The general context in which the word ‘sin’ is used is theological. It is as theologians that we wish to give it greater definiteness of meaning and application, and it is for serviceableness to our science that we entertain this desire and feel the need for its fulfillment. It thus appears that the fundamental element in the connotation of our concept of sin is to be derived from Christian theology, and that by the relations there affirmed to exist between God and man, and in the light of revealed truth concerning God’s attitude towards human sinfulness, we must ascertain the salient characteristics of sin and be guided towards our first approximation to a definition. The theological conception of sin contains a religious element, which, however, must be evanescent when the sin of the lowest races is contemplated: then sin becomes reduced, almost or entirely, to moral evil. It is therefore to Christian theology that we shall now address ourselves in order to make our approximation to the connotation of the term.
As used by our Lord, ‘sin,’ and its equivalent ‘moral defilement,’ always refer to voluntary transgression of law known by the agent to be binding upon himself. He emphasizes inward intention as distinguished from (1) merely ceremonial defilement, (2) non-voluntarily restrained execution, and always treats the sinner as accountable for his sin (Betz 1975). He does not teach that sin is to be imputed where there is total ignorance of the ‘law’ violated – rather the contrary: sinfulness is proportional to opportunity for enlightenment. He implies that sin defiles, estranges from God, is blameworthy and punishable, calls for shame and repentance, requires forgiveness from God: and unless sin were a matter of accountability these implications would be inconsistent with His revelation of the nature of God, as well as with our moral intuitions.
That Christ’s sinlessness is consistent with (1) His own human development, (2) His being subject to temptation, implies that sin is not to be identified either with ethical imperfection or with possession of impulses etc. which need voluntary coercion (Fortna & Gaventa 1987). The idea of sin attributed to our Lord in the Gospels is shared by New Testament writers generally. St Paul alone uses the term ‘sin’ with another connotation as well. The content of this idea is the foundation for a Christian conception of sin: inconsistent accretions need to be eliminated.
On passing to the Romans contained in the New Testament, we find prevailing the same idea of sin as that which was taught or implied by our Lord. St Paul, in describing the transition from temptation, through desire, to sin, identifies sin itself with the consent of the will. The same writer implies that for a transgression of law to be sin, the requirement of the law must be known to the agent. The Romans dwell on sin an estrangement from God and as correlated with guilt. This St Paul also supplements the teaching of Christ, so emphatically illustrated in His own life, that physical evil and human suffering have no necessary connexion with sin – a false supposition which theology has been reluctant to abandon. When St Paul identifies sin with lawlessness, in the sense of transgression of law, he withholds explicit formulation of the several qualifications which would be necessary to make his indefinite statement of value for our present purpose; but – to make only a modest claim – there is nothing in his treatment of sin and Christian sinlessness which implies that his definition covers unintentional or morally inevitable transgressions, or that it contemplates law otherwise than as relative to available moral enlightenment and to capacity for moral discrimination possessed by individuals severally.
It is true that St Paul, and he alone amongst New Testament writers, uses ‘sin’ with another signification than that just described. He speaks of ‘sin’ as being “in the world” until, or previously to, the giving of the Mosaic Law, though this ‘sin’ is said to be “not imputed.” (Barclay 1988) Such ‘sin’ has been identified with what afterwards came unhappily to be named ‘original sin,’ i.e. a guiltless consequence of another’s actual and guilty sin. It may mean, however, as some maintain, though with scant plausibility, unintentional or ignorant unconformity to the requirements of the objective moral standard.
It seems impossible, then, to avoid the conclusion that the essential characteristic of the concept of sin which is consistently used in the New Testament, whether by our Lord or by the first Christian writers with the single exception of St Paul – who expresses himself sometimes in terms of ideas derived from his Rabbinic teachers, and sometimes rhetorically – is its strict correlativity with what is usually meant by ‘guilt’: with moral accountability and demerit. With this single exception, sin in spoken of in the New Testament always as an attitude or activity contravening a law or an ideal which the agent, whatever be the degree in which he can possess knowledge of God, has been enabled to recognize, if he will, as binding upon himself at the time. Thus the concept of sin, as it is given definite outline through relation with (1) the Christian idea of God as an ethical Being, (2) the revelation of God’s attitude towards sin and treatment of sinners, and (3) the sinlessness of Jesus Christ who yet grew in wisdom and perfection and was tempted as we are: this concept, as it is used in various connexions by the Divine Founder of Christianity and those who first narrated His life and expounded His teaching, appears to contain all the four marks of the ‘strictly ethical’ which the following four chapters are respectively to describe. And it may be added that this has actually been the primary content of the idea of actual sin throughout the history of Christian theology (Bornkamm 1969). That other notions have been superimposed upon it, or confounded with it, from the time of St Paul, with results disastrous to consistency of doctrine, is an equally obvious fact.