“Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:17).
The primary word for sin in the Old Testament (chata) means to miss the point or to miss the mark. It was used of missing a target or losing one’s way, as well as the moral meaning of missing God’s standard of behavior or losing one’s way spiritually. The translators of the Old Testament chose a word in Greek that had the same basic meaning (hamartano). The final result of this process, across the years, was that New Testament writers transformed another form of the word (hamartia) into the idea of sin as the disposition of human nature. Sin in the singular, describing a mentality of alienation from God, came to predominate over the idea of sins, or specific violations of various laws. Sin against the law rather than sins against laws became the focus of attention.
This Christian idea of sin was in sharp contrast to the Greek idea of man as mortal, encumbered with a finite body, subject to error through ignorance. For the Greeks the problem was not moral; defects did not bring guilt; the gods were not offended. But the Bible taught that man is essentially morally flawed in his nature and that he is guilty before God as a result. The biblical concept of sin as an inner state for which a person is responsible is seen in three basic teachings about sin: sinful nature, sinful thoughts, sins of omission.
Sinful Nature. Most people believe one becomes a sinner if and when he commits sinful acts. The Bible puts it the other way around. The Bible teaches that man is a sinner by nature (Eph. 2:3) and that he sins because he is a sinner. According to Scripture, the root problem is not a poor environment, and it certainly is not the responsibility of another person such as a parent (Ezek. 18). The human heart is, from birth, inclined to evil. This does not mean that a person is incapable of doing anything good (Rom. 2:14). It does not mean that everything an unconverted person does is wrong (Acts 10:31). It simply means that people are fallen and do wrong things inevitably because it is their nature to do wrong. Thus before a person chooses deliberately to transgress a specific commandment, he has already “missed the mark,” fallen short in his inner being. It is from this polluted spring that flow streams of contaminated behavior. It is lack of conformity to the holy character of God that is the ultimate sin.
The Bible speaks of an evil heart (Heb. 3:12) that is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). Paul, in the most thorough analysis of sin, its origin, results, and cure (Rom. 1–8) identifies the root problem as a wrong heart.
Sinful Thoughts. Many believe that a person sins only if he commits sinful acts, but the Bible teaches that the inner thoughts are sinful as well (Matt. 5:28ff.; 15:18-19). Hatred is not wrong merely because it may lead to acts of violence. Hatred itself is sin. The underlying contention is that every lack of conformity to God means we fall short and sin. This includes lack of conformity in action, in motive and in affection.
Sins of Omission. We sin also by failing to do what we ought. All have sinned, to be sure, but also all are continuously falling short of the glorious character of God (Rom. 3:23). “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Here Paul does not speak of a positive choice to think or do evil, but clearly teaches that failure to measure up to the right is sin. It is not only sinful to actively hate my neighbor; it is sinful to fail to love him as I ought. I am commanded to love as Christ loved; when I do not, I have not merely demonstrated a morally neutral personality weakness, I have sinned.
The sin offering for sins of ignorance (Lev. 5:14-15), the trespass offering for sins of omission (Lev. 5:5-6), and the burnt offering to expiate general sinfulness (Lev. 1:3; cf. Luke 2:22-24) all witness that sin is not confined to mere act.
It is significant that the Westminster divines, in answering the catechism question “What is sin?” began with sins of omission, rather than sins of transgression: “Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.”
Biblical sin, then, is not just sin against men but sin against God; not just sinful behavior but a sinful nature; not just sinful activity but sinful thoughts; not just sins of violation but sins of omission, falling short of likeness to God.
Who can stand before such a standard? “Wretched man that I am!” we cry with Paul. His picture of the titanic struggle with sin (Rom. 7) was surely not the battle to refrain from theft and murder. No, it was the warfare within, his total inability to measure up to God’s standard, to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). He stood condemned and guilty, though he testified of keeping the law perfectly (Phil. 3:6).
Sin And Guilt. Sin in Scripture is almost indistinguishable from guilt. There was never a sharp distinction to the Hebrew between sin and guilt. One is guilty of violating God’s standard when he may not even know of it. The plea of ignorance does not excuse. The involuntary, unconscious moral deficiency of one’s disposition brings guilt.
There are two elements of guilt: blameworthiness and obligation to suffer punishment. Christ assumed our obligation to suffer punishment and thus cleansed our guilty record. But he was never worthy of blame. In fact, his innocence is what qualified him to stand in place of the guilty. As a result, those who have been redeemed will never have to pay the penalty for sin (are guiltless in the legal sense) but are nevertheless guilty in the sense of being blameworthy. It is the glory of God’s grace that we who are blameworthy, guilty sinners have the just results of our sinfulness set aside. God today does not see us as weak, failing, guilty sinners, but as pure and innocent and holy as the one who took our place. But to understand the glory of grace, we must first understand the wicked depth of iniquity in that corrupt nature on which God’s grace has fallen. We are more guilty today than ever — we have sinned and are blameworthy. But we are guiltless today, free from any obligation whatsoever to pay for our sin. Jesus paid it all.