Pop culture sometimes obsesses over bad behavior—who’s doing the wrong things, who’s saying the wrong words, and who's to blame. Our most popular movies and books often depend on the “good guys versus bad guys” storyline. Whether we know it or not, we’re obsessing over sin.
The same goes for church culture. Pastors and priests preach about sin on Sundays. Small group leaders encourage you to confess it. Jesus and the apostles never shy away from bringing it up. And churches throughout history have been celebrating a 40-day season called Lent, which is devoted to reflections about sin and its ongoing corruption.
But what is sin? And what does the Bible say about it?
Perhaps you’ve developed a mental checklist of what constitutes a sin. Depending on your background, that list may include moralistic stuff like lying, cheating, cussing, lust, drunkenness, etc.
Maybe sin has been weaponized against you with threats of fiery torture and condemnation. And many of us have used sin to measure ourselves against others—am I better than that person? Am I doing okay? Am I a “good” person? Am I worthy of love, forgiveness, and acceptance?
Contrary to some popular assumptions, when the biblical authors talk about sin, they are talking about something much deeper and more complex than regulatory lists of good and bad behaviors or good guys versus bad guys. They’re talking about a corruption of God’s good world that shows up in human relationships and choices, something that we do and something that happens to us.
The story starts with God creating everything and repeatedly calling it good (or tov in Hebrew; see Gen. 1 for all seven references). But then a snake enters the narrative, corrupting that goodness. As the story unfolds, the biblical authors use language like “sin,” “iniquity,” and “transgression” to explain this corruption and the harm it causes. So let’s take a closer look at what these words mean so we can understand the authors’ perspectives.
Defining Sin: Missing the Goal
The Hebrew word khata’ is most commonly translated as “sin.” Khata’ means “to fail” or “to miss the goal,” and the word is not always about morality.
In Judges 20:16, we learn that a slingshot expert who successfully nails the bullseye does not khata’, which means he does not fail or miss the target. Similarly, we read in Proverbs 19:2 that people who act hastily while traveling are likely to khata’—to miss their intended destination.
So if sin is missing a goal, what’s the goal?
When God creates humanity in his divine image, he sets the goal. Genesis 1:26 captures an interesting statement from God, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness,” reminding us that this single God exists in three different yet undivided persons—Father, Word, and Spirit—inseparable but distinct, forever together in unbreakable love. To be created in the image of a God like this suggests that humanity’s most essential nature is divine love. Living with love for God and one another and all creation is our primary human goal. Choosing to not love invites corruption into the goodness of creation, so it is khata’—sin.
In Genesis 3, the first human beings miss the goal of loving God when they ignore his instruction and redefine good and bad on their own terms. Their choice fractures their relationship with God and each other, leading to death. In the next chapter (Gen. 4), we see the Bible’s first use of khata’. Cain is faced with the decision to be truly human and love his brother or to corrupt himself and others by murdering his brother Abel.
God warns Cain: “If you do not choose what is good, khata’ (sin) is crouching at the door. It wants you, but you can rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). Here, the author describes sin as something outside of Cain, like a crouching predator waiting to attack and destroy life. But Cain can resist sin if he chooses to—he can rule over the crouching beast.
Examining khata’ in the Hebrew Bible simultaneously makes the idea of sin clearer and more mysterious. Sin is like a crouching monster outside of us, waiting to pounce and corrupt by tempting us to be unloving toward God and others. But every human can reject it by choosing to aim for the truest human goal—becoming infinitely loving toward God and others.
Defining Iniquity: Distorting What Is Good
The Hebrew word avon is another word for sin, but with a different nuance. We also translate it as “iniquity,” which adds another dimension to our understanding.
The biblical authors use avon to describe a twisted or crooked road (e.g., Lam. 3:9) or a malformed back that’s bent out of shape (e.g., Ps. 38:6). Isaiah uses avon to mean “dazed and confused” (Isa. 21:3). Avon is about distorting what was otherwise beautiful and good, and the authors use it to refer to behavior like murder or adultery. Other examples of this type of twisted behavior include deceitfulness, broken faith, violence, and other kinds of harm.
Avon also refers to the crooked results and consequences—the suffering people, shattered relationships, and cycles of retaliation that come from this behavior. When we are abused and taken advantage of, we are experiencing avon, iniquity—sin.
The choice to sin often begins with an urge to look out for “me, myself, and I” and ignore our human purpose, which is to care for others as we care for ourselves, to love one another as God loves. When we ignore or diminish others to become self-serving, we allow the deadly croucher to rule over us. We become bent, crooked, and bring harm to others and ourselves.
Page after page in Scripture, we see people missing the mark or distorting the good, and they either don’t know what they’re doing or, worse, believe they’re doing good. Sometimes we strongly believe we’re doing good when we aren’t. Other times, we honestly just don’t know that we’re missing the goal. With the best intentions, we can unintentionally do the bent and crooked thing. Thankfully, God responds with mercy, guidance, and a forgiveness that will ultimately heal each of us and the consequences of our sin.
Remember the scene when Jesus (who is God in the flesh) forgives the Roman guards while they are actively murdering him? “Forgive them,” he says, “for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He’s not in favor of what they’re doing, nor will he hold it against them. The story of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament describes a God who opposes and works to eliminate sin, and he also understands it more than we do. He consistently forgives sin. Seeing God’s posture of strong lovingkindness can empower us to forgive others’ sins as he forgives our own. This is a key part of living out our human purpose to love all people as God does.
Defining Transgression: Violating Trust
The biblical authors explore more of the relational consequences of sin with the Hebrew word pesha, often translated as “transgression.” Pesha refers to ways that people violate the trust of others, like the betrayal of a relationship.
Take for instance a law in the Hebrew Bible about theft (e.g., Exod. 22:7-9). If people are away on a trip and somebody sneaks into their house to steal, that’s robbery. But if the thief is your neighbor, that’s pesha. Why? Because a neighbor is someone you should be able to trust.
The same relational betrayal can happen between humans and God. Prophets in the Hebrew Bible accuse the Israelites of pesha, in this case referring to worshiping other gods and violating their relationship with Yahweh (e.g., Hos. 11). They also associate pesha with the choice to mistreat or ignore poor and vulnerable people in their communities (e.g. Amos 2:6) because doing so corrupts what should be loving, life-giving relationships. Prophets watched leaders ignore or justify the mistreatment of humans in the name of national security and a strong economy (e.g. Amos 1:9, 1:13), and the prophets called this a betrayal of humanity, a violation of universal trust that should otherwise exist between humans made in God’s loving image.
So pesha, or transgression, describes the rupture of trust in relationships, a lack of faithfulness and integrity, leading to painful experiences that harm everyone involved.
Jesus, Ruler Over Sin and Our True Goal
Scripture presents Jesus of Nazareth as both fully God and fully human and says that Jesus avoided sin entirely. He never misses the goal of loving every human being in the ways of God.
He teaches his followers that the most important instruction from God, the one that sums up the whole law and the prophets, is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:35-40). He’s restating the essential nature and original goal of real human life. The Apostle Peter says that Jesus “committed no sin, yet he carried our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to our sins and live to do what is right” (1 Pet. 2:22-24).
Because of God’s unbreakable love for each of us, we can be honest about the ways we miss the goal (khata’/sin), bend or distort what is good (avon/iniquity), and fracture relationships (pesha/transgression). We can put an end to the obsessive conversations about good guys versus bad guys or who is right or wrong and, instead, love everyone as God does. By doing so, we move sin into the good light that Jesus generates, and we start to understand its weakness compared to God’s loving strength. We can learn to master it rather than allowing it to rule over us.
The Hebrew Bible’s authors were telling a story that was pointing to Jesus, and the New Testament authors teach us that Jesus is the one who shows humanity how to “die to our sins and live to do what is right.” The more we immerse ourselves in his story, the more we realize that avoiding sin has everything to do with right relationships with God and others.
During ordinary life or dedicated seasons such as Lent, when we reflect on sin and its corrupting effects, we remember from Scripture that Jesus is the mark, the true goal. Loving others as he does is to escape sin’s corruption and become fully human, truly alive.