What exactly is sin? Do you understand how the Bible defines it? As Christians, we are to avoid sin—but how can we avoid sin if we don't fully comprehend what it is?
The Bible defines sin in several scriptures, each of which gives us a better understanding of what it is. But, before we look at these scriptures that define sin, we should first understand what the word sin means.
Two broad concepts
The Hebrew and Greek words translated "sin" throughout the Bible revolve largely around two major concepts. The first is that of transgression. To transgress means "to step across" or "to go beyond a set boundary or limit." This concept can be compared to an athletic playing field with lines delineating the boundaries within which the game is played. When a player crosses over those boundary lines, he has committed a "transgression" and gone out of bounds. Limits are set that define the playing area, and the players are to stay within the limits of that area.
Most of the other words translated "sin" in the Bible involve a second concept, "to miss the mark." Again, to use a sports analogy, if a player aims for the goal and misses, how many points does he get? None. He missed the goal, missed the mark at which he was aiming.
This view of sin includes the concept of our going in one direction but straying off course to the side and not continuing in the direction we intended to go, with the result that we don't reach the goal we intended. We miss.
This concept also encompasses the idea of failing to measure up to a standard. For example, most academic courses and tests are graded or judged according to a minimum standard. If we don't meet that standard, we fail that test or course. A minimum level of performance is expected, and anything less than that standard is failure. By not meeting that standard, we "miss the mark" and don't pass. We can miss the mark by either missing the goal at which we were aiming or by falling short of that goal. In either situation we fail to reach the mark set for us.
Both of these concepts, transgressing and missing the mark, involve a basic requirement. If we transgress, which means to cross over a set boundary or limit, then we must have a boundary or limit to cross over. If we miss the mark, we must have a mark, target or standard to miss. Sin, then, is to transgress those boundaries God has set for us or to miss the target He set for us.
This is where the biblical definitions of sin become important, because these scriptures define the boundaries and standards God set for us. They define the playing field on which we are to live our lives. They also define the goal we are to aim for, the minimum standard we are expected to meet. In other words, the biblical definitions of sin show us the standards God has given us that define what is acceptable to Him and what isn't acceptable. They show us what measures up and what falls short of those standards, the fundamental principles God has given us to live by.
The definitions of sin in the Bible are not simply arbitrary dos and don'ts. Instead, they show us the way God lives. They show the spiritual principles by which He lives, the same standard of conduct He expects His human creations to live by.
Transgressing the law of God
What, then, are the boundaries and standards God has set for us that define sin? The most basic definition of sin is in 1 John 3:4: "Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law" (King James Version, emphasis added throughout). Here God defines a boundary for mankind. He says that sin is transgressing His holy, spiritual law (Romans 7:12-14). Breaking that law—crossing that divine boundary, that limit God set for us—is sin.
When we look at 1 John 3:4 in other translations, we see another important perspective. Here's how the New King James Version translates this verse: "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness." The word translated "lawlessness" is the Greek word anomia, meaning without law or against law. The concept conveyed here is that sin is active violation of God's laws and basic moral principles. This refers to actions that are not just outside the bounds of God's law, but actions that are in deliberate rebellion against those laws—deliberately trampling on and rejecting that boundary.
God gave humanity His laws to show us His way of love. Those laws define how we demonstrate love to God and our fellowman (Deuteronomy 30:15-16; Matthew 22:35-40; 1 John 5:3). Sin is violation of that law of love. God showed us a way to live in peace and harmony with Him and with mankind and defined this way of life by His law. When we sin, we violate or transgress that boundary and break God's law.
Broader definition of sin
We have seen one standard God has set for mankind: He expects obedience to His laws. God's law defines acceptable behavior and actions, and, when we break the standard of God's law, we step across the bounds He has set. But has God set other boundaries for us, other ways in which He defines sin? What about actions and behavior that aren't covered by specific laws?
In 1 John 5:17 we find a much broader definition of sin: "All unrighteousness is sin . . ."
Other Bible versions help us more fully understand the meaning: "Every wrong action is sin" (Twentieth Century New Testament). "Every act of wrong-doing is sin" (Phillips Modern English). "Any kind of wrongdoing is sin" (Weymouth New Testament in Modern Speech). "All iniquity is sin" (Moffatt Translation).
The basic thrust of this scripture is that, if any action or behavior is wrong, it is sin. The word translated "unrighteousness," "wrong action," "wrongdoing" and "iniquity" in these versions is the Greek adikia. The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words defines this word as "action that causes visible harm to other persons in violation of the divine standard" (Lawrence O. Richards, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1985, "Sin").
Other meanings of this word and its verb form are "evildoers," "dishonest," "unjust," "wickedness," "to be unfair," "to harm," "to mistreat," "to hurt" and "to wrong [another person]" (ibid.).
These meanings go beyond just physical deeds and actions and cross over into attitudes and motives for our actions and what goes on in our minds. They involve what we think. We see the beginnings of a different standard, one that involves not just what we do but what we are.
Christ reveals an underlying principle
Jesus Christ clarified this divine standard in Matthew 5:21-22: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire."
One commonly understood standard of behavior was to refrain from murdering another human. If someone committed murder, he would himself be put to death. Here Jesus drew attention to the law's underlying principle: If you think of other people as worthless, viewing them as undeserving of life or existence, then you are in danger of eternal death, not just physical stoning. Jesus Christ showed that sin includes not only our physical actions, but also our thoughts and attitudes.
He explained this further in verses 27-28: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Christ said that this sin is not defined by just a physical act; if we even allow such a thought in our mind we have sinned. We have mentally crossed that boundary, trampling that limit God gave us.
We should realize that sin starts in the mind. When we allow evil thoughts to enter our mind and stay there, eventually these evil thoughts can spring into action, leading us to sin. We are what we think (Proverbs 23:7). Jesus told those of His day who were obsessed with physical cleanliness and ritual washings that it isn't what goes into our bodies that defile us, but the evil that is already there in our minds that debases us (Matthew 15:17-20).
Humanly speaking, we don't see anything wrong with allowing wrong thoughts into our minds. Often they are quite pleasurable and entertaining. But eventually those sinful thoughts lead us into sin. The result is the trampling of God's law. Jesus Christ instructs us to disrupt that process before it gets started, by not even allowing wrong thoughts into our minds.
Do not violate your conscience
In Romans 14 God reveals yet other ways in which we can fail to measure up to His standards. In this chapter the apostle Paul wrote to a congregation composed of Jews and gentiles, discussing how their differing backgrounds had affected them. In the Roman Empire of the time literally dozens of holidays were observed, including feast days and fast days during which certain foods would be eaten or avoided.
Those who had been members of the Church for some time knew that such practices had no meaning for Christians, so they ate what they wanted when they wanted. But others were being called into the Church out of that Roman background and were offended at the eating of such foods. This created conflicts among the congregation because the new members had spent their whole lives thinking that eating particular foods was wrong on particular days of the calendar.
Paul addressed this problem in verses 19-22, telling Christians to be careful that they don't offend those newer and weaker in the faith. Then notice what Paul said in verse 23: "But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin."
Here we see a third standard that defines sin for us: "Whatever is not from faith is sin." Just what is God telling us in this passage? From the context we are told that if we violate our conscience we are sinning. If you do something that you feel you shouldn't be doing, you are sinning.
Why is this sin? Because mentally and spiritually we are compromising when we do something that we don't think is right. When we compromise, we are destroying character.
Character is crucial
God expects us to build spiritually mature, godly character in this life, becoming ever more like Him (Matthew 5:48). We build eternal, godly character by remaining faithful to what is right in spite of pulls to the contrary. We resist the temptation to do things we know we shouldn't. We live by faith that God will give us the strength to endure whatever trials we face in this life. But when we compromise we tear down that character. We give in. Every time we give in, we find it that much harder to resist giving in the next time we face temptation.
One of the insidious things about compromise is that it spreads. If we get away with something once, we find it much easier to try it again next time. Compromise grows like a cancer. It comes on slowly, then spreads. Before you know it you can be in a fight for your spiritual life. That is why God says that, if our actions aren't done in faith or according to faith, if they violate our conscience, we are sinning.
We need to be sure that what we do is out of faith and confidence that it is right and acceptable to God—or not do it. We need to be sure our motives are right and our conscience remains clear in everything we do. For this reason it is vital that we properly educate our conscience so that it is in accordance with God's Word, the Bible. It is not within our natural ability to discern right and wrong (Jeremiah 10:23). We are to learn God's ways that define right and wrong for us (Hebrews 5:14).
God wants us to live within the boundaries and standards He has set for us, to change our values, attitudes, thoughts and lives so they are in line with His standards, not our own. The process of conversion can be simply defined as replacing our standards, values and thoughts with God's standards, values and thoughts.
Sin can be what we don't do
We have seen the ways that we can sin by what we do as well as what we think. In case you haven't noticed, the standard God expects of us keeps getting higher and harder for us to meet. This last definition of sin may be the most difficult for us.
Did you realize that we could go through life without ever stealing, lying, hating or breaking a single command from God, all the while perfectly controlling our thoughts, and yet still sin every day of our lives? We could avoid all those things, but we could still be sinning according to this last definition of sin. Most of us probably don't realize we are involved in this last kind of sin and probably don't even realize that it is a sin.
We have seen that we can sin by the things we do. But we can also sin by the things that we don't do.
James 4:17 tells us, "Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin." Perhaps you have heard of sins of commission, sinning by the actions we take: stealing, lying, committing adultery and so on. But this verse tells us that some transgressions involve sins of omission, sinning by things we omit doing.
James tells us that if we know to do good, and we recognize that we ought to be doing certain things, the failure to do them is a sin. We are not meeting the standard God has set for us. We are missing the mark.
The four Gospels are filled with examples of this sin. Jesus often clashed with those who were diligent about strict literal obedience to God's laws but never realized God expects more of us. In Christ's day the Pharisees referred to detailed lists of what could and couldn't be done lawfully on the Sabbath; they were diligent about tithing down to the last seed or grain of spice; they spent hours studying the law, fasting and praying. Yet Christ called them "blind guides," "hypocrites" and a "brood of vipers."
These people simply didn't comprehend the intent of God's law. They put great effort into not committing sins, but concentrated so much on this struggle that they failed miserably at doing what they should have been doing.
Consider the conflicts they had with Jesus Christ. Their biggest disagreements were over the Sabbath. They were infuriated that Christ healed on the Sabbath. According to their teaching, one could provide only medical help or treatment on the Sabbath if the situation were life-threatening. Thus when Jesus performed great miracles on the Sabbath—healing those who had been crippled or sick for years—the Pharisees were furious. Instead of rejoicing for those who were healed, they were enraged.
They wanted to kill Christ because in their distorted view He was breaking the Sabbath. They were blind to the fact that Jesus was doing good, that He was easing the misery and pain of people who had suffered for years. It was because of their willful spiritual blindness and hostility that Christ called them hypocrites and snakes.
Changing what we are
We should learn an important lesson from this: Strict obedience to God's laws alone doesn't change what we are. It's a start, certainly. As we have seen, obedience to His laws is a standard God expects us to meet. But there's more to it than that.
Sometimes we make the same mistake the Pharisees made. We can concentrate so much on avoiding breaking God's law that we lose sight of the purpose of that law: to change our focus from thinking about ourselves to being concerned for and showing love for others.
We may think that never breaking God's law is good enough. But what did Jesus Christ say? Only a few days before His execution, Jesus made clear an obligation for those who would follow Him:
"When the Son of Man comes in His glory . . . all the nations will be gathered before Him . . . Then the King will say to those on His right hand, 'Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.'
"Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' And the King will answer and say to them, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.'
"Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.' . . . And these [those who did none of these things] will go away to everlasting punishment, but the righteous [those who did these things] into eternal life" (Matthew 25:31-43, 46).
Jesus illustrated this point through other examples. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) provides a prime example of a sin of omission. The rich man took no notice of a poor beggar, a man who had absolutely no significance in the wealthy man's busy life but who was greatly valued by God.
Another wealthy man filled his barns with impressive provisions while neglecting to extend a helping hand to those in need (Luke 12:16-21). This man stored up treasures for himself, filling his storehouses to overflowing with far more than he could possibly use while at the same time showing no regard for others—another sin of omission.
Whose will is most important?
Christ's teaching helps us understand why it is sin not to do what we know we should do. It boils down to whose will is most important in our lives: Is it our will, doing what we want to do? Or is it God's will, doing what He thinks is most important?
Not doing what we know is right is putting our will ahead of God's. It demonstrates to God that we don't have the desire or character to put His will ahead of our own. It shows we are unwilling to completely surrender ourselves to Him. This is why it is sin: We put ourselves before God, our will before His will.
James elaborated on the requirement that we do good deeds. He asked several basic questions about our faith: "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? What good is it? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2:14-17).
James says such faith—faith without godly works—is useless, worthless. Such faith is of no lasting value because it doesn't change the person, nor does it help others just to hear the words "Be warm and filled" when they're cold and hungry.
It is through action—through works, through doing the good that we know we ought to be doing—that God builds His nature and character within us. If we want to get rid of our selfish, sinful nature, we have to replace it with something else. We don't just magically, instantly get rid of it; we have to replace it with God's nature, with His thoughts and ways.
Paul tells us in Galatians 5:16, "Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh." God's Spirit working within us will help us recognize sin and avoid it so we no longer will "fulfill the lust of the flesh." His Spirit will likewise help us recognize, understand and grow in His ways, enabling us to strengthen and demonstrate our faith through the works that James pointed out are necessary.
Opportunities abound for us to do the good that we know we ought to be doing. We can start right in our own families by working to make them strong, by making our families a warm, affectionate, supporting, encouraging place for all family members. We have plenty of opportunities in our spiritual family as well. God's Word tells us in James 1:27 that pure religion is to "look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (New International Version).
God wants us to become a more compassionate, more caring and more truly loving people, reflecting His way of life. He wants us to become more like Jesus Christ, who gave His life as a living sacrifice for all humankind. Many opportunities exist for us to do good: to encourage, strengthen, help, give, show love for those in need. When we do those things, we are doing good works—sacrificing our time and energy for the well-being and benefit of others.
The ultimate definition of sin
God sets high standards for us in finding and overcoming the sins that affect us. Ultimately, these definitions tell us that sin is anything that is contrary to the will of God or doesn't express the holy character of God. That is the standard He has set for us, as seen by these definitions.
Our efforts to identify and remove sin can be compared to the story of a sculptor chipping away at an enormous block of stone. Another man asks him what he's sculpting, and the sculptor replies, "An elephant." The other man then asks, "How do you sculpt an elephant?" The sculptor considers the question, then says: "It's really very simple. You just chip away anything that doesn't look like an elephant."
We are doing the same thing when we start chipping away sins from our lives. Our goal is, with God's help, to chip away everything that isn't like God. We are removing sin—everything that is contrary to or doesn't express the holy character of God—with the purpose of more fully and maturely reflecting God's very mind and way of life. GN