Christians: What does the Bible say about human sin?
All wrongdoing is sin…1 John 5:17
Sin is so nefarious, complex, and far-reaching that it is difficult to succinctly define. Cornelius Plantinga says: The Bible presents sin by way of major concepts, principally lawlessness and faithlessness, expressed in an array of images: sin is the missing of a target, a wandering from the path, a straying from the fold. Sin is a hard heart and a stiff neck. Sin is blindness and deafness. It is both the overstepping of a line and the failure to reach it—both transgression and shortcoming. Sin is a beast crouching at the door. In sin, people attack or evade or neglect their divine calling. These and other images suggest deviance: even when it is familiar, sin is never normal. Sin is disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony. Above all, sin disrupts and resists the vital human relation to God.1
D.A. Carson says: The heart of all this evil is idolatry itself. It is the de-godding of God. It is the creature swinging his puny fist in the face of his Maker and saying, in effect, “If you do not see things my way, I’ll make my own gods! I’ll be my own god!” Small wonder that the sin most frequently said to arouse God’s wrath is not murder, say, or pillage, or any other “horizontal” barbarism, but idolatry—that which dethrones God. That is also why, in every sin, it is God who is the most offended party, as David himself well understood: “Against you, only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge” (Psalm 51:4).2
The Bible uses a constellation of images to explain sin as everything from rebellion to folly, self-abuse, madness, treason, death, hatred, spiritual adultery, missing the mark, wandering from the path, idolatry, insanity, irrationality, pride, selfishness, blindness, deafness, a hard heart, a stiff neck, delusion, unreasonableness, and self-worship.
HOW IS SIN EXPLAINED IN THE OLD TESTAMENT?
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…Psalm 51:4
To help you understand sin, in general, and your sin, in particular, we will examine eight aspects of sin that the Old Testament teaches us.
- Sin in the Old Testament is first a relational breach. This is painfully clear in Genesis 2–3 where, because of their sin, our first parents are separated from God and one another; they hide from God and one another, fear God, blame one another, and seek to cover their sin and shame while living their life apart from God.
- Sin in the Old Testament is a social matter because shalom has been vandalized. This is evidenced by the litany of murder, perversion, drunkenness, the continual evil that precipitated the flood, and human attempts at an Edenic-like society without any regard for God that spring forth in Genesis 4–11.
- Sin in the Old Testament is a covenantal rebellion against God and his authority. This is witnessed perhaps most clearly in Exodus 32 to 34, where following God’s liberation of his people, they dishonor, disregard, and disobey him by worshiping idols while God is giving them the Ten Commandments through their leader Moses.
- Sin in the Old Testament is a legal transgression that results in guilt that necessitates punishment. One clear example is found in Deuteronomy 32, where in worshipful song Moses recollects some of the most treasonous behavior of God’s people and the price that had to be paid for justice to be maintained.
- Sin in the Old Testament results in ritual uncleanness, pollution, and filth, marked by the use of words such as “filth,” “defiled,” “unclean,” and “whore.”3 Importantly, this defilement happens both to sinners and victims; we defile ourselves by our own sin and are defiled by others when they sin against us.
- Sin in the Old Testament includes emotional pain such as shame and disgrace.4 This is first seen in Genesis 3, where our first parents sin and then hide in shame and disgrace, whereas prior to their sin they “were not ashamed.”5
- Sin in the Old Testament is spoken of in historical terms as an accumulating burden whereby sin is piled up from one generation to the next.6 In this way, sin only worsens over time as people invent new ways to do evil more effectively.
- Sin in the Old Testament is spoken of with the finality of death.7 Sin is deadly, and ends only in death. This is because when we sin and prefer created things to our creator God, we stop ruling over creation and are ruled by it so that in the end we lose and the dust wins.8
HOW IS SIN EXPLAINED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?
…sin is lawlessness. 1 John 3:4
The New Testament also speaks of sin in many ways, though four words are used most often.
- The most common New Testament word for sin is the Greek word hamartia, which means wrongdoing, or missing the mark. It is the most general word used for sin and refers to the innumerable ways in which we fall short of what God intends for us and miss his will for our conduct.
- The New Testament frequently uses the Greek word paraptoma, which means “to trespass.” This word speaks of crossing a line of God’s law, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
- The New Testament also uses the Greek word parabasis to speak of sin as disobedience and transgression. By using this word, the Bible is referring to evil intent, whereby someone defiantly chooses to disobey God and thus sin, knowing full well what they are doing.
- The New Testament often uses the Greek word asebeias to speak of sin in terms of ungodliness and godlessness. This word refers to sinners’ active character of rebellion whereby they act as if there were no God and/or as if they were their own God and the highest authority in their life.
In summary, sin includes both omission, where we do not do what we ought, and commission, where we do what we ought not do. Sin includes our thoughts, words, deeds, and motives. Sin includes godlessness, which is ignoring God and living as if there were no God or as if we were God. Sin is invariably idolatry, which is the replacing of God as preeminent with something or someone else—most often oneself.
Sin includes individuals, communities, networks, and the like as individuals labor together for the cause of sin. Sin includes entire ways of thinking and acting, such as racism and pornography. Sometimes a sin is also a legal crime, such as murder, and sometimes it is not, such as adultery. Sin can be done deliberately or in ignorance. The practice of a particular sin can occur once, regularly, or even frequently.
Sin includes breaking God’s laws, breaching just human laws, defying godly authority such as parents or pastors, and violating one’s own conscience as well as conviction wrought by God the Holy Spirit. Sin includes perversion, using good things for evil purposes. Sin includes pollution, infecting good things with evil. Lastly, sin is the turning of a good thing (e.g., sex, work, money, comfort) into an ultimate thing so that it is worshiped as a god in place of God and becomes a false god.
Or, to say it as Proverbs 20:9 does, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?” The answer is no one but Jesus Christ.
What definition(s) of sin are more helpful and insightful to you?