ACST 25. Sin: The Definitions



          As he tried to explain why believers should avoid making a practice of personal sin, the apostle John defined sin by relating it to another word which rhymes with it – in Greek.  He said that “everyone who makes a practice of sinning (hamartian) also practices lawlessness (anomian); sin (hamartia) is lawlessness (anomia) (1 John 3:4). John’s definition was probably very appropriate for his readers, who were likely appreciative of their new relationship with God through Christ, and did not want to jeopardize that relationship by transgressing God’s law.


          Some people in the world today do not take the concept of divine law seriously.  Defining sin as breaking the law may not have the same effect in them. For example, Corfe responds to the definition of sin as a transgression against God’s law:


Divine law is a fine sounding phrase – or at least it is

threatening – but what does it mean? Sociologically it

is nothing more than the imposition of a code of conduct which is so ancient that its origins are lost in the mists of time. And because there is no evidence of its man-made  nature, it is asserted and conveniently reinforced as having been ordained by God. But today, with all our anthropological knowledge, we know that this is but one out of a multitude of moral codes imposed by man on



One does not need to agree with Corfe’s view to see that simply defining sin as a transgression of God’s law will not have the desired effect with him. Fortunately, the Bible defines sin in various ways. While some of the definitions may not seem relevant, others might hit the target dead center.

          Sin is a complicated issue, because it manifests itself in so many ways. The terms which describe sin do not always refer to the same reality. There are actually three realities the Bible calls sin: 1) the inherited sinful inclination caused by the fall, 2) the judgment that we live with as a result of the fall, which has led to a corrupted world, mortality and eventual death, and 3) our personal acts of transgression, mistakes, failures, and rebellion.  Believers cannot afford to overlook either of these realities.


Inherited Sinful Inclination


          The term most used in the scriptures for this reality is flesh.[2] Usually the term simply refers to the material aspect of a human, or any creature, without any moral implications. Sometimes, however, the term refers to a sinful tendency within humans, an inclination toward selfishness, rebellion, and evil.


          In Genesis 6:3, Moses records God saying “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh.”  That this is not merely a reference to humanity’s material aspect is made clear two verses later. Moses records, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually, and the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”[3]  God’s heart was grieved by the results of humanity’s heart.


          God was not the cause of this inclination toward disobedience.  Humanity has inherited a sin nature, but we have inherited it from our original parents, whose rebellion in Eden has isolated us from God’s holiness. As a result, all creation was affected. The most profound affect, however, is upon humans themselves.


Genesis dramatically reveals the domino effect that inherited sin had on the original humans. A family begins, only to be torn apart by jealousy and murder.  A society begins, only to be unraveled by such selfishness and violence that God is forced to destroy the earth with a flood. The one family rescued by God’s grace from the flood soon shows itself in bondage to drunkenness and disfunctionality. A city begins to come together only to be punished for its pride, and sent off in division and segregation. A nation “under God” begins, only to find itself in the bondage of slavery in pagan Egypt within four generations.


These examples from Genesis reveal a major result of the sinful nature. It tends to cause digression and degradation rather than progression in the human race. It is like a spiritual version of the second law of thermodynamics, in which all processes tend toward entropy. In this case, the entropy is physical, spiritual and moral.


This ever-increasing weakness is often contrasted with God’s eternal strength. David proclaims “in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?”[4] Asaph declares that God “remembered that (his people) were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again.”[5]  Job asks God “Have you eyes of flesh? Do you see as man sees?”[6] He was so distressed that God had not healed him, that he asks God if he was limited like humans are. But the consensus of scripture declares that there is always a difference between God’s strength and the “arm of flesh.”[7]


The New Testament reveals that the flesh is man’s mind pitted against and opposed to God’s Holy Spirit.  Paul says “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”[8] The Holy Spirit wants  to produce His fruit in the lives of believers, but living according to the flesh can prevent it.[9]


So, believers have a choice that unbelievers do not have. We can choose either to sow to our own flesh or sow to the Holy Spirit.[10] Although we “walk in the flesh” (in the sense of having physical bodies) we do not have to “walk according to the flesh” (that is, live by the strength of our flesh, or do warfare by its rules).[11] The sinful inclination will never leave the believer this side of the resurrection, but God’s Spirit gives us power to override its influence. That power is not an automatic thing. Christians are not automatically immune to the flesh’s influence simply by virtue of accepting Christ or being baptized. That explains why Christians can have the same moral failures and social problems as non-Christians do.


But Christians do have access to the means by which the Holy Spirit can override the flesh’s influence. So Paul tells believers “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”[12] We are all born with a sinful inclination, but it does not have to determine our destiny.


When Christ returns, he will glorify those who believe in him. One of the results of this glorification is that he “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”[13]  Such transformation appears to include an eradication of the sinful inclination. The believer will be free from a bent toward sin and selfishness. This is God’s solution to the problem of the flesh.


God’s Judgment As A Result Of The Fall: A Sinful World


          Humans and the world around us have also suffered from the results of God’s just judgment since the rebellion in Eden.  That judgment adds to the downward spiral of degradation this world has experienced.  It has resulted not only in mortality and eventual death for all living things, but also in a general state of decay and less-than-usefulness in inorganic matter. Things just do not work out the way we plan.  Rather than feeling depressed about that fact, believers can actually see it as a positive thing.  It is as we should expect in a world where God is sovereign and his will has been rejected by his creatures. Since sin is a reality, we should not expect things to run smoothly.


          In a sermon recorded in the book of Acts, Peter spoke of two times. A time of refreshing that is available now for all those who repent and come to Christ, and a time of restoring which will happen when Christ returns to set up his kingdom, which the prophets predicted.[14]  It appears that God plans to deal with the problem of sin’s consequences on the world in phases. Believers can expect the power of God to assist them in overcoming sin’s effects on their lives now, during the times of refreshing. This help is available by God’s grace, and is limited. Believers will still struggle with the consequences of sin, including the ultimate consequence of death. But by God’s grace believers can overcome some of these consequences as we live according to the Holy Spirit.


          The second time Peter mentions is the time of restoring. It appears that Peter refers to Christ’s kingdom, in which we humans will have the opportunity to reverse the damage that Satan’s kingdom has produced in the last few thousand years. The picture that the Bible gives of this kingdom certainly does suggest that the consequences of sin on this planet will be significantly curtailed.


The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.  They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples- of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.[15]


No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.   They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them.  Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.[16]


Isaiah’s words suggest a time when many of the consequences of sin in this world will no longer be as extreme. Yet sin will still be here, and death still a reality.  The third and final time period (also mentioned by Peter) will be the new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells,[17] but sin and death do not.


Personal Sins


          Lastly, the rebellion in Eden combined with the judgment upon the world caused by the Fall results in personal acts of transgression, mistakes, failures, and rebellion. These personal sins are what we must confess.[18] These personal sins are what sent Christ to Calvary to die for.[19] These personal sins are what Christ will call humans to account for on the Judgment Day.[20]  A Major Greek lexicon lists 214 different terms in the New Testament which describe personal sins and immoral attitudes and behaviors.  God takes sins seriously, and so should we.


          The Roman Catholic Church placed sins in two categories: A sin could be either venial (and thus forgivable without confession) or mortal (and thus will lead to punishment in hell if not dealt with by confession and penance). Based on Proverbs 6:16-19, they said that the mortal sins are lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. But the Bible insists that any sin incurs the death penalty.[21] Therefore “any attempt to categorize sin into varying degrees of gravity is an exercise in futility.”[22]  James says that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”[23] That one point may be seen as the weakest point, but it does not matter. To God, any sin is as serious as all sin.


          There appear to be three biblical categories of personal sin. A personal sin can be a transgression – that is, anything that anyone does that is wrong.[24]  A personal sin can be a sin against conscience — that is an act the sinner thinks may be wrong and he does it anyway.[25]  A personal sin can also be a sin of omission – that is an act that the sinner knows he should do and does not do it.[26] Those three biblical categories are broad enough to describe all of the previously mentioned 214 terms in the New Testament. 


          The good news is that there is not one sin in either category that is not covered by the atoning blood of Jesus at Calvary.  God does not overlook personal sins. He takes them very seriously. Even sins that we might feel are minor are an affront to God’s holiness, and would effectively bar the sinner from eternal life. God’s forgiveness for every sin is available at the cost that Christ paid on the cross.


          Personal sins bring bondage to human beings. The more one knows about personal sins, the more she will be capable to overcome that bondage, and live free of the sins. The proceeding chapters will focus on revealing the causes of sin and the nature of that bondage.


[1] Robert Corfe, Deism and Social Ethics   (Bury St. Edmunds: Arena books, 2007), 133.

[2] Hebrew basar, Aramaic besar, Greek sarx.

[3] Genesis 6:5-6.

[4] Psalm 56:4.

[5] Psalm 78:39.

[6] Job 10:4.

[7] 2 Chron. 32:8; Jer. 17:5.

[8] Romans 8:6-8.

[9] Gal. 5:16-26.

[10] Gal. 6:6-8. The metaphor suggests that the more we concentrate on the things of God’s Holy Spirit (like producing his fruit) the less problems we will have with the flesh. The more we let the flesh rule (by giving in the works of the flesh), the less spiritual we will be.

[11] 2 Cor. 10:2-6.

[12] Romans 8:13-14.

[13] Philippians 3:21.

[14] Acts 3:20-21.

[15] Isaiah 11:6-10.

[16] Isaiah 65:20-25 .

[17] Isaiah 65:17, 22; 2 Pet. 3:13..

[18] James 5:16; 1 John 1:9.

[19] Col. 1:14; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18; 2 Pet. 1:9; 1 John 2:2, 12; 3:5; 4:10; Rev. 1:5.

[20] Rom. 2:12; Rev. 20:13.

[21] Rom. 5:12; 6:16, 23; 7:13; 1 Cor. 15:56; James 1:15.

[22] Ergun Caner, in The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics  (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 453.

[23] James 2:10.

[24] 1 John 5:17.

[25] Rom. 14:23.

[26] James 4:17.

Author: Jefferson Vann

Jefferson Vann is pastor of Piney Grove Advent Christian Church in Delco, North Carolina. You can contact him at -- !

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