Anything not in harmony with, hence contrary to, God’s personality, standards, ways, and will; anything marring one’s relationship with God. It may be in word (Job 2:10; Ps 39:1), in deed (doing wrong acts [Le 20:20; 2Co 12:21] or failing to do what should be done [Nu 9:13; Jas 4:17]), or in mind or heart attitude (Pr 21:4; compare also Ro 3:9-18; 2Pe 2:12-15). Lack of faith in God is a major sin, showing, as it does, distrust of him or lack of confidence in his ability to perform. (Heb 3:12, 13, 18, 19) A consideration of the use of the original-language terms and examples associated with them illustrates this.
The common Hebrew term translated “sin” is chat·taʼthʹ; in Greek the usual word is ha·mar·tiʹa. In both languages the verb forms (Heb., cha·taʼʹ; Gr., ha·mar·taʹno) mean “miss,” in the sense of missing or not reaching a goal, way, mark, or right point. At Judges 20:16 cha·taʼʹ is used, with a negative, to describe the Benjamites who were ‘slingers of stones to a hairbreadth and would not miss.’ Greek writers often used ha·mar·taʹno with regard to a spearman missing his target. Both of these words were used to mean missing or failing to reach not merely physical objects or goals (Job 5:24) but also moral or intellectual goals or marks. Proverbs 8:35, 36 says the one finding godly wisdom finds life, but the ‘one missing [from Heb., cha·taʼʹ] wisdom is doing violence to his soul,’ leading to death. In the Scriptures both the Hebrew and Greek terms refer mainly to sinning on the part of God’s intelligent creatures, their missing the mark with regard to their Creator.
Man’s Place in God’s Purpose. Man was created in “God’s image.” (Ge 1:26, 27) He, like all other created things, existed and was created because of God’s will. (Re 4:11) God’s assigning work to him showed that man was to serve God’s purpose on earth. (Ge 1:28; 2:8, 15) According to the inspired apostle, man was created to be both “God’s image and glory” (1Co 11:7), hence to reflect the qualities of his Creator, conducting himself so as to reflect the glory of God. As God’s earthly son, man should resemble, or be like, his heavenly Father. To be otherwise would be to contradict and reproach the divine parenthood of God.
Jesus showed this when encouraging his disciples to manifest goodness and love in a way surpassing that done by “sinners,” persons known to practice sinful acts. He stated that only by following God’s example in mercy and love could his disciples ‘prove themselves sons of their Father who is in the heavens.’ (Mt 5:43-48; Lu 6:32-36) Paul ties in God’s glory with the matter of human sin in saying that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Ro 3:23; compare Ro 1:21-23; Ho 4:7.) At 2 Corinthians 3:16-18; 4:1-6 the apostle shows that those turning from sin to Jehovah “with unveiled faces reflect like mirrors the glory of Jehovah, [and] are transformed into the same image from glory to glory,” because the glorious good news about the Christ, who is the image of God, shines through to them. (Compare also 1Co 10:31.) The apostle Peter quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures in stating God’s express will for his earthly servants, saying: “In accord with the Holy One who called you, do you also become holy yourselves in all your conduct, because it is written: ‘You must be holy, because I am holy.’”
Sin, therefore, mars man’s reflection of God’s likeness and glory; it makes man unholy, that is, unclean, impure, tarnished in a spiritual and moral sense.
All these texts, then, stress God’s original purpose that man should be in harmony with God’s personality, be like his Creator, similar to the way a human father who loves his son desires the son to be like him as to outlook on life, standards of conduct, qualities of heart. (Compare Pr 3:11, 12; 23:15, 16, 26; Eph 5:1; Heb 12:4-6, 9-11.) This, of necessity, requires man’s obedience and submission to the divine will, whether that will is conveyed in the form of an express commandment or not. Sin, thus, involves a moral failure, a missing of the mark, in all these aspects.
The Introduction of Sin. Sin occurred first in the spirit realm before its introduction on earth. For unknown ages full harmony with God prevailed in the universe. Disruption came through a spirit creature referred to simply as the Resister, Adversary (Heb., Sa·tanʹ; Gr., Sa·ta·nasʹ; Job 1:6; Ro 16:20), the principal False Accuser or Slanderer (Gr., Di·aʹbo·los) of God. (Heb 2:14; Re 12:9) Hence, the apostle John says: “He who carries on sin originates with the Devil, because the Devil has been sinning from the beginning.”
By “the beginning” John clearly means the beginning of Satan’s career of opposition, even as “beginning” is used to refer to the start of the discipleship of Christians at 1 John 2:7; 3:11. John’s words show that, once having introduced sin, Satan continued his sinful course. Hence, any person that “makes sin his business or practice” reveals himself to be a ‘child’ of the Adversary, spiritual offspring reflecting the qualities of his “father.”
Since cultivation of wrong desire to the point of fertility precedes the ‘birth of sin’ (Jas 1:14, 15), the spirit creature who turned opposer had already begun to deviate from righteousness, had experienced disaffection toward God, prior to the actual manifestation of sin.
Revolt in Eden. God’s will as expressed to Adam and his wife was primarily positive, setting forth things they were to do. (Ge 1:26-29; 2:15) One prohibitive command was given to Adam, that forbidding eating of (or even touching) the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. (Ge 2:16, 17; 3:2, 3) God’s test of man’s obedience and devotion is notable for the respect it showed for man’s dignity. By it God attributed nothing bad to Adam; he did not use as a test the prohibition of, for example, bestiality, murder, or some similar vile or base act, thereby implying that God felt Adam might have some despicable inclinations residing within him. Eating was normal, proper, and Adam had been told to “eat to satisfaction” of what God had given him. (Ge 2:16) But God now tested Adam by restricting his eating of the fruit of this one tree, God thus causing the eating of that fruit to symbolize that the eater comes to a knowledge that enables him to decide for himself what is “good” or what is “bad” for man. Thus, God neither imposed a hardship on the man nor did He attribute to Adam anything beneath his dignity as a human son of God.
The woman was the first human sinner. Her temptation by God’s Adversary, who employed a serpent as a medium of communication (see PERFECTION [The first sinner and the king of Tyre]), was not through an open appeal to immorality of a sensual nature. Rather, it paraded as an appeal to the desire for supposed intellectual elevation and freedom. After first getting Eve to restate God’s law, which she evidently had received through her husband, the Tempter then made an assault on God’s truthfulness and goodness. He asserted that eating fruit from the prescribed tree would result, not in death, but in enlightenment and godlike ability to determine for oneself whether a thing was good or bad. This statement reveals that the Tempter was by now thoroughly alienated in heart from his Creator, his words constituting open contradiction plus veiled slander of God. He did not accuse God of unknowing error but of deliberate misrepresentation of matters, saying, “For God knows . . .” The gravity of sin, the detestable nature of such disaffection, is seen in the means to which this spirit son stooped to achieve his ends, becoming a deceitful liar and an ambition-driven murderer, since he obviously knew the fatal consequences of what he now suggested to his human listener.
As the account reveals, improper desire began to work in the woman. Instead of reacting in utter disgust and righteous indignation on hearing the righteousness of God’s law thus called into question, she now came to look upon the tree as desirable. She coveted what rightly belonged to Jehovah God as her Sovereign
Adam later partook of the fruit when it was offered to him by his wife. The apostle shows that the man’s sinning differed from that of his wife in that Adam was not deceived by the Tempter’s propaganda, hence he put no stock in the claim that eating the fruit from the tree could be done with impunity. (1Ti 2:14) Adam’s eating, therefore, must have been due to desire for his wife, and he ‘listened to her voice’ rather than to that of his God. (Ge 3:6, 17) He thus conformed to her ways and will, and through her, to those of God’s Adversary. He therefore ‘missed the mark,’ failed to act in God’s image and likeness, did not reflect God’s glory, and, in fact, insulted his heavenly Father.
Effects of Sin. Sin put man out of harmony with his Creator. It thereby damaged not only his relations with God but also his relations with the rest of God’s creation, including damage to man’s own self, to his mind, heart, and body. It brought consequences of enormous evil upon the human race.
The conduct of the human pair immediately revealed this disharmony. Their covering portions of their divinely made bodies and thereafter their attempting to hide themselves from God were clear evidences of the alienation that had taken place within their minds and hearts. (Ge 3:7, 8) Sin thus caused them to feel guilt, anxiety, insecurity, shame. This illustrates the point made by the apostle at Romans 2:15, that God’s law was ‘written on man’s heart’; hence a violation of that law now produced an internal upheaval within man, his conscience accusing him of wrongdoing. In effect, man had a built-in lie detector that made impossible his concealing his sinful state from his Creator; and God, responding to the man’s excuse for his changed attitude toward his heavenly Father, promptly inquired: “From the tree from which I commanded you not to eat have you eaten?”
To be true to himself, as well as for the good of the rest of his universal family, Jehovah God could not countenance such a sinful course, on the part of either his human creatures or the spirit son turned rebel. Maintaining his holiness, he justly imposed the sentence of death on them all. The human pair were then expelled from God’s garden in Eden, hence cut off from access to that other tree designated by God as “the tree of life.”
Results to mankind as a whole. Romans 5:12 states that “through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned.” (Compare 1Jo 1:8-10.) Some have explained this as meaning that all of Adam’s future offspring shared in Adam’s initial act of sin because, as their family head, he represented them and thereby made them, in effect, participants with him in his sin. The apostle, however, speaks of death as ‘spreading’ to all men, which implies a progressive rather than a simultaneous effect on Adam’s descendants.
Additionally, the apostle goes on to speak of death as ruling as king “from Adam down to Moses, even over those who had not sinned after the likeness of the transgression by Adam.” (Ro 5:14) Adam’s sin is rightly called a “transgression” since it was an overstepping of a stated law, an express command of God to him. Also, when Adam sinned, it was of his own free choice, as a perfect human who was free from disabilities. Clearly, his offspring have never enjoyed that state of perfection. So, these factors seem out of harmony with the view that ‘when Adam sinned, all of his as yet unborn descendants sinned with him.’ For all of Adam’s descendants to be held accountable as participants in Adam’s personal sin would require some expression of will on their part as to having him as their family head. Yet none of them in reality willed to be born of him, their birth into the Adamic line resulting from the fleshly will of their parents.
The evidence, then, points to a passing on of sin from Adam to succeeding generations as a result of the recognized law of heredity. This is evidently what the psalmist refers to in saying: “With error I was brought forth with birth pains, and in sin my mother conceived me.” (Ps 51:5) Sin, along with its consequences, entered and spread to all the human race not merely because Adam was the family head of the race but because he, not Eve, was its progenitor, or human life source. From him, as well as from Eve, his offspring would inescapably inherit not merely physical characteristics but also personality traits, including the inclination toward sin.
Paul’s words also point to this conclusion when he says that “just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] many were constituted sinners, likewise also through the obedience of the one person [Christ Jesus] many will be constituted righteous.” (Ro 5:19) Those to be “constituted righteous” by Christ’s obedience were not all immediately so constituted at the moment of his presenting his ransom sacrifice to God, but they progressively come under the benefits of that sacrifice as they come to exercise faith in that provision and become reconciled to God. (Joh 3:36; Ac 3:19) So, too, progressive generations of Adam’s descendants have been constituted sinners as they have been conceived by their innately sinful parents in Adam’s line.
Sin’s power and wages. “The wages sin pays is death” (Ro 6:23), and by being born in Adam’s line all men have come under “the law of sin and of death.” (Ro 8:2; 1Co 15:21, 22) Sin, with death, has “ruled as king” over mankind, enslaving them, this slavery being one into which they were sold by Adam. (Ro 5:17, 21; 6:6, 17; 7:14; Joh 8:34) These statements show that sin is viewed not only as the actual commission or omission of certain acts but also as a law or governing principle or force operating in them, namely, the inborn inclination toward wrongdoing that they inherit from Adam. Their Adamic inheritance has therefore produced ‘weakness of the flesh,’ imperfection. (Ro 6:19) Sin’s “law” continually works in their fleshly members, in effect trying to control their course, to make them its subjects, out of harmony with God.
“King” sin may give its ‘orders’ in different ways to different persons and at different times. Thus, God, noting the anger of Adam’s first son Cain against his brother Abel, warned Cain that he should turn to doing good, for, he said: “There is sin crouching at the entrance, and for you is its craving; and will you, for your part, get the mastery over it?” Cain, however, let the sin of envy and hatred master him, leading him to murder.
Sickness, pain, and aging. Since death in humans is generally associated with disease or the aging process, it follows that these are concomitants of sin. Under the Mosaic Law covenant with Israel, the laws governing sacrifices for sin included atonement for those who had suffered from the plague of leprosy. (Le 14:2, 19) Those touching a human corpse or even entering the tent where a person had died became unclean and required ceremonial purification. (Nu 19:11-19; compare Nu 31:19, 20.) Jesus, too, associated illness with sin (Mt 9:2-7; Joh 5:5-15), although he showed that specific afflictions are not necessarily the result of any specific sinful acts. (Joh 9:2, 3) Other texts show the beneficial effects of righteousness (a course opposite from sinning) on one’s health. (Pr 3:7, 8; 4:20-22; 14:30) During Christ’s reign, the elimination of death, which rules with sin (Ro 5:21), will be accompanied by the end of pain.
Sin and Law. The apostle John writes that “everyone who practices sin is also practicing lawlessness, and so sin is lawlessness” (1Jo 3:4); also that “all unrighteousness is sin.” (1Jo 5:17) The apostle Paul, on the other hand, speaks of “those who sinned without law.” He further states that “until the Law [given through Moses] sin was in the world, but sin is not charged against anyone when there is no law. Nevertheless, death ruled as king from Adam down to Moses, even over those who had not sinned after the likeness of the transgression by Adam.” (Ro 2:12; 5:13, 14) Paul’s words are to be understood in context; his earlier statements in this letter to the Romans show that he was comparing those under the Law covenant with those outside that covenant, hence not under its law code, while he demonstrated that both classes were sinful.
During the approximately 2,500 years between Adam’s deflection and the giving of the Law covenant in 1513 B.C.E., God had not given mankind any comprehensive code or systematically arranged law that specifically defined sin in all its ramifications and forms. True, he had given certain decrees, such as those given to Noah following the global Flood (Ge 9:1-7) as well as the covenant of circumcision given to Abraham and his household, including his foreign slaves. (Ge 17:9-14) But concerning Israel the psalmist could say that God “is telling his word to Jacob, his regulations and his judicial decisions to Israel. He has not done that way to any other nation; and as for his judicial decisions, they have not known them.” (Ps 147:19, 20; compare Ex 19:5, 6; De 4:8; 7:6, 11.) Of the Law covenant given Israel it could be said, “The man that has done the righteousness of the Law will live by it,” for perfect adherence to and compliance with that Law could be accomplished only by a sinless man, as was the case with Christ Jesus. (Ro 10:5; Mt 5:17; Joh 8:46; Heb 4:15; 7:26; 1Pe 2:22) This was true of no other law given from the time of Adam to the giving of the Law covenant.
‘Doing by nature the things of the law.’ This did not mean that, since there was no comprehensive law code against which to measure their conduct, men during that period between Adam and Moses were free from sin. At Romans 2:14, 15, Paul states: “For whenever people of the nations that do not have law do by nature the things of the law, these people, although not having law, are a law to themselves. They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them and, between their own thoughts, they are being accused or even excused.” Having been originally made in God’s image and likeness, man has a moral nature, which produces the faculty of conscience. Even imperfect, sinful men retain a measure of this, as Paul’s words indicate. (See CONSCIENCE.) Since law is basically a ‘rule of conduct,’ this moral nature operates in their hearts as a law. However, set over against this law of their moral nature is another inherited law, the ‘law of sin,’ which wars against righteous tendencies, making slaves of those who do not resist its dominance.
This moral nature and associated conscience can be seen even in Cain’s case. Although God had given no law regarding homicide, by the evasive way Cain responded to God’s inquiry, he showed that his conscience condemned him after he murdered Abel. (Ge 4:8, 9) Joseph the Hebrew showed God’s ‘law in his heart’ when he responded to the seductive request of Potiphar’s wife, saying: “How could I commit this great badness and actually sin against God?” Though God had not specifically condemned adultery, yet Joseph recognized it as wrong, violating God’s will for humans as expressed in Eden.
Thus, during the patriarchal period from Abraham through the 12 sons of Jacob, the Scriptures show men of many races and nations speaking of “sin” (chat·taʼthʹ), such as sins against an employer (Ge 31:36), against the ruler to whom one is subject (Ge 40:1; 41:9), against a relative (Ge 42:22; 43:9; 50:17), or simply against a fellow human (Ge 20:9). In any case, the one using the term acknowledged thereby a certain relationship with the person against whom the sin was or might be committed and recognized an accompanying responsibility to respect that one’s interests or his will and authority, as in the case of a ruler, and not go contrary to them. They thereby showed evidence of moral nature. With the passing of time, nonetheless, sin’s mastery over those not serving God grew, so that Paul could speak of the people of the nations as walking in “darkness mentally, and alienated from the life that belongs to God . . . past all moral sense.”
How the Law made sin “abound.” While man’s measure of conscience gave him a certain natural sense of right and wrong, God, by making the Law covenant with Israel, now specifically identified sin in its multiple aspects. The mouth of any person descended from God’s friends Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who might voice the claim that he was innocent from sin was thereby “stopped and all the world [became] liable to God for punishment.” This was so because the imperfect flesh they inherited from Adam made it impossible for them to be declared righteous before God by works of law, “for by law is the accurate knowledge of sin.” (Ro 3:19, 20; Ga 2:16) The Law spelled out clearly what the full range and scope of sin was, so that, in effect, it caused trespassing and sin to “abound,” in that so many acts and even attitudes were now identified as sinful. (Ro 5:20; 7:7, 8; Ga 3:19; compare Ps 40:12.) Its sacrifices continually served to remind those under the Law of their sinful state. (Heb 10:1-4, 11) The Law by these means acted as a tutor to lead them to Christ, that they “might be declared righteous due to faith.”
How could sin ‘receive an inducement’ through God’s commandment to Israel?
In pointing out that the Mosaic Law is not the means for humans to gain a righteous standing before Jehovah God, the apostle Paul wrote: “When we were in accord with the flesh, the sinful passions that were excited by the Law were at work in our members that we should bring forth fruit to death. . . . What, then, shall we say? Is the Law sin? Never may that become so! Really I would not have come to know sin if it had not been for the Law; and, for example, I would not have known covetousness if the Law had not said: ‘You must not covet.’ But sin, receiving an inducement through the commandment, worked out in me covetousness of every sort, for apart from law sin was dead.”
Without the Law, the apostle Paul would not have known or discerned the full range or scope of sin, for example, the sinfulness of covetousness. As the apostle notes, the Law “excited” sinful passion, and the commandment against coveting provided an “inducement” for sin. This is to be understood in the light of Paul’s statement that “apart from law sin was dead.” As long as sin had not been defined specifically, a person could not be accused of committing sins that were not legally identified as such. Before the Law came, Paul and others of his nation lived uncondemned for sins that were not specified. With the introduction of the Law, however, Paul and his fellow countrymen were designated as sinners under condemnation of death. The Law made them more conscious of being sinners. This does not mean that the Mosaic Law prompted them to sin, but it exposed them as sinners. Thus sin received an inducement through the Law and worked out sin in Paul and his people. The Law provided the basis for condemning more people as sinners and on many more legal counts.
The answer to the question “Is the Law sin?” is therefore definitely ‘No!’ (Ro 7:7) The Law did not ‘miss the mark’ by failing the purpose for which God gave it but, rather, scored a ‘bull’s-eye,’ not only in being good and beneficial as a protective guide but also in legally establishing that all persons, the Israelites not excepted, were sinners in need of redemption by God. It also pointed the Israelites to Christ as the needed Redeemer.
Errors, Transgressions, Trespasses. The Scriptures frequently link “error” (Heb., ʽa·wonʹ), “transgression” (Heb., peʹshaʽ; Gr., pa·raʹba·sis), “trespass” (Gr., pa·raʹpto·ma), and other such terms with “sin” (Heb., chat·taʼthʹ; Gr., ha·mar·tiʹa). All such related terms present specific aspects of sin, forms that it takes.
Errors, mistakes, and foolishness. Thus, ʽa·wonʹ basically relates to erring, acting crookedly or wrongly. The Hebrew term refers to a moral error or wrong, a distortion of what is right. (Job 10:6, 14, 15) Those not submitting to God’s will obviously are not guided by his perfect wisdom and justice, hence are bound to err. (Compare Isa 59:1-3; Jer 14:10; Php 2:15.) Doubtless because sin causes man to be off balance, distorting what is upright (Job 33:27; Hab 1:4), ʽa·wonʹ is the Hebrew term most frequently linked with or used in parallel with chat·taʼthʹ (sin, missing the mark). (Ex 34:9; De 19:15; Ne 4:5; Ps 32:5; 85:2; Isa 27:9) This imbalance produces confusion and disharmony within man and difficulties in his dealings with God and with the rest of God’s creation.
The “error” (ʽa·wonʹ) may be intentional or unintentional, either a conscious deviation from what is right or an unknowing act, a “mistake” (shegha·ghahʹ), which, nevertheless, brings the person into error and guilt before God. (Le 4:13-35; 5:1-6, 14-19; Nu 15:22-29; Ps 19:12, 13) If intentional, then, of course, the error is of far graver consequence than if by mistake. (Nu 15:30, 31; compare La 4:6, 13, 22.) Error is contrary to truth, and those willfully sinning pervert the truth, a course which only brings forth grosser sin. (Compare Isa 5:18-23.) The apostle Paul speaks of “the deceptive power of sin,” which has a hardening effect on human hearts. (Heb 3:13-15; compare Ex 9:27, 34, 35.) The same writer, in quoting from Jeremiah 31:34, where the Hebrew original spoke of Israel’s “error” and “sin,” wrote ha·mar·tiʹa (sin) and a·di·kiʹa (unrighteousness) at Hebrews 8:12, and ha·mar·tiʹa and a·no·miʹa (lawlessness) at Hebrews 10:17.
Proverbs 24:9 states that “the loose conduct of foolishness is sin,” and Hebrew terms conveying the idea of foolishness are often used in connection with sinning, the sinner at times repentantly acknowledging, “I have acted foolishly.” (1Sa 26:21; 2Sa 24:10, 17) Undisciplined by God, the sinner gets tangled up in his errors and foolishly goes astray.
Transgression, an “overstepping.” Sin may take the form of a “transgression.” The Greek pa·raʹba·sis (transgression) refers basically to an “overstepping,” that is, going beyond certain limits or boundaries, especially as in breaking a law. Matthew uses the verb form (pa·ra·baiʹno) in recounting the question of the Pharisees and scribes as to why Jesus’ disciples ‘overstepped the tradition of men of former times,’ and Jesus’ counterquestion as to why these opposers ‘overstepped the commandment of God because of their tradition,’ by which they made God’s word invalid. (Mt 15:1-6) It also can mean a “stepping aside,” as in Judas’ ‘deviating’ from his ministry and apostleship. (Ac 1:25) In some Greek texts the same verb is used when referring to one who “goes beyond, and does not abide in the doctrine of the Anointed one.”
In the Hebrew Scriptures there are similar references to sinning by persons who “overstepped,” ‘sidestepped,’ “bypassed,” or ‘passed beyond’ (Heb., ʽa·varʹ) God’s covenant or specific orders.
The apostle Paul shows the special connection of pa·raʹba·sis with violation of established law in saying that “where there is no law, neither is there any transgression.” (Ro 4:15) Hence, in the absence of law the sinner would not be called a “transgressor.” Consistently, Paul and the other Christian writers use pa·raʹba·sis (and pa·ra·baʹtes, “transgressor”) in the context of law. (Compare Ro 2:23-27; Ga 2:16, 18; 3:19; Jas 2:9, 11.) Adam, having received a direct command from God, was therefore guilty of “transgression” of stated law. His wife, though deceived, was also guilty of transgression of that law. (1Ti 2:14) The Law covenant spoken to Moses by angels was added to the Abrahamic covenant “to make transgressions manifest,” that ‘all things together might be delivered up to the custody of sin,’ legally convicting all of Adam’s descendants, Israel included, of sin, and demonstrating that all clearly needed forgiveness and salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (Ga 3:19-22) Thus, if Paul had put himself back under the Mosaic Law, he would have made himself a “transgressor” again of that Law, subject to its condemnation, and would thereby have shoved aside the undeserved kindness of God that provided release from that condemnation.
The Hebrew peʹshaʽ carries the idea of transgression (Ps 51:3; Isa 43:25-27; Jer 33:8) as well as that of “revolt,” which is a turning away from, or rejection of, the law or authority of another. (1Sa 24:11; Job 13:23, 24; 34:37; Isa 59:12, 13) Willful transgression, then, amounts to rebellion against God’s paternal rule and authority. It sets the will of the creature against that of the Creator, and so he indulges in revolt against God’s sovereignty, His supreme rulership.
Trespass. The Greek pa·raʹpto·ma means, literally, “a fall beside,” hence a false step (Ro 11:11, 12) or blunder, a “trespass.” (Eph 1:7; Col 2:13) Adam’s sin in eating the forbidden fruit was a “transgression” in that he overstepped God’s law; it was a “trespass” in that he fell or made a false step instead of standing or walking upright in harmony with God’s righteous requirements and in support of His authority. The many statutes and requirements of the Law covenant in effect opened the way for many such trespasses because of the imperfection of those subject to it (Ro 5:20); the nation of Israel as a whole blundered as to keeping that covenant. (Ro 11:11, 12) Since all the various statutes of that Law were part of one covenant, the person making “a false step” in one point thereby became an offender and “transgressor” against the covenant as a whole and hence against all its statutes.
“Sinners.” Since “there is no man that does not sin” (2Ch 6:36), all of Adam’s descendants can properly be termed “sinners” by nature. But in the Scriptures “sinners” usually applies in a more specific way, designating those who practice sin or who have a reputation of sinning. Their sins have become public knowledge. (Lu 7:37-39) The Amalekites, whom Jehovah ordered Saul to destroy, are called “sinners” (1Sa 15:18); the psalmist prayed that God would not take away his soul “along with sinners,” his following words identifying such as “bloodguilty men, in whose hands there is loose conduct, and whose right hand is full of bribery.” (Ps 26:9, 10; compare Pr 1:10-19.) Jesus was condemned by religious leaders for associating with “tax collectors and sinners,” and tax collectors were viewed by the Jews as a generally disreputable class. (Mt 9:10, 11) Jesus referred to them along with harlots as preceding the Jewish religious leaders in entry into the Kingdom. (Mt 21:31, 32) Zacchaeus, a tax collector and a “sinner” in the eyes of many, acknowledged that he had illegally extorted money from others.
Hence, when Jesus said “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who have no need of repentance,” he was evidently using these terms in a relative sense (see RIGHTEOUSNESS [Goodness and Righteousness]), for all men are by nature sinners and none are righteous in the absolute sense.
Comparative Gravity of Wrongdoing. Although sin is sin, and in any case could justly make the guilty one worthy of sin’s “wages,” death, the Scriptures show that God views mankind’s wrongdoing as varying in degrees of gravity. Thus, the men of Sodom were “gross sinners against Jehovah,” and their sin was “very heavy.” (Ge 13:13; 18:20; compare 2Ti 3:6, 7.) The Israelites’ making a golden calf was also called “a great sin” (Ex 32:30, 31), and Jeroboam’s calf worship similarly caused those of the northern kingdom “to sin with a great sin.” (2Ki 17:16, 21) Judah’s sin became “like that of Sodom,” making the kingdom of Judah abhorrent in God’s eyes. (Isa 1:4, 10; 3:9; La 1:8; 4:6) Such a course of disregard for God’s will can make even one’s very prayer become a sin. (Ps 109:7, 8, 14) Since sin is an affront to God’s own person, he is not indifferent to it; as its gravity increases, his indignation and wrath are understandably increased. (Ro 1:18; De 29:22-28; Job 42:7; Ps 21:8, 9) His wrath, however, is not solely due to the involvement of his own person but is likewise stirred by the injury and injustice done to humans and particularly to his faithful servants.
Human weakness and ignorance. Jehovah takes into account the weakness of imperfect men descended from Adam, so that those sincerely seeking Him can say, “He has not done to us even according to our sins; nor according to our errors has he brought upon us what we deserve.” The Scriptures show the wonderful mercy and loving-kindness that God has displayed in his patient dealings with men of flesh. (Ps 103:2, 3, 10-18) He also takes into account ignorance as a contributory factor in sins (1Ti 1:13; compare Lu 12:47, 48), provided such ignorance is not willful. Those who willfully reject the knowledge and wisdom God offers, ‘taking pleasure in unrighteousness,’ are not excused. (2Th 2:9-12; Pr 1:22-33; Ho 4:6-8) Some are temporarily misled from the truth but, with help, turn back (Jas 5:19, 20), while others ‘shut their eyes to the light and forget their earlier cleansing from sins.’
What is unforgivable sin?
Knowledge brings greater responsibility. Pilate’s sin was not as great as that of the Jewish religious leaders who turned Jesus over to the governor, nor that of Judas, who betrayed his Lord. (Joh 19:11; 17:12) Jesus told Pharisees of his day that if they were blind, they would have no sin, evidently meaning that their sins could be forgiven by God on the basis of their ignorance; however, because they denied being in ignorance, ‘their sin remained.’ (Joh 9:39-41) Jesus said they had “no excuse for their sin” because they were witnesses of the powerful words and works proceeding from him as the result of God’s spirit on him. (Joh 15:22-24; Lu 4:18) Those who, either in word or by their course of action, willfully and knowingly blasphemed God’s spirit thus manifested would be “guilty of everlasting sin,” with no forgiveness possible. (Mt 12:31, 32; Mr 3:28-30; compare Joh 15:26; 16:7, 8.) This could be the case with some who came to be Christians and then deliberately turned from God’s pure worship. Hebrews 10:26, 27 states that “if we practice sin willfully after having received the accurate knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins left, but there is a certain fearful expectation of judgment and there is a fiery jealousy that is going to consume those in opposition.”
At 1 John 5:16, 17, John evidently refers to willful, knowing sin in speaking of “a sin that does incur death” as contrasted with one that does not. (Compare Nu 15:30.) Where the evidence indicates such willful, knowing sin, the Christian would not pray for the one so offending. God, of course, is the final Judge as to the heart attitude of the sinner.
Single sin versus practice of sin. John also makes a distinction between a single sin and the practice of sinning as is shown by a comparison of 1 John 2:1 and 3:4-8 as rendered in the New World Translation. As to the correctness of the rendering “everyone who practices sin [poi·onʹ ten ha·mar·tiʹan]” (1Jo 3:4), Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament (1933, Vol. VI, p. 221) says: “The present active participle (poion) means the habit of doing sin.” As to 1 John 3:6, where the phrase oukh ha·mar·taʹnei is used in the Greek text, the same scholar comments (p. 222): “Linear present . . . active indicative of hamartano, ‘does not keep on sinning.’” Thus, the faithful Christian may at some time lapse or fall into sin because of weakness or being misled, but he “does not carry on sin,” continuing to walk in it.
Sharing in the sins of others. A person can become guilty of sin before God by his willing association with wrongdoers, by his approval of their wrongdoing, or by his covering over their conduct so that the elders do not know about it and take appropriate action. (Compare Ps 50:18, 21; 1Ti 5:22.) Those who stay in the symbolic city “Babylon the Great” therefore also “receive part of her plagues.” (Re 18:2, 4-8) A Christian associating with or even saying “a greeting” to one who abandons the teaching of the Christ becomes “a sharer in his wicked works.”
Timothy was warned by Paul against being “a sharer in the sins of others.” (1Ti 5:22) Paul’s preceding words as to ‘never laying hands hastily upon any man’ must refer to the authority granted Timothy to appoint overseers in congregations. He was not to appoint a newly converted man, for such a one might get puffed up with pride; if Timothy failed to heed this counsel, he would reasonably bear a measure of the responsibility for whatever wrongs such a one might commit.
An entire nation could become guilty of sin before God on the basis of the above principles.
Sins Against Men, God, and Christ. As shown earlier, the Hebrew Scriptures record references to sin by men of different nations during the patriarchal period. Mainly these related to sins against other humans.
Since God alone is the standard of righteousness and goodness, sins committed against humans are not failures to conform to such persons’ ‘image and likeness,’ but they are a failure to respect or care for their rightful and proper interests, thus committing offense against them, causing them unjust damage. (Jg 11:12, 13, 27; 1Sa 19:4, 5; 20:1; 26:21; Jer 37:18; 2Co 11:7) Jesus set forth the guiding principles for a person to follow if certain serious sins were committed against him. (Mt 18:15-17) Even though one’s brother sinned against him 77 times or 7 times in a single day, such an offender was to be forgiven if, upon being rebuked, he showed repentance. (Mt 18:21, 22; Lu 17:3, 4; compare 1Pe 4:8.) Peter speaks of house servants being slapped for sins committed against their owners. (1Pe 2:18-20) One can sin against constituted authority by failing to show it due respect. Paul declared himself innocent of any sin “against the Law of the Jews [or] against the temple [or] against Caesar.”
Sins against humans, nevertheless, are also sins against the Creator, to whom men must make an accounting. (Ro 14:10, 12; Eph 6:5-9; Heb 13:17) God, who held Abimelech back from having relations with Sarah, told the Philistine king, “I was also holding you back from sinning against me.” (Ge 20:1-7) Joseph likewise recognized that adultery was a sin against the Creator of male and female and against the Former of the marriage union (Ge 39:7-9), as did King David. (2Sa 12:13; Ps 51:4) Such sins as robbery, defrauding, or embezzlement of another’s property are classified in the Law as ‘unfaithful behavior toward Jehovah.’ (Le 6:2-4; Nu 5:6-8) Those hardening their hearts and being closefisted toward their poor brothers and those withholding men’s wages were subject to divine reproof. (De 15:7-10; 24:14, 15; compare Pr 14:31; Am 5:12.) Samuel declared it unthinkable, on his part, “to sin against Jehovah by ceasing to pray” on behalf of his fellow Israelites and at their request.
Similarly, James 2:1-9 condemns as sin the showing of favoritism or the making of class distinctions among Christians. Paul says that those paying no heed to the weak consciences of their brothers and thus causing such to stumble are “sinning against Christ,” God’s Son who gave his own lifeblood for his followers.
Thus, while all sins in reality are sins against God, Jehovah views some sins as more directly against his own person, sins such as idolatry (Ex 20:2-5; 2Ki 22:17), faithlessness (Ro 14:22, 23; Heb 10:37, 38; 12:1), disrespect for sacred things (Nu 18:22, 23), and all forms of false worship (Ho 8:11-14). This is doubtless why the high priest Eli told his sons, who disrespected God’s tabernacle and service: “If a man should sin against a man, God will arbitrate for him [compare 1Ki 8:31, 32]; but if it is against Jehovah that a man should sin, who is there to pray for him?”
Sinning against one’s own body. In warning against fornication (sex relations outside of Scripturally approved marriage), Paul states that “every other sin that a man may commit is outside his body, but he that practices fornication is sinning against his own body.” (1Co 6:18; see FORNICATION.) The context shows that Paul had been emphasizing that Christians were to be united with their Lord and Head, Christ Jesus. (1Co 6:13-15) The fornicator wrongly and sinfully becomes one flesh with another, who is often a harlot. (1Co 6:16-18) Since no other sin can thus separate the body of the Christian from union with Christ and make it “one” with another, this is evidently why all other sins are here viewed as ‘outside one’s body.’ Fornication can also result in incurable damage to the fornicator’s own body.
Sins by Angels. Since God’s spirit sons are also to reflect God’s glory and bring praise to him, carrying out his will (Ps 148:1, 2; 103:20, 21), they can sin in the same basic sense as humans. Second Peter 2:4 shows that some of God’s spirit sons did sin, being “delivered [into] pits of dense darkness to be reserved for judgment.” First Peter 3:19, 20 evidently refers to the same situation in speaking of “the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient when the patience of God was waiting in Noah’s days.” And Jude 6 indicates that the ‘missing of the mark,’ or sinning, by such spirit creatures was because they “did not keep their original position but forsook their own proper dwelling place,” that proper dwelling place logically referring to the heavens of God’s presence.
Since Jesus Christ’s sacrifice contains no provision for covering the sins of spirit creatures, there is no reason to believe that the sins of those disobedient angels were forgivable. (Heb 2:14-17) Like Adam, they were perfect creatures with no inborn weakness to be considered as an extenuating factor in judging their wrongdoing.
Remission of Sins. As shown in the article DECLARE RIGHTEOUS (How “counted” righteous), Jehovah God in effect ‘credits’ righteousness to the account of those living according to faith. In so doing, God correspondingly ‘covers over,’ ‘wipes out,’ or ‘blots out’ the sins that would otherwise be charged against the account of such faithful ones. (Compare Ps 32:1, 2; Isa 44:22; Ac 3:19.) Jesus, thus, likened “trespasses” and “sins” to ‘debts.’ (Compare Mt 6:14; 18:21-35; Lu 11:4.) Though their sins were as scarlet, Jehovah ‘washes away’ the stain that makes them unholy. (Isa 1:18; Ac 22:16) The means by which God can thus express his tender mercy and loving-kindness while yet maintaining his perfect justice and righteousness is considered under RANSOM; RECONCILIATION; REPENTANCE; and related articles.
Avoidance of Sin. Love of God and of neighbor is a principal means for avoiding sin, which is lawlessness, for love is an outstanding quality of God; he made love the foundation of his Law to Israel. (Mt 22:37-40; Ro 13:8-11) In this way Christians can be, not alienated from God, but in joyful union with him and his Son. (1Jo 1:3; 3:1-11, 24; 4:16) Such are open to the guidance of God’s holy spirit and can “live as to the spirit from the standpoint of God,” desisting from sins (1Pe 4:1-6) and producing the righteous fruitage of God’s spirit in place of the wicked fruitage of the sinful flesh. (Ga 5:16-26) They can thus gain freedom from sin’s mastery.
Having faith in God’s sure reward for righteousness (Heb 11:1, 6), one can resist the call of sin to share its temporary enjoyment. (Heb 11:24-26) Since “God is not one to be mocked,” a person knows the inescapability of the rule that “whatever a man is sowing, this he will also reap,” and he is protected against the deceitfulness of sin. (Ga 6:7, 8) He realizes that sins cannot remain forever hidden (1Ti 5:24) and that “although a sinner may be doing bad a hundred times and continuing a long time as he pleases,” yet it will “turn out well with those fearing the true God,” but not with the wicked one who is not in fear of God. (Ec 8:11-13; compare Nu 32:23; Pr 23:17, 18.) Any material riches the wicked have gained will buy them no protection from God (Zep 1:17, 18), and indeed, in time the sinner’s wealth will prove to be “something treasured up for the righteous one.” (Pr 13:21, 22; Ec 2:26) Those who pursue righteousness by faith can avoid carrying the “heavy load” that sin brings, the loss of peace of mind and heart, the weakness of spiritual sickness.
Knowledge of God’s word is the basis for such faith and the means of fortifying it. (Ps 119:11; compare Ps 106:7.) The person who moves hastily without first seeking knowledge as to his path will ‘miss the mark,’ sinning. (Pr 19:2, ftn) Realizing that “one sinner can destroy much good” causes the righteous person to seek to act with genuine wisdom. (Compare Ec 9:18; 10:1-4.) It is the wise course to avoid association with those practicing false worship and immorally inclined persons, for these entrap one in sin and spoil useful habits.
There are, of course, many things that can be done or not done, or that can be done one way or another, without any condemnation of sin. (Compare 1Co 7:27, 28.) God did not hem man in with multitudinous instructions governing minute details as to how things were to be done. Clearly, man was to use his intelligence, and he was also given ample latitude to display his individual personality and preferences. The Law covenant contained many statutes; yet even this did not rob men of their freedom of personal expression. Christianity, with its strong emphasis on love of God and neighbor as the guiding rule, similarly allows men the widest possible freedom that persons with righteously inclined hearts could desire.