspired to have her husband, Uriah, murdered (2 Sam. 11:1-21).
  8. Solomon worshiped idols (1 Kings 11:1-10).
  9. Peter tried to prevent Jesus from going to the cross (Matt. 16:21-23).
  10. Peter publicly denied the Lord three times ( 26:34-35; 69-75).
  11. The Christians at Corinth engaged in quarrels (1 Cor. 1:11), jealousy and strife (1 Cor. 3:1-3), fornication (1 Cor. 5:1-2), selfishness and drunkenness (1 Cor. 11:21). 
  12. The Apostle John twice worshiped an angel and was rebuked for it (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).

     The above list is a just a sampling of sins in the Bible. Biblically, every person is a sinner in God’s sight. Jesus is the single exception.[8] We are sinners in Adam (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:21-22), sinners by nature (Rom. 7:18-21; Gal. 5:17; Eph. 2:1-3), and sinners by choice (1 Kings 8:46; Prov. 20:9; Isa. 53:6; Rom. 3:9-23). Sin separates us from God and renders us helpless to merit God’s approval. We are helpless to solve the sin problem and save ourselves (Rom. 5:6-10; Eph. 2:1-3). Good works have no saving merit before God (Isa. 64:6; Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:5). We cannot save ourselves any more than we can jump across the Grand Canyon or throw rocks and hit the moon. Sadly, many people buy into the lie that they can help save themselves by doing good works. The biblical teaching is that salvation is never based on good works or adherence to law, but by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (John 3:16; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 16:31). Scripture states, we are “not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal 2:16; cf. Rom. 3:20, 28), for “if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21).

The Good News of the Gospel

     It does no good to talk about sin if we don’t also address God’s solution. God, because of His mercy and love toward us (John 3:16; Eph. 2:3-7), did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He provided a solution to the problem of sin, and that solution is the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:18). God the Son—the second Person of the Trinity—came into the world by human birth (Luke 1:26-35), lived a perfectly righteous life (Matt. 5:17-21; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 John 3:5), and willingly died in our place and bore the punishment for our sins. The gospel message is that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).  Jesus died in our place, “the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18; cf. Rom. 5:6-10). Biblically, we are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24), and “we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28; cf. 4:5), “for by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8-9), for “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:5-7). In order for us to be reconciled to God, we must simply trust in Jesus as our Savior (John 3:16; Acts 16:30-31). When we trust in Christ as our Savior, we are forgiven all our sins (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), and given eternal life (John 3:16; 10:27-28).

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

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[1] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 305.

[2] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 49.

[3] G. Herbert Livingston, “638 חָטָא,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 277.

[4] Other Hebrew and Greek words related to sin include: evil (רָע ra – Gen. 3:5), wicked (רָשָׁע rasha – Prov. 15:9), rebellion (פָּשַׁע pasha – Isa. 1:2), iniquity (עָוֹן avon – Isa. 53:6), error (שָׁגָה shagah – Lev. 4:13), guilt (אָשַׁם asham – Lev. 4:22), go astray (תָּעָה taah – Ps. 58:3), bad (κακός kakos – Rom. 12:17), evil (πονηρός poneros – Matt. 7:11), ungodly (ἀσεβής asebes – Rom. 4:5), guilty (ἔνοχος enochos – 1 Cor. 11:27), sin (ἁμαρτία hamartia – 1 Cor. 15:3), unrighteousness (ἀδικία adikia – Rom. 1:18), lawless (ἄνομος anomos – 1 Tim. 1:9), transgression (παράβασις parabasis – Gal. 3:19), ignorance (ἀγνοέω agnoeo – Acts 17:23), go astray (πλανάω planao – 1 Pet. 2:25), trespass (παράπτωμα paraptoma – Rom. 5:15), and hypocrisy (ὑπόκρισις hupokrisis – 1 Tim. 4:2). 

[5] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993).

[6] If there is no God, then there is no absolute standard for right and wrong and we are left with arbitrary laws based on manufactured values.

[7] Merrill F. Unger and E. McChesney, “Sin,” ed. R.K. Harrison, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 1198.

[8] Jesus, because of His divine nature (John 1:1, 14; Col. 2:9), and the virgin conception (Isa. 7:14; Luke 1:30-35), is the only person ever born without sin and who committed no sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). His perfect humanity and sinless life qualified Him to go to the cross and die in our place. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

When God’s People Sin

     Do God’s people every behave poorly?  Yes.  There are times we behave poorly.  As a Christian, there are times I behave poorly toward God by refusing to do His will (James 4:17).  There are times I behave poorly toward other Christians by not modeling the love or grace or truth that should characterize a growing believer.  And, there are times I behave poorly toward unbelievers by not modeling the love or grace or truth that reveals God to them.  Though I have eternal life by faith in Christ (John 3:16; 10:28), and am among the Lord’s righteous (2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9), I still sin (1 John 1:8, 10).  As a believer, Solomon understood “there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Eccl. 7:20).  There are numerous biblical examples of believers who behaved poorly. 

Old Testament examples include:

  1. Lot’s daughters got him drunk and slept with him (Gen. 19:30-38).
  2. Judah slept with Tamar, assuming she was a prostitute (Gen. 38:13-18).
  3. Aaron led the Israelites in idol worship (Ex. 32:1-6).
  4. Samson slept with prostitutes (Judg. 16:1-4).
  5. David had an affair with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah (2 Sam. 11:1-21).
  6. Solomon ended his life worshipping idols (1 Kings 11:1-10).

New Testament examples include:

  1. James and John (nicknamed Boanerges, or “Sons of Thunder”; Mark 3:17) wanted to call fire down from heaven to kill the residents of a Samaritan city (Luke 9:51-55).
  2. The mother of James and John requested special treatment for her sons, that they might have a place of prominence seated on thrones to the right and left of Jesus (Matt. 20:20-21). This upset the other disciples (Matt. 20:24).
  3. The disciples tried to send away a woman who had come to Jesus for help with her demon possessed daughter (Matt. 15:21-23).
  4. The disciples tried to prevent a man from doing the Lord’s work (Luke 9:49-50).
  5. The disciples argued amongst themselves as to who was greatest in the kingdom (Luke 9:46).
  6. Peter argued with Jesus and tried to prevent Him from going to the cross (Matt. 16:21-22). The Lord reproached Peter sharply (Matt. 16:23).
  7. Peter denied the Lord three times (Matt. 26:34-35; 69-75).
  8. Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement that resulted in their separation as friends in ministry (Acts 15:36-39).
  9. The Christians at Corinth were guilty of quarrels (1 Cor. 1:11), jealousy and strife (1 Cor. 3:1-3), fornication (1 Cor. 5:1-2), selfishness and drunkenness (1 Cor. 11:21). 
  10. Peter engaged in hypocrisy and was publicly rebuked by Paul (Gal. 2:11-14).
  11. The Apostle John was twice corrected for worshipping an angel (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9). John knew the depravity of his own heart and how easy it is to fall into idolatry, and he cautioned other Christians to “guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). 

Five of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3 behaved poorly by not doing God’s will, and the Lord Jesus reprimanded them. 

  1. Church at Ephesus – “you have left your first love” (Rev 2:4).
  2. Church at Pergamum – “you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality” (Rev 2:14).
  3. Church at Thyatira – “you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols” (Rev 2:20).
  4. Church at Sardis – “I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God” (Rev 3:2).
  5. Church at Laodicea – “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot” (Rev 3:15).

     Though there are numerous examples of believers, both in the Old and New Testament, who behaved poorly toward God, other believers, and unbelievers, this is never what God expects from us.  As His children, God calls us to live holy and righteous lives (Tit. 2:11-14), to manifest love (1 Thess. 4:9), grace (Eph. 4:29), and truth to others (Eph. 4:15).  When we fail, we should humbly confess our sins and move on (1 John 1:9), as we keep striving to know God and walk in His will (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18). 

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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