Sin, A Word Study: Part I

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“Sin” is a common word in Christian circles. Preachers, teachers, and lay people use it regularly, but how many people have taken the time to look up what it actually means? We all understand that it means doing something that is “wrong.” But what do we mean by “wrong”? We’re going to spend a few days looking at the various Greek and Hebrew words that help us understand the biblical concept of “sin.” We will need several days for the simple reason that there are some twenty words used in both languages to describe this concept! When we compare this to the fact that the Bible only uses three words to describe grace, it becomes apparent how seriously God wants His children to know exactly what He means by “sin.”

Today, we will look at the two most basic words for sin: hata and hamartano.

Hata is the basic word for sin in the Old Testament and essentially means “to miss the mark.” The word picture is an archer shooting at a target and missing his goal. The mark or goal we are shooting for is to live according to God’s will. When we act contrary to that, we miss that mark and fall short of His standards, which is to say, we sin. For that reason, those who miss God’s mark even once are called “sinners.” It is instructive that missing the mark is not merely a passive missing, but also includes the idea of hitting the wrong target. Sin is not just failing to get something right. It is actively doing something removed from what God demands.

Hamartano is the Greek equivalent of hata. Again, it is a broad word that is used to refer to sin generally, and understands that sin to be any act that misses God’s standards. Thus, when the New Testament asserts that Jesus was without sin, it is literally saying that Jesus never once in His entire life missed the mark of God’s perfection in any of His actions.

When studying the other words the biblical authors use to help us understand the various nuances of “sin,” this basic meaning of missing a mark must always be kept in mind. The mark is nothing less than God’s perfection and is best summed up as “righteousness.” When we understand these words, Paul’s statement in Rom 3:23 rings all the more true: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”