What is Sin?



I really can’t think of two words that have been thrown around among groups of Christians more than Sin and Righteousness. I would even argue that we’ve dwelled on these topics a lot more than we do Hope, Love and even Jesus himself. I’ll be the first to admit that this shouldn’t be the case, but we can’t deny the fact that these issues have been very important to the People of God since the words were invented. There has to be a reason for that. There is, and it is a simple one—it’s the story of being human. We’ve tackled the topic of Righteousness so now it’s time to investigate the other side of the coin.

The Hebrew word for sin, khataw, means “to miss the mark” (i.e., archery) or “to take the wrong path.” It’s why a lot of sin metaphors make use of “the straight and narrow path.” The Greek word, hamartia, essentially means the same thing. Sin is simply doing what you know is wrong. And these choices ultimately have consequences.

This fundamental notion of choices effecting a person spiritually is not limited to Abrahamic faiths and has always been present in human religions in some form or another. Deep down, people have always known that their actions can offend other people and the gods, and might even affect their livelihoods; perhaps even their place in the Afterlife. To express this idea Hinduism, Buddhism, and other eastern religions developed the concept of Karma, in which negative behavior brings about sufferings and other more spiritual consequences—similar to the biblical concept of “you reap what you sow” (e.g., Proverbs 1:31, 22:8; Hosea 10:13; 2 Corinthians 9:6; Galatians 6:7).


The Originals

As the biblical story goes, Adam and Eve—the first humans—did the one thing they were told not to do, and brought a curse upon all of their descendants.  We usually call this curse Original Sin (what is sometimes called the “sinful nature” or what Calvinists call Total Depravity), however, that concept is nowhere to be found in Genesis 3. Not once does God say anything like “from now on, your descendants are tainted with evil and will want to make bad choices.” In reality the curse is not Sin, but hard work, toil, and ultimately, Death.

Though not always explicit, the story of Adam and Eve reveals a great deal about Sin and its consequences. God gave Adam the One Law—do not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17). As we know, Adam ate the fruit and gained the forbidden knowledge. Why was this such a bad thing? Isn’t knowing what’s good and evil usually considered a good thing? It certainly is in other parts of the Bible (e.g., 1 Kings 3:9). Simply put, more knowledge means more opportunities to mess up. With knowledge, Adam lost his childlike innocence and became accountable for his choices. In a sense, by disobeying their Father outright, Adam and Eve declared they knew what was right—their eyes were opened and they grew up. Sin is a choice, and they became accountable for that choice, the ultimate consequence of which is death. There is no Original Sin. Adam, like all of us, was born with the ability to choose to do the right thing or the wrong thing—it’s what separates us from the animals. It’s our divine gift and we can use it to do good works of beauty or evil works of darkness. God created Adam knowing perfectly well how he would use his choices. Like our own parents, God knew Adam and Eve wouldn’t stay children forever. And like some of our parents, he had to punish them for their actions and kick them out of his house.

As the rest of the Old Testament tells it, beginning with Cain, Adam’s descendants had a tough time choosing the right path. In fact, it’s in the story of Cain and Abel that the word for Sin first appears in Scripture,

“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

(Genesis 4:7)

In this passage, Sin is treated like a crouching beast ready to consume a person—a dangerous enemy that people must put in check. Also notice that Sin apparently comes into play after making initial mistakes. We don’t know for sure what caused Cain to offer a sub-par sacrifice, perhaps it was complacency or just ignorance. Whatever the case, it wasn’t a sin and the only consequence of his mistake was some hurt pride. Cain could have swallowed his pride and asked his brother to help him figure out a better sacrifice; instead, Cain’s hurt pride (and Sin) consumed him and he murdered Abel. Adam and Eve may have cast the initial votes, but the story of Cain and Abel tells of the inauguration of Sin and Death’s power over Humanity and Creation.


The Chosen

The other great tale of Sin, which seems to be much more important to the Prophets than the story of Adam and Eve (they are never referenced again in the Old Testament), is the episode of the Golden Calf. As the story goes, God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, using many signs and wonders, and then brought them to his holy mountain to make a covenant with them. They would be his people—a kingdom of priests that taught the sinful world what it meant to be Righteous. To equip them for their vocation, God handed them the Law—more Knowledge of Good and Evil—which began with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), where God explicitly told the Israelites not to worship other gods or fashion idols. God even equates idolatry with hating him. When Moses informed Israel all about the Law and the Covenant, they agreed to it, and then Moses went back up the mountain to take care of some administration business. By chapter 32, the Israelites decided that Moses was taking too long so he must have died (the man was 80 years old, after all). Their answer to the problem wasn’t sending his brother to go check on the situation; oh no. Instead, they made Aaron forge them a golden calf and then “rose up to play,” engaging in pagan worship practices. Needless to say, God was not pleased and the stigma of Israel being a “stiff-necked” people prone to sin and rebellion against God, the Law, the Covenant, and their fellow man, remained for the entire period of the Old Testament. (For what they did to really grieve God the most during this period, read The Real Deadly Sins.)

More knowledge brought with it more accountability, and like Adam and Eve before them, Israel was eventually kicked out and sent into Exile. Even though the Covenant endured, and the Chosen People returned to the Promised Land, something still wasn’t quite right (Daniel suspects something is amiss in chapter 9 of his book). The cycle of Sin and Death continued. Their power over Israel, and the World, needed to be broken.


A Call to Prisoners 

The centuries rolled on and Daniel’s visions came to pass. Four great empires rose and fell, and for a time, the People of God threw off the yokes of their oppressors and regained rule over the Promised Land. Under the rule of the Hasmonean Priest-Kings, it seemed as if Israel had finally received the salvation they had longed for and that the Kingdom of God was soon at hand. Unfortunately, Sin was still crouching at the door and dynastic corruption led to civil war. This time, Cain didn’t just slay his brother with a rock, he called upon a distant ally—Rome. It didn’t take long for Israel to once again lose her hard fought freedom.

Jesus began his ministry in a society which longed for the salvation of the promised Kingdom of God. Like the prophets of old, many religious leaders blamed Israel’s loss of freedom on their great sins, both individual and national. Sinners were the cause of Israel’s misfortunes and each faction had their own idea of who these “Sinners” were. The Sadducees (the remnants of the old Hasmonean priesthood) didn’t see any problems with Rome (who kept them in power) and believed Israel would continue to prosper as long as the Covenant was kept and the Temple sacrifices continued. The two other main groups, the Pharisees and the Essenes, longed for political and spiritual freedom, and had no faith in the established priesthood. They believed that salvation would only come once the entire community of Israel became the Kingdom of Priests that God intended them to be way back in Exodus. Only then would the Messiah come, defeat their enemies, and establish the Kingdom of God. This meant all of the Jewish community, not just the Levites, must follow the entire Law and keep to the Levitical codes for holiness. Anyone who did not was considered a Sinner and unworthy of the Kingdom.

The gospels make it perfectly clear that Jesus’s message was for the “Sinners,” and his opponents were often very vocal in referring to his follows as such. Because of this we have a pretty good idea of who the Pharisees considered to be sinners—people who had the very appearance of lawbreakers.  Basically, anyone who wasn’t overly self-righteous like themselves. This included adulterers and murders, and the tax-collectors who had the audacity to work for their Gentile overlords, but also people who worked on the Sabbath and those who didn’t (or couldn’t) make proper sacrifices; i.e., the poor. Jesus’s answer to the legalistic Pharisees was quite simple—outward righteousness isn’t true righteousness. In the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere, Jesus claimed that Sin began in the heart and that it doesn’t matter if you are outwardly righteous if you are a sinful and wretched person on the inside. The real issue is that human beings are prisoners; slaves to Sin in need of Salvation and Redemption. 

The Apostle Paul had a great deal to say on the twin issues of Sin and Righteousness, and his Letter to the Romans is arguably his magnum opus on the matter. Because Paul’s central message has to do with very important subjects, naturally there are as many debates on what he meant as there are denominations, throwing around big theological words like Justification and Sanctification. All this really does is confuse Paul’s message and the people who read it. Without being fancy, I’m going to sum up Paul’s message on Sin and Righteousness.

The Law is knowledge of what is Righteous. Sin is breaking the Law. The more laws we know (or put on ourselves) the more accountability we have and the greater chances we have to sin. Human nature is inclined to selfishness and sinful behaviors, so it’s virtually impossible to obtain Righteousness by our own merits. All human beings eventually sin, become unworthy, and deserve death. The only answer to the human cycle of Sin and Death is to break free from their grip, and from that which ultimately gives Sin its power—the Law.

What was humanity to do in the face of such a spiritual legal system that seemed stacked against them?

We’ll tackle that topic next time with the Accused and the Advocate.


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