Most people assume the Bible has a lot to say about how messed up humans are, and that’s true. It’s also true that the Bible’s vocabulary about this topic sounds odd to modern people, using words like sin, iniquity, or transgression. And so the Bible’s perspective on the human condition is often ignored or treated as ancient and backwards.
This is really unfortunate because through these words, the biblical authors are offering us a deeply profound diagnosis of human nature. Iniquity describes behavior that’s crooked, while transgression refers to breaking trust, and sin? This is actually the most common of these “bad words” in the Bible. So let’s focus on it for a few minutes.
The Hebrew Word Khata [00:45-02:54]
Sin translates the Hebrew word khata‘ and the Greek word hamartia. The most basic meaning of sin isn’t religious at all. Khata’ simply means “to fail,” or “miss the goal.” Like when the Israelite tribe of Benjamin trained a small army of slingshot experts, they could sling a stone at a hair and not khata’, that is, fail or miss1 Or there’s a biblical Proverb that warns against making hasty decisions because you’re likely to khata‘ your way, miss your destination.2
So in the Bible, sin is a failure to fulfill a goal. But what’s the goal? Well, on page one of the Bible, we learn that every human is an image of God, a sacred being who represents the Creator and is worthy of respect. And so in this way of seeing the world, sin is a failure to love God and others by not treating them with the honor they deserve.
You can see this idea in the famous code of conduct given to the Israelites, the ten commandments. Half of them identify ways you can fail at loving God, and the other half name ways you can fail at loving people. And the fact that both kinds of failure are combined shows that failing to honor God is deeply connected to failing to honor people.
This is why, in the Bible, sin against people is sin against God. Like when Joseph refuses to sleep with the wife of Potiphar, he says, “How could I sin against God?”3 In Joseph’s mind, failing to honor a human made in God’s image is a failure to love God. And so sin is a failure to be truly human. But there’s more.
A fascinating thing about sin in the Bible is that most of the time that people are failing, they either don’t know it, or even worse, they think they’re succeeding, like when Pharaoh wants to build Egypt’s economy and protect national security. In his mind, this justified enslaving the Israelites. He thinks it’s good, and he’s totally unaware that it’s an epic fail.4 Or when King Saul is chasing David around the wilderness trying to kill him, he thought he was bringing a criminal to justice, until he realizes he’s the corrupt one. And he says, “I have sinned. I am the failure.”5. So sin is about more than doing bad things. It describes how easily we deceive ourselves and spin illusions to redefine our bad decisions as good ones.
Why Do Humans Sin? [02:55-04:30]
So why are humans such bad judges between moral failure and success? Well, the first appearance of the word sin in the Bible offers an insight. There are these two brothers, Cain and Abel. Their parents had just given into this beastly temptation to redefine good and evil by their own wisdom, and now Cain is faced with a similar choice. He’s jealous and angry that God has favored his brother, and so God warns him. “If you don’t choose what is good, khata’ is crouching at the door. It wants you, but you can rule over it.” So in these stories, sin, or moral failure, is depicted as this wild, hungry animal that wants to consume humans. And we know how that story ends.
The Bible is trying to tell us that failed human behavior, our tendency towards self-deception, it runs deep. It’s rooted in our desires and selfish urges that compel us to act for our own benefit at the expense of others. And it leads to this chain reaction of relational breakdown.
This is why, in the New Testament, the apostle Paul describes hamartia as a power or a force that rules humans6. In his words, “We are slaves to sin.”7 He even says, “sin lives in us,” so that “the things I don’t want to do, that’s what I do!”8.
So with the word sin, the biblical authors are offering a robust description of the human condition. It’s a failure to be humans who fully love God and others. It’s our inability to judge whether we’re succeeding or failing. And it’s that deep selfish impulse that drives much of our behavior. This is not a pretty picture of ourselves. But if we’re honest, it’s realistic.
Jesus, the True Human [04:31-05:15]
This is why in the Bible, the story of Jesus is such good news. He’s depicted as the Creator become a truly human one, who did not fail to love God and others, that is, he did not sin. And yet he took responsibility for humanity’s history of failure. He lived for others, and he died for their sins. And he was raised from the dead to offer them the gift of his life that covers for their failures. Or in the words of the apostles, “He committed no sin, yet he carried our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to our sins and live to do what is right.”9.
And that’s the story behind the biblical word for sin.