Some define sin as transgression of God’s law. “We need to keep the law because ‘sin is lawlessness’” (see 1 John 3:4). Okay, but which law?
“We have to keep all of the commands.”
Including the ones about not wearing poly-blend clothing or eating bacon?
“Well, not those ones. But at least the Ten Commandments. Plus everything Jesus said.”
But the Bible says we are not under law (see Rom. 6:14). Which means we can’t use the law to define sin.
And since the law is not of faith, we might say that trying to live under the law is itself a kind of sin (see Gal. 3:11–12).
“You’re breaking my brain.”
What you misdiagnose, you mistreat. If you define sin as law-breaking, you’ll think the remedy to sin is law-keeping. But to live under the law is to walk after the flesh.
We are supposed to look to the Lord, not the law, which means you cannot use the law as a guide for holy living. In the Holy Spirit you have a better Guide by far.
Which brings me back to my original question.
What is sin in the Bible?
In the Bible, the word sin can be a verb (an action) or a noun (a thing). Let’s talk about sin as a verb. Those with a legal mindset define sin (or sinning) as law-breaking, while moral people tend to define sin as immoral behavior. But this is not how the Bible defines sin.
The original verb for sin (hamartano) means to miss the mark and not share the prize. But 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)
What does it mean to sin? To sin is to fall short of the glorious life God has for us (to paraphrase 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 get to share in the divine life that God wants for us. This falling short 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)
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.
TL:DR: We are all sinners, but we are freely justified (made right with God) by grace.
Sin is a fruit
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 and receive the grace he freely offers. Those who do this 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 merely breaking the rules. The devil does not really mind if you are a reckless law-breaker or a religious 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 the definition of sin? It is not rule breaking or acting immorally as much as 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 does bad things. A sinner could just as easily be a churchgoer or charity worker, or a Pharisee and a publican. There are good sinners and bad sinners but they are all sinners alike 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).
How is sin a noun?
There are two ways that sin is a noun (hamartia). First, if you rake all your sins, trespasses, offenses, and mistakes into a big stinky pile, what you have is a noun: 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 my sin and now there are no more piles. Thank you, Jesus!
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 sin still has consequences - don't be fooled into thinking otherwise. But the good news is that 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. (Romans 4:7–8)
“But what about the sin that I sinned just this morning?”
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 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. 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).
In Christ, you have been freed from sin (see Rom. 6:7). You are not freed from sinning but from sin the tyrant. Because there has been a change of government, you are free to sin no more. You don't have to obey your former master.
From time to time, we all stumble. The difference now is that when you sin, your new master speaks in your defense.
If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. (1 John 2:1)
When you sin, Jesus speaks to defend you. He does not do it to justify sin, but to justify you and to remind you that you have been freed from sin.
Since you died with Christ, you are a sinner no more. You are a new creature, with a new heart and new desires to please the Lord.
Now go learn to speak the new language of the new covenant and be who you truly are - a saint and a dearly-loved child of God.