Sin is a word and concept that many Christians have grown so familiar with that they risk forgetting all that it means. Like a word we’ve turned over in our minds so many times that it has begun to seem unreal, the idea of sin can seem totally disconnected from our experience. We need sometimes to be reminded of what sin is and of its real, destructive power.
Sin is not merely a word for a bad deed. It is primarily a condition, a state of being. “Sin,” says the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” It is an “estate whereinto man fell” that can be properly described as “a corruption of his whole nature … together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.” Sin, in other words, describes the way human beings are, and it describes what they do as a result—and its most basic feature is that it puts human beings at odds with God and His good design.
One way we can help ourselves to see the reality behind a word is to examine the words that are nearest to it in meaning. The New Testament uses a number of terms to describe what we call sin. Understanding some of the most common ones can help remind us of sin’s many facets and why its impact on our life is so significant.
Aside from a few Aramaic and Hebrew words and phrases, the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. Drawing from this language, the biblical writers used five words in particular that give us a strong picture of what sin is.
First, there is hamartia, which is most often translated as simply “sin.” This word can describe sin in all its forms. Etymologically, it portrays a picture from archery of having missed the target. It is because of our hamartia that we have all fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), failing to live up to the standard for which we were made. In our fallen nature, we sin and are in sin because we are not (yet) what we ought to be.
Second, there is parábasis, which is often translated “transgression.” This word describes willful sin that is a particular violation of God’s standards of righteousness. It means a stepping across the line. If God has drawn a line in the sand by giving us His law, then human beings have deliberately crossed it by breaking the law. People sin and are in sin because they know what they ought to do, and they do otherwise.
Third, there is paraptōma, which is translated a number of ways, including, “sin,” “trespass,” and “offense.” Historically, its meaning carries the idea of slipping up or falling away. This word can describe sin that is willful, but it can also describe sin that is unintentional, relatively unconcious. In either case, it gives us the picture of someone slipping from the path and into a pit. It is a picture of sin as going awry. People sin and are in sin because they have fallen from the path God set them on.
Sin’s most basic feature is that it puts human beings at odds with God and His good design.
Fourth, there is anomía. Nomos is Greek for “law.” The prefix a-, as in many English words, indicates negation. Anomía is thus lawlessness. It is total rebellion: “I’ll do what I want. I’ll think what I want. I’ll go where I want.” It describes the condition of people who not only have failed to live up to God’s standards but also have no interest in doing so. People sin and are in sin because they are enemies of God in their minds (Col. 1:21).
And the last word is opheílēma, which simply means “debt.” When the Bible describes sin as a debt (Matt. 6:12; Rom. 4:4), it recognizes that we owe something to God and that we have failed to pay. Because of this, we are at His mercy. People sin and are in sin because they were made to do only good works, and they failed to do so.
Taken together and set in their New Testament contexts, these words describe human beings as out of step with their Creator through both willful rebellion and unintentional failure. They reveal humankind as corrupted in their hearts and minds so that they do not seek to do good. And they remind us that in such a state, each of us has already defaulted on the debt of good works owed to our Creator and so deserves His just punishment.
One of the strategies of the Evil One is to try and convince us that sin is no big deal. He wants to convince us that “sin” is just a handful of harmless things that prudish church people don’t like. He says, “Nobody knows. Nobody sees. And even if they do, it doesn’t matter, because no one will be hurt.”
Don’t believe that for a second. God is opposed to sin—its state and its acts—not because it is distasteful but because it is murderous and destructive (James 1:14–15). And Jesus says that what we think is secret will one day be revealed before the throne of God (Luke 12:2–3). God’s design is for our good, and it is fair. We reject it to our peril, and we are then rightly subject to God’s judgment.
But the good news is that Jesus Christ—God in the flesh—came to free us from the penalty and the power of sin, and He has promised to free us also from its presence.
When He died on the cross, Jesus took all of God’s wrath on Himself and suffered in our place so that those who call on His name in faith and with repentance might receive forgiveness. He paid our debt on our behalf, freeing us from sin’s penalty.
Since He has risen and ascended to the right hand of God, the Lord Jesus has commanded those who are His own to turn away from sin. The Holy Spirit, whom He has sent, gives them the power to do so. If we are in Christ, our minds are renewed, and it is possible for us to live in step with God’s commands because He has freed us from sin’s power and dwells in us.
And the Lord Jesus has promised that one day we will live eternally with Him. In that day, sin and its effects will no longer be present (Rev. 21:1–4). He will have transformed us fully into His likeness, as He has always intended us to be. Then we will walk in perfect righteousness and freedom with our good God. What a day that will be!
This article was adapted from the sermon “Who’s in Charge of the Church?” by Alistair Begg.