The Name of Sin

March 05, 2014Filed under theology#m. div.#sebtsMarkdown source

The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Steve McKinion's Christian Theology II class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Sin is described in various ways in the Old and New Testaments, and these various descriptions and names tell us much about how the authors of the Bible conceived of the power than enslaves us apart from Christ.

The Old Testament has several terms its authors often use to describe the broad concept of sin:1

  • ‘avah, meaning “bent” or “crooked”
  • ‘aval, which includes the idea of a lack of integrity, so is often given as “iniquity”
  • ‘avar, meaning “to cross over” or “transgress”
  • ra‘, meaning “the rule of evil”
  • ma‘al, meaning “breach of trust”
  • pasha‘, meaning “to revolt” or “refuse subjection to a rightful authority”

From these we see that humanity’s brokenness before God in the Old Testament was often conceived of in terms of doing things the wrong way, or in rejection of the rightful authority, or a mix of the two. Rebellion against the creator and his created order are essential ingredients of the concept of sin for the Old Testament authors. To do evil is to be in rebellion against the right way God established for things to be done, to reject his shalom and replace it with destruction and disharmony.

The most common term for sin in the Old Testament, however, and the one usually translated into the English “sin” is chatha, meaning “to miss the mark”. Sinning was thus not necessarily always a matter of active, willful rejection of God. It was also simply failing, by dint of corrupted human nature, to do as God called humanity to do, in any and all spheres of life. Sin was thus a pervasive and corrupting influence on all of human existence, not only on those who were consciously rebelling against God.

Unsurprisingly, the New Testament picks up on many of these same ideas. Though the specific terms used have different semantic ranges than those in the Old Testament, as a group they cover much of the same territory:

  • parabasis, “the transgression of a boundary”
  • parakoe, “disobedience to a voice”
  • paraptoma, “falling where one should have stood upright”
  • agnoema, “failing to know what one should have known”
  • hettema, “diminishing what should have been fully rendered”
  • anomia, failing to observe a law
  • plemmeleia, “a discord in the harmonies of God’s universe”

To the Old Testament range, they add this final notion of discord in the created order—a concept that was present in the Old Testament, to be sure, in the notion of lost shalom, but which was not so directly expressed. Again, as in the Old Testament, these emphasize both failure to do and active rejection of what is right. And, as in the Old Testament, the New Testament authors’ concept of sin is most commonly expressed in a single word meaning “missing the mark”: hamartia.

This congruence between the Old and New Testament views of sin emphasizes the fundamental unity between the various authors’ understanding of the issues at stake. Sin is everything about humanity’s failure to follow God’s ways and live in accord with his design for the universe. It encompasses the whole range of human foibles, from accidental failure and ignorance to the kind of rebellion that shakes its fist at the heavens or boldly (and foolishly) proclaims that there is no God. Sin is getting it wrong—or, to put it another way that better captures the breadth of Scriptural language on the issue, not getting it perfectly right, for whatever reason.

  1. List drawn from Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God.