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What Is a sin? Part 2 of series on sin

Copyright © 2007 Dorian S. Cole


Some think that maybe we need a new definition of sin. The word doesn't fit well into modern culture, and the notions about what sin is, don't fit either. Preaching sin, guilt, and punishment have commonly served to drive people away from the church, and to focus on the wrong things.

The related idea of being tolerant of each other doesn't fit well either. Divorce affects nearly half of marriages, and single heads of household are now over 50%, since we apparently prefer not to live together and tolerate each other. LGBTQ issues remain unresolved or rejected by many churches and religious people who are adamant that it can't be tolerated. The younger generation simply leaves the church and refuses to participate because it no longer seems relevant. Outsiders keep it at arms length. The church is slowly decaying, with attendance dropping steadily since 1900, with many people having no idea what the mission of the church is.

In this study on sin and iniquity, I look at the idea of sin, origins, and how it applies today.

Overview of sin

Is the meaning of sin, breaking some commandment? An action against God? An action against another person?

Before looking at types of sin, equality of sin, and if sins are still relevant, following is an overview of sin. Rather than direct quotes, I simply paraphrase to keep it short and easily understandable.

There are two first sins in the Bible - both with Adam and Eve and family. First, even though their action isn't labeled "sin," Adam and Eve eat the apple, even though God told them not to. They didn't have a red pill, blue pill choice. It looked edible, so they jumped to the conclusion it wasn't poison. The first sin was doing something otherwise innocuous, disobeying God. Who knew?! Eating an apple can have earth shattering consequences... and can also keep the doctor away.

The Adam and Eve story is an allegory meant to tell us something about human nature. It may not be historically accurate in the sense that there was a person named Adam. But it is a first story telling us about human nature and a relationship with God. It has been understood in many different ways. Some think it tells us about "original sin," and why we suffer as humans. But that's a bit literal. It tells us about human nature and that our activities often create our own suffering, and it could be that suffering is the result of the process of gaining knowledge of good and evil. (They ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.) We kick a bee's nest and then we suffer and learn not to do that anymore.

Learning is experiential

You can give people a list of rules and it is meaningless. You learn this especially with children. Rules are meaningless to them. We have cats at home. They know they are not allowed on tables and counters when we are present. They don't know or appreciate why, so when we're not present they get on the counters and tables.

Children do the same thing. They have no understanding or appreciation for why they should not do things, so when parents aren't present, or if tempted enough, they do them. "No," has no absolute meaning for children. It's conditional.

When people hurt other people, they learn that they suffer for it, and they learn not to do that action again. Experience is a very effective teacher.

Back to Adam and Eve. By the time their children Cain and Able had grown up, a new word came into being: sin. Boys will be boys. Men and women will be men and women. People will be people. We can assume this wasn't a surprise to God. There was absolutely need for a name for this new human experience.

Cain and Able made a sacrifice to God. God wasn't that pleased with Cain's. So Cain felt the appropriate thing to do was to eliminate the competition by smashing Able's head with a rock. "Sin!"

We don't know why, in Genesis 4, Cain's sacrifice of grain he had raised was not appreciated by God, nor why Abel's animal sacrifice was somehow better. Cain looked downcast, so God said to him, if you do well, won't you be accepted? If not, "sin" (chatta'ah: sin. חַטָּאָה) waits at your door. We see in this that God is more pleased by good behavior than sacrifice. This casts all of the future in a different light. Behavior is most important.

The word "acceptable" to God, is nothing special (seeth, שְׂאֵת). It's a very old word, as are all the words in this story, which shows it came from very ancient times (thanks MP). It means the person is cheerful, raised up in some way, exalted in rank or character, or dignity. So the person is elevated in God's evaluation.

So after Cain took Abel out in the field and killed him, God said to him, when you farm, the earth shall not produce for you, and you will be a fugitive and wander the earth. To this Cain replied that this punishment was too much. After all, people are replaceable. (OK, he didn't say that people are replaceable, even paraphrased. Politicians hadn't been invented yet.) Continuing, what he actually did say, you have driven me from your face, and everyone will want to kill me.

What was important to Cain was that he be more acceptable to God than Abel, and that he always be viewed as having great character by God. But as we so often do, he got it backwards. He substituded religious activity (making a sacrifice) for good behavior, then got horribly upset when the sacrifice wasn't greeted with high acclaim.

What does chatta'ah: (sin. חַטָּאָה) mean? Does it mean offending God? It means an offence that is worthy of punishment, even if the punishment is simply a sacrifice of something important.

On the surface, within this Adam and Eve, Cain and Able passage is presented four ideas. First, disobeying God is a sin that can have unforeseen repercussions that we may not understand. Second, do what is right and you are acceptable before God, and the obverse, if you do what is wrong you are not acceptable before God (although this is moderated by Christ). Acceptable is different from unacceptable. One is rejection. The other is elevation. Third, God says that Cain must rule over sin or it will rule over him. Fourth, sin is worthy of punishment, which can be separation from God and others (wanderer who others want to kill), or it can require the sacrifice of something important to you.

Sin and the new covenant

In Jeremiah 31:34, speaking of the time of Christ, "For I will forgive their wickedness (or iniquity) and will remember their sins no more." Why does Jeremiah use the word "iniquity," which is used in many other places in the Bible, such as "Psalm 89:32 I will punish their sin with the rod, their iniquity with flogging;..." I'm not sure which would be worse, the rod or flogging, but flog is a verb that carries the idea of a longer action. The word iniquity means immoral or grossly unfair behavior, as does wickedness, which means "the quality of being evil or morally wrong."

It's interesting that Jeremiah chose to apply forgiveness to two conditions: Sin and iniquity. Did sin apply more to the 613 Laws of the Bible for Jews, and breaking these was against God? The Prophets spoke mostly about people mistreating others - a more social approach. Is this why there are two terms? No, not really either meaning.

The words iniquity, immoral, gross unfairness, and wickedness can be used interchangeably. The meaning of immorality is, "Not conforming to accepted standards of morality." Morality means "Right and wrong or good and bad behavior." And just to be clear, moral means "concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character." Absent in all of these definitions is any reference to any particular kind of behavior. They are references to what groups or religions find immoral. What does the Hebrew Bible mean?

The word commonly translated iniquity (עָווֹן, avon - noun) is more about the life, character, and activities of the person. (See note 1 about Jewish interpretation of this.) It has a similar meaning as the word sin, but it's more about the perverse person who remains in sin. Some interpretations say twisting the will of God for selfish reasons. Where the word Pesha would mean, for example, a career criminal, or someone who is consistently cruel. It's someone who not only commits a sin, but does so continuously, as in crooked and loving it.

The Prophet Jeremiah said in Jeremiah 33 (NIV) about the New Covenant Christ would bring, "Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; forasmuch as they broke My covenant, although I was a lord over them, saith the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the LORD, I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people; and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying: 'Know the LORD'; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more."

A covenant is simply an agreement. Most agreements in the Bible take the form: "If you do this, I will do that." So God says in this new covenant, every person knows right from wrong - it's in your heart. For example, we all know when we have hurt others. Every person knows God.

Is ignorance of the law an excuse? Are all 613 Jewish Laws written in people's hearts? No, that's not possible. What is possible is that we recognize when we hurt someone, and we regret it. We recogize when we are ignoring God or speaking against him. We recognize that we have learned how to behave, and we don't (sin), or we rebel against it and keep doing it (Pesha). But the good news is that we will be forgiven if we ask and genuinely make an effort to stop our wrong behavior, even if we are career criminals, even if we repeatedly fail (70 times 7).


We're human, we do things that are wrong. We hurt other people. Sometimes these are small things, and we can even forget or dismiss them, or just say, "I'm sorry." Sometimes the things we do can hang around our necks for life, pulling us down, ruining relationships, and keeping us from living a better life. Sometimes these things just take over our lives and we keep doing them. So wrong and sin "waits at your door" to make you its slave. They become your life. But at the end of the day, or our life, we have learned the knowledge of right and wrong. Experience is a profound and often horrible teacher.

Today, we are under a new covenant. We don't have to ask people if they know God. They know God. And they usually understand if they have hurt someone, or turned away from God. We have Good News for us and them. God forgives the wrong things we do, if we will just ask and try to do better, no matter how bad our actions are, or how long we have done bad things. And we're not going to get flogged no matter what we have done. The court may throw us in prison, or send us to a doctor, but we have forgiveness. We can move on with our lives. God is impressed by our good behavior, which makes us acceptable, not so much by sacrifices we make to honor him. Either way we are forgiven.

*1. Hebrew words for sin: Pesha is interpreted as a rebellious sin, committed in defiance of God. Avon is interpreted as perverse sins meant to twist the will of God for selfish reasons, or uncontrolled emotion, but not to defy God. Avera means any type of sin. Cheit (chata'ah) is an unintentional sin, for which the person is not considered respnsible. Or to miss the mark, such as an archer aiming at a target but missing. It is the word most often translated as sin.

Covenants in the Bible Covenant, Biblical - Wikipedia

Teaching and Sermon Material Index

Next: Are all sins equal? types of sin, equality of sin, and if sins are still relevant

Series on sin index

Yours in Christ,

- Dorian

Author's Series on this Website

What is this thing called sin? Is it the same today as in 1200 BCE? Are all sins equal? Sexual morality. Sin and the future of the church.

What is the Bible about? Politics? Economics? What? What? What?

Transitioning: Five-part series explores coping with and embracing change. Includes why changes are normal but difficult, the courage to change, staying oriented, rediscovering ourselves, and rearchitecting our lives.

Freedom in Christ: Trapped by apocalypse and Rapture?

Spiritual Growth series: This series is well researched and looks at many aspects of spiritual growth from the point of view of faith. Topics include: Are spiritual and religious different? What is a spiritual journey? Are there signs of maturity and stages of growth? Spiritual development in Ancient Judaism. Spiritual development among the disciples. Discerning the path. My personal spiritual journey. Moral, Ethical, Legal - If it's legal, is it right?

Prophecy series: Seven secrets others don't tell you. This series is well researched and looks at many aspects of prophecy from the point of view of faith. Prophecy is explored in its cultural, historical, and eschatological context. Topics include: What does prophecy mean? What is the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord about? What does apocalyptic "trembling in our boots" prophecy mean? What does modern prophecy mean? What are our defining issues today, and can our values save us?

Author's series on Patheos.com:
New Generations Explore Faith

Series are excellent for group discussion.

The Bible and Religion in Context series Five-parts. Religion can become about being an institution or about what we want as individuals. For those who have their own agenda when reading the Bible, perception is the path to insanity and ruin. Before drilling down into the nitty gritty details of religion and doctrine, we need a good grounding in the nature of God. We can start with, “God is love.” We have to prove the truth of the way God has shown us is right and other ways are wrong. We learn from both. The really important thing to believe is that love is the right way. God breathes life into the words as we read.

What Does God Ask Of Us? Six-part series explores if God needs anything from us. The prophets tell us what God wants us to do. Jesus demonstrates God’s love that we’re to show others. The Apostles tell us explicitly what love is and isn’t. God loves us more than we can imagine.

Meaning and Purpose series – What is meaning? Six-part series explores what we find meaningful in our lives, how to guard against illusions and false gods, how to feel deserving, how to find purpose, and how to reinvent ourselves after change.

Working with new generations (Gen Z). Fourteen-part series explores 2000 years of endless change, church eras, the need for change, seven parts on LGBTQIA+, era of conscience and reassessment.

False Religion, True Religion. Eleven-part series on worshiping in spirit and in truth, and things that divert us from our path such as a focus on money and power, End Times prophecy, and how two churches spoken about in Revelation got distracted.

Don’t worry, be happy. Nine-part series explores things that make us unhappy, such as change, things that make us happy, and how to stay on top.

Why Pray? Series. Eleven-part series explores: What is prayer and who can use it?” (everyone). Unrealistic expectations. And criticism – can it be subjected to scientific studies and philosophical inquiries?

New Generations Walk with Jesus: The missions in a changing world. How do you minister to new generations who won’t step foot in a church because they can’t satisfy their spiritual needs there? You understand their needs and respond to those. This book by the author is available on Amazon in both print and ebook.


Author's Books - Nonfiction

New Generations Walk With Jesus

New Generations Walk With Jesus How to minister to new generations age 15 to 30 (ebook, Kindle, Paperback)

The Prophetic Pattern

The Prophetic Pattern. Guide to ancient prophecy - are we all going to die any day now?

Careers: future of work

Careers. Preparing For The Future Of Work And Education. (One year of research and writing.) Free.

Christian plays

Christian plays. and Childrens sermons.

How To Write A Screenplay

How To Write A Screenplay Free.
Basic Guide

Ontology of God

Appease The Volcano. Nature of God - What Does God ask of us. The development of religion.


Death By Christmas

Death By Christmas
Comedy. An unscrupulous lawyer blunders into Christmas with the wrong attitude.

Liars Truth

Liars Truth Fantasy. Second chance in Hell means rescuing others.

Nowhere Man

Nowhere Man Thriller. Pandemic. Waking nightmares, distorted time perception, comas with no cure.

Unauthorized Access

Unauthorized Access (series of 3) Legal mystery. People with endless problems hide the truth to protect others.

Total Immersion

Total Immersion New Adult. Romantic Comedy. Mature themes. Romance strikeout compels a man to fully immerse himself in a 3D environment.


Service and Aid Opportunities

"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” - John 13:35 (NASB)

Copyright © 2008 Dorian Scott Cole. Produced by TechGenie Media, LLC

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Material on this Web site is meant to be used in sermons, teaching, etc. You are welcome to make standard size quotations from this article with proper attribution (Dorian Scott Cole, One Spirit Resources Web site). This material is not public domain and may not be sold, mass distributed, published, or made electronically available in any form, without permission from Dorian Scott Cole.

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