What Is Sin?

Paul Derengowski, ThM


“If Thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3).

Sin affects, and has affected, every human being from the beginning of time, except one person: Jesus Christ.  And even he was tempted by sin, yet did not succumb to its temptation by committing an act of sin (Heb. 4:15).  On a daily basis each and every living person can expect to commit one or more acts of sin, some of which are fatal.

Sin is a huge topic in the Bible.  The word itself is an English translation of two basic Hebrew and Greek words: chattah (Heb.) and hamartia (Gr.).  The first instance of chattah is found in Genesis 4:7, when God is chastising Cain over his recent murder of his brother Abel and God tells Cain, “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?  And if you do not do well, sin [chattah] is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  Here sin is pictured as a treacherous animal ready to pounce upon a potential victim.  According to the Anchor Bible, and given the Akkadian cognate for chattah at Genesis 4:7, sin has a demonic character associated with it.  Therefore, this verse could be translated, “Sin is the demon at the door.”

The final reference to sin (Gr. hamartia) found in the Bible is located in the Book of Revelation, 18:5.  There the Fall of Babylon is in order and the people of the earth are being warned to flee her destruction.  “…[F]or her sins (pl. hamartiai) have piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.”  All toll, chattah, hamartia, and their cognates are translated as “sin,” “sinner,” “sinning,” etc., over 800 times in the Bible!  Nevertheless, what exactly is sin?

Aside from the demonic allusion in Genesis 4:7, the Old Testament provides other picturesque examples and straightforward language to help the inquisitive researcher understand what sin is.  In Genesis 18:20, for example, Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin is depicted as something “exceedingly grave.”  In Psalm 51:3 King David associates his sin with “transgressions” (Heb. pesha) or “rebellion” against God.  Proverbs 14:34 provides a stark contrast between righteousness which exalts a nation and sin which is a disgrace. 1  Elsewhere sin (chattah) is depicted in terms associated with haughtiness, pride, and figuratively with agriculture, as in the “tillage” of the soil (Prov. 21:4), which denotes a kind of preparation leading to fruition.

Lastly, “The devising of folly [or foolishness, which is associated with unbelief or atheism (practical or declarative)] is sin…” according to God (Prov. 24:9).  In short, sin, from the OT perspective, is an egregious transgression against God rooted in autonomous arrogance and pride which the sinner deliberately carries out according to a contrived plan stemming from unbelief or a lack of faith or trust in God.

When one turns to the New Testament there are no less a number of vivid descriptions to help the reader understand what sin is from its perspective.  Following the previous OT description of sin as a lack of faith in God the apostle Paul wrote the Romans, “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, 2 because it is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).  James, the half-brother of Jesus, and pastor at the church in Jerusalem, is equally as blunt in his description of sin when he wrote, “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).  John the Beloved wrote, “All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.”  Although a nuanced description of hamartia is to “miss the mark,” probably a better way to understand sin from the NT angle is to depart what doing what is knowingly right, once again, due to a lack of faith or trust in God.

A few observations are worth noting in respect to the answers to the question of what is sin.

First, sin begins with human self-governance driven by wayward pride.  Since Adam was first duped into believing he could rule his life independent of God’s command, each and every human being has acted accordingly ever since.  Often such autonomy is masked in vacuous philosophical reasoning or religious clichés.  Regardless of the rationale, as soon as any human decides to act independently of God’s law, and ultimately breaks it or falls short of God’s standard of righteousness, then that human has sinned.

Second, sin is committed or performed with a knowledge of what is right versus what is wrong.  There is no such thing as a relativist sinner.  He inherently knows what is right and wrong merely because of the image in which he has been created, namely God’s image, even though that knowledge is also inherently corrupted by sin.  It is one reason why one day the sinner will stand before God without excuse to be judged and will be unable to offer a defense for his sinful actions.

Third, sin’s chief motivator is unbelief or foolishness.  Foolishness is what atheism is all about in the Bible (Ps. 14:1; Rom. 3:9-12).  The sinner has no desire to trust God because he is too preoccupied trusting in himself.  It is a fatally flawed preoccupation rooted in a nightmarish fantasy, since to disavow God’s intervention and God’s command as the only rational approach to living one’s life is to commit spiritual suicide.  Unbelief or lack of faith or trust in God leaves man in no-man’s-land without any reasonable explanation for origins, morals, ethics, or why he should even exist.

Sin is an important subject that is often left undefined and unspoken about.  It is a doctrine that is addressed extensively in Scripture and ought to be near the forefront of at least the Christian’s understanding if he/she truly wishes to understand other equally important doctrines dealing with human redemption.  Failure to recognize sin for what it is can only lead to the very fanciful and misleading doctrines frequently taught under the guise of Evangelicalism or Christianity, which would, in the final analysis, be sins in themselves.


  1. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 4:312.
  2. Paul’s comment is in the context of eating certain kinds of food by a believer strong in the faith, in the presence of a new believer who might “stumble,” if he saw the stronger believer doing so.

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