The following is an essay I wrote for ChristianPaws, on a workable definition of sin. It is not quite complete, but its purpose was to write something as a starting point. As it turns out, there hasn’t been as much discussion as originally anticipated.
One of the most foundational concepts to understand in Christianity is sin. All other doctrines: the fallen state and nature of man, the nature of Christ, the atonement, and regeneration are all affected by this singular concept, and to err in understanding what sin is will create confusion when trying to understand everything else. Thus, we have chosen to let our first post in the “What does the Bible say about…” series to be about sin.
While everyone reading this doubtless already has an idea of what sin is, including the author of this essay, I think it best to lay aside these presuppositions for the time being and focus only on what the Bible has to say about sin. We will use the Scriptures to develop a workable definition of sin, which we will be able to reference in all future discussions if this essay does as intended. By doing so, it is assumed that the Bible is authoritative and serves as the basis for all doctrine that we develop. (The forum leadership assumes the Bible is absolute, complete, and inerrant, and viewpoints contrary to this will not be entertained.) Once this definition is developed, it will then be possible to proceed to other topics, such as where sin comes from, what it does and how it separates man from God, and the consequence of sin.
Sin is understood as having two different aspects: one of nature, and one of action. As to the first, there are multiple viewpoints as to whether mankind is born with a depraved, sinful nature; or if mankind makes his nature depraved on account of the choices he makes; or if it describes a state of being that the person possesses yet is not guilty of. As such, the exact form of this aspect of sin will not be examined, and we will simply agree with the Scriptures that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
The second aspect is what we will be more concerned about in this essay. In this aspect fall all acts of sin. The Bible ascribes characteristics such as unrighteousness, unbelief, and rebellion to this aspect of sin; in other words, it is what people think of when they hear phrases such as “This person has sinned.” This is the consideration of sin as a verb. We will now look at various passages of Scripture describing and defining sin.
1 John 3:4
Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. (NASB)
Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. (KJV)
Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin. (NASB)
Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. (KJV)
I have quoted these two verses because these are among the two clearest examples in the New Testament of a definition for sin. These two verses also provide the two fundamental qualities that any definition of sin must possess for it to be considered both Scriptural and adequate. The first is that sin must include breaking a law of God: “sin is lawlessness” or “sin is the transgression of the law”. This should be too obvious to expound. The second comes from James.For something to be sin according to him requires knowledge of what is right to do, coupled with a decision not to do the right thing.
This allows the following definition of sin: a willful violation of a known law of God
The definition accounts for both qualities given in the quoted verses, and it adheres to the thought that sin is rebellion and requires a deliberate turning against what one knows to be right. For example, we can consider a situation with which we are all likely familiar: driving the speed limit on a road. Say someone was driving on a road with a posted speed limit of 55mph, and turns onto another similar road with a posted speed limit of 45mph. Say further that the speed limit sign on this new road has been knocked down, and that the driver has never been on this road before. Assuming the speed limit on the new road is the same as the one he was last on, the driver continues on this new road at 55mph, or 10mph in excess of the legal speed limit. A police officer pulls him over and tickets him for speeding.
Was this sin? It was not, according to the definition given above. The driver did not know the speed limit was now 45mph, and had no way of knowing that was the new speed limit. He was not willfully violating the posted speed limit, but made what was revealed to be a wrong assumption about what he was and was not allowed to do. Nevertheless, he broke the law, and when he found out, he was obligated to pay the fine for doing so.
This is not the same situation as if he had seen the 45mph speed limit sign, or if a friend had told him that the speed limit dropped, but he continued at the old speed anyway. In this situation, he not only knew the law, but he was willfully ignoring it. That would be sin. Also, if he thought the speed limit dropped to 45mph, but he continued at 55mph anyway, that would also be a sin because he intended to do what he knew to be wrong.
This simultaneously reveals two important distinctions to make. The first is that sin is not merely outward action, but is a decision of the will and of the heart. If someone wants to do something they think is wrong, and they do it even though according to the law it is not wrong, then it is still sin for them because they were still acting in rebellion.
The second is that there is an ethical distinction between “willful sin” and “mistake,” although there may not always be a legal one. In the first, a person knows what to do and deliberately does not do it, and he is rightly condemned for this act of rebellion. In the second, a person is presumably acting with good intent and is doing what he thinks is right, but due to ignorance of right and wrong ends up doing something wrong. In the speeding example given, the driver was not trying to speed, he thought he was doing the right thing by going the posted speed limit, but he found out he was wrong. This is a mistake.
At this point someone may be tempted to reply, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” As this saying is not in the Scriptures, you are better served if you abandon that phrase, and you will not make much headway here.
I realize this definition will make some people unhappy. I will be accused of advocating a definition of sin that is too narrow, one that does not take into account all the facts. So I will now begin to address that. It is a common error in the Church to define sin as “missing the mark” (the literal definition of “hamartano”) and to extrapolate from Romans 3:23 that everything that falls short of God’s perfection is sin.
While the definition of sin as “missing the mark” is literal, it is not useful unless one also defines what the mark is, and by what sense the mark is missed. For this reason, attempting to define sin as “missing the mark” is inadequate. Nevertheless, I am obligated to comment that this definition of sin would benefit my definition, because one has to be able to know about a mark and see it before they can ever aim at it, and one must also have some ability to aim, although miss.
Attempting to define sin as anything that falls short of God’s absolute perfection is not merely inadequate, it is absurd because that renders mankind – both saved and condemned – sinful every second of every day. This would mean that forgetting someone’s name, or not scoring 100% on a test, or tripping over a root would be sins, because they display imperfections. Because humans are limited by nature, that means everything they do falls short of what God would do, so everything they ever do is sin. This produces so many absurdities in Scripture that it would take pages to list them all, but it would especially render as nonsense such verses as
And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. (John 8:11 KJV)
Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee. (John 5:14 KJV)
My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: (1 John 2:1 KJV)
We could continue. The command “go sin no more” and “write that you not sin” both imply that sin is something mankind is able to avoid, so sin cannot be suitably defined as anything departing from God’s absolute perfection. That would mean Jesus expects us to be God, or that John thought his readers could become like God, which is nowhere attested in Scripture and cannot be defended. While the definition is borne out of a desire to magnify God, it simply creates more problems than it solves, it does not work in practice, and it must be rejected.
Testing the Definition
It is good to test definitions as well. Different definitions can be discussed endlessly, but how do they fare when put into practice? A few examples will be provided.
And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their [willful violation of a known law of God] is very grievous;
And the LORD said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their [deviation from God’s absolute perfection] is very grievous;
Both work here, but the second is odd.
Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great [willful violation of a known law of God]? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done
Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great [deviation from God’s absolute perfection]? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done
The first definition does not fit here, and the second is also a poor fit. Probably this would fit under the idea of a sin of ignorance or a mistake and identifies a weakness in both definitions.
1 Samuel 12:23
Moreover as for me, God forbid that I should [willfully violate a known law of God] against the LORD in ceasing to pray for you: but I will teach you the good and the right way:
Moreover as for me, God forbid that I should [deviate from God’s absolute perfection] against the LORD in ceasing to pray for you: but I will teach you the good and the right way:
The first definition fits, the second is very awkward.
1 Samuel 15:25
Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my [willful violation of a known law of God], and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD.
Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my [deviation from God’s absolute perfection], and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD.
The first definition fits, the second does not make sense.
And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did [willfully violate a known law of God], this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did [deviate from God’s absolute perfection], this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
The first fits, the second makes no sense in context.
For as many as have [willfully violated a known law of God] without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have [willfully violated a known law of God] in the law shall be judged by the law;
For as many as have [deviated from God’s absolute perfection] without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have [deviated from God’s absolute perfection] in the law shall be judged by the law;
Both work here, but the second is odd. Why tell us about something we could never avoid?
Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not [willfully violated a known law of God] after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come
Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not [deviated from God’s absolute perfection] after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come
Again, while both could work, the second is awkward. Deviated from God’s perfection differently?
Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother [willfully violate a known law of God] against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him
Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother [deviate from God’s absolute perfection] against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him
The second definition fails, it does not fit the context.
Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: [willfully violate a known law of God] no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.
Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: [deviate from God’s absolute perfection] no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.
The second definition render’s Jesus’ command impossible. It must be rejected.
And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and [willfully violate a known law of God] no more.
And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and [deviate from God’s absolute perfection] no more.
See above. The second definition is impossible.
What then? shall we [willfully violate a known law of God], because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.
What then? shall we [deviate from God’s absolute perfection], because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.
Only the first definition makes sense in context. Clearly, sins are avoidable.
1 Timothy 5:20
Them that [willfully violate a known law of God] rebuke before all, that others also may fear
Them that [deviate from God’s absolute perfection] rebuke before all, that others also may fear
Rebuke people for not being God? Absurd.
It is not the intent of this essay to provide other examples, although they can be examined in one’s own time when suitable for the reader.
In conclusion, sin is treated by the Scriptures as something that can be avoided, implied from all the commands to do right and not evil, and the simple fact that people are held accountable for the sins they commit. This means any definition of sin must acknowledge that it is an act of the will, and prefers that they have some knowledge of what is right and wrong. Any definition of sin that makes sin a malady, and something mankind has no control over or no choice but to commit, must be rejected. A “sin of ignorance,” or a “mistake,” while wrong is not treated as the same as a willful act, and so the definition of sin must also reflect this. The definition given at the outset does have its weaknesses and requires some qualification to correct these weaknesses, but it is faithful to the Scriptures and meets the ethical requirement for sin while acknowledging the legal requirement as well.
Regarding Unintentional Sins
One other important definition regarding sin is that of unintentional sins, or sins of ignorance. These are terms often mentioned, and they do appear in translations of the Scriptures, so they ought to be accounted for. I provide here two instances of sin, one unintentional and one deliberate, from the book of Numbers.
And if any soul sin through ignorance, then he shall bring a she goat of the first year for a sin offering. And the priest shall make an atonement for the soul that sinneth ignorantly, when he sinneth by ignorance before the LORD, to make an atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him. Ye shall have one law for him that sinneth through ignorance, both for him that is born among the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them. But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he hath despised the word of the LORD, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him. (Numbers 15:27-31)
When presenting His Law to the children of Israel, God made a distinction between sins of ignorance and sins of presumption, or what would be called a willful sin. Sins of ignorance could be atoned for, but a willful sin could not be atoned for; the penalty was being cut off, or death. Furthermore, there are only these two categories of sin that we are given. While this same distinction is not to be pressed too strongly today, because the only unforgivable sin is that of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, this does serve to establish that God does view certain sins differently from others.
We cannot stop here, however. This passage in Numbers allows us to conclude that sins resulting in being cut off were what God called presumptuous or willful sins, and sins resulting in atonement were what God called ignorant sins.
This leads to some interesting results. According to the Old Testament, sins such as lying, theft, even rape were not punishable by death, so they would fall under what Numbers calls “unintentional” sins. If you do not believe me about that last one, examine Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.
The punishment is not being cut off, so it cannot fit in the defiant sin category. But are they unintentional in the sense the word is understood today? Taking into account the above, I do not see how the case could ever be made that they are. Rather, the sinner knew that what he did was wrong, but he did not sin for the purpose of spiting God; he sinned because he wanted the pleasure resulting from that sin.
Here is another example from Exodus:
If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:28,29)
Here, the owner of the ox is not blamed unless the owner knew the ox had a history of violent behavior. It was his responsibility to know what he needed to do to keep the ox restrained, yet did not do it, so it was sin. If he did not know, then it was not sin and he did not even have to offer a means of atonement (although restitution was necessary).
Yet another, this time from Leviticus:
And if any one of the common people sin through ignorance, while he doeth somewhat against any of the commandments of the LORD concerning things which ought not to be done, and be guilty; Or if his sin, which he hath sinned, come to his knowledge: then he shall bring his offering, a kid of the goats, a female without blemish, for his sin which he hath sinned. (Leviticus 4:27-28)
In this passage, the person is clearly guilty of sin, because a sin offering is required and the passage states unequivocally that he sinned. This is also a scenario of sinning through ignorance, so that may allow for the possibility of sinning without meaning to. However, that understanding of the verse is not without problem. Remember that people are responsible for knowing right and wrong, and they should take the initiative to know what is permitted and forbidden. Failure to do this is itself sin. What is possible here is someone forgot a portion of the law, or even did something without checking their knowledge of the law to make sure they were not in violation of it. Then in retrospect he realized he did wrong, or was made aware of the wrongness of his action by someone else, and then he was required to present a sin offering. It is unlikely that genuine ignorance is being spoken of here, because of the example in Exodus where genuine ignorance is not deemed sin. To be consistent, one must apply the same standard both times.
Therefore, I would propose that the terminology “sins in ignorance” or “sins unintentionally” is not a good understanding of the term. Rather, it should be contrasted with deliberately defiant sins and not be thought of as truly accidental in the modern sense of the word. As these are not legitimate mistakes either, the term “mistake” does not apply. It is better to not try to come up with a novel category for the term and simply use the term “sin” for this type of sin.