Sin is generally thought of as something bad. But exactly what is sin? How does the Bible define it? What is the Bible’s teaching about sin?
What is sin according to the Bible?
The biblical definition of sin is found in 1 John 3:4: “Sin is the transgression of the law” (King James Version). To sin is to transgress, or break, the law of God.
The Bible says a lot about sin. It tells us that all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and that sin leads to death (Romans 6:23).
In order to avoid sin, it’s essential we know exactly what sin is. So how does the Bible define sin?
The clearest definition of sin that we find in the Bible is 1 John 3:4: “Sin is the transgression of the law” (King James Version). Let’s examine this scripture to discover what it is telling us about sin. To understand it, we can consider the range of meaning of the Greek words John used.
What is the meaning of the Greek word for sin?
The Greek word John used for sin is hamartia.
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon notes that this word at its root meant “a failing to hit the mark,” and in the New Testament it is always used in an ethical sense. In 1 John 3:4 Thayer’s defines it as “that which is done wrong, committed or resultant sin, an offence, a violation of the divine law in thought or in act.” Greek scholar Spiros Zodhiates defines it as “missing the true goal and scope of life” (The Complete Word Study New Testament, p. 884).
Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words notes that the Greek word hamartia and related words “incorporate the full range of meaning of all three basic Hebrew words [for sin], hata, pesa, and awon. Like them, hamartia assumes a divine standard or norm and portrays humanity as missing the mark. Yet sin is also seen in the NT as rebellion and as conscious deviation from known right . . .
“Sin is not only missing God’s mark; it is an inner reality, a warp in human nature, and a malignant power that holds each individual in an unbreakable grip” (p. 568).
Thankfully, God has a plan to set us free from this slavery to sin (Romans 6:1-14; see our booklet Change Your Life!).
So to sin can be to miss the goal or target—or even to rebel, reject or ignore God’s standards. It is to fall short of what God expects of us. We can think of sin as the opposite of righteousness. Righteousness is living within God’s just and right standards, while sin is failing to live by those standards.
What is the meaning of transgression?
The Greek word for transgression in 1 John 3:4 is anomia, which is a combination of a, meaning without or against, and nomos, meaning law. So the literal meaning of anomia is without law or against law. The New King James Version translates this word as “lawlessness” (to live or conduct oneself as if there is no law).
So the apostle John defined sin as transgression of the law (or lawlessness, law-breaking). Essentially, sin is making a decision—or living a lifestyle—that violates the law of God.
This basic definition of sin as being a transgression of the law is also found in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament was written in the Hebrew language, and the Hebrew words for transgression and transgress reveal additional understanding of sin. The Hebrew word for transgress is abar, meaning to “cross over.” It can also mean to “turn away” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, #5674). The Hebrew word for transgression is pesha, which means rebellion or revolt or sin (Strong’s, #6588).
Consider 2 Chronicles 24:20, “The Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, who stood above the people, and said to them, ‘Thus says God: “Why do you transgress the commandments of the LORD, so that you cannot prosper?”’”
A very encouraging scripture states: “Blessed is he whose transgression [rebellion, sin] is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1). The Hebrew word for sin here is chataah, which means an offense (Strong’s, #2401). So when our transgressions and sins are forgiven, that means our rebellion and revolt against God is removed from us.
What law defines sin?
The law we break when we sin is the law of God found in the Bible. So, rephrased, 1 John 3:4 states that sin is violating the law of God. The primary laws God gave to guide human conduct are the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20).
We can transgress those laws in two ways:
- We can live a general lifestyle of lawlessness. This means we live a self-willed way of life without any thought or care for the restraints of God’s law. For instance, people who make all their decisions according to their passions or desires are living in a condition of lawlessness.
- We can transgress a specific commandment. For instance, God’s law instructs us to “not steal” (Exodus 20:15). If we ignore that law and steal something, we have transgressed the law—and sinned.
Both the general lifestyle of sin and committing specific acts of sin bring undesirable consequences.
When we live within the guardrails of God’s 10 Commandments, we free ourselves from all sorts of suffering caused by breaking those commandments.God’s law was given to show mankind the best way to live in harmony with God and others (Luke 10:27). God gave the law as a blessing and intended it to guide mankind into an abundant way of life (John 10:10). He wants all people to have prosperity, peace and joy in their lives.
When we live within the guardrails of God’s 10 Commandments, we free ourselves from all sorts of suffering caused by breaking those commandments.
Jesus and the law
Did Jesus uphold the law of God, or did He do away with the commandments? He answered that question directly in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
“Fulfill” means the opposite of “destroy.” He gave full meaning to the law and summarized it into two overall great commandments. (To go deeper into what Jesus meant when He said He came to fulfill the law, read “Did Jesus Fulfill the Law?”)
When a man asked Him, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answered, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:36-39).
These two great commandments are a synopsis of God’s 10 Commandments. The first four commandments state how we are to love God. The last six commandments state how we should treat one another. Breaking any of these commandments is sin.
Blessings for obedience
From the beginning, God established blessings for obedience to His law and penalties for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 15). God has designed human life to work best when it is aligned with His law. He envisioned ancient Israel modeling obedience so that other peoples would learn to obey and be blessed.
But ancient Israel sinned—they did not obey God, just as modern nations today do not obey God. The world exists in a state of sin and continues to write a sad, violent history.
A time is coming when Jesus Christ will return to rule the earth and end moral confusion. He will establish God’s law as the law of the world. All people will come to understand the law. They will learn what sin is and what the consequences of lawlessness are. Of course, people will still be people—there will be sin that must be forgiven. But they will be led by a moral and upright government and will experience righteousness, peace and joy.
People everywhere will love the law and the rewards for obeying it. In the future government of Jesus Christ, the prophecy of Jeremiah will be fulfilled: “But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you’” (Jeremiah 7:23).
Other Bible verses that define sin
Though 1 John 3:4 gives the Bible’s most basic and clear definition of sin, there are a number of scriptures that give additional definitions of sin:
- “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
- “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
- “All unrighteousness is sin” (1 John 5:17).
These scriptures show that sin is also much broader than just breaking the letter of one of the 10 Commandments. Sin can be making a decision based on unfaithfulness to God and can also be neglecting to do what’s right when we have the opportunity. To learn more about this kind of sin, read our article “Sins of Omission: Do They Exist?”
How to be set free from sin
Sin is against God, and it brings the death penalty (Romans 6:23; see “What Is the Meaning of Romans 6:23?”). But God provides a way we can have that penalty removed through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ: “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
When we accept Christ’s sacrifice and have our sins washed away through baptism, we then cease being slaves to sin and become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:17-18). Righteousness is the opposite of lawlessness. It is striving to live within the boundaries of God’s law (Psalm 119:172).
We can experience a great measure of peace and stability in keeping God’s law today. “Moreover by them [the law, testimony, statutes, commandments and judgments] Your servant is warned, and in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:11). “But let your heart keep my commands; for length of days and long life and peace they will add to you” (Proverbs 3:1-2).
You need to learn more about God’s law and about how to overcome sin.