What is sin?

I wanted to write about something else entirely but before I can, I feel I must clearly define what I mean by “sin”.

Etymology of sin

Sin is an English word used in translation for words from two distinct languages (Hebrew and Greek) with contributions from at least two more languages (Latin and Old English). As such, the meaning of the word “sin” is highly complex and deserves special attention.

Rather than struggle to cover the grounds others already have, this is a summary taken from Wikipedia:

The word derives from “Old English syn(n), for original *sunjō. The stem may be related to that of Latin ‘sons, sont-is’ guilty. In Old English there are examples of the original general sense, ‘offence, wrong-doing, misdeed'”. The English Biblical terms translated as “sin” or “syn” from the Biblical Greek and Jewish terms sometimes originate from words in the latter languages denoting the act or state of missing the mark; the original sense of New Testament Greek ἁμαρτία hamartia “sin”, is failure, being in error, missing the mark, especially in spear throwing; Hebrew hata “sin” originates in archery and literally refers to missing the “gold” at the centre of a target, but hitting the target, i.e. error. “To sin” has been defined from a Greek concordance as “to miss the mark”.

The takeaway point is that our word – sin – is not a perfect match to the source text. It is close but not exact. You might say, our understanding of sin itself suffers from sin (hamartia).

Sin: Crime vs Weakness

The etymology of sin brings up the first of many doctrinal questions. Is sin a guilty state (as, for example, a criminal) as the Latin suggests, an offence (again criminal) as the Old English offers, or a mistake or shortcoming as the Geek and Hebrew might lead us to believe?

Doctrines such as Substitutionary Atonement take the Latin and Old English meaning as almost axiomatic. Which explains the hell doctrines of some Christians. If sin is a spiritual crime against God, hell must be the punishment. However, that is not a point that can be made without some criticism.

When we read the word “sin” in the Bible, it seems (from the language study) does not mean the committing of a crime. “Sin” in a Bible context, appears to mean “you could have done better”.

What about sin “against” a person?

That revised definition (“you could have done better”) seems to hold until we encounter passages like Luke 17:4 or Psalm 119:11 which talk about sinning against another. From what I have read, this appears to be a shortcoming of the English language.

That word, “against”, is (SG1519) “eis”. Eis is a preposition meaning “into, in, among, till, for”. To quote HELPS Word-studies:

1519 eis (a preposition) – properly, into (unto) – literally, “motion into which” implying penetration (“unto,” “union”) to a particular purpose or result.

With this understanding, it seems Luke 17:4 at least, is talking not about a crime against a person but a failure that harmed or touched another. For example, if I were to drop my coffee it would be an accident – a (hamartia) failure to perfectly carry my cup. If that coffee splashed on your shirt that would my mistake (hamartia) affecting (eis) you.

Trespasses and sins

Passages such as Ephesians 2:1 talk about transgressions (in some translations trespasses) and sins. The both together.

Both of these words – “transgressions” and “trespasses” – mean to go beyond what is acceptable or access or go into somewhere that is not your own. Again, this appears to be an imperfect alignment of meaning between languages.

The word here is (SG3900) paraptóma which means “a falling away”.  I turned to HELPS Word-studies for, well, help:

3900 paráptōma (from 3895 /parapíptō, see there) – properly, fall away after being close-beside, i.e. a lapse (deviation) from the truth; an error, “slip up”; wrongdoing that can be (relatively) unconscious, “non-deliberate.”

Rather than meaning something done, paraptóma seems to mean something omitted that should have been done. A so-called “sin of omission”. Therefore “trespasses and sins” could mean the things that you failed to do but should have done and the things you did that you could have done differently (and, perhaps, should have).

However, in other places, paraptóma is rendered as offences. This suggests a debt or crime against a person. Thus, I can see how paraptóma could be translated as trespasses. As I about to explore, crimes (offences) are not the same as sins at all.

The Law: Awareness of sin

Jesus taught that those who do not know any better are not guilty of sin (John 9:41). However, by claiming to know God’s will – by claiming to understand the law – then guilt remains. Knowing the right thing to do and failing to do it makes you guilty, says the Bible (James 4:17).

This makes sense. After all, it would be unfair of me if you failed to carry out a task that I had not told you about.

In Romans 3:20, Paul teaches that through the law “comes the knowledge of sin.” Later on, in Romans 5:20, Paul teaches that the law was given so that offences (paraptóma) might abound (increase). It might follow, then, that those who are ignorant of God’s will (unbelievers) are innocent while they nevertheless “do the right thing” insofar as they understand what right living is. It is written, however, that there is none that always does what is right (Psalm 14:3) – not even believers.

Notice that Paul shows that knowledge of sin (hamartia) leads to offences (paraptóma). Failing to keep God’s law is not a sin – sin is what causes us to fail the law.

The power of sin

While he is teaching that the law brings knowledge of sin and increases offences, Paul states that sin existed before the law was given but that sin was not taken into account (Romans 5:13).

Could it be that sin is accounted to us only by the law? In 1 Corinthians 15:56 we read:

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

The law, we are told, brings wrath (Romans 4:15) but where there is no law there is no offence (willful disregard for the Will of God, according to my word studies).

It is not that sin is accounted to us by the law but that sin prevents us from keeping the law. When that happens we commit an offence and become guilty and condemned.

To put things another way – we are imperfect beings and make mistakes. Our own shortcomings prevent us from fulfilling the law. When that happens the penalty of the law becomes due. That is the curse of the law.

Thankfully, Christ came to redeem us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13). Thus, in Romans 7:8 we read, “apart from the law, sin is dead”. Rescued from the law and hidden in grace we are saved. Therefore, sin is dead to us, it has no power, it has no sting (death), sin causes no offence, and it brings no wrath.

I shall explore grace in another post – it is too big a topic to cover here.

We are all sinners

Although the offence is removed, the human failings still remain. Sin (hamartia) is something we all contend with. So says, Romans 3:23, Ecclesiastes 7:20, and 1 Kings 8:46 (among others). We have already established that sin existed before the law so it follows that it should continue after the completion of the law.

The very fact that we have the cliche, “I’m only human” acknowledges this fact. We instinctively recognise that we are all “hamartia” – less than perfect. The law – for all it is good when rightly used – only highlighted this.

Our freedom from the power of sin (and the wrath that the law enables it to bring) is fragile. This is why Jesus taught us, “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31) and we know that love covers many sins (1 Peter 4:8). Should we forego love and attempt to apply the law to ourselves or others, we attempt to frustrate the work of Christ in compleating the law. In doing so, we condemn ourselves. It is written, by the measure we judge others we ourselves will be judged (Matthew 7:2).


Whenever we attempt to condemn someone or some group based on what we think the Bible says, we are attempting to restore the offence (paraptóma) that Christ ended.

Nevertheless, I hear Christians only too willing to condemn those they disagree with on the grounds that the Bible says that a thing is a sin. To them, I say this – go back and read that Jesus himself said, “he who is without sin should cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)

We all hamartia. When it comes to righteousness, we each have a log in our own eye. Therefore, we cannot see clearly to correct the speck in the eye of another (Matthew 7:5). If God extends us grace to cover our weaknesses, should we not also do the same for others?

The power to forgive sins

As disciples of Jesus, we have been given the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23). As priests of the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:11-17, 1 Peter 2:9), we have a moral duty to extend that forgiveness to others. Just as freely as you have received forgiveness, freely give (Matthew 10:8).

When others are condemned, it is not God that condemns (John 3:17). Christ came to redeem and save. The condemnation comes – more often than not – from Christians themselves. Our condemning accusation (insisting on paraptóma) is itself hamartia (sin) when the teaching (and example) of Jesus was to forgive liberally.

None of us has a stone to legitimately throw. What we do have is forgiveness that we were entrusted to share.

The short version

Once there was only hamartia (sin) for which we were not held guilty. Then came the law to show us perfection (lack of hamartia) but our hamartia (sin) made the law impossible and so we suffered paraptóma (the guilt of offence). Christ completed the law, saving us from paraptóma (the guilt of offence). Now only our hamartia (sin) remains along with grace, love, and forgiveness to cover our shame. The old is passed, the new has come. There is no going back and only paraptóma (guilt) if you try.

What sin is not

Some Christians claim that sins are crimes against God. This is not true. Offences before God (paraptóma) arise from our inability to follow the law due to sin (hamartia). Christ completed the law and gives us grace instead. Something I hope I have covered clearly enough.

Others claim that sin is separation from God. That just is not possible. Psalm 139:7-12 proclaims the impossibility of separation from God. Romans 8:38-39 says the exact same thing.

It is a common doctrine that sin is a rebellion against God. An easy mistake to make but rebellion against God is paraptóma – the crime of breaking His law. Paraptóma without the law is impossible. Sin (hamartia) could lead to rebellion when there was the law, but it is not itself any such thing.

My point here is that hamartia and paraptóma (sin and offence) are not the same things. One is part of our imperfect nature and the other is a product of the law.

Sin correctly defined

Sin hamartia is a word meaning shortcomings, failures, and imperfections. Doing the right thing (righteousness) is the gold standard which we fail to consistently achieve. As long as we do not condemn others nor claim to be perfect, our weaknesses do not condemn us for we are covered by grace.

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