“Sins” and “Sin” -- By: I. Howard Marshall

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 159:633 (Jan 2002)
Article: “Sins” and “Sin”
Author: I. Howard Marshall


“Sins” and “Sin”*

I. Howard Marshall

* This is article one in a four-part series, “Four ‘Bad’ Words in the New Testament,” delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, February 6–9, 2001.

I. Howard Marshall is Honorary Research Professor of New Testament, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

The purpose of this series is to focus on four terms that depict the necessity of the gospel in view of the human situation from which people need to be delivered. Many works have been written on the positive vocabulary of Christianity but not so many on the negative counterpart. These four words serve as gateways to the concepts expressed by them.

Missing The Mark?

When I was about fourteen years old, I was in a Sunday afternoon Bible class, in which the leader explained the nature of sin more clearly than anyone had previously done by reference to the different words used to describe it. He said that the verb ἁμαρτάνω (I cannot remember whether he used the actual Greek term or not), has the sense of missing the mark, of having an aim and failing to achieve it, like a person shooting an arrow at a target and failing to land within the circle. Then he mentioned “transgression,” which conveys the sense of disobedience to a set of rules. The word “trespass,” he explained, refers to going where you ought not to go, like invading someone’s private estate. “Debt” conveys the idea of some obligation to fulfill, which the person fails to do. These may not have been the exact terms he discussed, and I may not have expounded them exactly as he presented them. He may have also mentioned other terms, such as “iniquity,” which expresses more the result of sin in making a person guilty or unclean.

However, this exposition might be penalized to some extent for committing the so-called etymological fallacy, the supposition that the origin of a word is a safe guide to its developed meaning and that this “original” sense is also found in later uses. This is most

conspicuous in the case of ἁμαρτάνω, which in the earliest Greek literature was used of hurling a spear and failing to hit the intended target or of having a purpose and not succeeding in fulfilling it. This imagery provides an excellent picture of one aspect of sin. When Paul wrote that he failed to do the good that he wanted to do (Rom. 7:15–20), clearly he meant that he was missing his intended target, although he did not use the verb in question. And one might wish t...

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