Sunday, April 26, 2015

What is Sin?

For no particular reason several days ago I began wondering what acts or attitudes are specifically named as sin in the Bible (amartia in the New Testament).  The writers, of course, use an assortment of words to describe acts or attitudes on which they frown—for example the deception of Eve was called a transgression (parabasis, 1 Timothy 2:14), but not a sin.  I was only interested, however, in acts or attitudes that were specifically designated as sin.
               I was surprised to discover that very few acts or attitudes are specifically designated sin.  While the Bible uses the generic word sin quite frequently very few specific acts or attitudes are ever specifically named as sin.  That is to say, few authors write: "X is sin."  This lack of specificity raises the question: exactly what do the biblical writers have in mind when they use the general word sin or describe someone as a sinner with no specific acts or attitudes being described?  For example, when people came to John the baptizer for baptism (Mark 1:5) "confessing their sins," exactly what did they confess"?  Or when the "woman of the city," who washed Jesus' feet with her hair (Luke 7:37) was described as a "sinner" (Luke 7:39) what exactly had she done to earn such a harsh condemnation?  And when Jesus later in the narrative "forgave her sins" (Luke 7:48) exactly what was he forgiving?  The New Testament writers seldom give specific reasons for why certain people are described as sinners.
               My research was quick and sloppy, so I am sure I missed some of the specific acts that are described as sin, but that will enable you, gentle reader, to pick up your concordance and add to my list.  In order to make the survey manageable for a blog I limited myself to Hebrew and Greek words that English translators of the Bible decided to render by the English word sin.  Note that there are a number of different Hebrew terms with subtle differences which translators chose to render as sin.
Old Testament/Jewish Scriptures/Hebrew Bible
Unfulfilled vows to God (Deuteronomy 23:21)
Witchcraft/divination and rebellion, stubbornness and idolatry (1 Samuel 15:23)
Idol worship (1 Kings 12:30; 16:26)
Rebellion and speaking without knowledge (Job 34:37)
Haughty eye and proud heart (Prov 21:4)
Speaking against the Lord and Moses (Num 21:7)
Killing David without a cause (1 Sam 19:5)
David's numbering of Israel (1 Chron 21:8)
The Apocrypha
The beginning of Pride (Sirach 10:13)
Always swearing and uttering the Name (Sirach 23:10)
Proud speech (Sirach 32:12)
New Testament
Blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-29)
Immorality (unlawful sexual acts) (1 Cor 6:18)
Whatever does not proceed from faith (Rom 14:23)
All wrongdoing (1 John 5:17)
Lawlessness (1 John 3:4)
Betraying innocent blood (Matt 27:4)
Knowing to do good and not doing it (James 4:17)
Looking over this strange list, I am caused to wonder at the arrogance of contemporary religious leaders who seem to know a much longer list of acts or attitudes they regard as sin.
               The use of the word sin with no specifics seems to be similar in content and style to a general slander charge in Greco-Roman antiquity.  For example, the first charge against Socrates was that he did not pay customary respect to the Gods of the city of Athens (vomizein, Apology 24b, which is equivalent to a general charge of impiety or atheism).  Actually Socrates was very pious and diligently sacrificed to the Gods.  Dutiful respect for the Gods of one's family and community is one way of describing a respectable citizen of the community and carries the general idea of devout, pious, or upright (Daniel 11:37-38).
               The charge against Socrates is the same sort of calumny leveled against the early Christians.  Among other general accusations against them, they were called atheists in that they did not participate in the worship of the traditional Gods or make sacrifices in behalf of the emperor.
               Calling someone a "sinner" works in a similar slanderous way.  Jesus, for example, was accused of being a sinner (John 6:19, 24); it was a malicious misrepresentation and was tantamount to a slur designed to ruin his reputation.  The reason given was that he didn't keep the Sabbath—in other words, it was not something he did, but something he did not do, and it lacked in specificity  Even Paul was apparently accused of being a sinner (Rom 3:7).
               James 4:8, like the other two examples above, has the earmarks of a general slur made by someone on one side of an argument against those on the other side, and the obscure accusations accompanying the slur lack specifics (cleanse your hands, purify your hearts, double minded).
               It appears that calling someone a sinner or accusing someone of committing sin, both in the abstract, may be the equivalent of a Christian slur.  The charge "sinner" without specificity has no more significance than affirming that people so designated do not agree with my way of thinking.
               What is sin, anyway?  Is it possible that it is simply a figment of the pious imagination?  At least one ancient text claimed that there was no such thing as sin (Gospel of Mary, 3:3-5).  Paul, on the other hand, seemed to think that sin is built into our DNA (Romans 7:11-23).
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


  1. You can add to your list of sinful acts (Hebrew ḥațțā’â):
    - tampering with sacrificial meat (Eli's sons in 1 Sam 2:12-17)
    - David's adultery (2 Sam 12:13)
    - false statements ("sins of their mouths") in Ps 59:12 [59:13]

    1. Good Morning Vic,
      Thanks for the additions to my OT list!

  2. I see the Paulines almost personifying sin in places, with sin exercising domination over the body (Rom. 61.2). Then, of course, this sin is a state of the flesh in other place. like chapter 8 of Romans.
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

    1. Thanks for the comment Dennis,
      For your readers to read the passage on which you commented: the personification of sin to which you referred is Romans 6:12.

  3. Hi Charlie,

    I wanted to reflect on your citing of Paul's comment, "...whatever does not proceed from trust (faith) is sin" (Rom 14:23c), and your comment that for Paul "sin seems to be part of the human DNA." Para C is my attempt to follow up on your suggestion to find further conditions which are called sin in scripture.

    A. In an overarching sense everything is Law: on the one hand we are slaves to the law (inevitability) of sin and death, and on the other we are set free by the Law (eternal gift) of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:2).

    B. Especially in Gal and Rom Paul outlines two human conditions:
    (1) a weakened state whereby our slavery to flesh under the influence of the law's commands results in sin(s) and death.
    (2) an empowered state whereby God's Spirit of adoption born of Christ's trust results in fruit and life

    C. The weakened state is characterized by injustice, and commands and disobedience (sin/works of the flesh) abound: sins specifically mentioned, in addition to general terms, include fornication, idolatry, sorcery, jealousy, anger, quarrels, envy, drunkenness. "Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God."(Gal 5:19-21)

    D. The empowered state is characterized by conditions where the command (law) does not exist. Our adoption as a child of God through trusting God, as did Christ, results in the wonderful fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness, against which there are no commands, and thus no sin. (Gal 5:22-23)

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa

    1. Good Morning Gene,
      The items listed in Galatians 5:19-21 Paul calls "works of the flesh." He does not call them sin. If he does not name them as examples of specific sins, why do you? Are all "works of the flesh" to be regarded as sin in your view or just these that Paul mentions? Or put another way, are there "works of the flesh" that should not be considered sin in your view? I can think of a lot of things that the flesh works that I would hesitate to call sin since they seem rather neutral and basic to our humanity. It is rather clear that Paul disapproves of these items specified in Galatians; yet he does not call them sins as you do. Why not, do you suppose?

  4. Charlie, In my view Paul calls "works of the flesh" sin. To repeat, "whatever does not proceed from faith/trust is sin." Works of the flesh proceed from the weakness of the human condition under the command; furthermore, they are not to be found in God's kingdom. (see above)

    Romans 8:14-25 (NRSV):
    Consider also that "flesh" has its own meaning in Pauline thought. It's the condition of "being sold into slavery under sin." It's the condition of "not doing what I want but the very thing I hate." It's the condition of "sin dwelling within me, knowing that nothing good dwells in my flesh." It is the condition of "doing not the good I want, but the evil I do not want." And if this is the case, "If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me." For "I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members." So then, "my mind is a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin." Therefore, it would seem, works of the flesh are sin.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  5. Hi Gene,
    By equating "works of the flesh" and sin in the mind of Paul, you are telling me what Paul thought as opposed to what he said. Likely you are correct but the situation seems a bit more complicated. Paul is inconsistent in his nomenclature. For example, immorality is both sin (1 Cor 6:18) and a work of the flesh (Gal 5:19), which at first glance seems to support what you are arguing. His view, however, is not as we seem to think in general today: if we avoid acts and attitudes that the Bible identifies as sin or sinful, then we are living acceptable lives. Paul does not view the human body (i.e., the flesh) neutrally. Human flesh is tainted by a personified sin, which seems to lurk in us like some kind of demon that controls everything we do (Rom 7:11-23). Thus human beings serve the law of sin which controls the flesh (Rom 7:25), and hence human beings cannot please God (Rom 8:8). This is precisely why he writes that Jesus was born only in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3). In Paul's view Jesus' flesh had to be different from ours or he could not have accomplished the work he did. My point is Paul has a different model on the basis of which he constructs the human psyche. Whatever you do good or bad is a work of the flesh. The things he mentions in Gal 5:19-21 are simply some of the typical negative works of the flesh. Everything humans do is tainted by the flesh and serves the law of sin that dwells in us. Paul has a mythy mind and does not think like a post Enlightenment human being. It is simply not true that everything humans do is a work of the "flesh" (in the sense that Paul uses the word)and does not please God. The mythical creature sin does not dwell in us and corrupt everything we do.

  6. I learned years ago in Bible School that hamartia meant "missing the mark": like shooting at a target, and hitting the wall. It always bothered me that this did not seem like an ethical idea. Why should it be sinful to, say, make a mistake adding up some numbers. Is that really what hamartia means in the Bible? How does hamartia come to connote what we would regard as an ethical failing: willful wrongdoing?

  7. Good Afternoon Anonymous,
    When one talks about "sin" or "committing sin," one is not speaking of just any old error or mistake, but the mistakes or errors are put in a different category. The error or mistake is intensified by its association with God. That is to say the mistake or error is thought of as a violation of religious law or an offense against God. From this perspective one's actions (whether intentional or unintentional) are particularly egregious in that they are an affront to the Deity. Of course, that does not address the question of who decides that these acts offend God and why they should be thought of as offences against God.

  8. Charlie,

    Sin is not that difficult to define for Christians. It is merely any human action, thought, intent, etc. that Christians imagine offends their God.