Often have I heard the statement: “It does not matter what I do, we are under the New Covenant.” This is often used to justify sin. Somehow being in the era of God’s new covenant has redefined the concept of sin for some. There are even ministers that propose that sin no longer exists under the new disposition of God’s grace through Christ and that God is not only unwilling to judge sin but incapable of doing so. But what does the Bible say? Is there a different definition of sin contained in the Old and New Testaments?
A careful reading of the Old and New Testaments testify that there seems to be a common and universal understanding of what sin is. What might be different is the ultimate way in which sin is dealt with. But this much is crystal clear: all through the Bible sin remains sin.
The Quest to Define Sin
What is sin? Let us start with the early church fathers, the great reformation leaders and a few contemporary scholars and then return to the Scriptures for further insight. The early church father, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) rightfully located the origin of human sin in the one act of willful disobedience of Adam in the Garden of Eden: “…all sinned in Adam on that occasion, for all were already identical with him in that nature of him which was endowed with the capacity to generate them 1 .” A contemporary of Augustine, John Cassian 2 (360-435 AD) in an effort to extend Augustine’s description of the origin of sin constructed a diagnostic list of eight prime sins: gluttony, lust, avarice, wrath, dejection, sloth, pride and envy (later Church Fathers would combine sloth and dejection and thus was born the list of seven deadly sins). This list was used in the early Church to help Christians identify areas of struggle.
Much later, the reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546 AD) would use the Latin phrase: “Homo in se incurvatus” (literally, man curving back onto himself) to describe the self-centered nature of sin. Sin is the rejection of God as Lord and the replacement of self as sovereign ruler. This truth is echoed in the words of the Swiss theologian of the previous century, Emil Brunner (1889-1996 AD), when he writes: “Sin is the desire for the autonomy of man; therefore, in the last resort, it is the denial of God and self-deification; it is getting rid of the Lord God, and the proclamation of self-sovereignty. 3 ” The contemporary protestant theologian, Wayne Grudem 4 in an effort to summarize all of what the church has said in the two last millennia, defines sin as follows: "Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” In essence sin is the failure to be what we were ultimately created to be: God’s creation reflecting His very nature of love and holiness.
Several words and images are used in both the Old and New Testaments to describe the essence and nature of sin. Each of the phrases and metaphors used describe something of the intensity and effects of falling short of the glory and holiness of God. Even though there seems to be a progressive understanding of sin in each of the sections of the Bible, the common message is one that refers back to the original temptation of Adam and Eve, their decision to disobey God and the devastating results of their fall for all of humankind. Two biblical examples of some of these metaphors and words used to describe sin will suffice to show the unity of God’s Word on this important subject.
Sin is missing God’s mark
The most common metaphor that is used in the Bible and in the Church has been that of sin being a missing of the mark.
The Hebrew word that is used in the Old Testament to describe this failure to be on target is the word “chaţa’” as in Proverbs 19:2 (ESV): “Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” The equivalent word used in both the Greek translation of the Old Testament (The Septuagint) and the New Testament is the verb “hamartāno” and its various cognates. A good example of the use of this word is found in the parable of the prodigal son who decided to abandon his prodigal living and return to his father. Luke’s gospel (Luke 15:18) records that the son decided in his heart to say to return by saying: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”
One might be tempted to read this missing of the mark as a careless mistake , an accidental overstepping of the boundaries marked out for us. This is not the meaning intended by the two words used in the Old and New Testaments of the failure to live up to the Divine standard. The biblical commentator Ryder Smith 5, in discussing this biblical understanding of sin, writes: “The hundreds of examples of the word’s moral use require that the wicked man misses the right mark because he chooses to aim at the wrong one and misses the right path because he deliberately follows a wrong one – that is, there is no question of an innocent mistake of the merely negative idea of failure.” Sin under the old and new covenants was and remains a willful decision to disregard God’s standard of holiness.
Sin is rebellion against God
There seem to be several words in the Old Testament that describe sin as an outright rebellion against God. The most common word 6 that is used for this prominent idea in the Bible is the Hebrew word “pasha’”. The prophet Isaiah (1:2) uses this word when he gives voices to God’s displeasure in the wrong choices of his people: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” The inspired authors of the New Testament built on this description of sin as rebelliousness or disobedience and the word often used by these authors is the Greek noun, “apeitheia”. Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:17) describes that John the Baptist was sent: “to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
It is clear from both that Old and New Testaments that disobedience to God equates to rebelling against Him. All sin, even if directed towards others, is an offence and rebellion towards the rightful creator and ruler of all, God. This biblical truth underscores that even though we all share an inheritance from Adam and Eve in the form of a sin nature (see Rom 7:21-23), the response of that sin nature is often one of self-willed rebellion. The early Church father, Clement of Alexandria (150-217 AD), in commenting on this particular biblical understanding of sin, writes: “Neither praise nor condemnation, neither reward nor punishments, are right if the soul does not have the power of choice and avoidance, if evil is involuntary. 7” Our sin remains strengthened by our own desires (compare James 1:14) and our willful disobedience to God.
The Biblical Answer to Sin
In the sections above are just two small examples of the unity of witness in the Old and New Testaments on the nature of sin. Sin in the Bible is also described as treachery (see Josh 7:1 and Heb 6:6), a perversion (literally meaning ‘a twisting of soul and mind’ as in Isa 21:3 and Prov 12:8), an abomination (see Deut 7:25-26 and 18:9-12), a lack of integrity (compare this idea in Lev 19:15 and Ezek 18:24), false worship (literally as ‘lawlessness’, see Col 3:25 and 2 Peter 2:8) and finally as a transgression (see Deut 17:2 and Rom 4:15) . There is clear and convincing evidence that the construct of sin is the same in the Old and the New Testaments and it is also quite clear that the answer offered for sin was the same (with one large difference).
In the Old Testament sin was forgiven by God in the act of atoning for the sins of His children through an intricate system of blood sacrifices. There were laws for daily (Exod 29:38-46), weekly (Num 28:9-10), and monthly sacrifices and offerings (Num 28:11-18), but their sins were never fully forgiven as on the yearly “Day of Atonement” the people had to once again confess their sins all over for the past year in the hope that forgiveness and mercy would be offered by God (Lev 16:30). All these acts of hopeful atonement were a prophetic foreshadowing of a better covenant to come. Bob Waldron 8 in a 1992 article comments correctly: “The animal sacrifices of the law were not able, in themselves, to erase man’s guilt (Heb 10:4), but the offering of those sacrifices was an act of faith, faith in the redemption God promised. Even though the Christ was only dimly seen in the law itself, the promise of His coming was already strongly established and continued to be even more clearly foretold during the rest of the Old Testament period. The faith exercised by people when they offered the sacrifices God called for was ultimately faith in God’s chosen Redeemer.” Christ came to offer a better way to deal with the horrific nature and effects of sin.
The atonement of Christ offered a final answer to the problem of sin in that He, through perfect obedience, fulfilled all the righteous requirements of the law in the Old Testament (see Rom 5:19). He took the full penalty of our sin and thus died on a cross as the ultimate act of atonement (Heb 9:26). Through the perfect of atonement of Jesus Christ we now have not only forgiveness of all our sins, but also His imputed righteousness and the promise of eternal life in His presence forever (see Rom 3:23-26). All we have to do is to repent of our sins and believe in His good news (Mark 1:15). Our missing the mark and our rebellion are not the final words on sin – God gets the final word through the selfless birth, life, death and resurrection of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is no longer popular to speak or preach on the reality of sin. Some ministers have even gone so far as to propose that eternal damnation and the reality of an eternal hell might not be real. But the biblical witness is clear: the reality of sin and its devastating effects are real – but so is the final solution given by God: Jesus, God’s final word on sin. God’s promises in Christ lead us back to His original vision for us, to be holy as He is holy (1 Pet 1:16). As Augustine of Hippo 9 (354-430 AD) once boldly declared: “We have been justified, but this justice increases, as we make advance. And how it increases I will say, and so to say confer with you, that each one of you, established in this justification, having received to wit the remission of sin by the layer of regeneration, having received the Holy Ghost, making advances from day to day, may see where He is, may go on, advance, and grow, till we are consummated, not so as to come to an end, but to perfection.”
Dr Corné Bekker joined Regent University in 2005. He previously served as the associate dean for academics for a Bible College in Johannesburg, South Africa and now as a professor of Biblical and Ecclesial Leadership for the School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship and as chair of the Department of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry in the School of Undergraduate Studies at Regent University. He is the editor of the Journal of Biblical Perspectives in Leadership (JBPL) and the co-editor of Inner Resources for Leaders (IRL)
1 Quoted from Kelly, J. N. D. (1960). Early Christian Doctrine. New York: Harper & Row, p. 364. 2 Cassian, J. (1997). The Conferences. New York: Newman Press, pp. 183-196. 3 Brunner, E. (2002). Dogmatics: Volume 2. London: James Clarke and Co., pp. 92-93. 4 Grudem, W. (1999). Bible Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 210. 5 Smith, C. R. (1953). The Bible Doctrine of Sin and the Ways of God with Sinners. London: Epworth, p. 17. 6 Erickson, M. J. (1985). Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, p. 572. 7 Bercot, D. (1999). Will the real heretics please stand up. Tyler: Scroll Publication Company, p. 71. 8 Waldron, B. (1992). The Law-’ Till the Seed Should Come. Christianity, March/April 1992, p. 19. 9Toon, P. (1983). Justification and Sanctification. Westchester: Crossway, p. 48.