What is Sin According to the Bible?

Many people in the world and even many who claim to be Christians are busy trying to redefine the word sin so that they can live as they please and assure their consciences that their behavior is innocent.  For example, in the minds of many, murder has been renamed abortion.  For others, homosexuality has become an alternative lifestyle.  Adultery is practiced under the guise of open marriage.  The list goes on and on.

Yet, the Word of God is very clear about the definition of sin.         First John 3:4 says, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law:  for sin is the transgression of the law.”  To transgress the law is to break the law or to violate it.  Literally, it is to pass over or go beyond the limit or boundary.  Fundamentally, sin is described as lawlessness.  In this passage it is viewed as defiance.

That God is love, according to I John 4:8 does not mean that He has no rules and regulations for His family.              I John 2:3 says, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” I John 3:22 says, “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.”  Chapter 5, verse 2 contributes this:  “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments.”

It is true that God’s children are not in bondage to the Old Testament law, for Christ has set us free and given us liberty (Gal. 5: 1-6).  But God’s children are not therefore free from law.  They are “not without law to God, but under the law to Christ” (I Cor. 9:21).  According to Romans 8:2, it is “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” which has made us free from the Law of Moses.  Furthermore, Paul says in regard to the New Testament scriptures that we are “not to think of men above that which is written” (I Cor. 4:6).  Clearly, the Word of God is to reign supreme in the life of the Christian.  The New Testament sets his limits and boundaries.  It is God’s law for His children today and they are expected by God to obey its commandments.

When the Christian goes beyond the rule, or breaks or violates it, he has sinned.  It is basically a matter of will.  When we assert our will in opposition to God’s will it is rebellion, and rebellion is the root of sin.  It is not simply that sin reveals itself in lawless behavior, but that the very essence of sin is lawlessness.  No matter what his outward action may be, a sinner’s inner attitude is one of rebellion.  Therefore, according to 1 John 3:4, sin is the overt action of breaking or violating a commandment of God revealed in the New Testament.  It is to disobey any rule given by God.

However, there are several other passages in the New Testament which regulate sin.  James 4:17 says, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”  This verse describes the opposite reaction to God’s will that is seen in I John 3:4.  In this preview, there is no active disobedience.  That is, no law is broken or violated.  Instead, the believer here has refused to act.  He knows and understands the commandment of God.  He recognizes that the right thing for him to do is to do the good thing commanded.  Yet he does not do it.  He falls short of the action required by God.  He simply does not do what he knows he should do.  From this passage, we learn that to fail to assemble together with the saints on the Lord’s Day to worship God according to His will is just as sinful as committing adultery or murder.  The former is sinful because he did it not.  The latter is sinful because he did it.

As always, in every religious matter, it is the New Testament which regulates the good we should do in order to avoid sin.     “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:  That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works,” (II Tim. 3:16-17).

To fail to do what the New Testament teaches that we should do is sinRomans 14:23 adds this to our composite view of what sin is:  “For whatsoever is not of faith is sin.”         Contextually, the writer here is addressing matters about which there is no positive, divine law either requiring or forbidding some behavior.  He is dealing with matters of indifference.  One may do them without sinning (Rom. 14:22) and another may refrain without sinning.  However, if in performing this action we violate our own conscience, we have sinned.  It is a sin for the Christian to violate his conscience.  This is not to teach that our conscience is an infallible guide, for it is not.  We must always allow the Word of God to mold, shape, instruct, correct, and educate our conscience.  Nevertheless, Paul is clear that it is a sin to violate our conscience.

Consequently then, sin is to break the law.  It is to disobey God’s commands revealed in the New Testament.  It is to act contrary to what is written.  By the same token, it is also a sin to fail to do what we know is good — to fall short of what the New Testament requires.  Furthermore, in matters of indifference we must be scrupulously careful to avoid violating our conscience.  “For whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:23)

Finally, the apostle said, “All unrighteousness is sin” (I Jn. 5:17).  Any action or thought which is contrary to the system of righteousness revealed in the gospel or the New Testament (Rom. 1:16-17) is sin.  Christians must make every effort to avoid sin in their lives.  Unbelievers must become Christians in order to be forgiven of their sins.


We have established the New Testament definition of sin.  We discovered that there are chiefly four passages in the New Testament which regulate sin.  I John 3:4 teaches that sin occurs when God’s law is violated or broken.  When men go beyond the limits of God’s law, they have transgressed God’s will and are guilty of sin.  In James 4:17, the scriptures further delineate sin by teaching that sin also results when we fail to do that which we know it is good to do.  The third passage we used to define sin was Romans 14:22 which indicates that men sin when they violate their consciences.  Finally, we noted that according to I John 5:17, “all unrighteousness is sin.”

Accepting all of this as true, we are compelled to discover who it is that is guilty of sin.  Paul answers this question at length in the first three chapters of Romans.  (Romans 1:18 – 3:23)  Having set forth the theme of the book in Romans 1:16-17, which is that the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” because in the gospel is revealed the system by which God makes men righteous, Paul there begins to demonstrate who it is that is in need of the salvation offered in the gospel.  More practically, he establishes just who is guilty of sin.

In his first argument (verses 18-32), he reveals that the Gentiles are lost.  All of the Gentiles, if they be without Christ, without the gospel, and without the forgiveness of their sins, are doomed.  They are without hope and are miserably lost and undone.

He points out that they are guilty of idolatry and that there is no excuse or justification for such a sin.  “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead,” (1:18-25).  Not only that, but because they “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds and four-footed beasts, and creeping things,” (1:23).  God gave them over to all manner of sexual perversions, such as homosexuality and lesbianism.  Finally, since “they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient,” (1:28).  Paul then gives a list of a whole slew of sins of which they were guilty (1:28-32).

Even though the Gentiles had no written law from God, they were guilty of all of these sins and “they were without excuse,” (1:20).  They had violated the moral code which God had created innately within the spirit of man.  Their sins according to verse 26 were against nature.  All of the Gentiles, every one, were guilty of sin and without Christ were lost and doomed to hell.

In chapter 2, Paul turns the same accusing finger toward the Jews who, up until now, must have been feeling pretty smug.  He begins in Romans 2:1: “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man whosoever  thou art that judgest:  for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.” We know that in this section he is castigating the Jews because in verse 17 he says, “Behold, thou art called a Jew.”  The Jews, he said, were guilty of all the sins the Gentiles were, and with even less justification.

After graphically pointing out that the Jews too were subject to the judgment of God; that “there is no respect of persons with God,” (2:2-11); and that the haughty and self- righteous Jews were guilty of the very sins they preached against (2:17-29), he explains that their sins, if anything, were worse because they had many advantages over the Gentiles.  In chapter 3:1-2, he says: “What advantage then hath the Jew?  or what  profit is there of circumcision?  Much every way:  chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.” The Jews possessed a more full written revelation of God’s will, which was given to them by divine inspiration.  If the Gentiles had no excuse for sin (1:20), the Jews had even less than no excuse.

Paul then begins to conclude his argument.  Speaking of both Jews & Gentiles, he says in chapter 3:10-18 in quotation after quotation from the law of Moses: “As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one:  There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.  They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none  that doeth good, no, not one….” On and on he goes with scathing condemnations of all men-both Jew and Gentile alike.

Finally, he concludes in verse 20 with respect to the Jews.  “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall be no flesh justified in his sight.”  Then, in verse 23, he nails home the point.  He says that there is no difference on this matter of who is guilty of sin–no difference, that is, between Jew and Gentile.  “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

All men of every race, of every tribe, of every tongue and kindred and nation – Jew and Gentile – are in desperate need of the gospel which bringeth salvation.  All men have sinned.  “There is none righteous, no, not one,” (3:23).

This fact is precisely why it is so important for men and women everywhere to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and to accept and obey it.  Romans 11:32 says, “For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.”  Or as it is styled in Ecclesiastes 7:20:  “For there is not a just man upon the earth, that doeth good and sinneth not.”