The word sin seems basic, but it has a deeper significance in the scriptures. While it may surprise some, sin does not mean “doing bad stuff.” What does sin mean? Does sin impact on a personal level only? Where does sin come from? What is God going to do about it? Chances are that you have not used this word sin outside of a religious connotation lately. These are the questions I hope to examine in the space of this article.
Missing in Failure
If you bought a toy for your child and the toy you bought was not working according to its manufacturing, in Hebrew you would call this sin. This toy had some intended function, but it is defective. That might be the most simplistic way of talking about sin. While there is other vocabulary to talk about sin (transgression, iniquity), this word is translated from the Hebrew word khata /kwah-tah/ חָטָא. It means quite literally “failure.” This word appears in miscellaneous forms close to 600 times in Hebrew.
This word is used outside of a religious context. For instance, there was a group of skilled Benjamites throwers who could “sling a stone at a hair and not miss [khata]” (Judges 20:16 ESV) or someone who is not paying attention to where he is going might miss [khata] his destination (Proverbs 19:2 ESV). If you were a shepherd and inspected your field and found none of your sheep were missing, you used the word khata (Job 5:24 ESV). That is, nothing is wrong; the habitation is as it should be.
This word is also used ethically. Notice the words from Lady Wisdom: “For whoever finds me [Wisdom] finds life and obtains favor from the LORD, but he who fails [khata] to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death” (Proverbs 8:35-36 ESV). As will be noted, sin, death, and exile are inextricably linked.
Pictures of Sin
There are several pictures of sin in the Bible. Sin is first pictured as a ferocious beast that is imminent and wants to eat you alive. Genesis 4:7 (ESV) includes a conversation between God and Cain. In this he reveals to Cain some startling truths. “If you do not do well, sin is crouching [as a lion] at the door.” The word for crouching is predominantly used of wild beasts crouching for prey. And the words “at the door” describe the mouth of a cave. That is, sin is a wild beast that wants to eat you alive. But notice the word of hope: “You must rule over it.” That is, sin must be ruled over, or it will rule over you.
This word rule is a regal term. And this is another picture of sin in the Bible: a despot tyrant. Paul pictures Sin as a tyrant sitting on its throne in Romans 6. The inner man has been redeemed through the waters of Baptism (Romans 6:1-6 ESV), but the physical body is yet to be redeemed: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies” (Romans 6:12 ESV). This leads to an inner conflict between our mortal body and our inner man (Romans 7). But the Good News is that one day, despite our many moral failures, God will give life to our physical bodies (Romans 8:11 ESV) and he will redeem our physical bodies from corruption (Romans 8:23 ESV). It is in this hope we are saved (Romans 8:24 ESV)! Once our bodies are redeemed, sin will never again be able to have dominion over us.
The Good News of the Kingdom!
Back to the illustration above about the malfunctioning toy, this maps onto the narrative story on pages 1-3 of the Bible. In his own image, God forms the humans from the dust and crowns these new creatures with glory and power (cf. Psalm 8:5-8 ESV). These humans are given the dignity of choice: will they embrace what God has in store for them or seize autonomy and break trust with their Maker? Unfortunately we know how this story goes: humans are banished, or exiled, from the garden because of their moral failure. The Bible parallels death with exile. For God, exiling humans from the Garden was the equivalent of physical death. Their sin separates them from their God (Isaiah 59:1-2 ESV).
Sin means that something has deviated or is malfunctioning: something is not as it should be. Humans were created in the image of God, but now they have failed horribly living up to this image. And as Paul says, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV). While some romanticize death or beautify death, this is strange to the Bible: in fact, death is described as the last enemy to be overthrown (1 Corinthians 15:26 ESV)! Fortunately for us, our heavenly Father does not throw damaged toys in the trash: rather he fixes them and gives them a renewed purpose (“But the gift of God is the true life!”). In Luke 7, Jesus presents a parable of a moneylender who has two debtors with outstanding debts. The first debtor owes the equivalence to a lifelong loan (500 denarii); the second debtor owes the equivalence of a car loan (50 denarii). Unable to pay, the lender graciously forgives the debts of both. In fact, the word “forgave” here is the same word for grace (see Luke 7:42-43 “forgave”). Our sins, which are many, are forgiven (Luke 7:47 ESV)! Because our sins are forgiven, the way home from Exile is now possible.
I want to end with how Luke begins his gospel talking about how the prophet John would prepare the way for Jesus. The purposes of God were “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:77-79 ESV). Because of the tender mercy of our God, our sins are forgiven, the way home from Exile is made visible, and the way of peace is possible. Let us give glory to our great God!