What is sin?

Popular misconceptions

The saying “Everything I like is either immoral, illegal, or fattening!” is humorous but theologically incorrect. Do you like to hurt people (immoral), steal things (illegal), or eat way too much junk food? (Well, maybe the latter.) Conversely, do you not like a gorgeous sunset, a walk in the park, spending time with friends, or playing your favorite sport?

Even though the saying is silly, it illustrates a common misunderstanding about moral rules, especially as taught by Christianity. Christianity doesn’t oppose fun. The Bible pronounces creation as good and designed for enjoyment. Both Psalms and the New Testament state explicitly that God wants us to experience joy and gladness.

Consider these teachings from Psalms:

You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring  forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart. (Psalm 104:14-15 , NRSV)

You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. (Psalm 4:7, NRSV)

Similarly, in the New Testament, we find Jesus saying:

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:11, NRSV)

This misconception about Christianity presented above may prove a reaction to the doctrines of “original sin” and “total depravity.”The doctrine of original sin emphasizes human sinfulness and the need for God’s grace. In its most pessimistic form, the doctrine of original sin presents as total depravity. It suggests that a taint of evil infects all our actions – one only God can erase.

The concept of original sin as unavoidable guilt derives from the Calvinist tradition and particularly from the writings of Protestant Reformer John Calvin. The 5th-century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo held a similar belief. Most Protestants also (officially, at least) recognize some form of this doctrine of total human depravity. Roman Catholic Church tradition presents this in the form of “original sin”. Eastern Orthodox rejects both of these concepts, preferring to speak of “ancestral” sin. This posits that within each being open to God’s grace rests a measure of goodness.

This diversity then begs the question: “What would a balanced understanding of sin in line with the broad sweep of biblical teaching look like?”

The problem of free will

The philosophical and psychological concept of “free will” also presents a possible stumbling block when it comes to sin in light of its biblical context. Contemporary Western society generally links moral responsibility with moral agency. In other words, our human ability to distinguish right from wrong and act accordingly. Further, Western culture with its highly individualistic bent links moral choice with individual freedom. As a result, we instinctively rebel against the idea of “systemic” evil. The pushback against Critical Race Theory which defines racism as an inherited systemically informed mechanism, serves as a current example of this resistance. Similarly, many respond to news reports of mass murder by insisting that this is the work of a single deranged individual.

Such views with their emphasis on individual freedom do not represent other societies or many ancient cultures, including those where the Bible finds its origins. As a result, sharp disagreements on this point have historically existed within Christian traditions.

The debate between Dutch theologian, Desiderius Erasmus, and German theologian and religious reformer, Martin Luther provides one example. Erasmus, while sympathetic to the aims of the Reformation, expressed concerns about some aspects of Luther’s teaching. In 1524 he published On the Freedom of the Will where he challenged Luther’s teachings on predestination. The next year Luther thundered back in a defense entitled On the Bondage of the Will.

Luther did not deny free will entirely. He insisted, however, that on our own, humans could not truly please God; that’s why we need Christ. This has implications for many aspects of Christian teaching – how we think about conversion, salvation, and sanctification, for starters, and also how we think about sin and moral responsibility.

Missing the mark

What is Sin? Missing the mark.

The Hebrew word for sin in the Old Testament and the Greek word in the New Testament both come from the root idea of “miss the mark, go astray.” That doesn’t sound so bad! This understanding suggests that while humans by nature are “somewhat off”, we can correct this if we simply “aim true.”

Etymology (the derivation of a word) by itself may prove misleading. Over the last few decades, we can find dozens of examples of English words shifting their meaning. In determining a word’s meaning, one must, therefore, always consider its historical context.

Given that the Old Testament emerged during a time when wars between kingdoms or tribes abounded, “missing the mark” may connote a specific meaning. That is, in the actions of battle falling short of one’s aim could prove deadly. In the same way, the New Testament’s cultural context, immersed in Helenististic philosophy and practice, influenced its writing. “Missing the mark” may refer to the popular athletic competitions loved by ancient Greeks and equate sin with a contestant’s loss of a match or game. In either case, such falling short had serious consequences.

This suggests that a deeper understanding of what the Bible intends us to learn about the nature of sin exists beyond cultural determinants. To discover this, we can examine the translations of ancient equivalent terms for “sin.” We will explore that aspect of the original meanings of sin later in this article.

Disruption of community harmony

It’s fair to suggest, given modern thought’s emphasis on individualism, that the collective valuing of family and community may in fact balance our predilection for personal free choice. These former heavily influenced societies described in the Bible. Many – perhaps most – Indigenous peoples also stress the importance of harmony in the network of relationships. This principle, in fact, guides the entire ecosystem, which includes humans. The Hebrew word shalom, conventionally translated as “peace,” includes wholeness or well-being in general in this concept.

In this context, the idea of unknown or secret sins, which we saw in Leviticus makes some sense. (compare Psalms 19:12; Deut. 13:5; Genesis 3:14-19). The Apostle Paul speaks of creation itself as “groaning” and longing for freedom (Romans 8:19-22).

A (cosmic) power

As noted above, in Romans the Apostle Paul repeatedly treats sin as a power that afflicts all humanity. Note especially Rom. 3:9-20, Ephesians 2:1. Because of sin, we were (spiritually) dead (and a dead person cannot make a choice). These were some of Luther’s favorite quotes as he argued that there were severe limitations on free will.

Other passages describe sin as universal – Psalms 14:2-3 = 53:2-3 (quoted in Rom. 3:10-12); Psalms 143:2; Ecclesiastes 7:20.

Interpretation, however, is still tricky. Consider Genesis 4:7, where God tells Cain: “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Sin sounds like a power at first–yet God seems to expect that Cain can resist.

What Are Different Types of Sin

Sins of Omission or neglecting to act prove as grave as deliberate wrongdoing. Jesus emphasized this in the Parable of the Talents and the Foolish Virgins. To deliberately and knowingly commit serious offenses is Mortal Sin. A Venial Sin, though less serious than Mortal Sin, still affects our union with God. Sins of Commission are deliberate actions that go against God’s commands. Adultery, theft, lying, and sexual immorality might fall into this category. Personal Sins happen when our individual choices lead to sin. Whether through commission or omission, they affect our relationship with God.

We find common thread in different types of sins, namely: the destructive consequences of our relationship with God. Adam’s sin of eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge marked the first sin in the Bible. Widely believed to derive from pride, this act caused a sinful nature in humans, according to the Bible. Many religious leaders also believe that pride lie at the root of most sins that pull us away from God.

Alienation (from God, from the earth, from one another)

While we may remain uncertain as to just how much free will we have, widespread agreement exists when it comes to understanding sin as the alienation of humans from God and each other as well as the world at large. Biblical passages even go as far as to call humans “enemies of God” (Romans 5:10; compare Colossians 1:21). As previously noted, the Bible states explicitly that sin affects Creation itself. Scripture suggests that because of sin we fear and distrust one another. As a result, forgiveness of sins often proves difficult because we feel injured or betrayed by each other.

Conversely, the vision of the renewed kingdom in Isaiah 11:2-9 includes both justice for the oppressed and peace among aspects of nature.

They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (verse 9).

Looking Deeper at the Biblical Definition of Sin

This final section of the article explores the meaning of how God’s law in the Bible came to define sin. This helps us understand how Biblical writers believed that sin relates to our human nature.

Hebrew Bible

  • Verbal root chatah (occurs 241 times) means “miss the way”; “sin”, “incur guilt/penalty”, “make a sin offering”, or “purify” (from sin or uncleanness, usually by an offering).
  • Forms of the related noun chattat (occurs 297 & 8 times) both forms mean “sin” or “sin-offering”, and sometimes “purification (by an offering)”. Another form of the noun occurs 34 times; it includes the meanings “sin”, “guilt” and “punishment”.
  • The related adjective chatta (occurs 19 times) means “sinful.”

Even without careful study of the Hebrew words, it remains clear that a variety of uses and nuances of these words exists. Cataloging or summarizing all these variations without imposing one’s biases on the text would prove difficult. Additionally, many related terms usually translate sin as “iniquity,” “offense,” “fault,” and “guilt.” Terms such as “sin” versus “sin offering” serve to further complicate the discussion.

There are at least two considerations that may not be evident to modern humans.

  1. Several times we find sins against fellow humans described as sins against God. This may indicate that since God created and loves all humans, to hurt any human amounts to a sin against God.
  2. The concept can include things done unintentionally (Leviticus 4:2, Numbers 15:25-29) or even without knowing (Leviticus 5:17-18). At least some of these refer to errors in ritual due to the lack of a priest’s guidance. For example, when someone kills a person without intent (Numbers 35:11, Joshua 20:3, Ecclesiastes 5:5.) Except for the last couple of examples, these passages suggest that the context proves more a matter of cultures rather different than those of today. Since these mainly reflect the cultural context, whether one should consider these as biblical teachings remains far from clear. However, even if they do not apply today, it’s important to remain aware of them. This helps us better understand what the Bible states explicitly.

The Septuagint (translation of the Old Testament into Greek, 2nd – 3rd centuries B.C.E.)

The Greek regularly (150 times) uses the verb hamartanó to translate the verb chatah above. It also regularly (231 times) uses the noun hamartia to translate the first noun chattat above. A technical detail, yes. But it does confirm that people who knew these ancient languages better than we do consider the meanings of these Greek words to be close to the Hebrew terms listed above.

A partial exception to this pattern involves the meaning “sin offering.” Sometimes the Septuagint follows this pattern when the context clearly requires the meaning “sin offering.” Here are some examples: Exodus 29:14; Leviticus 4:8, & Leviticus 4:3. Hebrews 10:6 quotes the Septuagint translation of Psalm 40:6, [offering] “about sin.” All other NT uses seem to derive from the basic idea of “miss the mark, err, fail, do wrong, sin.”

The New Testament

  • the verb hamartanó occurs 43 times in the New Testament, usually in the sense of offenses against the religious and moral law of God.
  • the noun hamartia occurs 173 times in the New Testament. Among the patterns noted by the lexicon are:
  • in the Johannine literature, sin is a condition or characteristic that one “has” (John 9:41; John 1:8; compare John 8:21, John 3:5).
  • In Paul, sin is described in almost personal terms (i.e., it is personified) as a ruling power (for example Romans 3:9; Deuteronomy 30:11-14). Modern minds easily connect that with individual free will: sin is a choice. This is reinforced by other passages that call for a choice: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15; note verses 14-22). “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). At the same time, there are many passages where the reference is not about human choice but about God choosing Israel (and later widening that choice in Christ). Compare John 15:16 where Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”


It can be difficult to develop a clear, simple, and persuasive definition of sin. One may not exist! We can assume, however, that the attitudes and assumptions we bring to the biblical text influence our perspective.

Still, please permit one final appeal. Do not let modern ideals of free will and individualism blind us. Community remains a rich element of the biblical dialogue on this and many other questions.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts below.

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