What is sin? A Biblical Study                                                                   by Jack Kettler

First, the definition of sin:

Sin: “Sin is any lack of conformity, active or passive, to the moral law of God. This may be a matter of act, of thought, or of inner disposition or state.” (1)

There are two aspects of sin, commission and omission:

Commission is the deliberate breaking of the revealed will of God. This type of sin refers to the explicit breaking or transgressing God’s law.

Omission is the ethical failure to do something one can and should do. It points to the ethical failure of not doing what is right or lack of conformity to God’s law.

In an active sense, when we do what God forbids, we are guilty of a sin of commission. This is actual law breaking. In a negative sense, when we fail to do what God commands, we are guilty of a sin of omission. This is failure to live according to God’s law.

Examples of the sin of commission:

Blasphemy, Fornication, Adultery, Homosexuality, Lying, Drunkenness, Murder, Slander.

Examples of the sin of omission:

Not speaking up in the face of lying, not telling the truth, withholding good from those who warrant it, when it is in your power to help, leaving things unfinished until it is too late, not doing what is right, remaining silent in the face of evil.

Scriptural passages that confirm these definitions:

“Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” (1 John 3:4) This passage is about the sin of commission.

“Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth [it] not, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17) This passage is about the sin of omission.

The scriptures go on to make the case that we are all in sin and will not escape unless we are in Christ.

“I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3)

“My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1-29)

“And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”  (Galatians 6:7-9)  

“All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.” (1 John 5:17)

“Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” (James 1:15)

The precise definition of sin from the Westminster Shorter Catechism; Question 14:

Q: What is sin?

A: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God. (1)

(1) John 3:4. Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.

 James 4:17. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.

Romans 3:23. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.

From Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words:

SIN (Noun and Verb) 

A. Nouns.

1. HAMMARTIA, is, lit., “a missing of the mark,” but this etymological meaning is largely lost sight of in the NT. It is the most comprehensive term for moral obliquity. It is used of “sin” as (a) a principle or source of action, or an inward element producing acts, e.g., Rom. 3:9; 5:12, 13, 20; 6:1, 2; 7:7 (abstract for concrete); 7:8

(twice), 9, 11, 13, “sin, that it might be shown to be sin,” i.e., “sin became death to me, that it might be exposed in its heinous character”: in the last clause, “sin might become exceeding sinful,” i.e., through the holiness of the Law, the true nature of sin was designed to be manifested to the conscience; 

     (b) a governing principle or power, e.g., Rom. 6:6, “(the body) of sin,” here “sin” is spoken of as an organized power, acting through the members of the body, though the seat of “sin” is in the will (the body is the organic instrument); in the next clause, and in other passages, as follows, this governing principle is personified, e.g., Rom. 5:21; 6:12, 14, 17; 7:11, 14, 17, 20, 23, 25; 8:2; 1 Cor. 15:56; Heb. 3:13; 11:25; 12:4; Jas. 1:15 (2nd part); 

     (c) a generic term (distinct from specific terms such as No. 2 yet sometimes inclusive of concrete wrong doing, e.g., John 8:21, 34, 46; 9:41; 15:22, 24; 19:11); in Rom. 8:3, “God, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh,” lit., “flesh of sin,” the flesh stands for the body, the instrument of indwelling “sin” [Christ, preexistently the Son of God, assumed human flesh, “of the substance of the Virgin Mary”; the reality of incarnation was His, without taint of sin (for homoioma, “likeness,” see LIKENESS)], and 77 for sin,” i.e., “a sin offering” (so the Sept., e.g., in Lev. 4:32; 5:6, 7, 8, 9), “condemned sin in the flesh,” i.e., Christ, having taken human nature, “sin” apart (Heb. 4:15), and having lived a sinless life, died under the condemnation and judgment due to our “sin”; for the generic sense see further, e.g., Heb. 9:26; 10:6, 8, 18; 13:11; 1 John 1:7, 8; 3:4 (1st part; in the 2nd part, “sin” is defined as “lawlessness,” RV), 8, 9; in these verses the KJV use of the verb to commit is misleading; not the committal of an act is in view, but a continuous course of “sin,” as indicated by the RV, “doeth.” The apostle’s use of the present tense of , “to do,” virtually expresses the meaning of , “to practice,” which John does not use (it is not infrequent in this sense in Paul’s Epp., e.g., Rom. 1:32, RV; 2:1; Gal. 5:21; Phil. 4:9); 1 Pet. 4:1 (singular in the best texts), lit., “has been made to cease from sin,” i.e., as a result of suffering in the flesh, the mortifying of our members, and of obedience to a Savior who suffered in flesh. Such no longer lives in the flesh, “to the lusts of men, but to the will of God”; sometimes the word is used as virtually equivalent to a condition of “sin,” e.g., John 1:29, “the sin (not sins) of the world”; 1 Cor. 15:17; or a course of “sin,” characterized by continuous acts, e.g., 1 Thess. 2:16; in 1 John 5:16 (2nd part) the RV marg., is probably to be preferred, “there is sin unto death,” not a special act of “sin,” but the state or condition producing acts; in v. 17, “all unrighteousness is sin” is not a definition of “sin” (as in 3:4), it gives a specification of the term in its generic sense;

     (d) a sinful deed, an act of “sin,” e.g., Matt. 12:31; Acts 7:60; Jas. 1:15 (1st part); 2:9; 4:17; 5:15, 20; 1 John 5:16 (1st part).

     Notes: (1) Christ is predicated as having been without “sin” in every respect, e.g., (a), (b), (c) above, 2 Cor. 5:21 (1st part); 1 John 3:5; John 14:30; (d) John 8:46; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22. (2) In Heb. 9:28 (2nd part) the reference is to a “sin” offering. (3) In 2 Cor. 5:21, “Him … He made to be sin” indicates that God dealt with Him as He must deal with “sin,” and that Christ fulfilled what was typified in the guilt offering. (4) For the phrase “man of sin” in 2 Thess. 2:3, see INIQUITY, No. 1. 

     2. HAMARTEMA, akin to No. 1, denotes “an act of disobedience to divine law” [as distinct from No. 1 (a), (b), (c)]; plural in Mark 3:28; Rom. 3:25; 2 Pet. 1:9, in some texts; sing. in Mark 3:29 (some mss. have, KJV, “damnation”); 1 Cor. 6:18.

     Notes: (1) For, rendered “sins” in the KJV in Eph. 1:7; 2:5; Col. 2:13 (RV, “trespass”), see TRESPASS. In Jas. 5:16, the best texts have No. 1 (RV, “sins”). (2) For synonymous terms see DISOBEDIENCE, ERROR, FAULT, INIQUITY, TRANSGRESSION, UNGODLINESS.

B. Adjective.

1. ANAMARTETOS, “without sin” (, negative, , euphonic, and C, No. 1), is found in John 8:7.¶ In the Sept., Deut. 29:19. 

C. Verbs. 

1. HAMARTANO, lit., “to miss the mark,” is used in the NT (a) of “sinning” against God, (1) by angels, 2 Pet. 2:4; (2) by man, Matt. 27:4; Luke 15:18, 21 (heaven standing, by metonymy, for God); John 5:14; 8:11; 9:2, 3; Rom. 2:12 (twice); 3:23; 5:12, 14, 16; 6:15; 1 Cor. 7:28 (twice), 36; 15:34; Eph. 4:26; 1 Tim. 5:20; Titus 3:11; Heb. 3:17; 10:26; 1 John 1:10; in 2:1 (twice), the aorist tense in each place, referring to an act of “sin”; on the contrary, in 3:6 (twice), 8, 9, the present tense indicates, not the committal of an act, but the continuous practice of “sin” [see on A, No. 1 (c)]; in 5:16 (twice) the present tense indicates the condition resulting from an act, “unto death” signifying “tending towards death”; (b) against Christ, 1 Cor. 8:12; (c) against man, (1) a brother, Matt. 18:15, RV, “sin” (KJV, “trespass”); v. 21; Luke 17:3, 4, RV, “sin” (KJV, “trespass”); 1 Cor. 8:12; (2) in Luke 15:18, 21, against the father by the Prodigal Son, “in thy sight” being suggestive of befitting reverence; (d) against Jewish law, the Temple, and Caesar, Acts 25:8, RV, “sinned” (KJV, “offended”); (e) against one’s own body, by fornication, 1 Cor. 6:18; (f) against earthly masters by servants, 1 Pet. 2:20, RV, “(when) ye sin (and are buffeted for it),” KJV, “(when ye be buffeted) for your faults,” lit., “having sinned.”

2. PROAMARTANO, “to sin previously” (, “before,” and No. 1), occurs in 2 Cor. 12:21; 13:2, RV in each place, “have sinned heretofore” (so KJV in the 2nd; in the 1st, “have sinned already”). (2)

An in-depth explication of sin from the systematic theologian, Charles Hodge:   

7. Protestant Doctrine of Sin.

The Protestant Churches at the time of the Reformation did not attempt to determine the nature of sin philosophically. They regarded it neither as a necessary limitation; not as a negation of being; nor as the indispensable condition of virtue; nor as having its seat in man's sensuous nature; nor as consisting in selfishness alone; nor as being, like pain, a mere state of consciousness, and not an evil in the sight of God. Founding their doctrine on their moral and religious consciousness and upon the Word of God, they declared sin to be the transgression of, or want of conformity to the divine law. In this definition all classes of theologians, Lutheran and Reformed, agree. According to Melancthon, “Peccatum recte definitur avnomi,a, seu discrepantia a lege Dei, h. e., defectus naturae et actionum pugnans cum lege Dei, easdemque ex ordine justitiae divinae ad poenam obligans.” Gerhard says:65 “Peccatum” sen “avnomi,a” est “aberratio a lege, sive non congruentia cum lege, sive ea in ipsa natura haerat, sive in dictis, factis ac concupiscentia motibus, inveniatur.” Baier says:66 “Carentia contormitatis cum lege.” Vitringa says:67 “Forma peccati est disconvenientia actus habitus, aut status hominis cum divina lege.”

It is included in these definitions, (1.) That sin is a specific evil, differing from all other forms of evil. (2.) That sin stands related to law. The two are correlative, so that where there is no law, there can be no sin. (3.) That the law to which sin is thus related, is not merely the law of reason, or of conscience, or of expediency, but the law of God. (4.) That sin consists essentially in the want of conformity on the part of a rational creature, to the nature or law of God. (5.) That it includes guilt and moral pollution.

Sin is a Specific Evil.

Sin is a specific evil. This we know from our own consciousness. None but a sentient being can know what feeling is. We can neither determine a priori what the nature of a sensation is, nor can we convey the idea to any one destitute of the organs of sense. Unless we had felt pain or pleasure, we should not be able to understand what those words mean. If born blind, we cannot know light. If born deaf, we can have no idea of what hearing is. None but a rational creature can know what is meant by folly. Only creatures with an aesthetic nature can have the perception of beauty or of deformity. In like manner only, moral beings can know what sin or holiness is. Knowledge in all these cases is given immediately in the consciousness. It would be in vain to attempt to determine a priori, what pain, pleasure, sight, and hearing are; much less to prove that there are no such sensations; or that they do not differ from each other and from every other form of our experience. Every man in virtue of his being a moral creature, and because he is a sinner, has therefore in his own consciousness the knowledge of sin, he knows that when he is not what he ought to be, when he does what he ought not to do, or omits what he ought to do, he is chargeable with sin. He knows that sin is not simply limitation of his nature; not merely a subjective state of his own mind, having no character in the sight of God; that it is not only something which is unwise, or derogatory to his own dignity; or simply inexpedient because hurtful to his own interests, or injurious to the welfare of others. He knows that it has a specific character of its own, and that it includes both guilt and pollution.

Sin has Relation to Law.

A second truth included in our consciousness of sin is, that it has relation to law. As moral and rational beings we are of necessity subject to the law of right. This is included in the consciousness of obligation. The word ought would otherwise have no meaning. To say we ought, is to say we are bound; that we are under authority of some kind. The word law, in relation to moral and religious subjects, is used in two senses. First, it sometimes means a controlling power, as when the Apostle says that he had a law in his members warring against the law of his mind. Secondly, it means, that which binds, a command of one in authority. This is the common sense of the term in the New Testament. As the rule which binds the conscience of men, and prescribes what they are to do and not to do, has been variously revealed in the constitution of our nature, in the Decalogue, in the Mosaic institutions, and in the whole Scriptures, the word is sometimes used in a sense to include all these forms of revelation; sometimes in reference exclusively to one of them, and sometimes exclusively in reference to another. In all cases the general idea is retained. The law is that which binds the conscience. (3)

* Related definitions:

Original sin: The sinful state and condition in which all human beings are born, which includes both imputed guilt (the guilt of Adam’s sin counted as their own) and inherited corruption (a disposition toward sin).

Total depravity: The doctrine that the inherent corruption of humankind “extends to every part of our nature, to all the faculties and powers of both soul and body; and that there is no spiritual good, that is, good in relation to God, in the sinner at all, but only perversion.”

Fall (of man): Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden to God’s command that they not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—a rebellious act that resulted in God’s curse upon Adam, Eve and all their offspring.

In Conclusion, God’s resolution to our sin in Christ:

Question and answer 56 of the Heidelberg Catechism

Question 56. What believest thou concerning "the forgiveness of sins"?

Answer: That God, for the sake of Christ's satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long; but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God.

The apostle Paul tells us: “For he hath made him [to be] sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

In closing, from Matthew Poole's Commentary on this text from Corinthians we read:

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin: Christ knew no sin, as he was guilty of no sin; Which of you (saith he, John 8:46) convinceth me of sin? 1 Peter 2:22, He did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: but God made him to be sin for us. He was numbered with the transgressors, Isaiah 53:12. Our sins were reckoned to him; so as though personally he was no sinner, yet by imputation he was, and God dealt with him as such; for he was made a sacrifice for our sins, a sin offering; so answering the type in the law, Leviticus 4:3,25,29 5:6 7:2.

That we might be made the righteousness of God in him; that so his righteousness might be imputed to us, and we might be made righteous with such a righteousness as those souls must have whom God will accept. As Christ was not made sin by any sin inherent in him, so neither are we made righteous by any righteousness inherent in us, but by the righteousness of Christ imputed to us; as he was a sinner by the sins of his people reckoned and imputed unto him. (4)


1.            Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker), p. 578.          

2.            W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, (Iowa Falls, Iowa, Riverside Book and Bible House), p. 1045-1047.

3.            Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans Publishing), pp. 180-182.

4.            Matthew Poole, Matthew Poole's Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), p.616.

 “But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:18)

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5)

“To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com

* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca Writes at:

Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/

For more study:

The Origin of Sin by Herman Bavinck at:                                                                                                                        https://www.monergism.com/origin-sin-herman-bavinck

A True Understanding of Sin by J. C. Ryle at:                                                                                                                https://www.monergism.com/true-understanding-sin


“Here is a beautiful antithesis. In ourselves we are scattered, in Christ we are gathered together. By nature, we go astray and are driven headlong to destruction, in Christ we find the path that leads us to the gate of salvation. Our sins overwhelm us, but they are laid on Christ by whom we are unburdened. Therefore, when we were perishing and, alienated from God, were hastening to hell, Christ took upon Himself the filthy depths of our sins, to rescue us from eternal destruction.” - John Calvin; Sermons on Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Death and Passion of Christ, p. 66-67.

“No one knows the one-hundredth part of the sin that clings to his soul.” -  John Calvin

“Without absolutes revealed from without by God Himself, we are left rudderless in a sea of conflicting ideas about manners, justice and right and wrong, issuing from a multitude of self-opinionated thinkers.” - John Owen

“Sin consists in doing, saying, thinking, or imagining anything that is not in perfect conformity with the mind and law of God.” - J.C. Ryle, Holiness, 2.

“Sin is a disease which pervades and runs through every part of our moral constitution and every faculty of our minds.” - J. C. Ryle, Holiness, 3.

“Any sin is more or less heinous depending upon the honor and majesty of the one whom we had offended. Since God is of infinite honor, infinite majesty, and infinite holiness, the slightest sin is of infinite consequence. The slightest sin is nothing less than cosmic treason when we realize against whom we have sinned.” - Jonathan Edwards