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THEOLOGY > Sin > The Character of Sin > Vocabulary 


The article, “The Christian Interpretation,” makes the initial point that sin can only be discussed in terms of Theism (see: The Christian Interpretation), which means that apart from the personal and holy God sin cannot be understood. This is especially true of the current topic, “Vocabulary”; the Biblical words that refer to sin have no meaning apart from the proper reference point. The etymology of the word, word usage in general, and the immediate context cannot be ignored, but their contributions are lost if the guiding and controlling principle of interpretation is not the relationship of the particular word to the God of Revelation. Sin must be defined and explained in terms of God, His holy essence, and His Law, that is, His revealed will.

A partial selection of the words of Scripture that are used to speak of sin will briefly be presented in order that various aspects and even nuanced aspects of sin might better be understood. The teaching of Scripture on this subject is rich and variegated; the following is just a sample:

Sin (Heb., chata; Gr., hamartia)

In both the OT and the NT the word “sin” means “to fail” or “to miss the mark”; it is to come short of a standard, to fail to measure up to an expectation. This is a common and inclusive word for sin; chata and its cognates appear around 600 times in the OT; hamartia and its word group appear nearly 300 times in the NT. “Sin” is used to describe any violation of God’s revealed standard.

The word suggests the following association: mark = standard = law = God’s character; sin, therefore, is lack of conformity to the Law of God, the person of God. The word is used to describe any violation of God’s Law (see: Violation of the Law). It is not simply the violation of the Law of Moses but it is the violation of any part of God’s Revelation (both negative – “you shall not”; and positive – “you shall do”); it is that which is contrary to the will of God; it is that which is inconsistent with and contrary to the nature of God, the character of God. It is man coming short of the glory of God.

The word chata first appears in Gen. 4:7, the initial reference to sin in the Bible; it is transl. by hamartia in the Septuagint. Examples of the use of “sin” in Scripture:

Sin is crouching at the door (Gen. 4:17);

Against You, You only, have I sinned (Ps. 51:4);

For the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23);

Christ died for our sins (I Cor. 15:3).

Jud. 20:16 and Prov. 19:2 are examples of the word’s use when the reference is not to sin.

Transgression (Heb., abar; Gr., parabasis)

“Transgression” means “to go over,” “to cross over,” or “to step across the line”; the line is God’s norm; therefore, the word speaks of passing over the limits God has set, the limits being any command of God.

Abar, the OT word, appears approximately 600 times. In Deut. 2:14 and 12:10 it is used of crossing over the brook and the river (also see: Num. 14:41-42; Num. 22:18; Isa. 24:5). In Deut. 26:13 the word has moral implications: “I have not transgressed any of your commandments,” and in Dan. 9:11 the same is true: “All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside.” To “transgress” is “to step across the line.”

Parabasis, the NT word, appears in Matt. 15:2-3 in an accusation by the Pharisees against the disciples of Christ: “Why do your disciples break (parabaino) the tradition of the elders?”; Jesus responded: “Why do you break (parabaino) the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” In Rom. 5:14 “the transgression of Adam” is referenced, and the noun “transgressors” is used in Jas. 2:9, 11.

Note: in the OT pesha, a noun, and pasha, a verb, are translated by “transgression,” “rebelled” or “revolted” (see: I Ki. 12:19; Isa. 1:2).

Lawlessness (Gr., anomia)

“Lawlessness” speaks of living without Law; it is a disregard for the Law, so that one is  living as though there is no Law. It is the rejection of what God has said, rejection of the Word of God.

Law is the rule of God; it is the Revelation from God to man regarding his responsibility in living—obedience to the Revelation is expected. There are no options, for the Law is absolute; like God it is immutable. And through the unchangeable Law God is exercising His rule, His Sovereignty (see: God is Sovereign).

Paul uses the word in his epistles. He informs the Thessalonians that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (II Thess. 2:7). In Romans He speaks of “lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” (6:19). A disregard for the Law begets a disregard for the Law. And the disregard increases in intensity and practice, teaching us that sin never diminishes in its desire but always is growing in its potential for evil. Sin cannot be satisfied.

In Matt. 7:23 Jesus asserts that on the last day, the day of judgment, He will address some as “you workers of lawlessness.”

Evil (Gr., poneria)

The Greek word is a general term for wrong, meaning “evil,” “wicked,” or “bad”; it appears in Matt. 22:18 where it reveals that “Jesus perceived their wickedness” (“malice” in ESV); the word is also used to speak of various types of sexual immorality, such as in Rom. 1:29 where the context is addressing sexual sins and the translation is “sexual immorality” in the NKJV (ESV omits the word based upon questionable Gr. text).

The word can be used in a general sense of one who is physically sick or not well, as in Matt. 6:23 and Lu. 11:34, and from this usage a moral application is made. And the word is also used in strictly ethical situations: Matt. 5:45 (“He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good”), and 12:39 (“an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign”). It is even used of Satan, who is referred to as “the evil one” (Jo. 17:15), and the believer is to hate that which is “evil” (Rom. 12:9).

Unrighteousness (Heb., ewel; Gr., adikia)

The word relates to the Law and speaks of that which is contrary to the Law; it is living without right conduct or without righteousness—it is to be on the wrong side of the Law. It is to be in violation of God-ordained principles of living, because man has not been left to devise his own way but has been given a standard for living. Following are some examples:

You shall do no injustice in judgment (Lev. 19:15);

unrighteousness of men (Rom. 1:18);

being filled with all unrighteousness (Rom. 1:29);

will receive the wages of unrighteousness (II Pet. 2:13);

cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I Jo. 1:9).

Uncleanness (Heb., tumah; Gr., akatharsia)

The word speaks of not being clean, of being impure; it speaks of both ceremonial and moral uncleanness.

In the OT the word is used of ceremonial or ritual uncleanness, such as in Lev. 5:3; 7:20; 14:19; 15:3, 25; Num. 19:13; and Judg. 13:7, 14. It is also used of moral uncleanness as in Lev. 16:1; Ezra 6:1; 9:11; Ezek. 22:15; 24:11; and 39:24.

Following are examples from the NT:

a man with an unclean spirit (Mk. 1:23);

God gave them over to uncleanness (Rom. 1:24);

have not repented of their uncleanness (II Cor. 12:21);

unclean person (Eph. 5:5);

adultery, fornication, uncleanness (Gal. 5: 19);

God hath not called us to uncleanness ((I Thess. 4:7);

I saw three unclean spirits (Rev. 16:13).

Unbelief (Gr., apistia)

Appearing twelve time in the NT, the word consistently means “unbelief,” that is, having no faith; it is the opposite of having faith or belief. The lack of belief involves God and His Christ. Following are some examples:

He marveled because of their unbelief (Mk. 6:6);

He rebuked their unbelief (Mk. 16:14);

an evil heart of unbelief (Heb. 3:12).

This sampling of words reveals various aspects of sin; taken together they present man as in rebellion against God in every sense. There is no good part of man; all is corrupt. Whenever sin manifests itself it is always with depravity (inherent corruption) and guilt; sin cannot be present and depravity and guilt not be present. They exist in concert (see: Depravity and Guilt).

Return to: The Character of Sin;  Next Article: Sinful State and Sinful Acts

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