What is sin?

Popular misconceptions

“Everything I like is either immoral, illegal, or fattening!” It’s a humorous quip, but it is either bad theology or a twisted idea of fun. 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, that Christianity is against fun. That’s not what the Bible teaches: creation is good (Genesis 1), and is given for us to enjoy: 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, Jesus is quoted as 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 as a dour faith may be a reaction to the doctrines of “original sin” and “total depravity.” These teachings stress the innate sinfulness of human beings and their inability to do anything about it apart from God’s grace. In its most pessimistic form, the doctrine of original sin argues that every human being is born with inherited guilt for Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Total depravity says that our every action is tainted by some level of evil and only God can transform us to do what is genuinely good.

Original sin as unavoidable guilt is characteristic of the Calvinist tradition, based on the writings of the Protestant Reformer John Calvin as well as the 5th-century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo. Most Protestants also (officially, at least) accept some form of total depravity, while the Roman Catholic Church accepts only a form of original sin. Both ideas are rejected by Eastern Orthodox believers, who prefer to speak of “ancestral” sin and who believe that there is always a measure of goodness in persons who can cooperate with God’s grace.

Given all this diversity, what would be a balanced understanding of sin that fits the broad sweep of biblical teaching?

The problem of free will

There is yet another possible stumbling block as sin, in the biblical context, is discussed. Contemporary Western society generally links moral responsibility with moral agency, the ability to choose and do what is right. Further, Western culture is highly individualistic and so such moral choices are, in our minds, linked with individual freedom. As a result, most instinctively rebel against the idea of “systemic” evil as is evident in the pushback against Critical Race Theory which identifies ways that racism is systemic. Similarly, when the news reports a mass murder, there is often the insistence that it was the work of only one deranged individual.

Such views about individual freedom are not shared by all societies nor by many ancient cultures, including the ones that produced the Bible. Further, there have been sharp disagreements about this in the history of Christian teaching, as noted above.

A famous example is the debate between Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther. In many ways, Erasmus was sympathetic to the aims of the Reformation, but he was concerned 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. His key point was that, on our own, humans could not truly please God; that’s why we need Christ. Obviously, this has implications for many aspects of Christian teaching – how we think about conversion, salvation, and sanctification, for example. And, how we think about sin and moral responsibility.

Missing the mark

The Hebrew word for sin in the Old Testament and the Greek word in the New both come from the root idea of “miss the mark, go astray.” That doesn’t sound so bad! Sin entails being “somewhat off” but there is the possibility to “aim true” with a little correction.

However, etymology (how a word is derived) alone can be misleading. In the last few decades alone, there are dozens of examples in English of words where meaning has shifted or new meanings given to existing words. In order to be clear about a word’s meaning how and in what context words are used must be considered.

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).
  • Related nouns chattat (occurs 297 times) and chataah (occurs 8 times) both mean “sin” or “sin-offering”, and sometimes “purification (by an offering)”. Another form of the noun is chet (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 is clear there is a variety of uses and nuances of these words. Cataloging or summarizing all these variations without imposing one’s biases on the text would prove difficult. Additionally, there are many related terms that are usually translated as “iniquity,” “offense,” “fault,” and “guilt.” Further, terms such as “sin” versus “sin offering” further complicate the discussion.

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

  1. Several times sins against fellow humans are described as sins against God. This may indicate that since God created and loves all humans, to hurt any human is to sin against God.
  2. The concept can include things that are done unintentionally (Leviticus 4:2, 22, 27; 22:14; Numbers 15:25-29) or even without knowing (Leviticus 5:17-18). At least some of these may be cases of errors in ritual. These may be unknown except through the guidance of a priest. Cases, where someone kills a person without intent (Numbers 35:11, 15; Joshua 20:3, 9), are not explicitly called “sin.” (But contrast Ecclesiastes 5:5.) Except for the last couple of examples, these passages suggest that the context is a culture rather different than today’s. Since these reflect mainly the cultural context, it is not clear that they should be considered biblical “teaching.” However, even if they do not apply today, it is important to be aware of them to better understand what the Bible is saying.

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

The Greek regularly (150 times) uses the verb hamartano to translate the verb above, and also regularly (231 times) uses the noun hamartia to translate the first noun listed above. A technical detail, yes. But it does confirm that people who knew these ancient languages better than we do considered 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” (examples: Exodus 29:14; Leviticus 4:8, 21, 24, 25, 34; 5:9, 12). But there are also times when the Greek understands the Hebrew to mean “for [his] sin,” instead of “as a sin offering” (examples: Leviticus 4:3, 14; 5:7, 8); many other cases seem to fall into this latter category, although it is hard to be completely certain. When the Hebrew uses the preposition la the Greek usually uses the preposition peri which would mean “about” or “concerning” (sin), rather than “as” (a sin offering). In Ezekiel 43-46 the Greek translator often uses the preposition hyper (“on behalf of”, “for the sake of”). It seems likely that this meaning does not quite fit with the Greek word hamartia.

The Greek New Testament

Only one hint of the idea of “offering for sin” unambiguously gets carried forward into the New Testament: 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 verb hamartano 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; 15:24; 19:11; 1 John 1:8; compare John 8:21, 24; 9:34; 1 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; 5:12, 21; 6:6, 14, 17, 20, 22; 7:14, 20).
    • In Hebrews, sin is also a deceitful power (3:13), but most of the emphasis is on the importance of sacrifice for sin.

Aspects of a definition of sin

Ideas about what sin really is seem to conflict with one another. Since these ideas intersect with ideas about free will and biblical interpretation, Christian teachers have often been at loggerheads with one another.

Different ideas about sin all have support from some biblical verses. So, there is a dilemma. One could dismiss the Bible because it contradicts itself or one could choose one definition and try to defend that choice.

Is it possible instead to see these different biblical passages in dialogue with one another? Could these ideas be different aspects of a paradox? (After all, Christians are familiar with paradoxes. The doctrine that Christ is both fully human and fully divine is a clear example.)


Interpreters disagree about whether the story in Genesis chapter 3 constitutes a “fall” into sin. This would imply that sin is the universal human condition (original sin). But it is clearly a story of disobedience. The Torah (“law”) includes many commands that are to be obeyed – and these commands are not too hard for the people (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.”

Disruption of community harmony

Since individualism is so strong in modern thinking, the concept of individual free choice needs to be balanced by a sense of family and community, which were key values in the world of the Bible. Many – perhaps most – Indigenous peoples have a concept of harmony in a network of relationships. Not just human relatives but the entire ecosystem (and humans are part of that system not separate from nature). Potentially, the Hebrew word shalom, conventionally translated as “peace” but includes wholeness or well-being in general, is such a concept.

In this context, the idea of unknown or secret sins, which we saw in Leviticus makes some sense. (compare Psalms 19:12; 90:8) Such issues may disrupt harmony even if they were not deliberate choices. Community well-being also helps us understand why Deuteronomy prescribes such harsh penalties in order to “purge evil” from Israel (Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 19:13, 19; 21:9, 21; 22:21, 22, 24; 24:7) – even if we find such a system seriously lacking in compassion.

Similarly, in this context, sin affects the whole ecosystem. Disobedience in the garden resulted in harsh changes in the world (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 of humanity. Note especially Rom. 3:9-20, 23. The effect is universal. All are under sin and death (5:12-14), and this is balanced by a “free gift” that is likewise universal (5:15-21): justification and life for all (verse 18). A similar idea is expressed in 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 has the ability to resist.

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

It may still be uncertain just how much free will we actually have. There is more widespread agreement that a key result of sin is alienation – community harmony has been deeply disrupted. Humans can even be called enemies of God (Romans 5:10; compare Colossians 1:21). Previously noted is how creation itself was affected by sin. Because of sin, we fear and distrust one another.

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).


It may be difficult to develop a clear, simple, and persuasive definition of sin. There may not be one! Any conclusions drawn are strongly influenced by the attitudes and assumptions brought to the biblical text.

Still, please permit one final appeal. Do not let modern ideals of free will and individualism blind us. Community is 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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