Sin: It’s an unpopular word for some in our world. Some assert it brings connotations of guilt. They claim it’s a way for one group to control another. Yet, it is central to the human condition, and a proper understanding of sin is necessary to the solution offered by the Christian faith. With that said, what is sin?
The oft-repeated Adventist answer to the question is “transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). This is commonly used as the proof text, and for some, that’s the end of the discussion!
However, the Bible’s original languages have a number of words underlying the English word “sin.” They show some interesting nuances of the word.
The Hebrew words carry a variety of meaning focused “on the whole phenomenon of transgression”. That‘s because sin was an offense against God’s justice and impacted the whole community. An excellent example of that is the sin of Achan (see Joshua 7:10–26).
Here are a few Hebrew words and their meanings: awon: “offense”, “guilt”, or “punishment”; awlah: “perversity” or “wickedness”; pesa: “rebellion”; and chata: “miss the mark”, “offend”, or “be culpable”. Together, they variously mean “to miss the mark”, “offend”, “be culpable”, “sin grievously”, “do wrong”, and “rebellion”. It is notable that aiming at the target and missing is still considered a sin. When combined with the fact that sin affects the whole community, it should challenge us with the reality that what we do has its consequences on others, not just on ourselves. This concept challenges the individualistic culture of much of our world.
In the very first use of the word “sin” (chata) in Genesis, God tells Cain if he is not doing well, “sin is crouching at the door” (4:7). Indicating this was something from within him that he was not to allow to rule over him, God said, “Its [sin’s] desire is contrary to you.”
The account of the fall (see 3:6, 7) demonstrates both the relational dimension and impact of sin, as well as its lodging within us. Eve’s sin occurred at the point when she “saw that the tree was good”. Her conclusion that God was wrong and Satan was right shows in her action of taking the fruit. Thus, the condition of being sinful is evidenced in sinful actions. David highlighted this when lamenting his own sin (see Psalm 51:5). It is this condition with which Jesus came to deal and why He tells us, “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
There are comparatively few words for “sin” in the New Testament, unlike the Old Testament. The Greek terms and meanings are hamartia: “sin” or “to sin”; adikia: “do wrong”, “commit injustice”, “wrongdoing”, and “unrighteousness”; parabasis: “turn aside”, “transgress”, or “overstep”; and paraptoma: “go astray”, “err”, “sin”, “trespass”, and “transgression”.
In the Western world, and sometimes, in the way some have presented Adventist teachings, the focus has been on the individual, one’s salvation, overcoming, and living a life without committing acts of sin. Yet, the servant of the Lord made this insightful statement:
“It is not the greatness of the act of disobedience that constitutes sin, but the fact of variance from God’s expressed will in the least particular; for this shows that there is yet communion between the soul and sin” (Ellen White, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 51).
The outward actions indicate the inward condition. That’s what Jesus came to resolve and why I need Him every moment of every day.