BIBLICAL CONCEPTS OF SIN
From the Wesleyan Theological Journal
KENNETH KINGHORN, Ph.D.
There is no precise biblical definition of sin. The Bible is concerned more with the remedy for sin than with a definition of sin. This study attempts to arrive at the biblical concepts of sin, and to show the relevance of these concepts in the contemporary world.
It is true of the doctrine of sin, as it is true of other doctrines, that the concept of progressive revelation is important. To arrive at a biblical view of sin is only possible after a study of the doctrine of sin in both Testaments. Only gradually does the doctrine of sin unfold throughout the centuries of God’s dealing with the human family. Even as a student gradually comprehends truth so the human family has only gradually grasped God’s teaching concerning sin.
In the Old Testament there are numerous Hebrew terms for the concept of sin; indeed, more than the terms for goodness. The enormous number of times sin is mentioned in the Old Testament is a fair index for its preoccupation with this theological doctrine. Most standard Bible dictionary articles on sin will show the peculiar difficulty in defining precisely the meaning of this array of words. The difficulty is increased because the Hebrew words have a secular as well as a religious meaning. Thus, one can best arrive at the doctrine of sin in the Old Testament by a study of the concepts it teaches, rather than by limiting oneself strictly to word study.
God’s early dealings with the Human family are progressive. Sin was first learned as something outward before it was learned as something inward. Sin was regarded in earliest times as an act. Sin as an act dominated the Hebrew concept. Although the sin of our first parents was certainly inward before it was outward, nevertheless, they were not punished until the deed became overt. Sin was seen as breaking a law or behaving in a certain way. The Hebrews first conceived of sin as an overt act of wrongdoing. The line was clear; it was a black or white issue. A more profound view of sin, although seen in germinal forms, was not generally understood at first.
This objective view of sin as an act is seen in the provisions connected with the Levitical law. Sins of ignorance were still sins because they were acts contrary to the command (Lev. 4:13, 14). Although they were sins of ignorance, they were sins, and they needed forgiveness. In Leviticus 5:17 it is said, “And if any one sin, and do any of the things which Jehovah hath commanded not to be done, though he knew it not, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity.” The ethical concept of sin is eclipsed here, and it is the legalistic concept which prevails. The central idea here is not the free will, but a law which is broken. By an ethical concept of sin is meant the involvement of 21 the human will in an act. By a legalistic concept of sill is meant the breaking of a rule, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
Developing at the same time, although slower to be understood is the concept of inward sins which are not manifested in outward acts. This is seen in the Deuteronomic law which holds one guilty of murder only if one killed willfully. Here, the motive is isolated from the act. Perhaps the tenth commandment is the best evidence for the concept of inward sin. God was teaching and preparing the soil for the later witness of men like Jeremiah and Ezekiel who insisted on the corruption of man’s heart (cf. Jer. 17:9).
It must be emphasized that there is no neat pattern of the development of the idea of sin to be found in the Old Testament. Some men like Enoch were greatly ahead of their age, and others like the legalists to whom the prophets ministered were behind their age. At the same time, there is a general growth of the understanding of sin which may be discerned in the Old Testament.
The covenant was another advance in the concept of sin. The covenant promises of God are contingent upon human obedience (Num. 15:30-31). Here the relationship is not to a law, but to a person. Man is in a covenant relationship with God, and sin is the breaking of this covenant. This is especially the witness of the prophets who insist that sin is a rebellion against God. Sin against God, or against one’s fellow man who is a member of the covenant people, is all ethically responsible act. Social sin and religious sin are both against God. Man’s relationship to God as a person is at the basis of the covenant. Sin is more than breaking a law, it is a defection from the one who gives the law. The prophets often say, “Thus saith the Lord,” not “This is the law.” External laws were seen as the will of Jehovah. Joseph understood this when he said “How can I sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). The Psalmist said, “Against Thee, and Thee only have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). The ethical concept of sin is prominent in the Old Testament (Prov. 4:23). Personal responsibility and the motive of the heart are emphasized. Indeed, one can sin even when he externally keeps the law.
The concepts of sinfulness and a sinful nature are also seen in the Old Testament. The Psalmist declares, “Behold I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5, 10). A keen awareness of the sinful state of the heart is evident. The more sensitive souls of the Old Testament understood sin as an inward principle which produced outward sin.
In the Old Testament a very serious account is taken of sin. Sin is universal (I Kings 8:46; Prov. 20:9; Ecc. 7:20; Job 4:17-21; Psa. 5: 130:3; 143:2), sin always destroys communion with God, (Isa. 59:2), and sin puts man in a hopeless situation (Hos. 13:9). Sin is not connected with man’s humanity, nor is sin inherent in the flesh. Man’s finitude is not sin (Gen. 1:27). 22
Thus, the concept of sin in the Old Testament develops progressively, although not steadily nor without lapses and setbacks. The New Testament completes the Old Testament concepts of sin.
By the time of Jesus the concept is well developed that sin may be more than an external breaking of the law. While Jesus does not discuss sin’s origin or nature, nevertheless, in some way He deals with this doctrine in almost all of His teachings and parables In the teaching of sin, as in other areas, Jesus came to complete and to fulfil. Jesus emphasized the attitude of the heart (Matt. 5:8). He insists that publicans and harlots may enter the kingdom of God before the moralistic Pharisees (Matt. 21:31). Sin has to do with one’s relationship to and fellowship with the heavenly Father.
To return again to the illustration of the student: in the elementary stages of teaching certain rules are given, as it were, in black and white. For example, in elementary grammar certain things may be done, and certain other things may not be done. But later, after the student matures, the teacher begins to unfold certain cases when the rules may be broken in order to produce a better piece of literature. The rules are to serve the literature, and literature is not to serve the rules. If certain of these legalistic concepts of sin are evident in the Old Testament, the New Testament interprets them in the spirit of the gospel. The New Testament in general and Paul in particular, seek to show the depths to which sin has penetrated human nature; and, at the same time, to show the remedy which grace affords. Sin in the New Testament is not primarily a breaking of a law or a covenant It is anything which interrupts one’s relationship with God.
This accounts for the primary New Testament witness that sin is known by the law (Rom. 3:20; 5:20). Paul observes, “Is the law sin? God forbid. Howbeit, I had not known sin, except through the law: for I had not known coveting, except the law had said, thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7). This does not mean that before the law one does not sin, it means that before the knowledge of the law, one is not guilty. “For until the law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom. 5:13; see also Gal. 3:19; I Tim. 1:9).
Sin is universally present in all persons, and one is made aware of this sin through the law. Thus, it seems to do violence to the Bible to assume all actions of men as bringing guilt simply because they fall short of the perfections of God. This is the mistake of many neoorthodox theologians. To call all of man’s deeds sinful because they are human is to blur the biblical concept of sin. (Adam was not sinful before his fall, although he was completely human.) Human infirmities are not sin, and are taken into account by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26). To make humanity coequal with sinfulness is to become almost, if not altogether, gnostic. On the other hand, sin may be present when one is not cognizant of it. Here is the point at which the concept of guilt is important. There may be sin, or transgression, without guilt. 23
Wesleyans have stoutly maintained that they do not hold to a sinless perfection. The obvious admission is, therefore, that in the best of men there is sin. But this sin does not bring guilt until it has the consent of the will. Yes, it is possible to sin without knowing it, and all such sin needs the benefit of Christ’s atonement. While any sin, be it a sin of the will, or a sin of ignorance-must be covered by the atonement, one may conceivably sin without culpability. Paul, writing to the Roman congregation, declares that all have sinned (hemarton, aorist) and fall short (husterountai, present) of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Obviously no one absolutely conforms to God’s perfect will. Jesus urges us to pray daily for forgiveness (Matt 6:12; Luke 11:4). No state of grace excludes these involuntary transgressions, and men need pardon constantly (Matt 6:12; 18:23 ff.; I John 1:8, 9).
Thus, if one insists on the statement that sin is a “willful transgression of a known law,” he must be prepared immediately to qualify it. For example, that which has traditionally been called original sin in infants is anything but willful. But one can say original sin without implying original guilt.
This is why the clarification of guilt is necessary when discussing sin. All guilt presupposes sin, but all sin does not presuppose guilt
If the question be raised, “But why call transgressions sin? Why not call them unfortunate human failings?,” the answer is that the biblical concept is that these are sins. Jesus does not limit sin to only a class of people in open willful rebellion to God. One of His most striking statements relates sinfulness to “righteous” men. He observes, “If ye then being evil . . .” (Matt 7:11). Elsewhere He has remarked that there is none good but God (Matt 19:17; cf. I Kings 8: 46; Prov 20:9; Gal. 3:22). To over-emphasize the subjective and ethical aspects of sin is to be in danger of the snare into which Abelard fell. Sin became, for him, relativistic and subjectivistic. Any act is sinful only if one willingly consents to evil. For him a deed is wrong only if one thinks it is wrong. Plainly, the conscience of man is not that trustworthy (I Con 8:7). Our guide must ever be “What saith the Lord?”
There must be some objective standard, and the scriptural terms most used for sin in the Old Testament (chattath) and in the New Testament (hamartia) give us help at this point. Sin is a missing of the mark or ‘a falling short. Indeed, this is the basic scriptural meaning for the term sin. However, as indicated, guilt comes only when one’s will consents to disobedience to, or neglect of, God’s will.
Anyone only slightly familiar with the history of Lutheran and Reformed doctrine recognizes that sin as falling short is basic as a definition. Those of Wesleyan persuasion do not feel that the definition of sin as anything less than the perfection of God is adequate. Wesleyans feel this definition overdraws the biblical concept, unless it is qualified. However, Wesleyans must be careful not to be too radical in their rejection of this definition in the face of the basic meaning of sin as a falling short or a missing the mark. To be driven to an extreme, and to insist that something is sin only if one believes it to be sin, is less than scriptural. The combined witness of the Lutheran and Reformed attempts to understand the biblical concept of sin must not be hastily branded with the cliche, “That is Calvinism.” One is always the loser if he fails to learn the motives of his Christian brethren, and fails to appreciate what they are seeking to say.
An example of sin as missing the mark follows. Suppose a person is engaging in a sin, and has done so for years because he has grown up in a certain social climate where this sin was common practice. The person is ignorant of the fact that this is sin, but in spite of his ignorance he needs the atonement. However, guilt is not attached to this sin until the person becomes enlightened as to the fact that he is engaging in sin.
It is not a case of either-or, that is, an objective view or a subjective view of sin. The two concepts, which are both biblical, must be kept in a tension. Any biblical view of sin must take into account the aspects of human volition and the failure to reach the mark.
Essentially, the biblical concept of sin is a wrong relationship with God. Anything in thought, deed, or disposition which disrupts one’s relationship with God is sin. This disrupted relationship with God may be a result of willful transgression, or it may be a result of one’s failure to continue to grow in grace and the knowledge of God. This harmonizes exactly with the basic meaning of the terms for sin- viz. to fall short, or to miss the mark. Sin is anything which disrupts one’s relationship with God.
Thus, there are two basic concepts of sin taught in the Scriptures. 1. There is the biblical concept of sin as willful transgression of the known will of God. This is the subjective view, often called the ethical view of sin. 2. There is also the biblical concept which emphasizes the falling short or missing the mark of a standard of God. This is the objective view often called the legal view of sin. It would seem that both concepts are biblical, and each concept is a part of the total truth. They must be held in tension because either view, if carried to an extreme, leads to error.
It must be emphasized that these two biblical concepts of sin need to be part of the present-day Wesleyan witness to contemporary society. First, Wesleyans need to keep sharp their traditional emphasis upon sin as willful transgression of the known will of God. Failure to keep this emphasis will lead to either of two evils. On the one hand, it can cause one to call every human act sinful because it is not sublimely perfect. The fallacy here has been noted. On the other hand, a failure to keep this emphasis sharp could lead to quite the opposite effect. It could lead to a rationalizing away of the sins in one’s own life. For example, when the conscience stabs for wrong doing, one may 25 tend to rationalize that the deed was not really willful after all, it was only a human infirmity. And instead of recognizing the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit in His conviction of a sinful act, one might only attribute such a stab of conscience to the Devil who is tempting one to doubt one’s Christian experience. This is a particular pitfall into which one who professes to be “free from sin” is especially in danger of falling. Such a mistake not only hinders spiritual progress but makes the voice of God in the soul only the voice of a doubting conscience. Instead of advancing God’s glory, this brings dishonor to His name. This is sin any way one looks at it. Any willful transgressions is sin– not error, not wounded id, not ignorance– but sin. No one in any state of grace is exempt from the possibility of willful sin in this life.
The second biblical witness that sin is a falling short of a mark is likewise relevant in today’s society. The earnest Christian must not be satisfied to hide behind the statement that “sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom. 5:13). Sanctification is infinitely more than crisis. It is also progress. There is need for all emphasis upon growth in Christlikeness in this life. All holiness admits of growth. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .” (Matt 5:3). That is, blessed is the one who sees the need of growth. If one wonders, “What does this have to do with a biblical concept of sin?,” let him hear the words of St. James: “To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (Jas. 4:17). To know of the possibilities of growth and to fail to progress in that growth is to miss the mark-it is to sin.
For example, the church is to be a light set upon a hill and any person, any church. or any movement which fails to be a light in this generation sins. Even as a light is seen only when it is taken from under a bushel and set upon a hill, so a Christian is effective as a witness only as he becomes involved in the age in which he finds himself. To fail to become involved in social issues is to miss the mark, it is to fall short. One must grow in his usefulness to God and man, and to fail to grow in this way is to sin. Twentieth century Christians dare not fall short of the mark of social effectiveness because of an exclusiveness. They dare not fall short of the mark of theological contribution because of a love of tradition more than a love of truth. They dare not fall short of meeting human need because of a preoccupation with methods. The biblical witness to sin as a falling short speaks a relevant note at the point of emphasizing the process of growth in sanctification– an emphasis in some places long overdue. To fall short of the growth which comes in progressive sanctification is sin.
We come finally to a definition of the biblical concept of sin. Sin is both willful transgression and a falling short. It is both objective and subjective, it is both ethical and legal. These concepts must be kept in tension. A failure to keep these in balance is to hold a concept of sin which is less than biblical. Sin is any deed, thought, or disposition which is destructive of one’s relationship with God.