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Sin is a theological term for evil behavior, individual or corporate. It is to be distinguished from crime, a legal term applied to a breach of the rules that society imposes on its members, and from vice, a moral term applied to a practice or habit that is injurious to a person's moral nature. Sin specifically refers to conduct that involves a wrong attitude toward God and results in alienation from him.

All the major religions have a concept of sin, although they differ widely in their interpretation of its meaning. Hinduism, for example, in the doctrine of Karma, presents a system by which human action works itself out in retribution or reward by rebirth in another existence. Good action loosens the grip of the world of the senses; bad action degrades and binds its victim more fully to the cycle of karma and the Transmigration of Souls. Final deliverance from the round of rebirths comes only when the soul ceases to desire or to act and is absorbed into the divine source from which it came.

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Judaism, Islam, and Christianity teach that sin is an offense against a personal God. In the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, sin is seen as transgression against the command or law of God. The first sin was committed by Adam and Eve, and the effects of that sin have passed on to their descendants. In Christian theology this Original Sin is understood to have resulted in a change in the souls of individuals so that they are born as sinners and the tendency to sin is rooted in their nature.

Islamic teaching on sin derives from the ethical and religious injunctions of the Koran and traditions (hadith). It has much in common with the Old Testament concept of sin. Islam also recognizes the power of God to forgive the repenting sinner through his infinite mercy.

A sin, in Christian theology, is not only a deed, but also a thought, motive, or desire in opposition to the eternal law of God. This is illustrated by the traditional teaching of the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth. Pride is regarded as the sin that most surely separates a sinner from the grace of God. Deliverance is possible only through Jesus Christ, whose sacrificial death redeems the repentant sinner from the penalty and power of sin.

Charles W Ranson

B Harring, Sin in the Secular Age (1974); S Hilary, Changing Conceptions of Original Sin (1987); V Palachovsky and C Vogel, Sin in the Orthodox Church and in the Protestant Churches (1966); C R Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Sin (1953).


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Sin is "any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God" (1 John 3:4; Rom. 4:15), in the inward state and habit of the soul, as well as in the outward conduct of the life, whether by omission or commission (Rom. 6:12-17; 7:5-24). It is "not a mere violation of the law of our constitution, nor of the system of things, but an offence against a personal lawgiver and moral governor who vindicates his law with penalties.

The soul that sins is always conscious that his sin is (1) intrinsically vile and polluting, and (2) that it justly deserves punishment, and calls down the righteous wrath of God. Hence sin carries with it two inalienable characters, (1) ill-desert, guilt (reatus); and (2) pollution (macula).", Hodge's Outlines. The moral character of a man's actions is determined by the moral state of his heart. The disposition to sin, or the habit of the soul that leads to the sinful act, is itself also sin (Rom. 6:12-17; Gal. 5:17; James 1:14, 15). The origin of sin is a mystery, and must for ever remain such to us.

It is plain that for some reason God has permitted sin to enter this world, and that is all we know. His permitting it, however, in no way makes God the author of sin. Adam's sin (Gen. 3:1-6) consisted in his yielding to the assaults of temptation and eating the forbidden fruit. It involved in it, (1) the sin of unbelief, virtually making God a liar; and (2) the guilt of disobedience to a positive command. By this sin he became an apostate from God, a rebel in arms against his Creator. He lost the favour of God and communion with him; his whole nature became depraved, and he incurred the penalty involved in the covenant of works.

Original sin

"Our first parents being the root of all mankind, the guilt of their sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature were conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation." Adam was constituted by God the federal head and representative of all his posterity, as he was also their natural head, and therefore when he fell they fell with him (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:22-45). His probation was their probation, and his fall their fall. Because of Adam's first sin all his posterity came into the world in a state of sin and condemnation, i.e., (1) a state of moral corruption, and (2) of guilt, as having judicially imputed to them the guilt of Adam's first sin. "Original sin" is frequently and properly used to denote only the moral corruption of their whole nature inherited by all men from Adam.

This inherited moral corruption consists in, (1) the loss of original righteousness; and (2) the presence of a constant proneness to evil, which is the root and origin of all actual sin. It is called "sin" (Rom. 6:12, 14, 17; 7:5-17), the "flesh" (Gal. 5:17, 24), "lust" (James 1:14, 15), the "body of sin" (Rom. 6:6), "ignorance," "blindness of heart," "alienation from the life of God" (Eph. 4:18, 19). It influences and depraves the whole man, and its tendency is still downward to deeper and deeper corruption, there remaining no recuperative element in the soul. It is a total depravity, and it is also universally inherited by all the natural descendants of Adam (Rom. 3:10-23; 5:12-21; 8:7).

Pelagians deny original sin, and regard man as by nature morally and spiritually well; semi-Pelagians regard him as morally sick; Augustinians, or, as they are also called, Calvinists, regard man as described above, spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1; 1 John 3:14).

The doctrine of original sin is proved, (1.) From the fact of the universal sinfulness of men. "There is no man that sinneth not" (1 Kings 8:46; Isa. 53:6; Ps. 130: 3; Rom. 3:19, 22, 23; Gal. 3:22). (2.) From the total depravity of man. All men are declared to be destitute of any principle of spiritual life; man's apostasy from God is total and complete (Job 15: 14-16; Gen. 6:5,6). (3.) From its early manifestation (Ps. 58:3; Prov. 22:15). (4.) It is proved also from the necessity, absolutely and universally, of regeneration (John 3:3; 2 Cor. 5:17). (5.) From the universality of death (Rom. 5:12-20).

Various kinds of sin are mentioned, (1.) "Presumptuous sins," or as literally rendered, "sins with an uplifted hand", i.e., defiant acts of sin, in contrast with "errors" or "inadvertencies" (Ps. 19:13). (2.) "Secret", i.e., hidden sins (19:12); sins which escape the notice of the soul. (3.) "Sin against the Holy Ghost" (q.v.), or a "sin unto death" (Matt. 12:31, 32; 1 John 5:16), which amounts to a wilful rejection of grace.


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In the biblical perspective, sin is not only act of wrongdoing but a state of alienation from God. For the great prophets of Israel, sin is much more than the violation of a taboo or the transgression of an external ordinance. It signifies the rupture of a personal relationship with God, a betrayal of the trust he places in us. We become most aware of our sinfulness in the presence of the holy God (cf. Isa. 6:5; Ps. 51:1-9; Luke 5:8). Sinful acts have their origin in a corrupt heart (Gen. 6:5; Isa. 29:13; Jer. 17:9). For Paul, sin (hamartia) is not just a conscious transgression of the law but a debilitating ongoing state of enmity with God. In Paul's theology, sin almost becomes personalized. It can be thought of as a malignant, personal power which holds humanity in its grasp.

The biblical witness also affirms that sin is universal. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," Paul declares (Rom. 3:23 RSV). "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins" (Eccles. 7:20 NIV). "Who can say, 'I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin'?" (Prov. 20:9 NIV). "They have all gone astray," the psalmist complains, "They are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one" (Ps. 14:3 RSV).

In Reformed theology, the core of sin is unbelief. This has firm biblical support: in Gen. 3 where Adam and Eve trust the word of the serpent over the word of God; in the Gospels where Jesus Christ is rejected by the leaders of the Jews; in Acts 7 where Stephen is martyred at the hands of an unruly crowd; in John 20:24-25 where Thomas arrogantly dismisses the resurrection of Jesus.

Hardness of heart, which is closely related to unbelief (Mark 16:14; Rom. 2:5), likewise belongs to the essence of sin. It means refusing to repent and believe in the promises of God (Ps. 95:8; Heb. 3:8, 15; 4:7). It connotes both stubborn unwillingness to open ourselves to the love of God (II Chr. 36:13; Eph. 4:18) and its corollary, insensitivity to the needs of our neighbor (Deut. 15:7; Eph. 4:19).

Whereas the essence of sin is unbelief or hardness of heart, the chief manifestations of sin are pride, sensuality, and fear. Other significant aspects of sin are self-pity, selfishness, jealousy, and greed.

Sin is both personal and social, individual and collective. Ezekiel declared: "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy" (16:49 NIV). According to the prophets, it is not only a few individuals that are infected by sin but the whole nation (Isa. 1:4). Among the collective forms of sin that cast a blight over the world today are racism, nationalism, imperialism, agism, and sexism.

The effects of sin are moral and spiritual bondage, guilt, death, and hell. James explained: "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death" (1:14-15 RSV). In Paul's view, "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23 RSV; cf. I Cor. 15:56).

According to Pauline theology, the law is not simply a check on sin but an actual instigator of sin. So perverse is the human heart that the very prohibitions of the law that were intended to deter sin serve instead to arouse sinful desire (Rom. 7:7-8).

Biblical faith also confesses that sin is inherent in the human condition. We are not simply born into a sinful world, but we are born with a propensity toward sin. As the psalmist says, "The wicked go astray from the womb, they err from their birth, speaking lies" (Ps. 58:3; cf. 51:5). Church tradition speaks of original sin, but this is intended to convey, not a biological taint or physical deformity, but a spiritual infection that in some mysterious way is transmitted through reproduction. Sin does not originate from human nature, but it corrupts this nature.

The origin of sin is indeed a mystery and is tied in with the problem of evil. The story of Adam and Eve does not really give us a rationally satisfactory explanation of either sin or evil (this was not its intention), but it does throw light on the universal human predicament. It tells us that prior to human sin there was demonic sin which provides the occasion for human transgression. Orthodox theology, both Catholic and Protestant, speaks of a fall of the angels prior to the fall of man, and this is attributed to the misuse or abuse of the divine gift of freedom. It is the general consensus among orthodox theologians that moral evil (sin) sets the stage for physical evil (natural disaster), but exactly how the one causes the other will probably always remain a subject of human speculation.

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)


Mortal Sin

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Mortal Sin is sin causing spiritual death. The biblical teaching is clear: all sin is mortal inasmuch as its intrusion into human experience is the cause of every man's death (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). Roman Catholic moral theology sees sin as two-fold: mortal and venial. Mortal sin extinguishes the life of God in the soul; venial sin weakens, but does not destroy that life. In venial sin the agent freely decides to perform a specific act; however, in doing so he does not purpose to become a certain type of person. In venial sin the individual performs an act, but deep within himself he yearns to be the type of individual who opposes that action. Thus, in venial sin there is a tension between the action and the individual performing the act. Mortal sin involves the agent totally. He determines not only to act in a specific manner, but expresses therein the type of individual he wishes to be in and through that action. The result is spiritual death.

Evangelical Christians take seriously the biblical evaluation of the grave nature of certain sins. Our Lord spoke of the "sin that has no forgiveness" (Matt. 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10); Paul teaches that those who participate in certain specified sins are excluded from the kingdom (I Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:21; I Thess. 4:6); John gives clear instructions concerning prayer for those who have committed the "sin unto death" (I John 5:16; cf. Heb. 6:4-6). These passages cannot be dismissed lightly; they impinge decidedly upon our theme and call for the closest exegetical attention.

F R Harm
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

J. Greenwood, Handbook of the Catholic Faith; R. B. McBrien, Catholicism, II; NCE, XIII; L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology; C. C. Ryrie, The Holy Spirit; A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology; H. C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology; J. T. Mueller, Christian Dogmatics; F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, I, 571ff.; C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel.


Seven Deadly Sins

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At an early stage in the life of the church, the influence of Greek thought (with its tendency to view sin as a necessary flaw in human nature) made it necessary for the church to determine the relative seriousness of various moral faults. This ultimately gave rise to what is commonly referred to as the seven deadly sins, a concept which occupies an important place in the order and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church.

These sins are pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, sloth. K. E. Kirk stresses that they are to be understood as "capital" or "root" sins rather than "deadly" or "mortal" (viz., sins which cut one off from his true last end). They are the "sinful propensities which reveal themselves in particular sinful acts." The list represents an attempt to enumerate the primary instincts which are most likely to give rise to sin.

Even though the original classification may have been monastic in origin (cf. Cassian, Collationes Patrum, vs. 10), under the influence of Gregory the Great (who has given us the classical exposition on the subject: Moralia on Job, esp. XXXI.45) the scope was widened and along with the seven cardinal virtues they came to constitute the moral standards and tests of the early Catholic Church. In medieval scholasticism they were the subject of considerable attention (cf. esp. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.ii.).

R H Mounce
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Fr. Connell, New Baltimore Catechism; J. Stalker, The Seven Deadly Sins; H. Fairlie, The Seven Deadly Sins Today.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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