Staff & Sling

Joseph E. Hébert, Ph.D.

98119 N 3745 Rd
Okemah, OK  74859
918 623 3078


Sin must be one of the most fundamental words in all Christendom. But how many have ever really thought about what it means? What is sin? Is it really just as simple as breaking a divine law? Moreover, what does scripture tell us about sin? How does our understanding of sin, our perspective of sin, compare with God's? I think most would intuitively agree that we do not see sin the way God does. After all, we lack the divine perspective. But we do have His Word which describes for us His perspective, if we will only hear. So as always, let's look to the Bible.

Consider the sins we think of as the worst. We think of the worst sins as being things like murder, adultery, theft, followed perhaps by bearing false witness. But when it comes to the sin of pride, ..., well, many people don't even think of it as necessarily sinful. Almost everyone will try and rationalize pride in such a way as to excuse their own. Or what about taking the Lord's name in vain? Pay attention and try to notice how many times you hear someone use the name "God" or "Jesus" as an exclamation. It's so commonplace on television that it's easy not to notice, and few even recognize it as sin.

Did you notice the difference in the sins that we thing are worse? All the sins that we think of as the worst are the sins that are committed against us. Murder is not a sin against God, it's a sin against man. Likewise adultery is not a sin against God. It's a sin against your spouse. Theft, even bearing false witness, these are sins that others commit against people. And these are the sins that people think of as the worst.

But the sin of pride is a sin against God. Taking God's name in vain is a sin against God. Idolatry, whether worshipping a statue or a sports team, is a sin against God. Worshipping false gods, whether the false gods of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, or the false god Nature of paganism and secular humanism, is a sin against God. But these sins we hardly even notice, and try desperately to rationalize if we do.

Does the idea that not all sins are against God surprise you? Consider Jesus' own words. "And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her," (Mark 10: 11; emphasis added). Paul also wrote, "Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body," (I Corinthians 6: 18; emphasis added). Some sins are against God, some are against others, and it's even possible to sin against one's own self.

No doubt many think that all sins are equally bad. However, not only is this idea unsupported in scripture, it is explicitly refuted by Jesus the Christ Himself. James does tell us, "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all," (James 2: 10). But note carefully that this does not say that all sins are of equal gravity. Now consider what Jesus told Pilate. "Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin," (John 19: 11). So do you see? Some sins are worse than others.

Now I ask you. Which is the greater sin? Is it worse to sin against one's own self, against another man, or against God?

So how does God see sin? How does His Word describe sin? There are six (6) Hebrew root words in scripture which are translated into the English word "sin." They are 7:5 (peh-shin-ayin) pronounced "pesha," !)( (chet-tet-aleph), pronounced "ket," 0&7 (ayin-vav-nun sofit) pronounced "avon," %:7 (ayin-shin-he) pronounced "asah," .:! (aleph-shin-mem sofit) pronounced "asham," and ##: (shin-gimel-gimel) pronounced "shagag." And there are Greek words with corresponding meanings in the New Testament, but for our purpose (to better understand what sin is) it will suffice to consider the Hebrew words.

Now I said that there are six (6) Hebrew words which translate into the English word "sin." There is a seventh Hebrew word which is spelled "Sin" (note the upper case) in the English Bible, but it is transliterated, not translated, into English. In other words, it is a Hebrew word spelled with English letters for English readers. It doesn't mean the same thing as the English word "sin," but it appears in scripture so let's get it out of the way first, just to avoid any potential confusion.

The Hebrew word 0*2 (samech-yod-nun sofit) is spelled "sin" in the Bible, but it has nothing to do with the English word "sin." It's just a coincidence that it's spelled the same. It means "cliff," and is used as a proper noun, the name, for a desert area just east of the Gulf of Suez. You will find it mentioned in scripture in Exodus 16: 1, again in Exodus 17: 1, and also in Numbers 33: 11, 12. Finally, you will find it again used as a proper noun in Ezekiel 30: 15, 16, but this time as the name for the eastern border of Egypt. It's also the root of *1*2 (Sinai, which means "cliffs"). The point is that this word, though spelled the same in transliteration, does not mean the same thing as the English word "sin."

The Hebrew word that actually means what most of us think of when we hear the word "sin" is 7:5 (peh-shin-ayin) and is pronounced "pesha." It means "a trespass or transgression, to rebel or revolt," and "guilt of transgression." It is a criminal act. It derives from a Hebrew word, that differs only in a diacritical, which is pronounced "pesah" and means "to step." And this belies the fundamental implication of 7:5, that it involves a willful intent on the part of the sinner.

Surprisingly, and so far as I can determine, 7:5 (pesha) only appears in the Bible three (3) times. You will find it in Proverbs 10: 12, 19 and Proverbs 28: 13. You will also find two of its Greek near-equivalents in seven (7) New Testament verses (Mark 3: 28; Mark 4: 12; Romans 3: 25; I Corinthians 6: 18; Ephesians 1: 7; Ephesians 2: 5; Colossians 2: 13). Still, in all of scripture I can find only ten (10) instances of the word "sin" wherein it actually means what we tend to think of sin as meaning.

By far, most occurrences of the English word "sin" in scripture are translated from the Hebrew word !)( (chet-tet-aleph), pronounced "chet" and meaning "to miss the mark, to err, to fail." It can also mean "the offering or propitiation for guilt." It implies nothing about an intent to sin. I've been told that the word sin was once an archery term, indicating that one's arrow had fallen short of the target (For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Romans 3: 23). It implied, not an intentional missing of the target, but missing because of an error or because one's bow was simply not strong enough. And so it truly was an accurate translation of the Hebrew word !)(.

There are four (4) more Hebrew words which are translated "sin" in the English Bible. In I Kings 17: 18 you will find the word 0&7 (ayin-vav-nun sofit; pronounced "avon"), translated as "sin." I can't tell you why, since everywhere else it appears it is translated "iniquity." It means "perverseness," and in some of its derivations is translated as such.  But in I Kings 17: 18 it is translated "sin." Also being translated once as the word "sin" is the Hebrew word %:7 (ayin-shin-he; pronounced "asah") which means "to do" or "make." Finally, with seven appearances between them, are the Hebrew words .:! (aleph-shin-mem sofit; pronounced "asham") meaning "guilt" or "guilt offering," and ##: (shin-gimel-gimel; pronounced "shagag") meaning "err" or "go astray."

Note first that in the case of !)(, and in the case of .:!, the word not only means "sin," but also "the offering made for sin." Knowing this gives a bit more meaning to the passage which states, "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him," (I Corinthians 5: 21). 

But the important point here is that, except in the ten (10) instances cited above, when scriptures mention sin they do not describe an act of breaking a law. Instead, in the overwhelming majority of the times sin is mentioned it describes an error, a failure to live up to a required standard. In the vast majority of the mentions of sin, scripture describes an act that is simply insufficient.

Immediately we begin to glimpse the disconnect between the way we see sin and the way God sees sin.

For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

Romans 5: 19

Note that is does not say that we all became sinners, but that we were all made sinners. What's the difference? If we had become sinners, then there must have been a time when we weren't sinners. But we are all sinful by nature, because we are all Adam's descendants. This is why the word sin sometimes describes not the act, but the actual guilt. Sometimes it describes the state, or condition, of being sinful, insufficient. And this makes sense. Since we were sinful before we broke any law, our sinfulness can not be the consequence of breaking a law. Thus "sin" describes first our nature, our condition, not necessarily our behavior.

Oh, to be sure, many of our actions are sinful, just as we ourselves are sinful. But even these are a consequence, not a cause, of our sinfulness. And it is precisely this condition that separates us from God. Let me state this again as it is important. The condition of being sinful separates us from God.

Furthermore, you should understand that this is very much a physical condition. It is our flesh that is weak (Matthew 26: 41; Mark 14: 38). And it is our flesh that constrains us from being in God's presence. We are not physically capable of withstanding God's presence. Recall the occasion, recorded in scripture, when Moses asked to see God in person.

And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.

Exodus 33: 18 - 23

When Adam ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he was physically changed. By that one act of disobedience he was made sinful, insufficient, physically changed such that he could no longer survive the presence of God. Recall that God did not say, "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for once thou eatest thereof thou shalt someday die." God said, "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die," (Genesis 2: 17; emphasis added). Theologically speaking, separation from God is the definition of death. So Adam, as God has said, died that day and we have all been born dead since.

Now consider the way we perceive sin. First we tend to think of sin less as a condition and more as an act. And then we tend to think of those acts as resulting in a morally sinful, or insufficient, condition. In other words, and in diametric contrast, God describes sin as a physical condition which results in immoral acts, but we still think of sin as physical acts which result in an immoral condition.

To emphasize, and perhaps clarify this point, let's consider an analogy. Suppose there was a man with cancer. And because cancer had riddled his body he was always tired and run down. He didn't have the energy to do much of anything but lay around his house all day.

Now suppose the first person our guy encounters is the owner/operator of a local health club. He sells health foods and supplements and has a gym where his clients work out to maintain their strength and get in shape. The club owner looks at our guy and tells him, "Why your problem is that you're just too lazy. All you need to do is get up and move. The way to get stronger is to exercise more. Here! Try some of these supplements from my store. They'll help you bulk up." And though our guy tries his very best, he simply can't make any improvement.

Now suppose that the next person our guy meets is a doctor, an oncologist. He sees our guy and straightaway recognizes the problem. He tells our guy that the reason he's so weak is because his body is riddled with cancer. He explains to our guy that he'll never be able to get stronger as long as he has this disease. The doctor then offers to treat our guy with a battery of chemo- and radiation therapies, and even some surgery to cut out the larger tumors. Only then, after the diseased flesh is destroyed and sloughed off, will our guy be able to begin to regain his strength. Only after he is healed will it do our guy any good to join the health club.

Notice first that the health club operator wasn't completely wrong. He understood that the body needs good nutrition and exercise to be strong. But he was completely lacking any understanding of the true nature of the man's problem, namely the cancer. We, that is to say Christians, are often just like the health club operator, churches are our health clubs, and not surprisingly sin is the cancer. But we too often fail to understand the true nature of sin. We tell sinners, both lost and saved, that they should not sin (as though it were possible) when we should be telling them to repent their sin instead.

Implicit in this analogy is the fact that until and unless our guy agrees to let the doctor treat him, he will remain diseased. He could choose to remain in his diseased state, or he could choose to repent his cancer. Likewise, all men must make the same choice concerning God's salvation from their sinful condition.

So what does it mean to repent one's sin? It means to turn away from your sin. It means to stop clinging to your sins, stop trying to justify or rationalize them, and trust God to forgive them and cleanse you.

Unfortunately, many people are unwilling to repent their sins. They choose instead to hold to the belief that their sins aren't sins at all. Either Nature or Self is held as their god, and God's name is nothing more than an exclamation. Pride is thought to be a good thing, and they call it self-esteem. But it doesn't stop with sins against God.

Instead of honoring their parents, murdering the infirmed is seen as a private matter left to family members. Murdering the unborn is seen as the civil right of mothers, and as a moral obligation to the community in the case of embryonic stem cell research. Adultery is held to be between those involved and no one else's concern, and fornication is thought to be a normal healthy activity between consenting people (as long as they're both in the same age group, but even that caveat will soon be rejected).

But they deceive themselves and those around them.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

I John 1: 8 - 10

Matthew 26: 41 Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Mark 14: 38 Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.

Romans 14: 13 - 23 Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's way. I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died. Let not then your good be evil spoken of: For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another. For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

I Corinthians 8 Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. But if any man love God, the same is known of him. As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him. Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.

Romans 13: 8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.

Galatians 5: 14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.