What is a “sin”?
The most basic definition of sin is in
1 John:3:4: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law” (King James Version, emphasis added throughout).
Here God defines a boundary for mankind. He says that sin is transgressing His holy, spiritual law (Romans:7:12-14). Breaking that law—crossing that divine boundary, that limit God set for us—is sin.
When we look at 1 John:3:4 in other translations, we see another important perspective. Here’s how the New King James Version translates this verse: “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.” The word translated “lawlessness” is the Greek word anomia, meaning without law or against law.
The concept conveyed here is that sin is active violation of God’s laws and basic moral principles. This refers to actions that are not just outside the bounds of God’s law, but actions that are in deliberate rebellion against those laws—deliberately trampling on and rejecting that boundary.
God gave humanity His laws to show us His way of love. Those laws define how we demonstrate love to God and our fellowman (Deuteronomy:30:15-16 ; Matthew:22:35-40;1 John:5:3). Sin is violation of that law of love. God showed us a way to live in peace and harmony with Him and with mankind and defined this way of life by His law. When we sin, we violate or transgress that boundary and break God’s law.
Now for the Broader definition of sin:
We have seen one standard God has set for mankind: He expects obedience to His laws. God’s law defines acceptable behavior and actions, and, when we break the standard of God’s law, we step across the bounds He has set. But has God set other boundaries for us, other ways in which He defines sin? What about actions and behavior that aren’t covered by specific laws?
In 1 John:5:17 we find a much broader definition of sin:
“All unrighteousness is sin . . .”
Other Bible versions help us more fully understand the meaning:
“Every wrong action is sin” (Twentieth Century New Testament)
“Every act of wrong-doing is sin” (Phillips Modern English).
“Any kind of wrongdoing is sin” (Weymouth New Testament in Modern Speech).
“All iniquity is sin” (Moffatt Translation).
The basic thrust of this scripture is that, if any action or behavior is wrong, it is sin. The word translated “unrighteousness,” “wrong action,” “wrongdoing” and “iniquity” in these versions is the Greek adikia.
The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words defines this word as:
“action that causes visible harm to other persons in violation of the divine standard” (Lawrence O. Richards, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1985, “Sin”).
Other meanings of this word and its verb form are
“evildoers,” “dishonest,” “unjust,” “wickedness,” “to be unfair,” “to harm,” “to mistreat,” “to hurt” and “to wrong [another person]” (ibid.).
These meanings go beyond just physical deeds and actions and cross over into attitudes and motives for our actions and what goes on in our minds. They involve what we think. We see the beginnings of a different standard, one that involves not just what we do but what we are.