Magazine Article

The Biblical Understanding of the Nature and Definitions of SIN

Jiří Moskala
The Biblical Understanding of the Nature and Definitions of SIN
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Sin is described in the Bible primarily in theological and relational terms, as it is aimed against our God, the Creator and Redeemer, and it destroys us and our relationships with people around us. David expressed it eloquently in his repentance after he acutely understood the demoralizing nature of his sinful actions upon himself, Bathsheba, and his family: “Against you [O God], . . . have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51:4; cf. Gen. 39:8).1

Colorful wide-ranging Hebrew terminology for sin reveals its devastating nature. The rich vocabulary demonstrates the complexity of sin. The strongest biblical language of sin—the trilogy of sin—consists of the following terms: hattah (the most common term for sin in the sense of missing the target, deviating from a right way, or going astray from a straight path; the Greek word hamartia expresses the same idea), avon (transgression, something which is bent, twisted, or crooked), and peshah (rebellion, revolt). God forgives all these sinful variants and trespasses mentioned in crucial Hebrew scriptural passages (see Ex. 34:6; Lev. 16:21; Ps. 32:1, 2; Isa. 53:5, 6, 8-12; Dan. 9:24). Besides these three main words for sin, the Bible contains additional terms that describe the complexity of sin and our sinful nature, e.g., evil, guilt, wickedness, trespass, impurity, deceit, dishonesty, falsehood, offense, abomination, desecration, perversion, unrighteousness, error, injustice, arrogance, and failure.2

According to the Genesis Creation account, humans were created (1) into relationship with God, (2) in total dependence on Him, (3) to enjoy and cultivate His presence in life. Sin shatters this model and destroys the original, beautiful design God established for humanity’s happiness, prosperity, and growth.

Five Biblical Definitions of Sin

One may summarize the various aspects of the sin problem in five main biblical definitions of sin:

1. Sin, according to Genesis 3, is a broken relationship with God, an attempt to live independently, autonomously, from God (from Greek autos, “self,” and nomos, “law,” i.e., to be a law for oneself). It’s a life without God, His authority, and His law. It destroys the basic qualities of life and says no to God’s presence in life (thus, Adam and Eve hid after sinning). Sin is thus de-Creation, the undoing of God’s wonderful Creation. Sin reverses all three foundational functions and purposes of life to which we were created: it breaks a trusting fellowship with God, decides by one’s own authority what is right or wrong, and alienates from the Lord’s presence. Thus, evil separates from God, and isolates us from Him. Sin comes as a result of refusing God’s authority and an unwillingness to acknowledge Him as the Creator, to whom one is and must be accountable. God’s law is first broken in the mind and then in behavior. The same idea of Genesis 3 is stated by Paul in the New Testament: “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Faith is a trust relationship with God, and breaking faith is sin (Mal. 2:10, 11). God commented on the sin of Moses in the same manner: “You did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites” (Num. 20:12).So sin is a mistrust of, a disbelief in, God; it is a state of mind with a direct rejection of God’s law.3

The Bible presents additional definitions of sin; however, they are in principle an elaboration and expansion of the above description built upon the theology of sin presented in the Fall narrative.

2. The well-known definition of sin in the Bible comes from the apostle John (rooted in Genesis 3): sin is a breaking of the law (1 John 3:4; the Greek word anomia literally means “lawlessness”), a concrete act of disobedience. It is an external action, a visible result of a broken relationship, an outcome of wrong thinking, an effect of broken faith, and a product of mistrust. God’s question “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Gen. 3:11) revealed that disobedience is the result of disrespecting God’s commandment. In this way, sin is a defiant, arrogant, rebellion against God, and a proud rejection of His word, will, and authority. This was well explained by Samuel to Saul, Israel’s first king, after his disobedience: “To obey is better than sacrifice. . . . Rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry” (1 Sam. 15:22, 23). Living in sin means living without focusing on God and fulfilling His will.

3. Sin is a state into which humans are born. This is already reflected in Genesis 5:1-3, where it is stated that Adam was created in God’s image, but Seth was born in the image of Adam, his father. The difference between Adam being created in God’s image (Gen. 1) and Seth being made in Adam’s image (Gen. 5) can be explained by the event that brought this change: the fall into sin as Genesis 3 describes. After Adam and Eve sinned, our human nature was corrupted, and their posterity was born with a sinful nature. David states it plainly: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). Also in Psalm 58:3 David speaks about the wrong attitude of wicked people toward God: “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.” Before our repentance, all our garments are filthy (Isa. 64:6); before regeneration, our heart is perverted and deceives us (Jer. 17:9). The way seems straight to humans, but its end is death (Prov. 14:12). We are not able to change our nature, just as a leopard cannot change its skin (Jer. 13:23). Without exception, we are all sinners (Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:23; 1 John 1:8). We are naturally afraid of God (Gen. 3:10); we are born alienated from Him and are dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1, 12, 19).4

The apostle Paul explains it clearly in Romans 7:15-20 when he declares that sin lies in our human nature. Humans are born with a sinful nature, and consequently born as sinners separated from God and in need of salvation. As sinners we love and produce sin, and our sinful nature is characterized by selfishness, tendencies to evil, propensities to sin, and inclinations to do wrong. The power of sin enslaves us (Rom. 5:6; 6:6, 7, 14; 7:25). Not only a part of a human has sinned, but the whole person, therefore everything is affected and corrupted by sin.

James underlines the same truth when he explains that sin begins with the inner cravings in our sinful nature, that the “evil desire” lies within us, and when it is cultivated, it produces sin, a reaching for the forbidden fruit. This wrong desire is not yet sin (unless cherished), but when it is yielded to, it leads to wrong actions and death (James 1:14, 15). We are guilty when we play and associate with these evil desires.

4. Sin is a neglect to do good, an omission to do what is right (James 4:17). It involves an attitude of indifference. This attitude can also be called apathy or lukewarmness (Rev. 3:15-18). Christianity is more than only not doing wrong things (James 1:27), for true religion is about doing what is good, right, and profitable (Micah 6:8; John 5:29; Titus 3:8; James 1:27; cf. Phil. 4:5, 6). Christianity is an active religion. The living God is a God of action; therefore He wants proactive followers. Knowing the truth and practicing good deeds should always go hand in hand (Gal. 5:4; James 1:27; 1 Peter 2:9; Eph. 2:10).

5. Sin par excellence is not believing in Jesus Christ, as He is the only solution to our sinfulness (John 16:8, 9). Humans cannot help themselves, cure the problem of sin, and heal their own brokenness. Christ is the only and unique Savior of the world (Acts 4:12; 16:31; Rom. 8:1; 1 John 5:12, 13). To reject His ultimate sacrifice for us—His death on the cross—is like drowning in the ocean and when help arrives refusing to take the offer of the lifeline. Sin is a disbelief in Jesus, a refusal of His saving activity on our behalf, because He is the only one who can rescue us from the bondage to sin. To fail to accept Jesus as one’s personal Savior and remain in sin is fatal (Prov. 24:16; John 3:36).

Only when we understand the true nature of sin can we better comprehend and know ourselves and admire even more what Jesus has done and is doing for, in, and through us. The realization that the solution of the sin problem necessitated the incarnation and the death of Jesus Christ (Gen. 3:15; Isa. 53:1-6; John 3:16; Rom. 6:23; 2 Cor. 5:21) helps us to see the true and horrible nature of sin with its seriousness and depth. God had to leave His position in heaven, live as a human being, and go through immense suffering and death in order to save and deliver us from the power of sin. This solution was extremely costly—costing the life of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.


Where the first Adam failed, the Second Adam won (Rom. 5:14-21; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45-49). What humans lost in the Garden of Eden Christ came to restore at the cross. Our new true identity can be and must be shaped and built according to the victory accomplished by Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). God did not leave us to the power of Satan and sin—the Spirit of God brings victory when we by faith cling to God and His Word, as only the Holy Spirit and the Word of God can produce true life (Eze. 36:25-27; Rom. 8:4, 14). The solution to sin involves not only forgiveness but also the renewal and restoration of the image of God and freedom from slavery and addictions to sin. A new life is Word- and Spirit-oriented (Rom. 8:2-6; Col. 3:1-4, 10).

Our sinful nature neither changes nor disappears through conversion or repentance. However, our sinful nature, tendencies, or inclinations (inherited or cultivated) can be controlled by the power of the Holy Spirit, His Word, and God’s grace (Rom. 7:25; 8:1-11). Until the Second Coming we will have our sinful nature, and only then will believers be completely transformed and receive an incorruptible body (1 Cor. 15:50-57; Phil. 3:20, 21; 1 John 3:2-5). In the meantime, however, we can have every confidence in Christ, who delivers us from sin.

1 Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are from the New International Version.

2 For details on the biblical terminology of sin, its nature, consequences, and redemption, see my article “Origin of Sin and Salvation According to Genesis 3: A Theology of Sin,” in Salvation: Contours of Adventist Soteriology, ed. Martin E. Hanna, Darius W. Jankiewicz, and John W. Reeve (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2018), pp. 119-143.

3 Ellen G. White keenly defines the first sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as “distrust of God’s goodness, disbelief of His word, and rejection of His authority, that made our first parents transgressors, and that brought into the world a knowledge of evil” (Education [Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903], p. 25). The nature of sin is thus explained by the concept of a broken relationship and a hostile state of mind toward God. See also the article “Sin” in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, ed. Jerry Moon and Denis Fortin (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2013), pp. 1164-1167.

4 Only Jesus was born as “the holy one” (Luke 1:35); all humans are born hostile to God (Rom. 8:7) and dead in their sin (Ps. 51:5; Eph. 2:1-3).

Jiří Moskala

Jiří Moskala is professor of Old Testament exegesis and theology and dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.