What is Sin?

Woman CIA

There was a man whose words and actions rocked the world, telling a woman caught, or more precisely, who was set up and exposed in the act of adultery. The leaders of this religion brought her to Jesus, expecting to have her stoned or have Jesus discredited in front of the crowd.

Seeing the entire situation, Jesus just wrote some words in the dust; and interestingly, after he said, “whoever has not sinned could throw the first stone,” they left, one-by-one, the oldest first, until everyone had gone. Only the woman remained; and He told her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” This sentence and this story are so shocking that many manuscripts left it out, and you only find it written down in the book of John and not the other gospels.

But can you believe that God Himself could utter those words? It seems so out of character for someone who had 180,000 Assyrian soldiers killed for surrounding and threatening His people, or for someone who had a man stoned for not keeping the 7th-day holy. The paradox expands when Jesus says He is only saying and doing what the Father would do. He said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.”

To a person like me with a list of sins too long to keep track of, what Jesus said to this woman is unbelievably good news. Jesus showed that God is truly loving and forgiving.  But it begs the question, what sin is He forgiving, or more generally, what is sin? Is the definition cut and dried?

What is sin?

I’ve been told by some that sin is breaking the 10-Commandments, but I’ve heard too that sin is a rebellious attitude. Are those the only definitions for sin in the Bible? Let’s pull on that thread and see what unravels.

I searched the Scriptures for clues and found these definitions in the New King James Version:

  1.  If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally by doing something against any of the commandments of the Lord in anything which ought not to be done, and is guilty, (Leviticus 4:27).
  2. Speak to the children of Israel: ‘When a man or woman commits any sin that men commit in unfaithfulness against the Lord, and that person is guilty, then he shall confess the sin which he has committed. (Numbers 5:6-7).
  3. In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong. (Job 1:22)
  4. Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. (1-John 3:4)
  5. Everything that does not come from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23)
  6. Therefore, to him that knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin. (James  4:17)
  7. All unrighteousness is sin (1 John 5:17)
  8. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:7-11).


The word sin occurs hundreds of times in the New King James Version of the Bible, and there are stories as well as these spelled out definitions of sin. In one case, Moses sinned against the Lord by striking a rock instead of speaking to it as God had commanded, and God said that Moses broke faith, or failed to trust in Him; Moses failed to show God’s goodness and misrepresented God.

Sin seems to have many dimensions and take on different forms. It also seems to change subtly depending on the person’s current relationship with God. The 10-Commandments were given to the sons of Jacob at Mt. Sinai after living 420 years in slavery, and they were clearly debased. Their definition of sin was–don’t break the 10-Commandment rules; but later, when talking to different groups of people, Paul and Jesus and James described sin in terms of relationships and attitudes, in matters of the heart: “because they don’t believe in Me”, “to him that knows to do good and does not do it”, “sin is lawlessness”, and, “everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

Two levels

I like to explain sin using two levels. First, the big sin, the sin that causes all others, is when we reject our heavenly Father, such as when Adam and Eve rejected God in the garden and chose to believe a snake. They rejected their Father’s gentle leadership, accepting a tyrant instead, and in doing so they destroyed their self-esteem and all that goes with it. Or when we reject God as atheists. Those sins create a tsunami of other sins in their wake. With our true identity masked we compensate in a million ways; covering our insecurities we lie, we cheat, we steal, we blame, we hate, and we kill. We end up doing all those “don’ts” covered in the 10-Commandments. It’s like we are in a lifeboat thinking there is only one seat, and we throw each other out with our lies and evil deeds.

So, sin can be defined in different ways depending on the situation but they are all true. For Moses, sin was not trusting God to be gracious. To James, it was knowing the good we should do and not doing it. And in Jesus’ Garden of Gethsemane speech, sin was rejecting Him, the Author and Finisher of our faith.

What about you and me?

What sins are you faced with, the mechanical slips of the tongue or the more deep-seated sins of total rejection or the–knowing what you ought to do, but not doing it–sin? When I ponder that question I have to answer, all of the above. At times I wonder, if I’d been faithful my entire life, what would I be like, and what would my career have been? Certainly, I’d be much better than I am, right? Other times I dwell on my dismal failures, spiraling down in self-pity only to remember this story and Jesus’s response, “neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” Jesus didn’t even rebuke the slimy crowd who put her up to the deed.

Over the years I’ve learned to admire and then love the God of the Bible. What started out as a scary chance, turned out to be the chance of a lifetime. And every time I read about the woman caught in adultery, I’m amazed at how forgiving and loving God is and how much He loves—even me.

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