Sin is a riddle, a mystery, a reality that eludes definition and comprehension. Perhaps we most often think of sin as wrongdoing or transgression of God's law. Sin includes a failure to do what is right. But sin also offends people; it is violence and lovelessness toward other people, and ultimately, rebellion against God. Further, the Bible teaches that sin involves a condition in which the heart is corrupted and inclined toward evil. The concept of sin is complex, and the terminology large and varied so that it may be best to look at the reality of sin in the Pentateuch first, then reflect theologically.
The History of Sin. In the biblical world sin is, from its first appearance, tragic and mysterious. It is tragic because it represents a fall from the high original status of humankind. Created in God's image, Adam and Eve are good but immature, fine but breakable, like glass dishes. They are without flaw, yet capable of marring themselves. Satan uses a serpent to tempt Eve and Adam, first to question God, then to rebel against him. First, Satan introduces doubts about God's authority and goodness. "Did God really say, You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" ( Gen 3:1 ). He invites Eve to consider how the fruit of the tree of knowledge is good for food and for knowledge. We see the tendency of sin to begin with a subtle appeal to something attractive and good in itself, to an act that is somehow plausible and directed toward some good end.
Throughout the Bible almost every sin reaches for things with some intrinsic value, such as security, knowledge, peace, pleasure, or a good name. But behind the appeal to something good, sin ultimately involves a raw confrontation between obedience and rebellion. Will Adam and Eve heed their impressions or God's instructions? Will they listen to a creature or the Creator? Will they serve God or themselves? Who will judge what is right, God or humans? Who will see to the results? Ultimately, by taking the position of arbiter between the conflicting counsel of God and the serpent, Eve and Adam have already elevated themselves over God and rebelled against him.
Here too the first sins disclose the essence of later sins. Sin involves the refusal of humankind to accept its God-given position between the Creator and lower creation. It flows from decisions to reject God's way, and to steal, curse, and lie simply because that seems more attractive or reasonable. Here we approach the mystery of sin. Why would the first couple, sinless and without inclination toward sin, choose to rebel? Why would any creature presume to know more or know better than its creator?
Adam and Eve become sinners by a historical act. The principal effects of sin are alienation from God, from others, from oneself, and from creation. They emerge almost at once. Alienation from God lead Adam and Eve to fear and flee from him. Alienation from each other and themselves shows in their shame (awareness of nakedness) and blame shifting. Adam Acts out all three alienations at once when, in response to God's questions, he excuses himself by blaming both Eve and God for his sin: "The woman you put here with meshe gave me some fruit" ( 3:12 ). The sentence God pronounces upon sin includes grace ( 3:15 ) and suggests that he retains sovereign control over his creation even in its rebellion, but it also establishes our alienation from nature in the curse upon childbearing, work, and creation itself ( 3:14-19 ). After the curse, God graciously clothes the first couple, but he also expels them from the garden ( 3:21-24 ). He graciously permits them to reproduce, but death enters human experience a short time later ( Genesis 4:1 Genesis 4:8 ; 5:5-31 ). These events prove the vanity and futility of sin. Adam and Eve seek new freedoms and dignity, but sin robs them of what they have; seeking advantage, they experience great losses.
Genesis and Romans teach that Adam and Eve did not sin for themselves alone, but, from their privileged position as the first, originally sinless couple, act as representatives for the human race. Since then sin, sinfulness, and the consequences of sin have marred all. Every child of Adam enters a race marked by sin, condemnation, and death ( Rom 5:12-21 ). These traits become theirs both by heritage and, as they grow into accountability, by personal choice, as Cain's slaughter of Abel quickly shows.
In Cain's sin we have an early hint of the virulence and intractability of sin. Whereas Satan prompted Adam and Eve to sin, God himself cannot talk Cain out of it ( Gen 3:1-5 ; 4:6 ). While sin was external to Adam and Eve, it appears to spring up spontaneously from within Cain; it is a wild force in him, which he ought to master lest it devour him ( 4:7 ). Sin is also becoming more aggravated: it is premeditated, it begins in the setting of worship, and it directly harms a brother, who deserves love. After his sin, far from manifesting guilt or remorse, Cain confesses nothing, refuses to repent, and chides God for the harshness of his punishments ( 4:5-14 ). Cain's sin and impenitence foreshadow much of the future course of sin both within and without the Bible.
Genesis 4-11 traces the development of sin. It becomes proud and deliberate ( 4:23-24 ), yet the line of Cain, the line of sinners, remains human and fulfills the mandate to fill and subdue the earth. Indeed, perhaps Cain's line does better in the cultural arena, although those who make bronze and iron tools also fashion weapons. Eventually, sin so pervades the world that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart is only evil all the time ( Gen 6:5 ; 8:21 ). Consequently, the Lord purges the earth of evil through the flood. When sin threatens to reassert itself in both direct disobedience and idolatry, God reveals his new intention to restrain sin by confusing human language at Babel: better that humanity be divided than that it stand together in rebellion against God.
Genesis 12-50 illustrates that sin plagues even the people of God, as members of the covenant family manipulate, betray, lie to, and deceive one another. The history Moses recounts also shows that punishment naturally follows, or is built into iniquity. Scheming Rebekah never sees her favorite son again; Jacob tastes the bitterness of deceit through Laban; Jacob's sons suffer for their sin against Joseph. As Proverbs 5:22 says, "The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast."
Exodus reveals that sin not only brings suffering and punishment, but also violates the law of the Lord, Israel's holy redeemer and king. At Sinai Israel learned that sin is transgression of God's law; it is behavior that trespasses onto forbidden territory ( Rom 4:15 ). The law also labels sin and unmasks it. One can sin without knowing it, but the law makes such ignorance less common. The Mosaic law emphasizes the external character of sin, but the laws that command Israel to love God and forbid it to worship idols or covet show that sin is internal too. Paradoxically, the law sometimes prompts sin, Paul says ( Rom 7:7-13 ). Upon seeing that something is forbidden, desire to do it rises up. This perverse reaction reminds us that the root of sin is sinfulness and rebellion against God ( Rom 7:7-25 ).
The sacrifices and rituals for cleansing listed in the Pentateuch remind us of the gravity of sin. Transgressions are more than mistakes. The Bible never dismisses a sin simply because it was done by someone young or ignorant, or because it was done some time ago. Sin pollutes the sinner, and the law requires that the pollution be removed. One chief motive of the penal code is to remove evil from the land ( Deut 13:5 , quoted in 1 Cor 5:13 ). Sin also offends God, and the law requires atonement through sacrifices, in many of which a victim gives its life blood for an atonement.
The Biblical Terminology of Sin. The vast terminology, within its biblical contexts, suggests that sin has three aspects: disobedience to or breach of law, violation of relationships with people, and rebellion against God, which is the most basic concept. Risking oversimplification, among the most common Hebrew terms, hattat [a'f'j] means a missing of a standard, mark, or goal; pesa [q;f'P] means the breach of a relationship or rebellion; awon [!A' means perverseness; segagah [hgg.v] signifies error or mistake; resa [hgg.v] means godlessness, injustice, and wickedness; and amal [l'm' , when it refers to sin, means mischief or oppression. The most common Greek term is hamartia [aJmartiva], a word often personified in the New Testament, and signifying offenses against laws, people, or God. Paraptoma [paravptwma] is another general term for offenses or lapses. Adikia [ajdikiva] is a more narrow and legal word, describing unrighteousness and unjust deeds. Parabasis [paravbasi"] signifies trespass or transgression of law; asebeia [ajsevbeia] means godlessness or impiety; and anomia [ajnomiva] means lawlessness. The Bible typically describes sin negatively. It is lawless ness, dis obedience, im piety, un belief, dis trust, darkness as opposed to light, a falling away as opposed to standing firm, weakness not strength. It is un righteousness, faithless ness.
The Biblical Theology of Sin. The historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament illustrate the character of sin under these terms. From Judges to Kings, we see that Israel forsook the Lord who had brought them out of Egypt and established a covenant with them. They followed and worshiped the gods of the nations around them ( Judges 2:10-13 ). Sometimes they served the Baals with singleness of purpose, filling Jerusalem with idols, and lawlessness reigned (Ahab, Ahaz, and Manasseh). The sin of human sacrifice followed in the reigns of such kings ( 2 Kings 21:6 ). The existence of human sacrifice underscores the depth and gravity of sin. People can become so perverted, so self-deceived, that they perform the most unnatural and heartless crimes, thinking them to be worship. Isaiah rightly says they "call evil good and good evil" ( 5:20 ). Later the Pharisees, utterly sincere, yet hypocritical because self-deceived, would revive this sin by killing not their children, but their maker, and calling it an act of service to God.
Many kings compounded their sin by rejecting and sometimes persecuting the prophets who pressed God's covenantal claims. Ahaz even spurned God's free offer of deliverance from invasion; he thought he had arranged his own deliverance through an alliance with Assyria and its gods. Not all kings were so crass; many tried to serve the Lord as they chose, in forbidden manners (Jeroboam I, Jehu, and other northern kings). Others attempted to serve God and the Baals at once (Solomon, the final kings of Judah, and many northern kings). The kings in question may have called it diplomacy; the prophets called it adultery.
Other prophets decried the social character of sin: "They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed" ( Amos 2:6-7 ). If sin is lack of love for God, it is also hate or indifference toward fellow humans.
The history of Israel illustrates how impenitence compounds sin. Saul magnified his sins by repenting superficially at best ( 1 Sam 13:11-12 ; 15:13-21 ; 24:16-21 ). David, by contrast, repented of his sin with Bathsheba, without excuses or reservations ( 2 Sam 12:13 ). Sadly, true repentance was the exception in Israel's history. God prompted Israel to repent by sending adversityempty stomachs, drought, plague, warfare, and other curses for disobediencebut Israel would not turn back. Later, the Lord wooed Israel with food, clothing, oil, and new wine; he lavished silver and gold on her, but she gave "her lovers" the credit. Because she did not acknowledge that he was the giver, he swore he would remove his gifts ( Hosea 2:2-13 ).
Jesus continued the prophets' work of deepening the concept of sin in two ways. First, he said God requires more than obedience to external norms. People sin by hating, despising, and lusting even if they never act on their desires. People sin if they do the right things for the wrong reasons. Obedience that proceeds from fear of getting caught, or lack of opportunity to act on wicked desires lacks righteousness ( Matt 5:17-48 ). Second, Jesus' harsh denunciations of sin show that sin cannot be overlooked. It must be confronted, unpleasant as that may be ( Matt 18:15-20 ; Luke 17:3-4 ). Otherwise, the sinner dies in his sins ( John 8:24 ; cf. James 5:19-20 ).
Jesus also explained that sin arises from the heart. Bad trees bear bad fruit, blasphemous words spring from hearts filled with evil, and wicked men demand signs when they have already seen enough to warrant faith ( Matt 7:17-20 ; 12:33-39 ). Therefore, evildoing is not simply a matter of choice, rather, "Everyone who sins is a slave to sin" ( John 8:34 ).
But the Christ came not just to explain but to forgive or remove sin. His name is Jesus because he will deliver his people from their sins ( Matt 1:21 ; Luke 1:77 ). Thus he was a friend of sinners ( Matt 9:9-13 ; Luke 15:1-2 ), bestowed forgiveness of sins, and freed those suffering from its consequences ( Mark 2:1-12 ; Luke 7:36-50 ). Jesus earned the right to his name and the right to grant forgiveness by shedding his blood on the cross for the remission of sins. The crucifixion is at once the apex of sin and the cure of sin ( Acts 2:23-24 ). That the Son of God had to bear the cross to accomplish redemption shows the gravity of sin. That he rose from the dead demonstrates that sin is defeated. After his resurrection, Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim the victory and forgiveness of sins through his name ( Luke 24:47 ; John 20:23 ).
Paul's theology of sin principally appears in Romans 1-8. God is angry because of sins humans commit against him and one another ( 1:18-32 ). Unbelief is the root of sin. The failure to glorify or thank God leads to idolatry, foolishness, and degradation ( 1:21-25 ). Sometimes he permits sins to develop unimpeded, until every kind of wickedness fills the human breast ( 1:26-32 ). Paul's imaginary reader objects to this indictment in several ways (2:1-3:8). Paul replies that while not everyone sins so crudely, everyone violates standards they consider just ( 2:1-3 ). If someone professes to belong to the covenant, have knowledge, and so enjoy special standing with God, Paul asks if they live up to the knowledge they have of God's law ( 2:17-29 ). Everyone is a sinner, he concludes, and stands silent, guilty, and accountable before God ( 3:10-21 ). Paul's sin lists cover the gamut of transgressions, from murder to gossip. Despite his use of the term "flesh" ("sinful nature" in some translations), relatively few sins on the lists are sensual; most concern the mind or the tongue ( Rom 1:28-32 ; Gal 5:19-21 ). Like Jesus, Paul affirms that sin is an internal power, not just an act. It enslaves any whom Christ has not liberated and leads to their death ( 6:5-23 ), so that the unbeliever is incapable of pleasing God ( 8:5-8 ). Sin continues to grip even the redeemed ( 7:14-25 ). But principal deliverance from sin comes through justification by faith in Jesus, so there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (3:21-4:25; 8:1-4 ). The Spirit renews believers and empowers them to work out that deliverance ( 8:9-27 ).
Much of the rest of the New Testament restates themes from the Gospels and Paul. James remarks that sin begins with evil desires ( 1:14 ; 4:1-4 ) and leads to death when fully grown ( 1:15 ). This and other biblical remarks suggest that iniquity gains some of its power through repetition. When an individual commits a sin, it can become, through repetition, a habit, a vice, and a character trait. When one person imitates the sins of another, wickedness can be institutionalized. Whole governments can become corrupt; whole industries can be based on deception or abuse of others. Societies can wrap themselves in a fabric of deceit. Thus one sinner encourages another and the wrong kind of friendship with the world makes one an enemy of God ( James 4:4-6 ).
The Book of Revelation also reminds us that sin involves more than individual people and Acts. In some places Satan reigns ( 2:13 ). The dragon, in his futile desire to devour the church, prompts the wicked to persecute it ( 12:1-17 ). Both government and religious leaders serve him in his wars against the saints (12:17-13:17). Revelation also depicts the end of sin. A day comes when God will condemn sin ( 20:11-15 ). Evildoers will be driven from his presence; the devil, his allies, death, and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire ( 20:10-15 ). Then the new heavens and new earth, free of sin forever, will descend (chaps. 21-22).
What, then, is the essence of sin? Sin has three chief aspects: breach of law, violation of relationships with people and things protected by the law, and rebellion against God. The essence of sin, therefore, is not a substance but a relationship of opposition. Sin opposes God's law and his created beings. Sin hates rather than loves, it doubts or contradicts rather than trusts and affirms, it harms and abuses rather than helps and respects.
But sin is also a condition. The Bible teaches that there are lies and liars, sins and sinners. People can be "filled" (meaning "controlled") by hypocrisy and lawlessness ( Matt 23:28 ). God "gives some over to sin, " allowing them to wallow in every kind of wickedness ( Rom 1:18-32 ). Paul, speaking of the time before their conversion, told the Ephesians, "You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live" ( 2:1-2 ).
This said, we have hardly defined sin, and with good reason. Sin is elusive. Sin has no substance, no independent existence. It does not even exist in the sense that love or justice do. It exists only as a parasite of the good or good things. Sin creates nothing; it abuses, perverts, spoils, and destroys the good things God has made. It has no program, no thesis; it only has an antithesis, an opposition. Sometimes wickedness is as senseless as a child who pulls the hair or punches the stomach of another, then honestly confesses, "I don't know why I did that." In some ways sin is an absence rather than a presence: it fails to listen, walks past the needy, and subsists in alienation rather than relation.
Negative as sin is, it hides itself under the appearance of what is good. At the first temptation, sin operated under the guise of claiming good things such as food and knowledge. Even the goal of being like God is good in some ways; after all, God made the first couple in his image. Similarly, when Satan tempted Jesus, the second Adam, he offered things good in themselves: food, knowledge, and rule over the kingdoms of the earth. Sin and temptation continue to appeal to things good and desirable in themselves. Fornication promises bodily pleasure, boasting seeks honor, by breaking promises or vows people hope for release from hardship. Someone can make a persuasive defense for almost every offense.
Yet ultimately, sin is most unreasonable. Why would Adam and Eve, well-cared-for and without propensity toward sin, rebel against God? Why would a creature want to rebel against the Creator? The prophets find Israel's rebellion absurd; even animals know better. "The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand" ( Isa 1:3 ).
Although negative and irrational, sin is also a power. It crouches at Cain's door, ready to devour him ( Gen 4:7 ). It compels Paul to do the evil he does not wish ( Rom 7:14-20 ). It moves and is moved by demonic and societal forces. It enters the heart, so that wickedness wells up spontaneously from within ( Matt 15:17-19 ). Its stronghold is the all but instinctive tendency to put one's own interests and desires first. From the selfish heart comes rebellion, godlessness, cursing, lies, slander, envy, greed, sensuality, and pride ( Matt 12:34-37 ; Rom 1:18-32 ).
Three factors compound the tragedy of sin. First, it pervades the whole person; no sphere escapes, for the very heart of the sinner is corrupt ( Psalm 51:5 ; Jer 17:9 ; Rom 8:7 ). Second, evil resides in the heart of the crown of God's creation, the bearer of God's image, the one appointed to rule the world for God. The remarkable capacities of humans to think, plan, persuade, and train others enables wickedness to become clever and strong. Third, sin is proud; hence it resists God and his salvation and offers a counterfeit salvation instead ( 2 Thess 2:2-4 ).
Despite all its dismal qualities, sin makes one contribution. Because God chose to redeem his people from it, sin has been the stimulus for God's demonstration of his amazing patience, grace, and love ( Rom 5:6-8 ; Gal 2:17-20 ; 1 Tim 1:15-17 ). So the study of sin need not merely grieve the Christian. From a postresurrection perspective, sin indirectly gives opportunity to praise the creating and redeeming Lord for his gracious deliverance ( Rom 11:33-36 ).
Bibliography. G. C. Berkouwer, Sin; G. W. Bromiley, ISBE, 4:518-25; J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion; C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans; D. Kidner, Genesis; A. Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
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[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[H] indicates this entry was also found in Hitchcock's Bible Names
[J] indicates this entry was also found in Jack Van Impe's Prophecy Dictionary
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Sin'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".