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Study Guide: "What the Bible Says about Sin"

BC 5/91

Doctrine of Sin (Harmartiology)

Sin is a universal condition and experience of man. Man is a sinner by nature, and action. Sin, unfaithfulness to and rebellion against God, result in eternal death. (Ps 51:5; 53:3; Rm 5:12; 3:23; 6:23; Eph 2:1-3)



There are numerous Hebrew and Greek words used to designate sin in the biblical writings. Perhaps the most basic is a Hebrew word meaning "revolt" or "transgression" and indicating a deliberate act of defiance against God. This idea lies at the heart of the Genesis account of the beginning of sin (Gen. 3:1-7). All sin is an act of idolatry, the attempt to replace the Creator with someone or something else, usually one's own self or one's own creation. Paul understood this very well, as he indicates in Rom. 1:18-3:20: all humankind lies under condemnation because all are idolaters of one type or another.


Manifestations: From this basic idea derive most of the other ideas connected with the attempt to describe the many different manifestations of sin. There is sin that is characterized by falling short of God's requirements or "missing the mark"; there are cultic sins (failure to observe the ritual requirements), political and social sins, and "spiritual" sins (e.g., envy, hate, etc.). In the NT, there is the "unforgivable" sin (against the Holy Spirit), which, in modern terms, might be paraphrased as an attitude or mind-set wherein a person willfully refuses to accept the forgiveness of sin offered by God through his Son (Matt. 12:22-32; Mark 3:19b-30; Luke 12:8-10; cf. also 1 John 5:16-17). There is sin implicit in the failure of a person to do right, especially toward one's fellow human beings (e.g., Matt. 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31), the failure of a person to use God-given ability (e.g., Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-26), and there is sin even in ignorance, where one commits unconscious or inadvertent sin (e.g., Lev. 5). Perhaps the most heinous sins are those done "with a high hand" (i.e., deliberately and arrogantly; e.g., Num. 15:30-31) and the sin of hypocrisy, especially among "religious" persons (e.g., Matt. 23; Acts 5:1-11).



1.  There are four main Heb. roots. A«_ is the most common and with its derivatives conveys the underlying idea of missing the mark, or deviating from the goal (cf. Jdg. 20:16 Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss..)  This root does not address the inner motivation of wrong action but concentrates more on its formal aspect as deviation from the moral norm, usually the law or will of God (Ex. 20:20; Ho. 13:2; etc.).


2. p -  refers to action in breach of relationship, 'rebellion', 'revolution'.  Sin is rebellion against God, the defiance of his holy lordship and rule (Is. 1:28 But rebels and sinners will both be broken, and those who forsake the Lord will perish.   1 Ki. 8:50; etc.).


3. -wh conveys a literal meaning of deliberate perversion or 'twisting' (Is. 24:1; La. 3:9).  It reflects the thought of sin as deliberate wrongdoing, 'committing iniquity' (Dn. 9:5; 2 Sa. 24:17).


4. áEƒh has as its basic idea straying away from the correct path (Ezk. 34:6). It is indicative of sin as arising from ignorance, 'erring', 'creaturely going astray' (1 Sa. 26:21; Jb. 6:24). It often appears in the cultic context as sin against unrecognized ritual regulations (Lv. 4:2).


5. Reference should also be made to rá a-, to be wicked, to act wickedly (2 Sa. 22:22; Ne.  9:33); and, -ámal, mischief done to others (Pr. 24:2; Hab. 1:13).



1. The principal NT term is hamartia which is equivalent to A«_. In classical Gk. it is used for missing a target or taking a wrong road. It is the general NT term for sin as concrete wrongdoing, the violation of God's law (Jn. 8:46; Jas. 1:15; 1 Jn. 1:8). In Rom. 5-8 Paul personifies the term as a ruling principle in human life (cf. 5:12; 6:12, 14; 7:17, 20; 8:2).


2. paraptUma  occurs in classical contexts for an error in measurement or a blunder. The NT gives it a stronger moral connotation as misdeed or trespass (cf. 'dead through. . .', Eph. 2:1; Mt. 6:14f.).


3. parabasis is a similarly derived term with similar meaning, 'transgression', 'going beyond the norm' (Rom. 4:15; Heb. 2:2).


4. asebeia is perhaps the profoundest NT term and commonly translates p - in the lxx. It implies active ungodliness or impiety (Rom. 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:16).


5. Another term is anomia, lawlessness, a contempt for law (Mt. 7:23; 2 Cor. 6:14).


6. kakia and pon(tm)ria are general terms expressing moral and spiritual depravity (Acts 8:22; Rom. 1:29; Lk. 11:39; Eph. 6:12). The last of these references indicates the association of the latter term with Satan, the evil one, ho pon(tm)ros (Mt. 13:19; 1 Jn. 3:12).

7. adikia is the main classical term for wrong done to one's neighbour. It is translated variously as 'injustice' (Rom. 9:14), 'unrighteousness' (Lk. 18:6), 'falsehood' (Jn. 7:18), 'wickedness' (Rom. 2:8), 'iniquity' (2 Tim. 2:19). 1 Jn. equates it with hamartia (1 Jn. 3:4; 5:17).


8. Also occurring are enochos, a legal term meaning 'guilty' (Mk. 3:29; 1 Cor. 11:27), and opheil(tm)ma, 'debt' (Mt. 6:12).


Essentially, sin is directed against God, and this perspective alone accounts for the diversity of its form and activities. It is a violation of that which God's glory demands and is, therefore, in its essence the contradiction of God.


Origin - Sin was present in the universe before the Fall of Adam and Eve (Gn. 3:1f.; cf. Jn. 8:44; 2 Pet. 2:4; 1 Jn. 3:8; Jude 6).


The real thrust of the demonic temptation in the account of the Fall in Gn. 3 lies in its subtle suggestion of man's aspiring to equality with his maker ('you will be like God . . .', 3:5). Man attempted to assert his independence of God. 'Man's sin lies in his pretension to be God' (Niebuhr). In this act, further, man blasphemously withheld the worship and adoring love which is ever his proper response to God's majesty and grace, and instead paid homage to the enemy of God and to his own foul ambitions.


 Thus the origin of sin according to Gn. 3 ought not to be sought so much in an overt action (2:17 with 3:6) but in an inward, God-denying aspiration of which the act of disobedience was the immediate expression.


Consequences - The unfolding history of man furnishes a catalogue of vices (Gn. 4:8, 19, 23f.; 6:2-3, 5). The sequel of abounding iniquity results in the virtual destruction of mankind (Gn. 6:7, 13; 7:21-24). The Fall had abiding effect not only upon Adam and Eve but upon all who descended from them; there is racial solidarity in sin and evil. The effects of the Fall extend to the physical cosmos.  'Cursed is the ground because of you' (Gn. 3:17; cf. Rom. 8:20). Death is the epitome of sin's penalty. This was the warning attached to the prohibition of Eden (Gn. 2:17), and it is the direct expression of God's curse upon man the sinner (Gn. 3:19). Death in the phenomenal realm consists in the separation of the integral elements of man's being. This dissolution exemplifies the principle of death, namely, separation, and it comes to its most extreme expression in separation from God (Gn. 3:23f.). IV.


Imputation - The first sin of Adam had unique significance for the whole human race (Rom. 5:12, 14-19; 1 Cor. 15:22). Here there is sustained emphasis upon the one trespass of the one man as that by which sin, condemnation and death came upon all mankind. The sin is identified as 'the transgression of Adam', 'the trespass of the one', 'one trespass', 'the disobedience of the one', and there can be no doubt that the first trespass of Adam is intended. Hence the clause 'because all men sinned' in Rom. 5:12 refers to the sin of all in the sin of Adam. It cannot refer to the actual sins of all men, far less to the hereditary depravity with which all are afflicted, for in v. 12 the clause in question clearly says why 'death spread to all men', and in the succeeding verses the 'one man's trespass' (v. 17) is stated to be the reason for the universal reign of death. If the same sin were not intended, Paul would be affirming two different things with reference to the same subject in the same context. The only explanations the two forms of statement is that all sinned in the sin of Adam. The same inference is to be drawn from 1 Cor. 15:22, 'in Adam all die'. If all die in Adam, it is because all sinned in Adam.


According to Scripture the kind of solidarity with Adam which explains the participation of all in Adam's sin is the kind of solidarity which Christ sustains to those united to him. The parallel in Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45-49 between Adam and Christ indicates the same type of relationship in both cases, and we have no need to posit anything more ultimate in the case of Adam and the race than we find in the case of Christ and his people. In the latter it is representative headship, and this is all that is necessary to ground the solidarity of all in the sin of Adam. To say that the sin of Adam is imputed to all is but to say that all were involved in his sin by reason of his representative headship.


While the imputation of Adam's sin was immediate according to the evidence of the relevant passages, the judgment of condemnation passed upon Adam, and hence upon all men in him, is in Scripture seen as confirmed in its justice and propriety by every man's subsequent moral experience. Thus Rom. 3:23 'all have sinned' is amply proved by reference to the specific, overt sins of Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 1:18-3:8) before Paul makes any reference whatever to imputation in Adam. In similar vein Scripture universally relates man's ultimate judgment before God to his ' 'works' which fall short of God's standards (cf. Mt. 7:21-27; 13:41; 25:31-46; Lk. 3:9;Rom. 2:5-10; Rev. 20:11-14).


Depravity - Sin never consists merely in a voluntary act of transgression. Every volition proceeds from something that is more deep-seated than the volition itself. A sinful act is the expression of a sinful heart (cf. Mk. 7:20-23; Pr. 4:23; 23:7). Sin must always include, therefore, the perversity of heart, mind, disposition and will. Paul states that 'by one man's disobedience many were made sinners' (Rom. 5:19).  The psalmist wrote, 'Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me' (Ps. 51:5) and our Lord said, 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh' (Jn. 3:6).


The witness of Scripture to the pervasiveness of this depravity is explicit. Gn. 6:5; 8:21 provides a closed case. (cf. Je. 17:9-10; Rom. 3:10-18). From whatever angle man is viewed, there is the absence of that which is well-pleasing to God. Considered more positively, all have turned aside from God's way and become corrupted. In Rom. 8:5-7 Paul refers to the mind of the flesh, and flesh, when used ethically as here, means human nature directed and governed by sin (cf. Jn. 3:6). Further, according to Rom. 8:7, 'The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God'. No stronger condemnatory judgment could be arrived at, for it means that the thinking of the natural man is conditioned and governed by enmity directed against God. Nothing less than a judgment of total depravity is the clear implication of these passages, i.e. there is no area or aspect of human life which is absolved from the sombre effects of  man's fallenness, and hence no area which might serve as a possible ground for man's justification of himself in the face of God and his law.


Depravity however is not registered in actual transgression to an equal extent in all. There are multiple restraining factors. God does not give over all men to uncleanness, to a base mind, and to improper conduct (Rom. 1:24, 28). Total depravity (total, that is, in the sense that it touches everything) is not incompatible with the exercise of the natural virtues and the promotion of civil righteousness. Unregenerate men are still endowed with conscience, and the work of the law is written upon their hearts so that in measure and at points they fulfil its requirement (Rom. 2:14f.). The doctrine of depravity, however, means that these works, though formally in accord with what God commands, are not good and well-pleasing to God in terms of the full and ultimate criteria by which his judgment is determined, the criteria of love to God as the animating motive, the law of God as the directing principle, and the glory of God as the controlling purpose (Rom. 8:7; 1 Cor. 2:14; cf. Mt. 6:2, 5, 16; Mk. 7:6-7,; Rom. 13:4; 1 Cor. 10:31; 13:3; Tit. 1:15; 3:5; Heb. 11:4, 6).              


Inability is concerned with the incapacity arising from the nature of depravity. Inability for what is good and well-pleasing to God is comprehensive in its reference. A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit (Mt. 7:18). The impossibility in each case is undeniable. It is our Lord who affirms that even faith in him is impossible apart from the gift and drawing of the Father (Jn. 6:44f., 65). This witness on his part is to the same effect as his insistence that apart from the supernatural birth of water and the Spirit no-one can have intelligent appreciation of, or entrance into, the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3, 5f., 8; cf. Jn. 1:13; 1 Jn. 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18).  The necessity of so radical and momentous a transformation and re-creation as regeneration is proof of the whole witness of Scripture to the bondage of sin and the hopelessness of our sinful condition. This bondage implies that it is a psychological, moral and spiritual impossibility for the natural man to receive the things of the Spirit, to love God and do what is well-pleasing to him, or to believe in Christ to the salvation of his soul. It is this enslavement which is the premise of the gospel, and the glory of the gospel lies precisely in the fact that it provides release from the bondage and slavery of sin. It is the gospel of grace and power for the helpless.   NIDNTT 3, pp. 573-587;


TDNTA    hamart nU [to sin], ham rt(tm)ma [sin], hamart¡a [sin]

Sin in the OT.  a. It is basically metaphorical and has the sense of "missing," e.g., the way (Prov. 19:2), what is sought (Prov. 8:36), the mark (Judg. 20:16). While predominantly used for wrong action, the word thus suggests always the idea of going astray. The legal use, of which there are many examples, strengthens the conjecture that the Hebrew term does not have the primary sense of "sin," for what is often in view is transgression of custom, or law, or a treaty, or obligation, with the guilt that this implies. b. The shift from the legal to the religious use is important inasmuch as it shows that the religious life, too, is seen to be ordered, i.e., that dealings with God must follow a pattern. Yet a root like the term for "to rebel" warns us that a volitional element is involved. In the secular sphere Israel revolts against David's dynasty (1 Kgs. 12:19). As sons rebel against their fathers, so Israel revolts against God (Is. 1:2). What is denoted is a human reaction against the holy and divine. Erring has something of the same dimension, though in its mainly ritual use it describes negligence through ignorance rather than willful transgression (cf. Lev. 4:13).  For Ps. 119 only study of the law can bring us out of error and its affliction (Ps. 119:67). c. In the wisdom writings, by instruction we come to know what is fitting in relation to God and how to apply it to life (as distinct from the fool, Ps. 14:1). Sin is thus folly, to which the righteous are superior. A deeper view occurs in Ex. 20:5; Dt. 5:9, where resistance to God's commands is defined as hatred, and sin is thus an inexplicable process involving such things as abomination, violence, and deception.  If God's will is the supreme law of life, apostasy from God has to come to expression in error, i.e., in terms of what life ought to be and digression from this norm. Violation of God's norm is the substance of the knowledge of sin. d. For the OT sin is a legal and theological term for what is against the norm. The terms denoting aberration always have a figurative aspect, and it is perhaps the root "to rebel" that brings us closest to the heart of the matter with its stress on motive.


Sin and Guilt in Classical Greek and Hellenism.  1. Classical Greek does not have the thought of sin as enmity against God, but only of defect and guilt, i.e., missing the mark by error or by guilt. In view are intellectual and artistic as well as moral senses, i.e., all failures to do what is right. Other terms had to be added to express the idea of guilt. 2. Guilt arises through individual acts, ranging earlier from cultic neglect or perjury to social injustices. It is known by way of misfortunes inflicted by the gods as guardians of law and order.  3. By the sixth century the Greek world becomes aware of the riddle of human destiny and the inevitability of guilt. The mysteries express this with the ideas of original guilt (the soul's exile in the body) and the threat of death. Guilt is now seen as a disruption of order that must be made good by suffering. Guilt is associated with human limitation (e.g., of knowledge) and is thus posited by life itself. It has to be accepted and confessed. To this unavoidable guilt is added personal guilt through failure to heed divine warnings and ultimately through ignorance. Right understanding will thus lead to right action (cf. Socrates and Greek tragedy), although understanding may come only through suffering or paradigms of suffering. Plato, however, lays a greater stress on individual choice, while Aristotle uses the hamart¡a group for mistakes, or for deviations from the mean, and divests it of the association with moral guilt. 4. Phrygian and Lydian religion offers the concept of omnipotent deity willing the good and punishing transgressions such as failing to give thanks, cultic violation, and a series of moral offenses. Sickness is a penalty for sin, which consists of the act, not an inner disposition, so that expiation aims at the restoration of health or cultic normalcy.


Sin in the NT.  

1. The Synoptic Gospels and Acts. Sin means guilt toward God and thus demands penitence. Knowing that he has come to call sinners to repentance (Mt. 9:13), Jesus accepts solidarity with them (Mt. 9:10), victoriously bringing forgiveness (cf. Lk. 5:8; 7:37ff.; 19:1-2). His attitude and word of forgiveness are the extraordinary, eschatological breaking in of the divine lordship, as emerges in the Lord's Supper (cf. Mt. 26:28 and Jer. 31:31ff.). Jesus is the servant who by his death and resurrection carries away sin (cf. Is. 53:12).  That Jesus is the victor over sin is expressed in his name (Mt. 1:21). The mission of the Baptist prepares his way with its call for confession (Mt. 3:6) and baptism with a view to remission (Mk. 1:4). Jesus himself brings fulfilment with the word and act of forgiveness. The apostles continue his ministry with proclamation of the accomplished salvation. Unlike Jesus, who confers it by fellowship, they summon their hearers to receive it by repentance (Acts 2:38), the difference from the Baptist being that they can now declare a completed, not an awaited basis of forgiveness. The usual sense of sin here is the individual act, hence the normal use in the plural.


2. John presents Christ as the victor over sin, more specifically by taking it away in his death (cf. 1 Jn. 3:5). This atoning work has universal significance (1 Jn. 2:2). It rests on Christ's own sinlessness as the one who does his Father's will (Jn. 8:46). Sin here is action that contradicts the divine ordinance (1 Jn. 3:4). It derives from ungodliness, is universal, involves sins against others, and brings guilt and separation from God (Jn. 9:31; 1 Jn. 3:8) in servitude to demonic power (Jn. 8:34). The mission of Jesus ushers in a new situation expressed in the term kr¡sis, i.e., division and decision. Christ's coming shows sin to be hatred of God. In face of him the decision is made that divides people (Jn. 9:41). Those who reject Christ die in sin (1 Jn. 5:16-17). But those who receive him find forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:9) as they confess their sin. The Spirit continues the sifting work of Christ (Jn. 16:8-9). Deliverance from sin is achieved in the community as believers are born of God, receive faith and knowledge, and work out the new situation in love (cf. 1 Jn. 3:6, 9). Tension naturally arises as Christians do in fact sin, but they can maintain a basic sinlessness through the advocacy of Christ (1 Jn. 2:1) and reciprocal intercession (1 Jn. 5:16). In Revelation Christ's loving work delivers us from the sinful world order (1:5). His blood has atoning power. Our task in the end-time is to keep ourselves from the increasing power of sin (18:4-5). By a final and definitive act God will destroy the universal dominion of sin from which we are already liberated.


3. Paul's view is oriented to God's work in Christ, which (1) comes on us in the specific reality of sin, and (2) rescues us from this reality and reshapes us. From legal blamelessness (Phil. 3:6) he is driven to see and confess the sin of persecuting the church (1 Cor. 15:9) which resulted from attempted self-righteousness and hence from opposition to God even in zeal for his law. Sin for him is thus at its root hostility to God. It entered the world through Adam (Rom. 5) and therefore through freedom, but it subjected us to itself and brought death as its wages (Rom. 6:23). Paul thus connects sin with universal destiny, but does not depict it as a necessity of creatureliness. The act of Adam, death, and the general state of sin are interconnected. Judgment, revealed in Christ, rests on our being as such. The state of sin exists from Adam, but it is made clear only by the law, which actualizes sin and reveals its character (cf. Rom. 8:7), namely, as responsible guilt in enmity against God. Our carnal reality is sinful, not in the sense that sin is equated with the body, but in the sense that we are determined by sin in our carnal being. The law leads to individual sins by stimulating desires that oppose the divine claim. The nerve of individual sins is the failure to acknowledge God (Rom. 1:21). This gives all sins the character of guilt before God and results in sinning as the penalty of sin (Rom. 1:24ff.). Using God's holy will to enhance its power, sin has a demonic quality (Rom. 7:13), enslaving us (7:14) and handing us over to death, so that we cannot fulfil the law (7:15ff.; cf. Eph. 2:1). The law, however, still discharges its holy function by unmasking sin.  Christ comes from God to judge and destroy sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Justified by faith, we have remission of sins (cf. Eph. 1:7). By fellowship with Christ in baptism, we are dead to sin (Rom. 6:2). Having died to it, we are free from it (6:7), we are no longer under the law (6:14), we are the servants of righteousness (6:14), and we need not continue in sin (6:1). Freedom from sin means the obedience of faith (cf. 14:23) and is expressed in love of the brethren (1 Cor. 8:12).


4. The Other NT Writings.  a. Hebrews views sin from the cultic standpoint, presenting Christ as the true and sinless high priest with the one offering for sin in contrast to human high priests with their repeated offerings for themselves and the people. Christ's offering terminates the cultus by bringing forgiveness and initiating the messianic age (10:17-18). Believers in the present time of affliction are to resist sin (12:1) and to avoid especially the deliberate sin of apostasy (10:26). b. James derives sin from desire, relates it to the will, and finds its end in death (1:14-15). Sin is an act (2:9) and includes failure to do good. Confession and prayer bring forgiveness (5:15-16). To rescue others from sin is a Christian ministry (5:19-20).  c. 1 Peter proclaims Christ as the victor over sin by his voluntary submission and atoning death as the servant of the Lord (2:22, 24; 3:18).


Rom 3:7 But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner?

3:9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin;10 as it is written, "There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands,             There is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good,  There is not even one. " 18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes. "


Rom 14:23 ...Whatever is not of faith is sin.   see also James 4:17