Sin is an immoral act considered to be a transgression of divine law. ... According to Augustine of Hippo (354–430) sin is "a word, deed, or desire in opposition to the eternal law of God," or as scripture states, "sin is the transgression of the law."
Sin is a riddle, a mystery, a reality that eludes definition and comprehension. Perhaps we most often think of sin as wrongdoing or transgression of God's law. Sin includes a failure to do what is right. But sin also offends people; it is violence and lovelessness toward other people, and ultimately, rebellion against God. Further, the Bible teaches that sin involves a condition in which the heart is corrupted and inclined toward evil. The concept of sin is complex, and the terminology large and varied so that it may be best to look at the reality of sin in the Pentateuch first, then reflect theologically.
The History of Sin. In the biblical world sin is, from its first appearance, tragic and mysterious. It is tragic because it represents a fall from the high original status of humankind. Created in God's image, Adam and Eve are good but immature, fine but breakable, like glass dishes. They are without flaw, yet capable of marring themselves. Satan uses a serpent to tempt Eve and Adam, first to question God, then to rebel against him. First, Satan introduces doubts about God's authority and goodness. "Did God really say, You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" ( Gen 3:1 ). He invites Eve to consider how the fruit of the tree of knowledge is good for food and for knowledge. We see the tendency of sin to begin with a subtle appeal to something attractive and good in itself, to an act that is somehow plausible and directed toward some good end.
Throughout the Bible almost every sin reaches for things with some intrinsic value, such as security, knowledge, peace, pleasure, or a good name. But behind the appeal to something good, sin ultimately involves a raw confrontation between obedience and rebellion. Will Adam and Eve heed their impressions or God's instructions? Will they listen to a creature or the Creator? Will they serve God or themselves? Who will judge what is right, God or humans? Who will see to the results? Ultimately, by taking the position of arbiter between the conflicting counsel of God and the serpent, Eve and Adam have already elevated themselves over God and rebelled against him.
Here too the first sins disclose the essence of later sins. Sin involves the refusal of humankind to accept its God-given position between the Creator and lower creation. It flows from decisions to reject God's way, and to steal, curse, and lie simply because that seems more attractive or reasonable. Here we approach the mystery of sin. Why would the first couple, sinless and without inclination toward sin, choose to rebel? Why would any creature presume to know more or know better than its creator?
Adam and Eve become sinners by a historical act. The principal effects of sin are alienation from God, from others, from oneself, and from creation. They emerge almost at once. Alienation from God lead Adam and Eve to fear and flee from him. Alienation from each other and themselves shows in their shame (awareness of nakedness) and blame shifting. Adam Acts out all three alienations at once when, in response to God's questions, he excuses himself by blaming both Eve and God for his sin: "The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit" ( 3:12 ). The sentence God pronounces upon sin includes grace ( 3:15 ) and suggests that he retains sovereign control over his creation even in its rebellion, but it also establishes our alienation from nature in the curse upon childbearing, work, and creation itself ( 3:14-19 ). After the curse, God graciously clothes the first couple, but he also expels them from the garden ( 3:21-24 ). He graciously permits them to reproduce, but death enters human experience a short time later ( Genesis 4:1 Genesis 4:8 ; 5:5-31 ). These events prove the vanity and futility of sin. Adam and Eve seek new freedoms and dignity, but sin robs them of what they have; seeking advantage, they experience great losses.
Genesis and Romans teach that Adam and Eve did not sin for themselves alone, but, from their privileged position as the first, originally sinless couple, act as representatives for the human race. Since then sin, sinfulness, and the consequences of sin have marred all. Every child of Adam enters a race marked by sin, condemnation, and death ( Rom 5:12-21 ). These traits become theirs both by heritage and, as they grow into accountability, by personal choice, as Cain's slaughter of Abel quickly shows.
In Cain's sin we have an early hint of the virulence and intractability of sin. Whereas Satan prompted Adam and Eve to sin, God himself cannot talk Cain out of it ( Gen 3:1-5 ; 4:6 ). While sin was external to Adam and Eve, it appears to spring up spontaneously from within Cain; it is a wild force in him, which he ought to master lest it devour him ( 4:7 ). Sin is also becoming more aggravated: it is premeditated, it begins in the setting of worship, and it directly harms a brother, who deserves love. After his sin, far from manifesting guilt or remorse, Cain confesses nothing, refuses to repent, and chides God for the harshness of his punishments ( 4:5-14 ). Cain's sin and impenitence foreshadow much of the future course of sin both within and without the Bible.
Genesis 4-11 traces the development of sin. It becomes proud and deliberate ( 4:23-24 ), yet the line of Cain, the line of sinners, remains human and fulfills the mandate to fill and subdue the earth. Indeed, perhaps Cain's line does better in the cultural arena, although those who make bronze and iron tools also fashion weapons. Eventually, sin so pervades the world that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart is only evil all the time ( Gen 6:5 ; 8:21 ). Consequently, the Lord purges the earth of evil through the flood. When sin threatens to reassert itself in both direct disobedience and idolatry, God reveals his new intention to restrain sin by confusing human language at Babel: better that humanity be divided than that it stand together in rebellion against God.
Genesis 12-50 illustrates that sin plagues even the people of God, as members of the covenant family manipulate, betray, lie to, and deceive one another. The history Moses recounts also shows that punishment naturally follows, or is built into iniquity. Scheming Rebekah never sees her favorite son again; Jacob tastes the bitterness of deceit through Laban; Jacob's sons suffer for their sin against Joseph. As Proverbs 5:22 says, "The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast."
Exodus reveals that sin not only brings suffering and punishment, but also violates the law of the Lord, Israel's holy redeemer and king. At Sinai Israel learned that sin is transgression of God's law; it is behavior that trespasses onto forbidden territory ( Rom 4:15 ). The law also labels sin and unmasks it. One can sin without knowing it, but the law makes such ignorance less common. The Mosaic law emphasizes the external character of sin, but the laws that command Israel to love God and forbid it to worship idols or covet show that sin is internal too. Paradoxically, the law sometimes prompts sin, Paul says ( Rom 7:7-13 ). Upon seeing that something is forbidden, desire to do it rises up. This perverse reaction reminds us that the root of sin is sinfulness and rebellion against God ( Rom 7:7-25 ).
The sacrifices and rituals for cleansing listed in the Pentateuch remind us of the gravity of sin. Transgressions are more than mistakes. The Bible never dismisses a sin simply because it was done by someone young or ignorant, or because it was done some time ago. Sin pollutes the sinner, and the law requires that the pollution be removed. One chief motive of the penal code is to remove evil from the land ( Deut 13:5 , quoted in 1 Cor 5:13 ). Sin also offends God, and the law requires atonement through sacrifices, in many of which a victim gives its life blood for an atonement.
The Biblical Terminology of Sin. The vast terminology, within its biblical contexts, suggests that sin has three aspects: disobedience to or breach of law, violation of relationships with people, and rebellion against God, which is the most basic concept. Risking oversimplification, among the most common Hebrew terms, hattat [a'f'j] means a missing of a standard, mark, or goal; pesa [q;f'P] means the breach of a relationship or rebellion; awon [!A' means perverseness; segagah [hgg.v] signifies error or mistake; resa [hgg.v] means godlessness, injustice, and wickedness; and amal [l'm' , when it refers to sin, means mischief or oppression. The most common Greek term is hamartia [aJmartiva], a word often personified in the New Testament, and signifying offenses against laws, people, or God. Paraptoma [paravptwma] is another general term for offenses or lapses. Adikia [ajdikiva] is a more narrow and legal word, describing unrighteousness and unjust deeds. Parabasis [paravbasi"] signifies trespass or transgression of law; asebeia [ajsevbeia] means godlessness or impiety; and anomia [ajnomiva] means lawlessness. The Bible typically describes sin negatively. It is lawless ness, dis obedience, im piety, un belief, dis trust, darkness as opposed to light, a falling away as opposed to standing firm, weakness not strength. It is un righteousness, faithlessness.
The Biblical Theology of Sin. The historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament illustrate the character of sin under these terms. From Judges to Kings, we see that Israel forsook the Lord who had brought them out of Egypt and established a covenant with them. They followed and worshiped the gods of the nations around them ( Judges 2:10-13 ). Sometimes they served the Baals with singleness of purpose, filling Jerusalem with idols, and lawlessness reigned (Ahab, Ahaz, and Manasseh). The sin of human sacrifice followed in the reigns of such kings ( 2 Kings 21:6 ). The existence of human sacrifice underscores the depth and gravity of sin. People can become so perverted, so self-deceived, that they perform the most unnatural and heartless crimes, thinking them to be worship. Isaiah rightly says they "call evil good and good evil" ( 5:20 ). Later the Pharisees, utterly sincere, yet hypocritical because self-deceived, would revive this sin by killing not their children, but their maker, and calling it an act of service to God.
Many kings compounded their sin by rejecting and sometimes persecuting the prophets who pressed God's covenantal claims. Ahaz even spurned God's free offer of deliverance from invasion; he thought he had arranged his own deliverance through an alliance with Assyria and its gods. Not all kings were so crass; many tried to serve the Lord as they chose, in forbidden manners (Jeroboam I, Jehu, and other northern kings). Others attempted to serve God and the Baals at once (Solomon, the final kings of Judah, and many northern kings). The kings in question may have called it diplomacy; the prophets called it adultery.
Other prophets decried the social character of sin: "They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed" ( Amos 2:6-7 ). If sin is lack of love for God, it is also hate or indifference toward fellow humans.
The history of Israel illustrates how impenitence compounds sin. Saul magnified his sins by repenting superficially at best ( 1 Sam 13:11-12 ; 15:13-21 ; 24:16-21 ). David, by contrast, repented of his sin with Bathsheba, without excuses or reservations ( 2 Sam 12:13 ). Sadly, true repentance was the exception in Israel's history. God prompted Israel to repent by sending adversity empty stomachs, drought, plague, warfare, and other curses for disobedience but Israel would not turn back. Later, the Lord wooed Israel with food, clothing, oil, and new wine; he lavished silver and gold on her, but she gave "her lovers" the credit. Because she did not acknowledge that he was the giver, he swore he would remove his gifts ( Hosea 2:2-13 ).