What is Sin?

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 1 December 2015


Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. Citations for Talmud tractates are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); found at Halakhah.com.

Definitions: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Hebrew words is derived from The New Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1981). The meaning of Greek words is derived from Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (1957).

Vocabulary: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Torah (Law), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).


The word for sin in the Besekh is hamartia, which may mean (1) a misdeed that creates liability for the agent; (2) the condition of being sinful; or (3) an invasive evil power (Danker). In most passages hamartia refers to an action or behavior, a departure from the way of righteousness as defined by Scripture. In Greek culture hamartia meant to miss the mark, to lose, not share in something, be mistaken. A mistake is the result of ignorance. Hamartia essentially meant to fail and could mean anything from stupidity to law-breaking, anything that offends against the right, that does not conform to the dominant ethic, to the respect due to social order and to the community (DNTT 3:577).

In contrast to the Greeks the Jews invested hamartia with a strong moral component. The LXX, translated by Jewish scholars, uses hamartia to translate a range of Hebrew words for guilt and sin, particularly Heb. chata (SH-2398; miss, go wrong, lapse, sin; Gen 20:6; 39:9), chatta'ah (SH-2403; sin, sin offering, punishment for sin; Gen 18:20; 31:36; 50:17), and avon (SH-5771; iniquity, guilt, punishment for iniquity; Gen 15:16). A sin is an offense against the religious and moral law of God. In ancient Israel sin was tantamount to rejecting God’s covenant. Hamartia is not displaying the imperfections that separate humanity from divinity, but violating the clear instructions of God. A Jew might violate the Torah unintentionally, but he would not be allowed to claim ignorance. Hamartia is the dominant word for sin in the apostolic writings. The degree of intentionality is not a factor in defining sinful behavior, only whether the express requirements or prohibitions of Torah commandments have been violated. Religious people may erect their own codes for determining prohibited behavior, but God's judgment is based strictly on His commandments recorded in Scripture.

While Greeks did not believe in the reality of sin, the Scriptures assert that sin separates a person from God (Isa 59:2). From the beginning, the penalty for sin is the death of the sinner (Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23). To avoid the eternal consequences of sin, there must be atonement provided by a sinless one. Animal sacrifices initially provided the means for atonement, but this was a temporary solution. A human death was needed to atone for human sin, so the death of a sinless Messiah for our sins was foretold in Isaiah 52:13―53:12. The once-for-all act at Golgotha wrought salvation for mankind, freeing those who repent from both the guilt and penalty of sinning (1Jn 2:2). Repentance means to turn away from sinning and turn toward God.

Sin in Human Nature

The noun hamartia occurs 266 times in the Besekh and the verb hamartanō 264 times, the great majority of which are in the letters of Paul, making it a major theme for him. In Romans 5:12-14 Paul presents an historical explanation of why there is sin in the world and summarizes what Christian theologians call the doctrine of original sin.

Origin: Therefore, just as through one man: i.e., Adam. It is noteworthy that Paul does not lay blame on Eve, who was deceived, although he does elsewhere (2Cor 11:3; 1Tim 2:14).

Action: Sin entered into the world. Ordinarily hamartia refers either to a misdeed that creates liability for the agent or the condition of being sinful. However, here Paul personifies hamartia, using Danker's third meaning so that to be "under sin" is to be under the influence of a foreign power. A number of times in this letter Paul personifies hamartia (3:9; 5:12; 6:2, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 20, 22; 7:11, 17, 25; 8:2, 10). A personification is the attribution of human characteristics to a thing or abstraction. Personifications are common in Hebraic-Jewish literature. For example:

"Raba observed, First he [i.e., evil inclination] is called a passer-by, then he is called a guest, and finally he is called a man [i.e., occupier of the house]." (Sukk. 52b)

The first personification in Scripture is of sin when God says to Cain, "sin [chata, a feminine noun] is crouching at the door; and its [her] desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen 4:7). Sin is a beguiling temptress who seeks to lure the unsuspecting into a trap that will result in death (cf. Prov 5:3-5). Paul proceeds to argue from Scripture and in verses Romans 5:10-18 he conflates several passages from the Psalms and Isaiah to make his point.

Effect: and death through sin. This fact effectively rebuts the Gap (or Ruin-Reconstruction) Theory of creation, which posits death before Adam was created.

Scope: and so death spread to all men. The curse of death (Gen 2:17; 3:19) passed to all Adam's descendants.

Reason: because all sinned: Grk. hamartanō, aor., cause to be alongside instead of on target, to miss and in a moral sense to do wrong. The verb is used of offenses against the moral law of God as defined in the Torah. BAG defines as to transgress or sin against divinity, custom or law. The point is that all people have violated God's instructions. Not only was the curse of death propagated, but also the curse of sinning. All men have been like the first parents. Since God decreed death for sin and all sinned, all people die.

Joseph Shulam, a Messianic Jewish scholar in Israel, offers this insightful analysis on Romans 5:

"Paul, like the Rabbis, struggles with the implications of the statement that "death [came] through sin." Verses 12-14 contain some of his most complex thought, in which he abruptly strings clauses one onto another with little or no conjunctive force or further explanatory details; and in which some of the clauses appear to contradict one another, or are left hanging in midair. … He therefore appears to suggest that death is both a direct consequence of Adam's disobedience and a natural consequence of human sinfulness, a view which is reflected in several other contemporary Jewish texts." (194)

The Rabbinic view is that Man was created with two impulses or inclinations, a deduction drawn from Genesis 2:7, which states that God formed (Heb. vayyitzer) man. The spelling of this Hebrew verb is unusual: it uses two consecutive Yods instead of the one that would be expected. The rabbis inferred that these Yods stand for the word "yetzer," which means impulse, and the existence of two Yods here indicates that humanity was formed with two impulses: a good impulse (the yetzer tov) and an evil impulse (the yetzer ra) (Berachot 61a).

The yetzer tov is the moral conscience, the inner voice that reminds you of God's law when you consider doing something that is forbidden. The yetzer ra is more difficult to define, because there are many different ideas about it. To the Jewish mind the yetzer ra is not a desire to do evil, such as a desire to cause senseless harm. Rather, it is usually conceived as the selfish nature, the desire to satisfy personal needs (food, shelter, sex, etc.) without regard for the moral consequences of fulfilling those desires.

The yetzer ra is not viewed as a bad thing. It was created by God, and all things created by God are good. The Talmud notes that without the yetzer ra (the desire to satisfy personal needs), man would not build a house, marry a wife, beget children or conduct business affairs. But the yetzer ra can lead to wrongdoing when it is not controlled by the yetzer tov. Genesis 6:5 specifically refers to the yetzer ra as an inclination to wickedness. There is nothing inherently wrong with hunger, but it can lead you to steal food. There is nothing inherently wrong with sexual desire, but it can lead you to commit rape, adultery, incest or other sexual perversion.

The yetzer ra is generally seen as something internal to a person, not as an external force acting on a person. The idea that "the devil made me do it" (cf. Gen 3:13) is not in line with the majority of thought in Judaism. People have the ability to choose which impulse to follow: the yetzer tov or the yetzer ra. That is the heart of the Jewish understanding of free will. The Talmud notes that all people are descended from Adam, so no one can blame his own wickedness on his ancestry (cf. Ezek 18:20). On the contrary, we all have the ability to make our own choices, and we will all be held responsible for the choices we make. (See the article Human Nature at the Judaism 101 website.)

Christianity, of course, took a very different view of human nature and the effects of Adam's sin. Augustine (A.D. 354–430) was the first to develop a systematic doctrine and create a basic vocabulary.

Original Sin: rebellion against God; we sinned when Adam sinned.

Original Pollution: sinful nature; we inherit total depravity, which affects every part of the human personality - physical, intellectual, and spiritual.

Original Guilt: guilt for Adam’s sin and our own sin; we are guilty for Adam’s sin because we were in Adam at the time (cf. Heb 7:9-10).

The history of Christianity has seen several belief systems develop in reaction to Augustine as scholars wrestled with the inevitable questions that arise from Paul's words and the teaching of Scripture. The reader may consult any standard systematic theology for a full explanation. A number of fundamental objections have been raised.

• How "total" is total depravity? (words mean things) Yeshua noted the paradox of human nature - evil, yet able to do good of a practical nature (Matt 7:11; cf. John 3:20-21). This passage could be construed as accepting the dual impulse nature of man. Surely a totally depraved person would not care about the welfare of another person. Does man suffer from depravation or deprivation? In the context of Yeshua's statement he was not accusing his disciples of being wicked or morally corrupt, but lacking the perfection and power of God to give what a person really needs, spiritual power or regeneration (Luke 11:13).

• How can we be responsible for Adam's sin? We weren’t there to sin when Adam sinned. Death and sin were passed to Adam’s posterity, so we were made sinners by Adam’s sin (Rom 5:19). This is the law of nature: everything reproduces after its own kind. The Tanakh is clear that each person is responsible for own sin (Deut 24:16; Ezek 8:4.) Being in Adam’s loins does not equal responsibility for his sin. (In fact, Adam blamed Eve, Gen 3:12.)

• How does "free" will fit into the picture? (cf. Rom 10:13) Paul himself calls the reader in chapter eight to choose between the Holy Spirit (the ultimate yetzer tov) and the flesh (yetzer ra?).

• How can the body be evil? The assumption about the pollution of the body misconstrues the meaning of Paul's use of the word "flesh" and reflects the influence of Greek philosophy and Gnosticism. This unfortunate doctrine led to the elevation of celibacy as a preferred state over marriage at the Council of Trent and the rejection of pleasure in the marriage bed. Since Augustine obviously got this part wrong, what are we to think of the rest of his logic?

In the final analysis interpretation of Paul's teaching on original sin should follow his own dictum to not "exceed what is written" (1Cor 4:6).

Sin in Conduct

The concept of sin as conduct has been much debated by theologians, but three definitions have found common usage among Christians. Some assert that all acts of thought, word and deed which fall short of God’s perfection or glory, whether of omission or commission, are sin and that, consequently, no one, even after the new birth, has the ability to stop sinning (cf. Rom 3:23; Jas 3:2). Others insist that sin involves knowledge of right and wrong and the exercise of the will in one of those two directions, and if one can choose God then one can choose to not sin (cf. Deut 30:11-14; Josh 24:15; Heb 10:26; 1Jn 3:6, 9). Still others have sought to further narrow the definition of sin by limiting it to premeditated acts (cf. Ex 21:14). Whatever the definition sinning causes death (Ezek 18:4; Rom 6:23).

In Scripture various terms are employed to convey the commission of sinful acts, but they all refer to breaking one or more commandments in the instruction given to Moses for Israel and affirmed by Yeshua and the apostles (Matt 15:3). Paul makes the simple axiomatic statement in Romans 3:20 that the Torah defines sin (also in Romans 4:155:13, 20; 7:7-8, 12). Man's customs and traditions, no matter how religious and well-intentioned, do not have the authority to define sin. The Lord God of Israel gave the absolute moral principles, commandments, ordinances and instructions to Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses (not the other way around), as David Stern (17) observes, “in order to help them live a life which would be in their own best interests as well as holy and pleasing to God.” The Torah as the basis for defining sinful behavior is echoed in other verses:

"sin is not imputed when there is no law." (Rom 5:13)

"I would not have come to know sin except through the Law." (Rom 7:7)

"But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors." (Jas 2:9)

"Sin is lawlessness." (1Jn 3:4)

Moreover, all that God wills for man to be and do is inscribed in the Scriptures, beginning with the Torah and God judges mankind by this objective standard, resulting in the need of a blood sacrifice to obtain forgiveness for transgressions of the standard (Heb 9:22). Under God’s Law causation, motive or intent have no bearing on determining whether an act is a transgression. The nature or cause of a transgression only has relevance to the punishment one deserves for breaking the commandment (cf. Rom 6:23; Gal 5:21; Heb 10:29).

The three common definitions of sin can lead to unfortunate misconceptions. The first definition of sin can easily blur the distinction in the seriousness of acts and may lead to complacent and fatalistic antinomianism, thereby nullifying God’s expectation of holiness in believers (Rom 6:1; Heb 12:14; 1Pet 1:15) and rendering meaningless the many admonitions in Scripture to stop sinful practices (Gen 35:2; Josh 24:14; Ps 4:4; Jer 4:1; Ezek 45:9; Hos 2:2; John 5:14; 8:11; Rom 6:1-2, 12; 1Cor 15:34; Eph 4:22, 26, 31; and 1Pet 2:1). The toleration of habitual or daily sinning simply has no Scriptural support (Rom 12-14; 8:12-14; Heb 10:26-31; 1Jn 3:9). While Yeshua associated with sinners, he intends to take away sin and sinning from the believer’s life (John 8:34-36; 1Pet 2:24) and to destroy the works of the devil (1Jn 3:4-9; cf. Gal 5:19-21), not set up housekeeping with them (cf. Matt 12:29).

Scripture knows nothing of the dualism of modern positional salvation that allows the believer to benefit from Messiah’s sacrifice and perfection while continuing to sin. Paul’s incredulity at anyone justifying a sinning lifestyle fairly shouts from the page, "How shall we who died to sin still live in it?" (Rom 6:2) The other two definitions of sin, particularly the third (limiting "sin" to premeditated acts), may lead to the self-deception of pride (cf. Luke 18:11) and the conclusion that a believer never (or seldom) sins and thus has no continuing need of the atonement after the new birth or sanctification.

The Torah makes a distinction between unintentional, negligent and intentional violations with corresponding penalties and atonement sacrifices (e.g., Ex 21:12―22:15; Lev 4:1―6:7). Atonement was not authorized for any sin committed presumptuously or defiantly (Num 15:30-31; Deut 17:12-13) and according to the Mishnah, violations of 36 of the 613 Torah commandments could never be atoned, including blasphemy, idolatry, murder, adultery, harlotry, necromancy, and profaning the holy feasts (Stern 270). The penalty for such egregious transgressions was being "cut off" from Israel (Ex 30:33; 31:14; Lev 7:25-27). The good news of the New Covenant is that through the blood of the Messiah all transgressions of the Torah can be forgiven and cleansed (Matt 12:31-32; John 8:11; Acts 13:39; 1Cor 6:9-11; 1Jn 1:7), although apostasy and sinning defiantly still courts eternal ruin (Heb 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 2Pet 2:20-22; 1Jn 5:16).

Certainly, everyone continues to fall short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23), stumbles (Jas 3:2) or makes mistakes, but, as John Wesley observed, "every such mistake is a transgression of the perfect law. Therefore, every such mistake, were it not for the blood of atonement, would expose to eternal damnation. It follows that the most mature have continual need of the merits of Christ" (38).

The miracle of God’s grace in the atonement is truly amazing. The Royal Law of Love directs sacrificial devotion to God (Matt 22:37), neighbors (Matt 22:39), enemies (Matt 5:44), fellow believers (John 13:34), and wives (Eph 5:25). Yet, in his omniscience God knows that forgiven, regenerated and Spirit-filled people will fail to please the Royal Law of Love and possibly transgress His commandments again (1Jn 2:1, notice "if"), yet God still sent his Son to die for sinful mankind. It is unlikely that people would forgive an offender if they knew in advance that the offender would harm them again (cf. Luke 17:4). God knows, yet he applies the blood of the innocent Lamb of God to cleanse guilt whenever there is genuine confession and repentance. Moreover, the promise of Pentecost is that God’s people can be infused with the desire to keep his commandments though the power of the Holy Spirit (Jer 31:33). Glory to God!

Works Cited

BAG: Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. trans. W.F. Arndt & F.W. Gingrich. The University of Chicago Press, 1957.

BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981. Online.

Danker: Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 Vols. Colin Brown, ed. Zondervan Publishing House, 1975.

Shulam: Joseph Shulam, A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Romans. Messianic Jewish Publishers, 1997.

Stern: David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. 5th ed. Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1996.

Wesley: John Wesley, "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection," The Heart of Wesley's Faith. Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1963. Online.

Copyright © 2015 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.