What Is Sin?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
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No one wants to talk about sin—unless it’s to highlight those culturally defined “sins” others commit, while curiously overlooking their own. Some downplay the sinfulness of sin by using it as a title for their scrumptious chocolate pie or lampooning its existence in movies, books, or music. Others think only of the seven deadly sinspride, envy, sloth, greed, wrath, lust, and gluttony—which have a theological basis going back to Bonaventure (1221–1274). But are they a sufficient definition? No, although the seven deadly sins are helpful shorthand reminders for some of the ways Satan seeks to move Christians toward setting their affections on this world rather than God (1 John 2:16).

The Language of Sin

Sin is any act against or lack regarding God’s moral law (1 John 3:4; Rom. 4:15; James 4:17). It is unrighteousness or unbelief (1 John 5:17; Rom. 14:23) that results in our guilt before God (Ps. 130:3), for it goes against His character and will (Gen. 39:9; Ps. 51:4). In theology, sin is not a stand-alone concept; it is connected to the fall of Adam and the degree to which humanity is implicated in that fall (Rom. 5:12; Gen. 2:16–17; 3:1–24). The Hebrew word chata’, which in context may signify “missing the mark,” functions metaphorically to describe sin as missing the standard of God’s moral law (Ex. 32:30–33; Josh. 7:20). In the Greek New Testament, hamartia serves as the dominant word for sin; it maintains much of the idea of “missing the mark” in relation to God’s standard (Rom. 5:12; 6:23; 1 John 1:8). Another Hebrew word, ‘awal, often translated in English Bibles as “iniquity” or “injustice,” provides a social description of what departing from God’s course entails (Lev. 19:15; Ps. 53:1). The social ideas of “iniquity” and “injustice” are picked up in the use of the Greek word anomia, highlighting also ideas of “lawlessness” (Matt. 24:12; Rom. 4:7; 1 John 3:4). These terms bring to the fore the relevance of actions or deeds in identifying sins.

The Basics of Sin

Sin might include transgressing explicit or implicit laws prohibited on the basis of God’s holy character. It may also involve a failure to engage in something virtuous as revealed in God’s moral law. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Theologically, to “fall short of the glory of God” is a broad conceptual framework for understanding sin as acts that were done but should not have been, or ones that should have been but were not. Theologians describe these, respectively, as sins of commission and sins of omission (James 4:17).

The moral law, sometimes described as the natural law, includes the rules for human conduct discernible from God’s created world. Evangelicals are sometimes hesitant to incorporate this into their theology, but it serves as an important part of Catholic theology. The moral law is also used to describe one of the threefold divisions of the Mosaic Law among theologians, the other two being the civil and ceremonial. The claim is that these latter two are no longer binding on Christians, while the moral law is since it contains transcendent principles that express God’s character.

In the Reformed tradition, the Ten Commandments are seen as those moral instructions that provide normative guidance for humanity; some include the Lord’s Prayer and the Creeds in this as further normative guidance for the church. Others only focus on the gospel and the commands found in the New Testament; the Old Testament is merely directives for Israel, with possible applications for Christians discerned through a process of locating principles for us to live by today.

Sin and Unbelief

Theologians have long attempted to uncover the essence of sin, and pride is generally seen as the core. Selfishness may be even more central, for Paul begins his vice list by stating, “People will be lovers of themselves” (2 Tim. 3:2), and he makes it clear that in light of Jesus’ death on the cross we should no longer live for ourselves but for Christ (2 Cor. 5:15). This suggests that sin is the elevation of the self and the demotion of God. The work of the Spirit in the new creation reverses the processes of selfishness that reveal themselves in various “deeds of the flesh” (Gal. 5:22–23; Eph. 5:18–21). These aberrant patterns of embodiment point to the idea that sin also has a cognitive component—unbelief.

Many of these ideas come together in John 16:7–11. In verse 7, Jesus highlights the work of the Spirit as a continuation of His ministry. In verse 8, part of the Spirit’s work is to make explicit the world’s cognitive deficiencies when it comes to “sin and righteousness and judgment.” In verse 9, Jesus brings to the fore the crucial condition that produces sin: it is “because people do not believe in me.” In verse 10, the “righteous” standard associated with God’s character is evident. People sin when they do not conform to God’s standard for righteousness (Gk. adikeo-; Rom. 1:18; Col. 3:25; Heb. 8:12). In verse 11, both the idea of “judgment” and the statement about “the prince of this world” remind us that our struggles with sin are part of a larger cosmic battle. This is especially important to remember when seeking to live in the context of global pathologies and structural inequalities, as well as longstanding struggles with addictions and victimizations on the personal level.

Why Study Sin?

Why does this matter? A theologically sound understanding of sin will help us have more realistic expectations when we encounter other people. And it can help reduce our personal discouragement with our own behaviors and struggles. Understanding sin as the core foundational problem for humanity also better informs our practice in ministry. If we do not think the gospel is the ultimate solution to the world’s sin problem, it is unlikely that gospel proclamation will maintain its place in the primary mission of the church.

For Further Reading:

50 Most Important Theological Terms

by J. Brian Tucker and David Finkbeiner

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book cover for 50 Most Important Theological Terms