One of the strategies of the Evil One is to try and convince us that sin is no big deal. He wants to convince us that “sin” is just a handful of harmless things that prudish church people don’t like. He says, “Nobody knows. Nobody sees. And even if they do, it doesn’t matter, because no one will be hurt.” Don’t believe that for a second. God is opposed to sin—its state and its acts—not because it is distasteful but because it is murderous and destructive (James 1:14–15).
Sin is a word and concept that many Christians have grown so familiar with that they risk forgetting all that it means. Like a word we’ve turned over in our minds so many times that it has begun to seem unreal, the idea of sin can seem totally disconnected from our experience. We need sometimes to be reminded of what sin is and of its real, destructive power.
Sin is not merely a word for a bad deed. It is primarily a condition, a state of being. “Sin,” says the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”1 It is an “estate whereinto man fell” that can be properly described as “a corruption of his whole nature … together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.”2 Sin, in other words, describes the way human beings are, and it describes what they do as a result—and its most basic feature is that it puts human beings at odds with God and His good design.
One way we can help ourselves to see the reality behind a word is to examine the words that are nearest to it in meaning. The New Testament uses a number of terms to describe what we call sin. Understanding some of the most common ones can help remind us of sin’s many facets and why its impact on our life is so significant.
Five New Testament Words for “Sin”
Aside from a few Aramaic and Hebrew words and phrases, the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. Drawing from this language, the biblical writers used five words in particular that give us a strong picture of what sin is.
First, there is hamartia, which is most often translated as simply “sin.” This word can describe sin in all its forms. Etymologically, it portrays a picture from archery of having missed the target. It is because of our hamartia that we have all fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), failing to live up to the standard for which we were made. In our fallen nature, we sin and are in sin because we are not (yet) what we ought to be.
Second, there is parábasis, which is often translated “transgression.” This word describes willful sin that is a particular violation of God’s standards of righteousness. It means a stepping across the line. If God has drawn a line in the sand by giving us His law, then human beings have deliberately crossed it by breaking the law. People sin and are in sin because they know what they ought to do, and they do otherwise.
Third, there is paraptōma, which is translated a number of ways, including, “sin,” “trespass,” and “offense.” Historically, its meaning carries the idea of slipping up or falling away.