Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. ~ Lutheran Service Book, Divine Service, Setting One
Sin is a basic concept of Christianity. Christians speak about how we have sinned and how we need forgiveness from sin. Yet, Christians are inordinately bad at explaining sin. As a consequence, many non-Christians struggle with the concept of sin...or discount it all together. They equate sin with some action that society considers wrong. So, some people believe that as long as they don't lie, cheat, steal or kill they haven't sinned.
This understanding of sin is shallow and unbiblical. So, how can we describe what sin is to others in a way that is Biblical and which non-Christians can readily grasp?
The Biblical Words for "Sin"
To begin with, what is the source of the word "sin"? Several words have been translated as "sin" in the Bible. The first and principle word used in the Old Testament is "חַטָּאָת" or "chaTTa'th" which is defined as "a miss, mis-step, slip of the foot." As noted by John Oakes, Ph.D., the word "chaTTa'th">:
The word chatta'ah (Strong's concordance word #02403) means sin, miss the way, go wrong, incur guilt, and so forth. The sense of the Hebrew word includes both willful going against what one knows is right and accidentally going against the divine order of things.
But "chaTTa'th" is not the only Old Testament word for sin. As Oakes explains:
The second most common word for sin in the Old Testament is the word pesha. This word is most commonly translated as transgression, but it is also translated as trespass or sin. The word pesha has a connotation of breaking a rule that has been established.
A third word which is translated sin from the Hebrew is avon. This word means carries a connotation of perversion or depravity. It is most commonly translated as iniquity. The word avon carries a sense of willful or continuing sin. For example one finds both of these words used in Isaiah 59:2, "But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear." In this passage, avon (iniquities) and chatta'ah (sins) are used in a parallel form.
The New Testament, being written in Greek, adopts a different word that is translated as sin, but it bears much of the same meaning as the word "chaTT'ah". This principle Greek word is "ἁμαρτία" or "hamartia." As Oakes further explains:
The common Greek word for sin used in the New Testament is hamartia. This word derives from a technical word used in archery. It literally means to miss the mark. It can be used to express willful rebellion against God as well as making a mistake and falling short.
What is a Comprehensive Understanding of Sin?
As seen above, the idea of sin often involves missing something. Both of the principle words used for sin in the Old and New Testaments involve "missing" in their definition. But exactly what is it that we are missing that constitutes sin? The answer is that we are missing God's perfect way.
Look at it this way: the Bible teaches that God is perfect. (Psalm 18:30, Matthew 5:48) As the creator, He is the source of all that is good, right and just in this universe, and in all of these he is perfect. This leads to a little syllogism:
Premise 1: If God is perfect, what He would do, say and/or think in a given situation is perfect.
Premise 2: God is perfect.
Conclusion 1: Therefore, what God would do, say and/or think in a given situation is perfect.
Thinking logically, if what God would do, say and/or think in a given situation is what is perfect, then whenever anyone does, says and/or thinks that is different than what God would do, say and/or think in any given situation is necessarily acting in a manner that is not perfect. And perfection is the mark that we are trying to hit. (Matthew 5:48) So, when we act in a way that is inconsistent with what God, the perfect being, would do then we are missing the mark, i.e., we are sinning.
C.S. Lewis said, "Whatever is not of faith is sin; it is a stream cut off — a stream that cuts itself off from its source and thinks to run on without it." God is the source. He calls on us to follow Him and to follow in His ways. Yet, we are not perfect, and the major way we demonstrate our imperfection is to stray from God's ways. To paraphrase the Lutheran confession, we depart from God's perfect ways in thought, word and deed; by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We do so because we want to be our own gods. We think we know better. We want to be in charge. And whenever we do so, we stray from the truth and from the ways of perfection.
The easiest way to explain sin is to speak in terms of the New Testament's "missing the mark." Most often I use a whiteboard or a piece of paper to draw a target. I make sure that the bullseye on the target is small. I ask the person to imagine themselves shooting an arrow at the target as a test of their archery skill. What is the mark that the person needs to hit? It is the bullseye. What happens if the person comes close to the bullseye (such as the next outer ring) but doesn't hit the bullseye? Sorry, but this isn't horseshoes, hand grenades or atom bombs -- close isn't hitting the mark.
a. Missing the Mark by Wrongful Actions, Words or Thoughts
Now there are two ways you can miss the mark when testing your archery skills. The first is to fire the arrow and not hit the bullseye. In other words, the results of the shot itself are imperfect. The same is true when it comes to following God. We miss the mark when we do something (an act) that does not perfectly follow God's will. This is the most common understanding of sin, so people have little difficultly accepting this. If they are wondering what actions fail to follow God's will, you can easily go to the Ten Commandments to show some specific examples of what actions God says is wrong - stealing, murdering, lying, coveting, dishonoring of mother and father, etc.
The trick comes to making the people realize that it is more than actions that can be condemned. Missing the mark includes saying the wrong things. Jesus taught in Matthew 15:11 that "it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person." He further added in verses 18-20,
But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.
We also miss the mark, and therefore sin, in our thoughts. Jesus made this clear when he said that the commandment against adultery (Exodus 20:14) is not violated just when a person commits the physical act of adultery. Rather, the commandment is violated when a person looks at another person with lust. (Matthew 5:28) Likewise, one does not need to physically kill another person to violate the commandment prohibiting murder (Exodus 20:13). Rather, "everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire." (Matthew 5:21-22)
Why is it that these things are sin? Because they are places where we depart from what God would do, say or think in the same circumstances.
b. Hitting the Mark the Wrong Way
The other way you can miss the mark is harder for people to see. Suppose that an archer is supposed to hit the bullseye with his arrow. The archer, rather than trying to shoot the arrow into the bullseye, carries the arrow to the target and plants it in the bullseye. Has the archer really hit the bullseye? Well, yes, but everyone would agree that the archer violated the spirit of what she was supposed to be doing.
Looking at doing good, we can also hit the mark with what we do or say, but ultimately miss the mark, and therefore sin, because we are not doing it the right way or with the right motivation. This second way is to miss the mark with respect to the thought that goes into the action. Under this standard, what a person does can appear to be good, i.e., in line with God's perfect way, but can still be a sin because done for the wrong motive.
Suppose that I see a homeless individual begging for food. God would have us feed that homeless individual since we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Let's suppose that I feed the person, but I do so because I want to want to impress the woman I am dating by putting on a display of generosity. Have I really done anything good? Jesus said that I would not be good in God's eyes if my motivation for doing good is to gain praise for myself.
"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ~ Matthew 6:5-6
This is not a surprise. Everyone intuitively recognizes that doing what is otherwise good for the wrong reasons is no virtue. Sure, we'd rather have the person do the good thing even if it is for the wrong reasons, but it doesn't change the intuitive sense that there is something unseemly when the motive for the good is less than altruistic. And so it is with doing good in the ultimate sense. The action may be seen as good, but if the motivation is wrong then it is still sin because it departs from God's perfect ways.
Sin is not synonymous with evil in the commonly understood sense. After all, my decision to feed the poor, even if it is done for selfish reasons, is not seen as evil in our world. But when discussing sin, the question is not what is really bad as compared to just somewhat bad. Instead, the question is whether the person has perfectly followed God's law in thought, word and deed. Hopefully these thoughts will help someone in communicating more clearly exactly what that means.