Sin, what is it? A Bible Study by Jack Kettler
“Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” (Psalm 25:4)
In this study, we will look at the biblical teaching about sin. What is it? How is it defined?
As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, lexical evidence, commentary evidence and confessional support for the purpose to glorify God in how we live. May God be glorified always!
Definitions from two sources:
Any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature. *
Sin is anything that is contrary to the law or will of God. For example: if you lie, you have sinned. Why? Because God has said not to lie (Exodus 20:16). If you do what God has forbidden, then you have sinned. In addition, if you do not do what God has commanded, you sin (James 4:17). Either way, the result is eternal separation from God (Isaiah 59:2). Sin is lawlessness (1 John 1:3) and unrighteousness (1 John 5:17). Sin leads to bondage (Romans 6:14-20) and death (Romans 6:23).
Paul, in the book of Romans, discusses sin. He shows that everyone, both Jew and Greek, is under sin (Romans 3:9). He shows that sin is not simply something that is done, but a condition of the heart (Romans 3:10-12). In Ephesians Paul says that we are "by nature children of wrath" (Ephesians 2:3). Yet, "while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6). **
“Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” (1 John 3:4)
From Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary on 1 John 3:4:
4. Sin is incompatible with birth from God (1Jo 3:1-3). John often sets forth the same truth negatively, which he had before set forth positively. He had shown, birth from God involves self-purification; he now shows where sin, that is, the want of self-purification, is, there is no birth from God.
Whosoever—Greek, “Everyone who.”
Committeth sin—in contrast to 1Jo 3:3, "Every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself"; and 1Jo 3:7, “He that doeth righteousness.”
Transgresseth … the law—Greek, “committeth transgression of law.” God's law of purity; and so shows he has no such hope of being hereafter pure as God is pure, and, therefore, that he is not born of God.
Sin is … transgression of … law—definition of sin in general. The Greek having the article to both, implies that they are convertible terms. The Greek “sin” (hamartia) is literally, “a missing of the mark.” God's will being that mark to be ever aimed at. “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” The crookedness of a line is shown by being brought into juxtaposition with a straight ruler. (1)
“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20)
From Matthew Poole's Commentary on Romans 3:20:
Therefore; i.e. Seeing the Gentiles, by the law of nature, and the Jews, by the written law, are thus subject to the judgment of God; and seeing no one is able to fulfil the law, and satisfy for the breach of it; therefore, &c.
By the deeds of the law; he means the moral law, and not the ceremonial law only or chiefly; even that law that forbids theft and adultery, as Romans 2:21,22, and concupiscence, as Romans 7:1-25; and by which, as this text says,
Is the knowledge of sin; to which Gentiles as well as Jews are obliged, and by which therefore they are condemned.
No flesh; a common synecdoche: see Genesis 6:3, 12, and elsewhere. The same with no man living, in the psalmist; especially being depraved with original corruption, which is called flesh in Scripture.
Be justified in his sight; or be discharged in the court of heaven: the phrase is taken from Psalm 143:2, see annotations there.
For by the law is the knowledge of sin: lest any should think that the law hereupon is useless, he goes on to show its use, but a quite contrary one to what they intended. It convinceth us of our guilt, and therefore is far from being our righteousness, Romans 7:7 1 Corinthians 15:56. (2)
“Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.” (Romans 4:15)
From Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible on Romans 4:15:
Because the law worketh wrath, Not the wrath of man, though that is sometimes stirred up through the prohibitions of the law, to which the carnal mind of man is enmity, but the wrath of God the law is so far from justifying sinners, that it curses and condemns them; and when it comes into the heart and is let into the conscience of a sinner, it fills with terrible apprehensions of the wrath of God, and a fearful looking for of his judgment and fiery indignation:
for where no law is, there is no transgression; (r); a sort of a proverbial expression: had the law of Moses not been given, there was the law of nature which sin is a transgression of; but the law of Moses was added for the better discovery and detection of sin, which would not have been so manifest without it, and which may be the apostle's sense; that where there is no law, there is no knowledge of any transgression; and so the Ethiopic version reads the words, "if the law had not come, there would have been none who would have known sin"; but the law is come, and there is a law by which is the knowledge of sin, and therefore no man can be justified by it; since that convinces him of sin, and fills him with a sense of divine wrath on account of it. (r) Caphtor, fol. 10. 1. (3)
Digging deeper, From Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words on sin:
A-1 Noun Strong's Number: g266 Greek: hamartia
Sin (Noun and Verb):
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); Rom 7:8 (twice), Rom 7:9, 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 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; 1Cr 15:56; Hbr 3:13; 11:25; 12:4; Jam 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., Jhn 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, pre-existently 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 as an offering for sin,” i.e., “a sin offering” (so the Sept. e.g., in Lev 4:32; 5:6-9), “condemned sin in the flesh,” i.e., Christ, having taken human nature, “sin” apart (Hbr 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., Hbr 9:26; 10:6, 8, 18; 13:11; 1Jo 1:7, 8; 3:4 (1st part; in the 2nd part, “sin” is defined as “lawlessness,” RV), 1Jo 3:8, 9; in these verses the AV 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 poieo, “to do,” virtually expresses the meaning of prasso, “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; Phl 4:9); 1Pe 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., Jhn 1:29, “the sin (not sins) of the world;” 1Cr 15:17; or a course of “sin,” characterized by continuous acts, e.g., 1Th 2:16; in 1Jo 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 1Jo 5:17, “all unrighteousness is sin” is not a definition of “sin” (as in 1Jo 3:4), it gives a specification of the term in its generic sense;
(d) a sinful deed, an act of “sin,” e.g., Mat 12:31; Act 7:60; Jam 1:15 (1st part); Jam 2:9; 4:17; 5:15, 20; 1Jo 5:16 (1st part).
(1) Christ is predicated as having been without “sin” in every respect, e.g., (a), (b), (c) above, 2Cr 5:21 (1st part); 1Jo 3:5; Jhn 14:30; (d) Jhn 8:46; Hbr 4:15; 1Pe 2:22.
(2) In Hbr 9:28 (2nd part) the reference is to a “sin” offering.
(3) In 2Cr 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 2Th 2:3, see INIQUITY, No. 1.
A-2 Noun Strong's Number: g265 Greek: hamartema
Sin (Noun and Verb):
Akin to No. 1, denotes “an act of disobedience to Divine law” [as distinct from No. 1 (a), (b), (c)]; plural in Mar 3:28; Rom 3:25; 2Pe 1:9, in some texts; sing. In Mar 3:29 (some mss. have krisis, AV, “damnation”); 1Cr 6:18.
(1) For paraptoma, rendered “sins” in the AV in Eph 1:7; 2:5; Col 2:13 (RV, “trespass”), see TRESPASS. In Jam 5:16, the best texts have No. 1 (RV, "sins").
(2) For synonymous terms see DISOBEDIENCE, ERROR, FAULT, INIQUITY, TRANSGRESSION, UNGODLINESS.
B-1 Adjective Strong's Number: g361 Greek: anamartetos
Sin (Noun and Verb):
“Without sin” (a, negative, n, euphonic, and C, No. 1), is found in Jhn 8:7. In the Sept., Deu 29:19.
C-1 Verb Strong's Number: g264 Greek: hamartano
Sin (Noun and Verb):
lit., “to miss the mark,” is used in the NT
(a) Of “sinning” against God,
(1) By angels, 2Pe 2:4;
(2) by man, Mat 27:4; Luk 15:18, 21 (heaven standing, by metonymy, for God); Jhn 5:14; 8:11; 9:2, 3; Rom 2:12 (twice); Rom 3:23; 5:12, 14, 16; 6:15; 1Cr 7:28 (twice), 1Cr 7:36; 15:34; Eph 4:26; 1Ti 5:20; Tts 3:11; Hbr 3:17; 10:26; 1Jo 1:10; in 1Jo 2:1 (twice), the aorist tense in each place, referring to an act of “sin;” on the contrary, in 1Jo 3:6 (twice), 1Jo 3:8,9, the present tense indicates, not the committal of an act, but the continuous practice of “sin” [see on A, No. 1 (c)]; in 1Jo 5:16 (twice) the present tense indicates the condition resulting from an act, “unto death” signifying "tending towards death;"
(b) Against Christ, 1Cr 8:12;
(c) Against man,
(1) A brother, Mat 18:15, RV, “sin” (AV, “trespass”); Mat 18:21; Luke 17:3, 4, RV, “sin” (AV, “trespass”); 1Cr 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, Act 25:8, RV, “sinned” (AV, “offended”);
(e) Against one's own body, by fornication, 1Cr 6:18;
(f) Against earthly masters by servants, 1Pe 2:20, RV, “(when) ye sin (and are buffeted for it),” AV, “(when ye be buffeted) for your faults,” lit., “having sinned.”
C-2 Verb Strong's Number: g4258 Greek: proamartano
Sin (Noun and Verb):
“To sin previously” (pro, “before,” and No. 1), occurs in 2Cr 12:21; 13:2, RV in each place, “have sinned heretofore” (so AV in the 2nd; in the 1st, “have sinned already”). (4)
Now, a Classic Sermon on Sin:
What is Sin? A Sermon by Rev. John Kennedy, D.D., of Dingwall, Scotland:
“Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.” — Psalm 51:4.
I. “AGAINST THEE, THEE ONLY, HAVE I SINNED.”
He had acted to the injury of his own soul, he had offended, by his conduct, those who feared the Lord, and by his evil example he had encouraged the ungodly to continue in sin; but yet he says, “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned.” Viewing his conduct as sin, he thinks only of its being against God. It might bring misery on himself, it might bring grief to the hearts of the godly, and it might encourage others to continue to act the part of suicides, but his conduct he regarded as sinful only as it was “against” God.
1. It was against the law of God. Associating the law with God, how venerable it seemed to his eyes, opened as these were, to behold the glory of Jehovah, as Lawgiver and Judge; how awful seemed to him the guilt which was involved in the breach of such a law; and how impossible escape from the law's penalty appeared to him as he thought of the omnipotence, faithfulness, and justice of Him who was Judge of all, unless mercy came to him with a free pardon through atoning blood. One may transgress the law of his country, and his offence never be discovered; or even if it be discovered, he may not be convicted of the crime; or by some miscarriage of justice the execution may not follow the passing of the sentence. But in none of these ways can, under His government, any transgressors of the law of God escape. Sinner, seek to realise this. Have done with dreaming of being able to sin with impunity while the eye that is "as a flame of fire" is on you, while the sword of divine justice is wielded by the Almighty, and while it is impossible for God to lie. Either life, through the righteousness of Christ being placed to your account, or death, as the wages of your sin, is the only alternative to you, and to me, and to all. “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law; for sin is the transgression of the law,” and “the soul that sinneth shall die.”
2. Sin is against the will of God. Not merely against what was the will of God, but against what, at the moment when the sin is committed, is the will of God — against a present volition of the will of God bearing authoritatively on the transgressor, and in opposition to what he is about to do, or is doing. There is many a law on the Statute Book of our nation the very existence of which is unknown to our Sovereign, and which cannot be regarded as an intended expression of her will; and we must not think of a transgressor of our laws as acting in opposition to a present exercise of the Queen's will bearing on him individually. But do not approach so to conceive of the relation in which God stands to His own law, and to those by whom that law is broken. His will is ever active in volitions which accord with the claims of His commandments, and bears according to the law's demands on each individual, always and everywhere. Because of this there must be in every act of sin a collision with the will of God, the Most High, “whose name is holy.” Think of the weak worm dashing himself against the will of Jehovah, as, swayed by enmity, he ventures to transgress His law, which is “holy, and just, and good.” Friend, do not conceive of God as like yourself, and one to be trifled with, as if He could forget your sin; and do not imagine that such collisions with the will of God can take place with impunity though “sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily.” The will of God, now expressed in the form of law, shall soon and surely be expressed in a providence by which you shall be utterly and eternally overwhelmed.
3. Sin is rebellion against the authority of God. The authority of God as our Lawgiver — His right to reign — rests on what He is in the infinite excellence of His being and glory. He, because of what He is, is entitled to be Lord over all — to bring His will in the form of law to bear on each rational being whom He hath created, whether their place originally was heaven or earth. There is rebellion against authority thus founded and asserted, in every transgression of His law, and this cannot be without a denial of His right to reign, without an attack on His throne. How fearful sin is as implying — necessarily implying — this! And there cannot be rebellion such as this that does not imply a claim on the part of the transgressor to the place which necessarily and eternally belongs to the Most High. The rebelling will of the creature makes this demand. He raises himself throne wards, in his meanness and loathsomeness, and requires that Jehovah should give place to him. “Who is the Lord that He should reign over us?” is the mad shout that reaches the ear of God from the hearts of all transgressors of His law; and, as they demand for themselves the sovereignty which is God's, they ask, “Who is Lord over us?”
4. Sin is against the name of God. There can be no sinning that does not cast dishonour on the moral glory of Jehovah. He demands perfect love to Himself, because of what He is in the infinite loveliness of His moral character. His claim for love rests on what He is in the infinite beauty of His holiness. On this the eye of His omniscience ever rests, and to this He “is,” and must be “love.” And through this love to Himself He is “blessed forever” in the enjoyment of Himself. And He cannot have this knowledge of, this love to, and this enjoyment of, Himself, and act righteously as the supreme Governor, without demanding love to Himself from all rational beings. One who did not necessarily make such a demand could not reasonably be worshipped. And there is goodness as well as authority in such a claim. If to Himself His love to Himself is the source of such blessedness, what can be more surely good than to demand love to Him from His creatures, who shall never fail to find that through love to Him satisfying blessedness shall flow into their hearts from “the fountain of living waters.” But whichever of the Ten Commandments you break, you cannot do so without refusing this love to God. You cannot break any of the commandments of the second table of the law without refusing such love to God as would be expressed in submission to His authority. For He requires with equal authority love to your neighbour as love to Himself. To refuse this expression of love to Him is blasphemously to declare Him unworthy of what He demands, though His right to be loved rests on what He is in the infinite glory of His moral character. But there can be no negative feeling towards the holiness of God. If there is not love to it as the spring of action in the heart, there must be enmity. In every unconverted man there is nothing but the flesh, and the minding of the flesh is enmity against God. Think of God beholding, loving, and rejoicing in, His own infinite beauty, and at the same time having before His eye the creature of His hand turning away from and hating Him because His name is holy, and expressing in his transgression of His law his enmity to what He so infinitely loves and enjoys. How marvellous is the patience of God with thee, who wast observed by Him thus dishonouring His glorious name in every one of all thy countless transgressions!
5. Sin is against the being of God. God cannot be without being infinitely great and infinitely holy. His greatness is the basis of His right to issue a law, and His holiness is the basis of His claim for love. His law demanding obedience in love rests on His unchangeable majesty and loveliness. It is entrenched within His being. You cannot assail that law without an attack on God. You cannot rise against the throne without setting yourself against the existence of God. Every sinner is, in intent, a Deicide. And in every “carnal mind” there is positive enmity to the very being of God. This may not be a reality in your consciousness, but it is the root of all your action in transgressing the law of God. Roots are usually hidden, and why is this "root of bitterness" undiscovered by you? It is because you keep so far away from God that you have no opportunity of discovering how you are affected towards Him. But if you were pressed by the law's claims, and overwhelmed by the terrors of its curse, if you were left for a season without any conscious hope of “escape from the wrath to come,” and at the same time were persuaded that there can be no withdrawal of these demands and terrors, till the justice of the unchangeable and Eternal God was satisfied, then would you find in your consciousness the stirring of an enmity to God, whose cry is, “Let there be no God.” How fearful the consciousness of this! And how bitter the remembrance of this when the glory of Jehovah was so revealed to you, and the riches of His pardoning mercy, that, while having hope in Him, you went forth in loving desire after Him! But whether you are conscious of this enmity towards the very being of God or not, of all the sin in your action this is the root in your heart.
1. Mark well the difference between considering sin in its bearing on God, and viewing it merely in its bearing on yourself. For this indicates the difference between a true and a counterfeit conviction of sin. You may be much afflicted by a sense of the danger to which you have exposed yourself by sinning, and from that danger you may be most intensely anxious to escape. To secure a sense of deliverance from death what would you not do, what not sacrifice of carnal indulgence, what not suffer that would be penance to the flesh? But there is no such view of sin before your mind as constrains you to justify God in condemning you to death, as persuades you that there can be no hope for you unless the name of God, which you dishonoured, shall be glorified, as shuts you up to the cross of Christ as the only channel through which pardoning mercy can flow out from God to you as a sinner, or as enables you to have any right conception of the grace to which alone you may hopefully appeal. Only the man who heartily confesses “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight,” can heartily add a vindication of divine justice such as we have in the words, “That Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, and be clear when Thou judgest,” can honestly cry for the application of atoning blood, or can make a guileless appeal to the loving-kindness and mercy of the Lord.
2. Almost all religious errors spring from defective views of sin, as these are the result of defective views of God. In these days it is becoming common to ignore all divine attributes but love, and so to conceive of divine love as something utterly inconsistent with His righteousness and holiness, and as therefore requiring the removal of all impressions of these which the revelations of the Old Testament and the true doctrine of the cross are fitted to produce. And all relations between God and men, such as are indicated in Scripture, are kept out of sight, and for all these there is substituted a supposed relation of universal fatherhood on the part of God, the faith of which is all that is required to make men safe and happy. Towards this is the drift of religious thought in these days, though only in a few instances as the position indicated been reached. Against this rationalised scheme of grace all would do well to be on their guard. It may for a season act as a sedative, but just as surely it will act as a deadly poison. Know God, and know sin as against Him, and attain to some acquaintance with the mystery of the cross, then the plausible sophistries of rationalistic teachers will fail to draw thee aside from "the old paths" in which the fathers walked with God.
3. Only a heart in which there is love to God can be duly affected by viewing sin as against Him. Only from such a heart can true repentance flow. Let your prayer then be, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” (5)
The above sermon is abridged and was preached to the Free Church congregation in Dingwall, Scotland in 1883.
WESTMINSTER SHORTER CATECHISM
Q. 14. What is sin?
A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God. 
 Leviticus 5:17. And if a soul sin, and commit any of these things which are forbidden to be done by the commandments of the LORD; though he wist it not, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity. James 4:17. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. 1 John 3:4. Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
In closing, we can affirm:
Sin is defined in the Bible as a transgression of God’s law (1 John 3:4). It is missing the mark of God’s Holy Standards. When we sin, we sin against God Himself.
“Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:12)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1977) p. 1504.
2. Matthew Poole, Matthew Poole's Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), p. 488.
3. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, Romans, 9 Volumes, Romans, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, p. 92.
4. W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, (Iowa Falls, Iowa, Riverside Book and Bible House), pp. 1045-1047.
5. Rev. John Kennedy, D.D., What is Sin? A Sermon, 1883, Dingwall, Scotland.
“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. He served as an ordained ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He worked in and retired from a fortune five hundred company in corporate America after forty years. He runs two blogs sites and is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/
** CARM theological dictionary https://carm.org/dictionary-hermeneutics
**** Reformed answers http://reformedanswers.org/
***** MORMON THEISM, THE TRADITIONAL CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF GOD, AND GREEK PHILOSOPHY: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS by Francis J. Beckwith http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/44/44-4/44-4-PP671-95_JETS.pdf
Man as the image of God by Louis Berkhof http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/berkhof/systematic_theology.html#imago
The Original State of Man by A. A. Hodge https://www.monergism.com/original-state-man
St Augustine Confessions: https://jesus.org.uk/book_author/st-augustine/
At one time I heard a quote that a person was not truly educated if they have never read Augustine’s Confessions.