What in the Word: Sin

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Sin. It’s an unpopular word for some in our world. Some assert it brings connotations of guilt. They claim it’s a way of one group controlling another. Yet it is central to the human condition, and a proper understanding of sin is necessary to the solution offered by the Christian faith.

But what is sin? 

The oft repeated Adventist answer to the question is: “transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). This is commonly used as the proof text, and for some that’s the end of the discussion! 

Yet the Bible’s original languages have a number of words underlying the English word sin. They show some interesting nuances of the word.

The Hebrew words carry a variety of meaning focused “on the whole phenomenon of transgression”. That‘s because sin was an offence against God’s justice and impacted the whole community. An excellent example of that is the sin of Achan (Joshua 7:10-26). 

Here are a few Hebrew words and their meanings: awon: offence, guilt or punishment; awlah: perversity or wickedness; pesa: rebellion; and chata: miss the mark, offend or be culpable. Together, they variously mean to miss the mark, offend, be culpable, sin grievously, do wrong and rebellion. It is notable that aiming at the target and missing, is still considered sin. When combined with the fact that sin affects the whole community, it should challenge us with the reality that what we do has its consequences on others, not just ourselves. This concept challenges the individualistic culture of much of our world.

In the very first use of the word sin (chata) in Genesis, God tells Cain that if he is not doing well, “sin is crouching at the door” (Genesis 4:7). Indicating this was something from within him that he was not to allow to rule over him, God said, “Its (sins’) desire is contrary to you.” 

The account of the fall (Genesis 3:6,7) demonstrates both the relational dimension and impact of sin, as well as its lodging within us. Eve’s sin occurred at the point when she “saw that the tree was good”. Her decision that God was wrong and Satan was right shows in her action of taking the fruit. Thus, the condition of being sinful is evidenced in sinful actions. David highlights this when lamenting his own sin (Psalm 51:5). It is this condition that Jesus came to deal with, and why He tells us, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). 

There are comparatively few words for sin in the New Testament, unlike the Old. The Greek terms and meanings are harmatia: sin, or to sin; adikia: do wrong, commit injustice, wrongdoing and unrighteousness; parabasis: turn aside, transgress or overstep; and paraptoma: go astray, err, sin, trespass and transgression.

In the Western world, and sometimes in the way some have presented Adventist teachings, the focus has been on the individual, their salvation, overcoming and living a life without committing acts of sin. Yet the servant of the Lord made this insightful statement: 

“It is not the greatness of the act of disobedience that constitutes sin, but the fact of variance from God’s expressed will in the least particular; for this shows that there is yet communion between the soul and sin” (Ellen White, MB, 51.3). 

The outward actions indicate the inward condition. That’s what Jesus came to deal with, and why I need Him every moment of every day.


Mark Pearce Director, Ellen G White/SDA Research Centre