Defining Sin

In Scripture we find many words that refer to sin. In the Old Testament there are eight principal words and in the New Testament twelve. These words convey a number of ideas such as missing the mark, disobedience, transgression, lawlessness, rebellion, unrighteousness, etc. In Romans 4:15, Paul teaches that the law was given in order that we may better understand both God’s standard and the seriousness of transgressing that standard.

We must carefully consider a number of passages if we are going to properly define sin. Based on those passages, sin is:

(1) A transgression of the law of God (Rom. 2:23; 5:14; Gal. 3:19). Murder is a sin because it is a transgression of God’s law in which He stated Thou shalt not kill (Ex. 20:13).

(2) Missing the mark and falling short of God’s standard (Rom. 3:23). We can miss the mark or fall short of God’s standard by either things we do or things we fail to do (cf. Rom. 14:23).

(3) A principle that dwells in man. There are a number of passages that help us understand this. In Romans 7:14, 17-25 Paul talks about that struggle that we have with that sin principle within us; in Galatians 3:23, Paul tells us that the whole world is a prisoner to sin because we all posses this sin nature. Hebrews 3:13 presents this principle as that which deceives us, deception that will lead to our ultimate destruction. It is referred to as a condition by Jesus (John 9:41; 15:24; 19:11).

(4) Rebellion against God, lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Lawlessness is any deviation from God’s commands. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 Paul states, So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. With this statement Paul is essentially indicating that anything we do that does not conform to the glory of God is sin.

(5) Ungodliness and wickedness (unrighteousness) (Rom. 1:18). These are wrongful acts against God and man. Ungodliness is defiance of God and His laws, lack of reverence for God, to desire after evil things. Unrighteousness is the fruit of ungodliness, the actual breach of God’s law.

Original Sin

Berkhof states that original sin is “The sinful state and condition in which men are born…This sin is called ‘original sin,’ (1) because it is derived from the original root of the human race; (2) because it is present in the life of every individual from the time of his birth, and therefore cannot be regarded as the result of imitation; and (3) because it is the inward root of all the actual sins that defile the life of man.”1

Hodge defines original sin as “The corruption of our whole nature.”2

The first result is man’s total depravity. Ryrie states, “Total depravity does not mean that everyone is as thoroughly depraved in his actions as he could possibly be, nor that everyone will indulge in every form of sin, nor that a person cannot appreciate and even do acts of goodness; but it does mean that the corruption of sin extends to all men and to all part of all men so that there is nothing within the natural man that can give him merit in God’s sight.”3

The second result is that man has an innate sin nature. Ryrie states, “The sin nature, which all people have by birth, is that capacity to do those things (good, neutral or bad) which do not commend us to God.”4 It corrupts our whole nature; our intellect (2 Cor. 4:4; Rom. 1:28), our conscience (1 Tim. 4:2), our will (Rom. 1:28), our heart (Eph. 4:18), and our total being (Rom. 1:18-3:20).5

Imputed Sin

From the Latin word imputare, which means “to reckon,” “to charge to ones account.”6 Imputation relates to how every person is charged with sin. The whole debate of imputation of sin revolves around the meaning of Romans 5:12, particularly around the words all sinned. About those two words Ryrie states, “Do they mean that all are sinners (which is essentially saying that all have a sin nature) or do they mean that in some way all mankind sinned when Adam sinned? If the latter, then this is imputed sin.”7

The two most widely held interpretations are:

(1) The Federal view which in essence states that sin is imputed to all men because of Adam’s sin. It was Adam alone who sinned but all men are affected. Sin and guilt are imputed which result in total depravity. Enns states, “Through the one sin of Adam, sin and death are imputed to all humanity because all humanity was represented in Adam.”8 This view was held and taught by theologians such as Hodge, Berkhof, and Buswell.

(2) The Augustinian view states that sin is imputed to all men because of Adam’s sin. All men sinned in Adam, sin and guilt is imputed and the result is total depravity. This view teaches that all humanity participated in Adam’s sin. The entire human race was “seminally present” (cf. Heb. 7:9-10) in Adam when he sinned, therefore the entire human race participated in the sin. Since all men participated in the sin, all men are guilty and charged as such by God. This is the view held by this writer.

Sin and the Believer

Even though Christians have died to the sin nature and are no longer slaves to sin (Rom. 6:2, 14), as Christians we know that we are still able to sin and do sin, 1 John 1:8-10 makes this clear.  John also indicates that the believer has three enemies in this life, three areas in which the believers conflict with sin arise in (1 John 2:16):

(1) The world. This is not to be understood as God’s creation (nature), but rather the ordered system of this age which is dominated by Satan, the world that is hostile to God. 1 John 2:15 tells us that we are not to love the world (this ordered system)

(2) The Flesh (Rom. 7:17-20; Eph. 2:3).

(3) The devil (1 Pet. 5:8).

In spite of the fact that we have the world, the flesh, and the devil as enemies in this life, God, by His grace and mercy, has made ample provision so that as Christians, we might experience true victory over sin:

(1) The Scriptures (Ps. 119:9-16; John 15:7; 17:17; Eph. 5:26; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

(2) Christ (John 17; Heb. 7:25; 1 John 2:1).

(3) The Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8; Rom. 8:9; Gal. 5:16; Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 5:18; 1 John 2:20; 4:4).

May we never forget that He who is in us is far greater than he who is in the world. When we do sin, and we will, we must immediately confess and repent of that sin so that the joy of our salvation may be restored to us and so that our walk and fellowship with the Lord may not be hindered (1 John 1:9).

1 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, combined edition, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 244.

2 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vol., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 2:227.

3 Charles C. Ryrie, Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago: Moody, 1972), 111.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 R. K. Johnston, “Imputation,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 554.

7 Ryrie, 111.

8 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1989), 312.

Copyright © 2006–2021 by Miguel J. Gonzalez Th.D.

Dr. Miguel J. Gonzalez is the Founder and President of Reasons for Faith International Ministries. He served as a pastor for ten years in Charlotte, NC and has taught in churches and conferences throughout the United States. He currently hosts the Time in the Word and Truth To Live By podcasts and writes at 

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Christian Standard Bible. Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible®, and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers, all rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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