Monday, June 27, 2022

Anonymous Asks (203)

“Why does the Bible use so many different words to describe sin?”

John Walvoord writes that there are thirty-three different Greek words translated as some version of “sin” in the New Testament. I won’t try to rehash his study, but it should be fairly obvious from the sheer number of ways the writers of scripture describe it that sin is a big subject.

Properly understanding sin demands we look at it from multiple angles.

Familiar Territory

Here are some of the more familiar Bible words for sin:

  • The Hebrew ḥāṭā' and Greek hamartanō both mean “missing the mark”. Both words refer to the act of sinning. Sin is an umbrella word that signifies the failure to meet God’s righteous standard. When we read in Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, this is precisely what Paul has in view. It doesn’t matter much if you come quite a bit closer to the mark than I do, with respect to hitting the target we have both failed.
  • The word “iniquity” in the Old Testament is best understood as referring to the weight of responsibility that sin produces and the legal consequences that follow from it. In Hebrew this is ʿāôn. Therefore we read expressions like “bear his iniquity” (to be appropriately punished), or “visit the iniquity” (do the punishing), or the “iniquity of Peor” (the consequences that followed Israel around for years after the sins they committed there). The writers of the New Testament pick up some of these verses about iniquity and substitute the Greek adakia for ʿāôn, which carries the sense of injustice or unrighteousness rather than guilt and punishment. Both are sinful but in different ways.
  • Where sin is missing the mark, a “trespass” [māʿal] is crossing a line. It is to take, destroy or violate something that belongs to another. For example, Achan missed the mark all right, in that he fell short of what God wanted for him, but he also violated a direct commandment when he stole things devoted to God. He committed a trespass. So did Eve in the Garden of Eden. The original sin was a trespass.
  • The word “offense” also occurs frequently in scripture, sometimes translating the Hebrew 'āšam. Rather than viewing sin as a failure of aim, stepping over a line or incurring an obligation, this word has to do with sin as an agent of destruction. Sin ruins lives. The word is sometimes translated “do injury” or “become desolate”.
  • “Lawlessness” is yet another way of describing sin, similar to the trespass but not identical. The Greek word used by John is anomia. One may break a law because one is deliberately violating it, or one may break it because one is ignorant of particular laws, or even of the concept of law itself. Literally, anomia is the condition of being outside the law. The lawless man simply does not take the law into account. He behaves as pleases him without consideration of rules.
  • On the other hand, “guile” is a word that refers to sneakiness [Heb: ʿārmâ, Gk: dolos] or deliberate cleverness in accomplishing one’s (presumably evil) end. Nathanael apparently did not possess this quality, which the Lord said made him a “true Israelite”, and probably fairly unusual as well. He was not endlessly calculating, but simply said what he believed to be true. Rather than describing the effect of the sin, “guile” describes the mindset of the sinner.

Needless to say, there’s plenty more where those came from. There is also a fair bit of overlap in the way most of these words are translated, rather than a one-to-one correspondence between a single word in the original language and a single word in English. Some writers of scripture use words more loosely than others.

Why So Many?

Obviously it is beyond the scope of this post to attempt to catalog all the ways the writers of the Bible refer to sin, but these six should be adequate to demonstrate why we need all sorts of different words to describe sinful thoughts, behaviors and the consequences that ensue from them. A legal trespass is not the same as an offense against God’s person committed in ignorance. The guilt and punishment conveyed in the word “iniquity” have no place in the life of the believer, for whom Christ died, bearing all past, present and future debts he may incur. The inevitable failure to measure up to a perfect standard is not the same as deliberately overstepping a boundary and hurting others. We need all the words scripture uses in order to really understand the gravity of those things we do every day and which most of the world happily excuses.

More importantly, we need these words — all these different words — to understand why it was necessary for Christ to die. A better understanding of the magnitude and severity of sin brings with it the awareness of all that we have been forgiven, and a greater appreciation of the one who made forgiveness possible.

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