What is Sin?

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 1 December 2015; Revised 16 January 2023


Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. Quotations marked with the initials "BR" indicate the translation of the commentary author.

Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article. Citations for Talmud tractates are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); found at Halakhah.com.

Syntax: 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).

Special Terms: In order to emphasize the Hebrew-Jewish nature of Scripture and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Torah (Pentateuch, Law), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).

Article Outline


Sin in the Universe

Sin in Human Nature

Sin in Conduct


The dominant 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. The corresponding verb is hamartanō, which means to miss the mark, do wrong, or sin. In most passages hamartia refers to an action or behavior, a departure from the way of righteousness as defined by Scripture. In Hellenistic culture hamartia meant to lose, not share in something, be mistaken. Hamartia essentially meant to fail and thus could mean anything from stupidity to law-breaking, any behavior that did not conform to the dominant ethic or community values (DNTT 3:577).

In contrast to Hellenistic culture the use of hamartia in Scripture contains 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). In Scripture a sin is an offense against the religious and moral law of the God of Israel.

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. 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 (Rom 4:15; 5:13; 7:7-8; 1Jn 3:4).

While Hellenistic culture did not recognize 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 would bring salvation for mankind, freeing those who repent (i.e., turn away from sinning and turn toward God) from both the guilt and penalty of sinning (1Jn 2:2).

Sin in the Universe

"the devil … was a murderer from the beginning, and stood not in the truth, because truth is not in him. When he speaks the lie, he speaks of his own things; because he is a liar, and the father of it." (John 8:44 BR)

"And likewise angels that kept not their domain, but left their own habitation, he has kept in eternal bonds under darkness to the judgment of the great day." (Jude 1:6 BR)

"For if God spared not angels having sinned, but having cast down to Tartarus he delivered them to chains of darkness, to be kept until judgment." (2Pet 2:4 BR)

Since Hellenistic culture essentially denied the existence of the biblical Creator and therefore dismissed the idea of being morally accountable to the Creator for behavior, they could not provide an adequate explanation for why there is evil in the world. There could be no single source for evil in the world, since various deities in the Greek pantheon could be blamed for producing human suffering. Misbehavior generally was simply the result of ignorance. The presence of evil in its worst forms must be evidence that the omnipotent God of the Bible does not exist. This viewpoint is shared by modern evolutionists.

Scripture does provide an explanation of why there is evil in the world and it properly begins with the angels who were created before man. Exactly when the angels were created is not stated in Scripture. The book of Job offers the earliest hint as to the creation of the angels. God asked Job,

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth …When the morning stars [Heb. kokabim] sang together and all the sons of God [Heb. benei-Elohim] shouted for joy" (Job 38:4, 7 NASB).

The earth or land was brought into existence on the third day, so the angels had to have been created prior to this in order to witness the event. Psalm 104:2-5 suggests that angels were created on the second day when the waters of the Deep were stretched out and the expanse (or firmament) was created (cf. Gen 1:6-8). In the beginning the angels shared the great music of God and their existence was of light and joy. They lived in the mountain of God and "walked in the midst of the stones of fire," referring to the beauty of heaven (Ezek 28:14).

However, trouble came to this heavenly paradise. One particular heavenly being, later called Satan and the devil, came into conflict with God. It is a serious conundrum considering what the angels enjoyed in heaven after their creation. In the book of Job the sin of some of the angels is alluded to in a demonic visitation to Eliphaz in which a spirit says, "against His angels He charges error" (Job 4:18; cf. 15:15). The "error" is left unspecified. The fall of Satan preceded the angels. The taunt against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:11-15 and the lament for the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:11-19 indicates that Satan was created perfect and his downfall occurred because of a desire to be greater than ADONAI.

In the Tanakh Satan appears most frequently in the book of Job. God's repeated emphasis in Job on His creation of the universe hints that Satan may have come to consciousness in the waters that were formed on the second day. The creation scientist Dr. Henry Morris suggests that "Even though they [the angels] had later observed God create the earth, stars, and living beings [Job 38:4-7], they had not seen him create the universe itself. Thus, Satan may have persuaded himself that God, like the angels, must have simply 'evolved' somehow, out of the eternal primordial chaos" (The Remarkable Record of Job, Baker Book House, 1988; p. 52). Thus, Satan inspired the original evolutionary mythology and its modern "scientific" incarnation that pervades human institutions.

Yeshua emphasized that the devil was a liar from the beginning (in relation to Chavvah or Eve) and a murderer (in relation to Abel) (John 8:44). Thus, in the guise of a serpent, Satan had already turned away from God. The great lie he told Chavah was that God is not really the compassionate creator or the righteous judge who will punish sin with death. Thus, God's Word and rule may be replaced with a personal pursuit of godhood. Satan is the chief opponent of Yeshua and the good news (Mark 4:15), a tempter (Mark 1:13), the ruler of this world (John 12:31; 1Jn 5:19), and the head of a demonic empire (Mark 3:23-26).

Satan is the accuser of the brethren (Rev 12:10), going about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1Pet 5:8). The devil is wholly committed to the destruction of all that is good and holy, but someday he will suffer eternal punishment for all his crimes (Rev 20:2, 10).

Sin in Human Nature

In Romans 5:12-14 Paul presents an historical explanation regarding the responsibility for sin in the world:

"12 So then, just as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, in the same way death spread to all men because all sinned. 13 For up until the Torah, sin was in the world; but sin does not count as sin when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in a manner similar to the violation of Adam, who is a pattern of the One to come." (TLV)

The biblical viewpoint summarizes what Christian theologians would later call the doctrine of original sin. In the Genesis narrative Adam blamed his wife Chavah ("Eve") and Chavah blamed the serpent (Gen 3:8-13). However, Paul lays the responsibility for sin squarely on the man God created and called Adam. The historical summary is simplified in the declaration "In Adam all die" (1Cor 15:22). God cannot be blamed for sin and its consequences of evil and suffering being present in the world.

Paul asserts that because of Adam sin entered into the world. There is a possibility that since hamartia can refer to an "invasive evil power" Paul personifies hamartia, hinting that Adam is also responsible for Satan's influence in the world. In fact, Paul personifies hamartia a number of times in his Roman letter (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 that because of Adam death spread to all men. The curse of death (Gen 2:17; 3:19) passed to all Adam's descendants. Not only was the curse of death propagated, but also the curse of sinning. All people have been like their first parents. Since God decreed death for sin and all sinned, all people die.

The view of Rabbinic Judaism 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 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 suggests 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. The Torah specifically refers to the yetzer ra as an inclination to wickedness.

"And ADONAI saw that great was the wickedness of man in the earth and every inclination [Heb. yetzer] of the thoughts of his heart was only evil [Heb. ra] all the time." (Gen 6:5 BR)

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 perversions. The yetzer ra is generally seen as something internal to a person, and not as an external force acting on a person implied in the claim "the devil made me do it" (cf. Gen 3:13). 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. 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. 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 his 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 Romans 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 the sin of Adam 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, whether of omission or commission, are sin and that, consequently, no one, even after the new birth, has the ability to stop sinning (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 (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).

In Scripture the definition of sin is directly related to negative and positive commandments governing behavior and given to Israel. Negative commandments are those that prohibit behavior and conduct offensive to God. Over 70 terms are used to express forbidden behaviors whose persistent practice without repentance would cause the offender to be eternally separated from God. (See my article Sins that Separate.) Positive commandments are those that direct good behavior, especially the two great commandments to love God and to love neighbor (Matt 22:36-40). Thus, sin results from failing to do what God requires (Jas 4:17).

Paul presents the simple axiom statement that the Torah defines sin.

"through the Torah comes the knowledge of sin." (Rom 3:20 BR)

"where there is no law, neither is transgression." (Rom 4:15 BR)

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

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

Man's customs, rules and traditions, no matter how religious and well-intentioned, do not have the authority to define sin. The God of Israel communicated His absolute standards of behavior to Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses (not the other way around). The purpose of defining standards was, as David Stern 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" (17). The Torah as the basis for defining sinful behavior is echoed in other verses:

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

"Sin is violation of Torah." (1Jn 3:4 CJB)

Moreover, all that God wills for man, summarized as loving God and neighbor, is defined in 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; 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 disciple'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 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 Torah, specific capital crimes could never be atoned, including blasphemy, idolatry, murder, adultery, fornication, and necromancy. 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.

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