Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

sin. Any action that destroys the basic covenant relationship between God and man, or between men. (See covet for an example.) Such actions lead to an inner sickness, also called sin and identified with death, especially in the letters of Paul. Ex. 34:9; Lev. 5:14; 1 Kings 15:26; Ps. 85:2; Isa. 1:18; Amos 5:12; Matt. 9:5; Luke 17:3-4; Rom. 5:12-13; 1 Cor. 15:3.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

sin, that which is in opposition to God’s benevolent purposes for his creation. According to the biblical writers, sin is an ever-present reality that enslaves the human race and has corrupted God’s created order. The concept of sin is first and foremost a religious concept, because all sin is ultimately against God, God’s laws, God’s creation, God’s covenant, and God’s purposes. It is the basic corrupting agent in the entire universe.

There are numerous Hebrew and Greek words used to designate sin in the biblical writings. Perhaps the most basic is a Hebrew word meaning ‘revolt’ or ‘transgression’ and indicating a deliberate act of defiance against God. This idea lies at the heart of the Genesis account of the beginning of sin (Gen. 3:1-7), where the essential problem lies in the desire of the humans to ‘be like God.’ All sin is an act of idolatry, the attempt to replace the Creator with someone or something else, usually one’s own self or one’s own creation. Paul understood this very well, as he indicates in Rom. 1:18-3:20: all humankind lies under condemnation because all are idolators of one type or another.

Manifestations: From this basic idea derive most of the other ideas connected with the attempt to describe the many different manifestations of sin. There is sin that is characterized by falling short of God’s requirements or ‘missing the mark’; there are cultic sins (failure to observe the ritual requirements), political and social sins, and ‘spiritual’ sins (e.g., envy, hate, etc.). In the nt, there is the ‘unforgiveable’ sin (against the Holy Spirit), which, in modern terms, might be paraphrased as an attitude or mind-set wherein a person willfully refuses to accept the forgiveness of sin offered by God through his Son (Matt. 12:22-32; Mark 3:19b-30; Luke 12:8-10; cf. also 1 John 5:16-17). There is sin implicit in the failure of a person to do right, especially toward one’s fellow human beings (e.g., Matt. 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31), the failure of a person to use God-given ability (e.g., Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-26), and there is sin even in ignorance, where one commits unconscious or inadvertent sin (e.g., Lev. 5). Perhaps the most heinous sins are those done ‘with a high hand’ (i.e., deliberately and arrogantly; e.g., Num. 15:30-31) and the sin of hypocrisy, especially among ‘religious’ persons (e.g., Matt. 23; Acts 5:1-11).

Universality: Because sin is such an integral feature of human experience, both individual and corporate, many people have argued for a doctrine of ‘original sin,’ i.e., sin that is ‘born into’ persons as human beings. There is no passage in the Bible that directly teaches such a doctrine, but there are many that certainly point to the universality and even inevitability of sin in human life. The ot prophets, for example, located the source of sin in the ‘heart,’ i.e., in the very depth of one’s being, the seat of volition and action (e.g., especially Jer. 5:23; 17:9-10; cf. Ezek. 36:26; Isa. 29:13). In the nt, Paul insists that ‘all people, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin’ (Rom. 3:9; cf. 1:18-3:20; 5:12-21). The words of the author of 1 John rise up in the face of any notion that sin can be totally overcome and avoided in this world: ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. …If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1:8-10).

Origin: As for the origin of sin, the ot writings have very little to say about the matter, the story in Genesis 3 being the only passage to speak directly to this issue. During the intertestamental period (ca. the last three centuries b.c.), however, many ideas were prevalent about the origin of sin. Most of the speculation focused on the story in Genesis 3 and the additional story in Gen. 6:1-4 about divine creatures having intercourse with human women. As a result of the development of later religious thinking regarding demons and Satan, many linked sin to an outside power that forced its way into the human situation. Others believed that humans were born with conflicting ‘inclinations,’ one toward good and one toward evil. These inclinations were constantly struggling to obtain controlling influence in each person’s life. In the nt, Paul related the sinful condition of the human race to the original transgression of Adam, insisting at the same time, however, that the result of sin (death) ‘spread to all people’ not simply because of Adam’s sin but ‘because all people sinned’ (Rom. 5:12).

God’s Activity: Whatever the origin of sin, the cumulative testimony of the biblical writers is that sin is universal, something that enslaves every person individually and that corrupts society collectively. Further, the enslavement of sin is something from which the human race cannot extricate itself by its own efforts. Perhaps the most persistent motif permeating the pages of the Bible is that of human sin and God’s activity in dealing with it. In the ot writings, the emphasis is upon God’s covenant with the Hebrew people, the establishment of a new relationship between God and the people such that all people could somehow learn about and enter into the proper divine-human relationship. In the nt writings, the emphasis is upon an even closer relationship between God and humankind through the new covenant in Jesus of Nazareth. Through Jesus, the Kingdom of God has been proclaimed and inaugurated, sinners have been forgiven and reconciled to God, and a new relationship has been established that will bring the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of all the biblical writers to fulfillment. This is to be accomplished through the work of God in Christ to break the enslaving power of sin and liberate people from its sway. People must, however, participate in the process and in the struggle (e.g., Rom. 7).


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
Top of page