Religious Word

Sin has become a very religious word. I suspect it might always have been. According to the dictionaries, it is derived from an Old German word "sunta", which signifies a failure to comply with religious standards. Of course, in the Middle Ages, when the English borrowed the word, all standard were religious anyway.

The problem with sin being a religious word is that it carries a lot of baggage, which people who are not religious pick up when we use it in conversation with them. When we say someone has sinned, our words caries a sense of judgement, implying that we are better than they are because they have done something that is anathema to God. They usually pick up the shame and condemnation that the word conveys, even if they regret their actions. When we say that an action is sinful, it makes it seem far worse than if we just said that it is wrong, or a mistake.

Calling an action sinful implies that it deserves the full weight of God's disapproval and that those who do it should be ashamed. Good people should probably stay away from them. Declaring that an action is sin leaves the person who has done it feeling condemned by our conversation with them.

This is a serious problem for sharing the gospel in the modern world, where people hate religious judgments. If we use the word "sin" when explaining what Jesus has done, the listener picks up a burden of shame and condemnation. Adding this to the shame that they already carry can make it hard for them to believe that Jesus loves them because our language implies that he has condemned them. Shame and condemnation come from the powers of evil, so we must avoid language that makes it seem like they come from Jesus.

Some evangelists believe that they have to convict people of "their sinfulness" as the first step in receiving the good news of Jesus. This "bad news" before "good news" creates a barrier to the gospel in the modern world, because many people are unable to get beyond the bad news. It also contradicts the way that Jesus shared the good news.

Ordinary Word

When Jesus and Paul were sharing the gospel, they did not use religious words. They used words that had a natural meaning in everyday life. The Greek word translated as sin in the English New Testament is "hamartia". It means "missing the mark" or "failure to achieve a prize". I think that our New Testament and our gospel sharing would make more sense if we used ordinary words to translate the Greek word "hamartia", rather than the religious word "sin". For example,

missing the mark
serious failure
Using these words would subtly change our message as they are not pre-loaded with shame and condemnation. They make sin more normal, which it is. Who has not failed to achieve their own standard? Who has not made a serious failure? Our tone should be sympathetic, not critical.

I am really enjoying reading John Goldingay's translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called First Testament. I like the way that he avoids the English word sin in his translation. He used the words: waywardness, wrongdoing, and rebellion for the Hebrew words: awon, chattath and pesha, respectively. This conveys the meaning of the text in a way that is not religiously loaded to produce shame and condemnation.

I suggest that we follow this example in our efforts to share the gospel with modern people, who react negatively to anything religious. We need to listen more carefully to how we sound. The good news does not need a religious loading to be effective. It will actually be more powerful without it.

When a person who is not a follower of Jesus hears the word "sin", they hear judgment and condemnation, even if the person speaking did not mean it, so we should be careful about how we use the word. Mostly we should avoid it. If we can't share the gospel without any religious words, then our understanding of the gospel is probably deficient.


The words used for sin in Greek and Hebrew have a different tone to our word sin. The Greek word often translated sin (hamartia) means "missing the mark". This expression is not nearly as negative as our word sin, especially when weighed down with the religious baggage that has been loaded on it. Someone who has missed the target has failed, but they were actually trying to hit it. They have not been going in the opposite direction. The word signifies failure more than deliberate rebellion. Greek has the word "anupotaktos" for rebellion that the NT writers could have used, so we don't need to load its meaning onto the English translation of hamartia.

The same applies to several of the Hebrew words used in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word commonly translated as sin is "chattath". It also comes from a root meaning "miss". It means to "miss the way" or "missing the mark". Goldingay translates it as wrongdoing. Like the Greek word hamartia, it implies failure through getting lost, not deliberate rebellion. It does not carry all the religious baggage that we tend to load onto the word sin.

A second Hebrew word that is used commonly for what we call sin is "awon". This comes from a root meaning to bend or twist. It describes crooked behaviour. Goldingay translates this word as waywardness. The word means deviating from the standard or twisting the standard. It can describe a situation where a person twists the standard to justify themselves. This is a more serious failing than chattath.

The Hebrew word for rebellion is "pesha". It is sometimes translated as "transgression" in reference to the law. This word is much stronger than the two words previously described, but it is not used so frequently.

We should be careful not to load a sense of rebellion on words that don't have that meaning because it will produce a sense of shame. The truth should lead to repentance, not condemnation.


In the Old Testament, sin is often described as a burden. The Hebrew verb that is used most frequently with the word for waywardness is "carry". It is used more than a hundred times with the common noun for sin "awon". The most common way to view sin is a weight or burden that has to be carried. Cain said that his sin was a burden too heavy to carry. The Old Testament explains that people must carry the burden of their waywardness.

An interesting thing about the Old Testament is that God is often described as carrying the burden of sin. He carries it on behalf of his people. Exodus 34:7 describes God as merciful, gracious and patient, carrying the "waywardness, rebellion and wrongdoing" of his people. When the Psalmist confessed his waywardness to God, he carried (forgave) the waywardness of his wrongdoing (Psalm 32:5). Psalm 85:2 says that God has carried (forgiven) the waywardness of his people. God does not leave his people carrying the burden of sin. He carries the burden for them and forgives them.

Another verb that is used (less frequently) with the Hebrew word for sin is "kasha", which means cover. This is another way of saying that God forgives sin. Psalm 85:2 says that God has covered all the waywardness of his people.

Christians often say that God hates sin and can have nothing to do with sinners. That is not quite right. He is more sympathetic to his people than that. He sees it as a burden that people carry, and he frequently finds a way to carry that burden for them. When we talk about what God has done, we must be careful not to portray God as being harsher than he is. Even the Old Testament is more sympathetic and compassionate toward human failing than are some Christians. Psalm 103 is a popular Psalm, which declares that God has forgiven our sin.


The Hebrew word "awon" is often translated as sin, but it sometimes means sacrifice or offering. This Hebrew word is used for the sin offerings described in Leviticus 5-7, Numbers 7 and in Exodus 29:36. This is interesting because the word for a problem is also used to describe its solution. Perhaps this what Paul meant when he said that Jesus who had no sin was made sin for us (2 Cor 5:21).

In Number 8:7, the "awon" is used to mean purification in references to Purifying Water. So, when the word has religious a connotation, it has a positive meaning.


According to the synoptic gospels (Mathew, Mark and Luke), John baptised people for the forgiveness of their sins and the angel announcing Jesus' birth said he would save people from their sin, but Jesus did not talk about sin (missing the mark) very much. In Mark's gospel, Jesus is only recorded as using the word sin on one occasion when healing the paralysed man (Mark 2:5-10). This is striking. If the first gospel (good news), only mentioned sin in one place, it is odd that insisting that people acknowledge their sin is at the heart of modern preaching of the good news.

When he did mention sin in Mathew, Mark and Luke, he almost always used the word "forgive" or "pardon" at the same time (Matt 9:2-6: 26:28; 12:31; Luke 1:77; 3:3; 5:20-24; 7:47-49; 11:4 24:27). He never accused ordinary people of sinning, but frequently promised to forgive their sins. If Jesus could not speak of sin without mentioning forgiveness, we should add this practice to our sharing of the gospel. This was true of the preaching of the gospel in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:38; 3:19: 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 22:16; 26:19). The apostles always mentioned forgiveness when they spoke about sin. If forgiveness was the heart of their preaching, it should be an integral part our ours too.

The word hamartia is used more frequently in John's gospel. Jesus told the man by the pool of Bethsaida to stop sinning to keep his healing safe (John 5:14). He accused the Jews who rejected his good news of being servants of sin (John 8:21-46). He explained that the Holy Spirit will convict people of sin when he comes (John 16:8-9). He explained that a blind man was not blind because of his sin or his parent's sin (John 9:5-31).

Challenging and exposing the sins of ordinary people was not a dominant part of Jesus' ministry. He Ieft that for the Holy Spirit to do when he came. I presume that the hardest task for Jesus was to get people to understand was the extent of God's love for them.


In his letter to the Romans, Paul provides an insight into the nature of sin. He explains that it is ubiquitous because humans are under the power of sin (Rom 3:9,23). This is the heart of the human problem. It is not that we have made some bad choices, but that we are under the power of sin. In Romans 5, Paul explained how sin came into the world.

Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned...
Death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses...
By the trespass of the one man, death reigned...
Sin reigned in death... (Romans 5:12, 14, 17, 21).
When Adam and Eve acted on the deceiver's advice, they were not just being naughty, they were unwittingly submitting to the spiritual powers of evil who had already rebelled against God. The initial victory was won by a spirit called Satan, but a spirit called Death quickly rose to the top and with an assistant called Sin controlled human life on earth from the time of Adam until Moses. (The giving of the law opened the way for Accuser to rise to the top (Rom 7:9-11)).

Sin is not just bad behaviour. Sin is the name of a powerful spiritual ruler (See Controller). Likewise, Death is the name of an equally powerful spiritual power. These spirits gained power in the earth when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. Paul explains that they are ruling in the lives of people who have not been rescued by Jesus. Understanding this reality should make us more sympathetic and less judgmental of people who do not know Jesus, because they have often been manipulated or controlled by a spirit called Sin.

In Romans 6 and 7, Paul explains the consequences of the emergence of these spiritual powers. Humans became slaves of Sin and Death. Those who have not surrendered to Jesus are still slaves of these spirits.

We should no longer be slaves of sin (6:6).
Death no longer has dominion over Him (6:9).
You used to be slaves to sin (6:17).
You were slaves of sin (6:20).
I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin (7:14).
The unavoidable problem is that we become slaves of what we obey.
Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey (Rom 6:16).
People don't choose to be slaves, but if they submit to the wrong thing, they become a slave to sin and evil. They may still feel like they are free because they are choosing what to do, but they have unwittingly become a slave to the thing they have obeyed. This is a massive problem for the people of the world.

The good news is that Jesus defeated the spirits of Sin and Death when he died on the cross. His followers have been set free from these powers.

You have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin (Rom 6:17-18).
This deliverance is confirmed in Romans 8.
The Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from... Sin and Death (8:2).
He condemned Sin in the flesh (8:3).
Jesus defeated the spirit of Sin on the cross and rescued those who choose to follow him from the power of Death. Those who have not acknowledged Jesus are still slaves of these spirits, often without realising. They deserve our sympathy, not condemnation. We are not better, just different, having been rescued by Jesus.

Loving Sinner and Hating Sin

A common expression among Christians is that God loves sinners but hates their sin. However, it is not really clear that it is possible to separate a person from what they have done in this neat way. What a person does reflects who they are, so we can't easily pull them apart. When God looks at us, he sees what we are doing as well as who we are. In fact, what we are doing, reveals who we are. But that is not a problem for God because his love is bigger than anything that we can do.

Unfortunately, there are no scriptures to support the popular saying. The verses that are usually quoted are the following.

You hate all workers of iniquity (Psalm 5:5).
His soul hates one who loves violence (Psalm 11:5).
These verses do not say that God hates sin. They say that he hates people who deliberately engage in evil and violence. There are some people who are deliberately engaged in evil to do as much harm as they can, but this is relatively rare. Most people sin because they struggle with the circumstances of life. We cannot use these verses as proof that God hates sin. I suspect that when he looks at most people, he feels sadness and regret because their lives have been messed up by the spiritual powers of evil.

There is no doubt that God loves us. He even loves those who have fallen into sin.

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).
He proved his love by sending Jesus to die for us when we were still sinners. Therefore, a more correct statement would be that God loves us despite our sin. Our sin cannot prevent him from loving us. If God does not need to add the comment that he hates the sin of those he loves, why would his followers need to do it?

God Cannot Look at Sin

Another common belief amongst Christians is that God cannot have anything to do with human sin. Some suggest that he is so holy that he cannot even look upon sin. The verse quoted to support this view is Habakkuk 1:13.

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Several things should be noted about this verse. Firstly, the reference is to evil, not sin. God's attitude to those who deliberately do evil is different to his attitude to those who drift into sin and fail to do good. These actions are quite different. Secondly, the word translated "look on" should not be taken too literally. In this context, it has more of a sense that "God cannot look on evil with pleasure". Thirdly, following the common practice in Hebrew poetry, the second line of the verse repeats the theme of the first line. The second line of the verse is clear that God cannot tolerate wrongdoing amongst his people. That is quite different from the belief that he cannot look upon sin at all.

According to the scriptures, God quite happily deals with sinful people all the time. He came into the Garden of Eden and spoke to Adam and Eve after they had disobeyed by following the suggestion of the serpent. He kept on working with Abraham, David and the people of Israel despite their frequent failure and disobedience. Holy Spirit comes and lives in people who are far from perfect.

God does not like our sin, but we should be careful not to overstate his problems with it. The reality is that his love for us far outweighs the ugliness of our failings. God is keener to forgive us than we are to ask for forgiveness. It is the spiritual powers of evil who like to judge and condemn people who have sinned and load them with guilt and shame.

Accused Woman

Some Christians quote John's account of the woman accused of adultery. This story is often referred to as the Woman taken in Adultery. But there is no evidence that the woman was guilty of adultery. It should be more correctly be called the Woman Accused of Adultery.

Jesus talked to the woman with love and respect, but it is not clear that he hated her sin. He specifically said that he was not condemning her.

I do not condemn you, either (John 8:11a).
This is a very strong statement, so we must be careful that we don't condemn her with our interpretation of the biblical text. Most commentaries on the passage assume that she was a sinner, so in effect, they do condemn her. (I explain what Jesus wrote on the ground in Dust.)

Jesus did not say, "Go and sin no more", as is translated in most English bibles. He actually said something more complicated.

Go, and from now on, no longer be sinning (John 8:11).
This is quite a hesitant statement compared to the first half of the verse. It does not indicate a clear judgment of her behaviour.

Jesus' statement tells her what she must do "from now on". His only comment about the past was that he did not condemn her. He did not say that God hates her sin. He just says that she should be no longer be sinning. His instruction was directed towards the future. Clearly, she needed to make some changes in her life. She needs to stop failing and missing the mark. He was not dumping all the baggage carried by our word sin onto her (including the shame and sin).

Jesus did not say what sin she should avoid. If we assume that it was sexual sin, we are reading into Jesus' comment. I suspect that he was really saying something like.

Go and get some clothes on before you get accused of something else.
I presume that his comment was quite general.
Go and get your life sorted out, so you don't get into a pickle like this again.
Much significant information is missing from John's account If the incident. We don't know if what the accusers said was true. If we accept their claims as true, we have already condemned the woman; something that Jesus does not do.

John does not explain the situation the woman was in. We don't know if she was married or single. We don't know if she was a prostitute paid by the male adulterer, or if she was a vulnerable woman seduced or by him, but this information would make a big difference to our judgment.

The woman's accusers declared that she had been caught in adultery. However, the word translated caught (katalambano) can also mean "seized". This could describe her being caught, but another possibility is that the male adulterer had seized her and forced her into a compromised situation. (The accusers might have just grabbed her off the street to trap Jesus). If we assume that we know what type of women she was, we have probably condemned her, something Jesus was unwilling to do.

The accusers say nothing about the man who was caught with the woman. If they had caught the woman in the act, he must have been caught in the act too. However, he was not there, so we can presume that he scarpered to avoid embarrassment and shame. Because they were trying to trap Jesus, it is possible the men who had come across them had deliberately allowed him to escape.

We can assume that the man was married, so he was the one who should have been judged. The fact that he had disappeared tells us something about what kind of man he was. He escaped to preserve his reputation while leaving the woman to face the music. Given the uncertainty about who was most guilty in this situation, there is no basis for concluding that Jesus hated the woman sin. I presume he was more upset about the man who committed adultery and disappeared to avoid shame.


Many Christians believe that calling for repentance is mandatory for preaching the gospel. They assume that they need to expose their listeners' sins and get them to feel deep remorse. Getting people to feel sorry for their sinfulness is often the first phase of preaching the gospel. However, this is often misdirected effort. Rather than following a set formula, Christians sharing the gospel should follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and say the things that he wants to be said, and that will vary according to the situation of their listeners.

Preachers often assume that it is their role to convict their listeners of sin, but that is not right. This is the role of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised,

He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness (John 16:8).
The Holy Spirit does this in his own time. He will sometimes do it before a person gives their life to Jesus, but it will be much easier to do after they have chosen to follow Jesus because he will have greater freedom to speak to them personally. The Holy Spirit will go on convicting us of sin throughout our lives, so this task does not have to be completed before a person comes to faith.

Repentance is important, but not in the way that we usually assume. The Greek word translated as repentance is metanoia. It means to "change your mind" or "change the way you think". Feeling sorry for your sins might be part of that, but it is only a small part and not the core meaning of the word. Repentance requires a much broader and much deeper change of mind. It requires a change of thinking about God, a different understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Both should be worked out in a change in our behaviour.

The true sign of repentance is not remorse and tears, but a change in behaviour.

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:8).
Repentance produces good fruit. When his listeners asked him what they should do, John gave them practical examples: generosity, no stealing, no manipulation or intimidation, no false accusations (Luke 3:10-14). Repentance requires a serious change in thinking that leads to a real change of behaviour. Being sorry for your sins is not the fruit of repentance; a change of lifestyle is.