The word sin has at least two meanings in the Bible. Sin can be a verb (an action) or a noun (a thing).
What is sin (verb)?
The original verb for sin (hamartano) means to miss the mark and not share the prize. What is the mark that we are supposed to hit and what is the prize?
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
To sin is to fall short of “the glorious lives God wills for us” (to quote the Message Bible). God has divine life; we do not. His life is whole, good, and perfect, but our lives are bruised and broken. Because we fall short, we miss the mark and don’t share in the kind of divine life that God wants for us. This shortfall is called sin.
All of us are sinners and none of us can live at God’s level. It’s impossible. But the next verse reveals God’s plan for closing the gap:
And all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:24, NIV)
We are all sinners, but we are all freely justified by God’s grace. The sinful life is what we have; the glorious life is what he offers, and this new life comes to us through the grace of Jesus Christ.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve turned their back on God and the result was sin and death. Sin and disobedience are the fruit of distrust. Adam and Eve did not believe God and chose the path of independence. Ever since then, humans have been operating from a baseline of self-trust (what the Bible calls walking after the flesh) and the result is sin. The remedy for sin is to turn back to God in faith and receive the grace he freely offers. Those who do hit the bullseye and receive the prize – they are made new and get to share in his divine life. (2 Pet. 1:4)
Now that we know what sin is (missing the mark), it will help to identify what sin is not. Sin is not merely doing bad things, because any time we walk after the flesh we miss the mark – even when we are doing good.
Nor is sin defined as breaking the rules. Some say that sin is a transgression of God’s law. “We need to keep the law because ‘sin is lawlessness’” (see entry for 1 John 3:4). Disobeying God’s word or his will is surely a sin, but so is living under the law (see Gal. 3:11–12). The devil does not really mind if you are a law-breaker or a law-keeper. As long as you are walking after the flesh you are going to fall short of the life God has for you.
What is sin and sinning? It is walking by sight and leaning on your own abilities and understanding. It is trusting in yourself and living without regard for the things of God.
And who is a sinner? A sinner is not merely someone who breaks the rules or does bad things. A sinner could just as easily be a churchgoer or a charity worker. There are good sinners and bad sinners but they are all sinners nonetheless if they are relying on themselves and living independently of God. Until we come to Christ and receive by faith the gracious gift of his life, we remain dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1).
Further reading: “The Flesh”
What is sin (noun)?
There are two ways that sin is a noun (hamartia). First, there is your sin and my sin and all our sins. Rake all your sins, trespasses, offenses, and mistakes into a big stinky pile and what you have is a noun: your sin.
(a) What does the Bible say about your sin?
Here is the first thing the New Testament says about your sin:
Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people (Matthew 12:31a)
All sinners have a pile of sins, and some piles are bigger than others. But on the cross the Lamb of God bore your sin and all the world’s sin and now there are no more piles. “He appeared in order to take away sins” and in him we have “forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14, 1 John 3:5). Because Christ “gave himself for our sins” and “died for our sins”, God is no longer in the business of holding our sins and trespasses against us (1 Cor. 15:3, 2 Cor. 5:19, Gal. 1:4). You may have sinful regrets, and there are still consequences to our sin (see below), but God chooses to remember our sins and lawless deeds no more (Heb. 10:17). As far as he is concerned, they don’t exist.
Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. (Rom 4:7–8)
You may say, “But what about the sin that I sinned just this morning?” God has no record of that sin. Your conscience may keep a record, and the devil may keep a record, but love keeps no record of wrongs. Your Father knows that sin can be harmful to your well-being and this is why he wants you to be Son-conscious rather than sin-conscious.
…but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. (Matthew 12:31b)
But there is one thing God cannot forgive and that is the blasphemy of the Spirit, a.k.a., the unforgivable sin. More on this below.
(b) Sin as a tyrant
There is another way that sin is a noun. In the Bible, sin is sometimes described as a personality with desires, intelligence, and an agenda. God told Cain that sin was crouching at his door (Gen. 4:7). Paul described sin as a tyrant with lusts and a desire to master you (see entry for Rom. 6:14). In the book of Romans, the word sin (or sins) appears 47 times and on all but one occasion it is a noun (Rom. 6:15 is the exception). Sin wants to enslave you, deceive you and kill you (Rom. 6:6, 17, 20, 7:14, 7:11). Paul was not talking about a sinful nature or some impersonal power. He was describing Satan.
Both sin and Satan seek to devour us (Gen. 4:7, 1 Pet. 5:8) and kill us (Rom 7:11, John 8:44). But the good news is that both sin and Satan have been defeated by Jesus (Heb. 9:26, John 12:31). So reckon yourself dead to that old tyrant and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:11).
Further reading: “Sinful nature”
The consequences of sin
Religion tell us that sinning is bad because it displeases God, while the world tells us that sinning is good because it brings pleasure. Both lies do incalculable damage. All sin comes with a price tag:
For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)
God gives life, but sin ministers death. When we walk after the flesh, we sow the seeds of destruction and reap a fatal harvest. This fruit is not God’s judgment but sin’s wage. Sin is its own punishment.
Why does God hate sin? Because sin hurts those he loves. Sin cripples us, diminishes us, and kills us. Sin ruins our marriages, harms our children, and destroys our world. God never intended for us to live with suffering and death.
You will make known to me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy; In your right hand there are pleasures forever. (Psalm 16:11)
We were created to enjoy divine and everlasting pleasure, but we traded it all for the fleeting and fatal pleasures of sin. What a terrible trade! Every disease, heartbreak, and crime that was inflicted on the human race happened because we said no to God and yes to sin.
When Adam turned his back on God, he opened a door to a world of trouble, and so do we whenever we repeat his mistake. When we offer our bodies as instruments of unrighteousness, we become slaves of sin (Rom. 6:16). And this is true of those who have been set free from sin.
Jesus broke you out of sin’s prison, but whenever we walk after the flesh it’s like we’re slapping the chains right back on. Sinning does not mean we will lose our salvation, but we will surely lose our freedom. For the Christian, this can happen when we put ourselves under law. Paul rebuked the Galatians because they were trying to perfect in their flesh that which was begun by the Spirit (Gal. 3:3). They put on the heavy yoke of law, stopped walking by faith, and lost their liberty (Gal. 3:12, 5:1).
Does God love me when I sin?
Does God love me when I sin? He surely does:
The proof of God’s amazing love is this: that it was while we were sinners that Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, Phillips)
You need to settle this in your heart. God loves you. Whether you’re on top of the mountain or in the valley, the one constant you can count on is your Father’s unwavering love for you.
Love endures long and is patient and kind … it endures everything [without weakening]. Love never fails [never fades out or becomes obsolete or comes to an end]. (1 Corinthians 13:4,7–8, AMP)
The love of men is frail and weak but your Father’s love endures forever (Ps 136). The real question is not whether God loves you but whether you know and enjoy his love. If you have not found a home in your Father’s embrace, your legitimate desire for love and acceptance will lead you to inferior sources and motivate you to walk after the flesh.
Further reading: “Does God love me when I sin?”
Does sin hinder my prayers?
If sin made God deaf, no sinner could be saved. They would pray the sinner’s prayer, but God wouldn’t hear them. Sin does not hinder our prayers. Your sin will never cause God to turn a deaf ear. Jesus is the exact representation of God the Father. If the Son listened to sinners, it’s because the Father listens to sinners. He hears our prayers. Every single one.
But didn’t David say, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps. 66:18)? Keep reading:
Hear my prayer, O Lord, give ear to my supplications! Answer me in your faithfulness, in your righteousness! And do not enter into judgment with your servant, for in your sight no one living is righteous. (Psalm 143:1–2)
David, knowing that he was not righteous, asked God to hear him on account of his righteousness, and God did. Your heavenly Father hears your prayers not because you are good but because he is good and he loves you.
But what about that verse that says, “God does not hear sinners” (John 9:31)? The Jews believed that, but Jesus didn’t. He said things like “When you pray” as if we are to pray all the time, and he told stories to encourage us to pray (Matt. 6:7, Luke 18:1, 10–14).
The Bible never discourages prayer. Instead it says things like “devote yourselves to prayer” (Col. 4:2), and “pray continually” (1 Th. 5:17). Only one person is looking for excuses to get you not to pray, and it’s not the Lord.
Your heavenly Father loves it when you talk to him. Whatever is on your mind, you can tell him all about it. Talk to him about your hurts and worries, your hopes and dreams. Tell him about your secret fears and struggles.
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from him. (1 John 5:14–15)
The key word in that passage is confidence. You can be confident of your Father’s goodness, and you can be confident when you pray. Whatever your need today, ask your heavenly Father for help. Ask with the confidence that he hears your prayers and rides across the heavens to help you (Deu. 33:26).
Further reading: “Does sin hinder our prayers?”
What is the unforgivable sin?
On one occasion, the Pharisees heard that Jesus was casting out demons. Foolishly, they said he was operating in the power of Satan (see Matt. 12:24). It was a slanderous accusation, but Jesus took the opportunity to say a few words about forgiveness. “You can slander me and I’ll still go to the cross and carry all your sins, but if you slander (or blaspheme) the Holy Spirit, there’s no hope for you” (see Matt. 12:31–32).
The Holy Spirit will seek to convince you that Jesus carried all your sin, but if you don’t receive the Holy Spirit’s message, your unbelief will condemn you. This is what it means to slander or speak falsely of the Holy Spirit. This is the only sin that cannot be forgiven.
And he, when he comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me… (John 16:8–9)
The Holy Spirit does not convict the world of sin; rather, he convicts the world (sinners) because they do not believe in Jesus.
Your sin was dealt with once and for all at the cross and no further sacrifice for sin remains (Heb. 7:27, 10:26). But if you don’t believe in the finished work of the cross, you will not enjoy the grace that God freely provides. If you are trying to make yourself righteous, you won’t receive the righteousness that comes from God.
Further reading: “Have I committed the unforgivable sin?”
Is grace a license to sin?
Grace is no more a license to sin than electricity is a license to electrocute yourself. True, you can use electricity to electrocute yourself but God forbid that you do. Sin is not some benign activity. Sin is deadly. Running after Sin is like poking a pit-bull with a sharp stick.
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. (Titus 2:11-12)
The grace of God that brings salvation teaches us to say no to ungodliness. Any grace that isn’t teaching you to say no is counterfeit grace. It is not from the Lord. Is grace a license to sin? Only if it is fake grace.
Further reading: “Is grace a license to sin?”
Key scriptures on sin:
What is the body of sin? See entry for Romans 6:6.
What does it mean to be a slave of sin? See entry for Romans 6:6.
What does it mean to reckon yourself dead to sin? See entry for Romans 6:11.
What is the “sin which dwells in me”? See entry for Romans 7:17.
What is the law of sin? See entry for Romans 7:23.
What is the power of sin? See entry for 1 Corinthians 15:56.
What is the sin leading to death? See entry for 1 John 5:16.
How do I overcome sin? See entry for Rev. 2:7
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