Romans 5:12-14 Sin: A Definition

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

Sin: A Definition

I have had discussion with a friend who has challenged me on my definition of sin.  I have seen it as an inherent condition of mankind, brought forth by Adam and inherited by all the human race.  We are all born into original sin, I would have said, and when physical defects, character defects, or social alienation occurs, I would have said, that is sin in the system.  It is not a choice people make, but a condition into which people are born which falls short of God’s desires and design for his world.  However, the challenge runs that these shortcomings are the effects of sin, but they are not sin in and of themselves.  Maybe the word sin, used in this context, communicates too much culpability on the part of the individual.  So I have been looking into the definitions found throughout the Bible.  Bill Simmons, in the Holman Bible Dictionary, expresses an overview of sin in this way:

Actions by which humans rebel against God, miss His purpose for their life, and surrender to the power of evil rather than to God.
Sin as Rebellion. One of the central affirmations throughout the Bible is humanity’s estrangement from God. The cause for this estrangement is sin, the root cause of all the problems of humanity. The Bible, however, gives no formal definition for sin. It describes sin as an attitude that personifies sin as rebellion against God. Rebellion was at the root of the problem for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:1 ) and has been at the root of humanity’s plight ever since.

Sin’s Origin in Humanity’s Rebellious Nature Human sin is universal—we all sin. All persons without exception are under sin’s dominion (Romans 3:9-23 ). How did this come about? The Bible has no philosophical argument as such concerning sin’s origin. God is in no way responsible for sin. Satan introduced sin when he beguiled Eve, but the Bible does not teach that sin had its origin with him either. Sin’s origin is to be found in humanity’s rebellious nature. Since Adam and Eve rebelled against the clear command of God, sin has infected humanity like a dread malignancy.

The Bible sets forth no systematic rationale as to how the human race was and is infected by this dread malady. Some passages such as Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:3 could be interpreted to mean that this sinful nature is inherited. Other passages seem to affirm that sin is due to human choice (see Ezekiel 18:4 ,Ezekiel 18:4,18:19-20; Romans 1:18-20; Romans 5:12 .)

What then is the answer to the dilemma? A possible answer is the fact that the Jewish mind had no problem in admitting two mutually exclusive ideas into the same system of thought. Any idea that humanity inherits a sinful nature must be coupled with the corollary that every person is indeed responsible for his/her choice of sin.

Another possibility for understanding how sin has infected all of humanity may be found in the biblical understanding of the corporateness and solidarity of the human race. This understanding of the human situation would say that when Adam rebelled against God, he incorporated all of his descendants in his action (see Hebrews 7:9-10 for a similar analogy). This view certainly does not eliminate the necessity for each individual to accept full responsibility for sinful acts.

Adam and Eve introduced sin into human history by their rebellious actions. The Bible affirms that every person who has lived since has followed their example. Whatever else one may say about sin’s origin, this much is surely affirmed throughout the Bible.

The Bible Views Sin from Various Perspectives One concept of sin in the Old Testament is that of transgression of the law. God established the law as a standard of righteousness; any violation of this standard is defined as sin. Deuteronomy 6:24-25 is a statement of this principle from the perspective that a person who keeps the law is righteous. The implication is that the person who does not keep the law is not righteous, that is, sinful.

Another concept of sin in the Old Testament is as breach of the covenant. God made a covenant with the nation Israel; they were bound by this covenant as a people (Exodus 19:1; Exodus 24:1; Joshua 24:1 ). Each year on the Day of Atonement, the nation went through a covenant renewal. When the high priest consecrated the people by sprinkling them with the blood of the atoning sacrifice, they renewed their vows to the Lord to be a covenant-keeping people. Any breach of this covenant was viewed as sin (Deuteronomy 29:19-21 .)

The Old Testament also pictures sin as a violation of the righteous nature of God. As the righteous and holy God, He sets forth as a criterion for His people a righteousness like His own. (Leviticus 11:45 .) Any deviation from God’s own righteousness is viewed as sin.

The Old Testament has a rich vocabulary for sin.

Chata means “to miss the mark,” as does the Greek hamartia . The word could be used to describe a person shooting a bow and arrow and missing the target with the arrow. When it is used to describe sin, it means that the person has missed the mark that God has established for the person’s life.

Aven describes the crooked or perverse spirit associated with sin. Sinful persons have perverted their spirits and become crooked rather than straight. Ra describes the violence associated with sin. It also has the connotation of the breaking out of evil. Sin is the opposite of righteousness or moral straightness in the Old Testament.

The New Testament Perspective of Sin The New Testament picture is much like that of the Old Testament. Several of the words used for sin in the New Testament have almost the same meaning as some of the Hebrew words used in the Old Testament. The most notable advancement in the New Testament view of sin is the fact that sin is defined against the backdrop of Jesus as the standard for righteousness. His life exemplifies perfection. The exalted purity of His life creates the norm for judging what is sinful.

In the New Testament, sin also is viewed as a lack of fellowship with God. The ideal life is one of fellowship with God. Anything which disturbs or distorts this fellowship is sin.

The New Testament view of sin is somewhat more subjective than objective. Jesus taught quite forcefully that sin is a condition of the heart. He traced sin directly to inner motives stating that the sinful thought leading to the overt act is the real sin. The outward deed is actually the fruit of sin. Anger in the heart is the same as murder (Matthew 5:21-22 ). The impure look is tantamount to adultery (Matthew 5:27-28 ). The real defilement in a person stems from the inner person (heart) which is sinful (Matthew 15:18-20 ). Sin, therefore, is understood as involving the essential being of a person, that is, the essential essence of human nature.

The New Testament interprets sin as unbelief. However, unbelief is not just the rejection of a dogma or a creed. Rather, it is the rejection of that spiritual light which has been revealed in Jesus Christ. Or, from another perspective, unbelief is the rejection of the supreme revelation as it is found in the person of Jesus Christ. Unbelief is resistance to the truth of God revealed by the Spirit of God and produces moral and spiritual blindness. The outcome of such rejection is judgment. The only criterion for judgment is whether or not one has accepted or rejected the revelation of God as found in Jesus Christ (John 3:18-19; John 16:8-16 ).

The New Testament further pictures sin as being revealed by the law of Moses. The law was preparatory, and its function was to point to Christ. The law revealed sin in its true character, but this only aroused in humanity a desire to experience the forbidden fruit of sin. The law as such is not bad, but humanity simply does not have the ability to keep the law. Therefore, the law offers no means of salvation; rather, it leaves humanity with a deep sense of sin and guilt (Romans 7:1 ). The law, therefore, serves to bring sin into bold relief, so that it is clearly perceptible.

The most common New Testament word for sin is hamartia . See above. Parabasis , “trespass” or “transgression,” literally, means to step across the line. One who steps over a property line has trespassed on another person’s land; the person who steps across God’s standard of righteousness has committed a trespass or transgression.

Anomia means “lawlessness” or “iniquity” and is a rather general description of sinful acts, referring to almost any action in opposition to God’s standard of righteousness. Poneria , “evil” or “wickedness,” is even a more general term than anomia. Adikia , “unrighteousness,” is just the opposite of righteous. In forensic contexts outside the New Testament, it described one who was on the wrong side of the law.

Akatharsia , “uncleanness” or “impurity,” was a cultic word used to describe anything which could cause cultic impurity. It was used quite often to describe vicious acts or sexual sins. Apistia , “unbelief,” literally refers to a lack of faith. To refuse to accept the truth of God by faith is to sin. Hence any action which can be construed as unfaithful or any disposition which is marked by a lack of faith is sinful.

Epithumia , often translated “lust,” is actually a neutral word. Only the context can determine if the desire is good or evil. Jesus said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15 NIV), Paul used this word with a modifier meaning, “evil,” in Colossians 3:5 , where it is translated “evil concupiscence” or “evil desires.” When used in this way, the word could refer to almost any evil desire but was most often used to describe sexual sins (Matthew 5:28 ).

Sin’s Consequences The Bible looks upon sin in any form as the most serious of humanity’s problems. Though sinful acts may be directed against another person, ultimately every sin is against God, the Creator of all things. Perfect in righteousness, God cannot tolerate that which violates His righteous character. Therefore, sin creates a barrier between God and persons.

Sin also necessitates God’s intervention in human affairs. Since humanity could not extricate itself from the entanglements of sin, it was necessary for God to intervene if humanity was ever to be freed from these entanglements. See Salvation .

The consequences of sin both personally and in society are far reaching. That person who constantly and consistently follows a sinful course will become so enmeshed in sin that for all practical purposes he or she is enslaved to sin (Romans 6:1 , for example).

Another of the awful consequences of sin is spiritual depravity in society in general as well as in the lives of individuals. Some will argue that depravity is the cause of sin, and this surely is a valid consideration. However, there can be no escaping the fact that a continuance in sin adds to this personal depravity, a moral crookedness or corruption eventually making it impossible to reject sin.

Sin also produces spiritual blindness. Spiritual truths simply are not visible to that person who has been blinded by sin.

Moral ineptitude is another devastating consequence of sin. The more people practice sin, the more inept they become as far as moral and spiritual values are concerned. Eventually, sin blurs the distinction between right and wrong.

Guilt is certainly a consequence of sin. No person can blame another person for a sin problem. Each person must accept responsibility for sin and face the guilt associated with it (Romans 1-3 ).

In the Bible sin and death are corollaries. One of the terrible byproducts of sin is death. Continual, consistent sin will bring spiritual death to that person who has not come under the lordship of Christ through repentance and faith (Romans 6:23; Revelation 20:14 .) For those who have trusted Christ Jesus for salvation, death no longer holds this dread. Christ has negated the power of Satan in making death horrible and has freed the person from slavery to this awful fear (Hebrews 2:14-15 .) See Death .

Another serious consequence of sin is that it brings separation from God, estrangement, and a lack of fellowship with God. This need not be permanent, but if a person dies not having corrected this problem by trusting Christ, then the separation does become permanent (Romans 6:23 ). See Hell .

Sin produces estrangement from other persons just as surely as it produces an estrangement from God. All interpersonal problems have sin as their root cause (James 4:1-3 ). The only hope for peace to be achieved on either the personal or national level is through the Prince of peace.


Father, as we explore sin, we find ourselves estranged from you.  Whatever, the nature of sin, let us seek your purity so that righteousness will become reality.  Let redemption restore what the choice of Adam has ruined.


  1. What is Adam’s role with regard to sin?
  2. What is Jesus’ role with regard to sin?
  3. What is sin?
  4. How has sin ruined your life?
  5. How do you address sin in your own life and the life of those around you?

About Plymothian

I teach at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My interests include education, biblical studies, and spiritual formation. I have been married to Kelli since 1998 and we have two children, Daryl and Amelia. For recreation I like to run, play soccer, play board games, read and travel.
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14 Responses to Romans 5:12-14 Sin: A Definition

  1. Megumi says:

    1. Death spread to all men through Adam’s sin
    2. Jesus offers salvation from death for any who accept his sacrifice for the payment of their sin
    3. Anything we think, say or do that is contrary to God’s righteous standards
    4. Because of sin I was separated from God, subject to death, frustrated by the inability to fulfill my created purpose of worshiping and obeying God, and hurt by the sin of others
    5. By speaking the truth in love and offering grace and forgiveness

  2. Andrew Moore says:

    Through Adam, sin entered into the world, and a sinful nature has been passed on to all of his offspring, but through Christ we can finally be free from the ultimate consequence of sins. While we still face some effects of sin on earth (earthly death), it is only through Christ that we can find total freedom from sin and death.

  3. Emmy R says:

    The last sentence of the commentary really sums it all up for us, “The only hope for peace to be achieved on either the personal or national level is through the Prince of Peace.” Sin has really wrecked our world, it is especially evident in today’s society. We want peace, we want to turn on the news and not have to see people from all over the world being killed and destroyed. Although, that peace is not possible by ourselves, or by the president, or by the military. That peace is only possible through the PRINCE OF PEACE.

  4. Christa says:

    1. What is Adam’s role with regard to sin? Adam was the first man to sin, through whom sin came into the world
    2. What is Jesus’ role with regard to sin? Jesus was the perfect man, the redeemer of sinners, the one who took all the sin of the world upon Himself in order to forgive it
    3. What is sin? Sin is “missing the mark” by not doing/thinking/saying what God has said, or by doing/thinking/saying what God has said not to
    4. How has sin ruined your life? It has corrupted me and my relationships both with other humans and with God Himself
    5. How do you address sin in your own life and the life of those around you? I confess and repent of my sin when I recognize it in my own life and ask the Lord for forgiveness and the strength to fight against my sin; in the lives of those around me, I sometimes call out sin when I see it or when it negatively affects me

  5. Jung Kim says:

    Chata means “to miss the mark,” as does the Greek hamartia . The word could be used to describe a person shooting a bow and arrow and missing the target with the arrow. When it is used to describe sin, it means that the person has missed the mark that God has established for the person’s life.
    Sin produces estrangement from other persons just as surely as it produces an estrangement from God.

    -It’s fun to see how God repeats His teaching over and over through people, lectures, and devotions. In today’s American Literature class, we learned about the Age of Self. After the Age of Dissent, it got worse and people came to act so normal even though we are born depraved and evil. Even though people in Age of Self do not try to hide themselves, we are blind and do not see what is real and true. We also talked about one thing or one temptation that we have in our lives. I became speechless. It was more than one thing when I thought of temptations. But then, I also thought about what would be that ONE thing that breaks God’s heart the most.
    Lord, I am weak…that is why I belong to you. But it is not I who choose to be your child. Thank you for adopting me as your child, God. Lord.. I need new mercy every day. I need you every hour and every moment. Please break the chains in my life and give me freedom to serve you with joy.

  6. Maria T. says:

    As I’m reading about sin, I’m wondering about a few things. I grew up in a church where we said a confession of sin together every Sunday morning, and the pastor pronounced God’s forgiveness on all who truly repent and come to Him. We acknowledged the corporate identity of being a sinful people who come before a holy God to worship. Yet the church is also the place where God dwells among His people, making us holy. As I think about the effects of sin, I am also wondering about the effects of righteousness. I tend to think of the two states on a continuum, with sin as the negative numbers below zero on the number line, and righteousness on the positive side. God, forgive me for thinking of overcoming sin as climbing a ladder back to you. Please come and transform my heart.

  7. Michael McCardle says:

    How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
    When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. I acknowledge y sin to Thee, and my iniquity I did not hide.; I said “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to Thee in a time when Thou mayest be found.
    Many are the sorrows of the wicked; but he who trusts in the LORD, loving-kindness shall surround him.
    Be glad in the Lord and rejoice you righteous ones, and shout for joy all you who are upright in heart.

  8. Kimberly W. says:

    I found in interesting that Simmons mentioned that the Bible gives no formal definition for sin. However, the Bible is clear in showing what sin is. Simmons also made the point that all interpersonal problems are a result of sin. As I reflect on previous and current relationships, I can see how sin affected or affects them. It’s humbling to reflect on the sin in my life. I’m grateful for the grace God has given me.

  9. Maelynn says:

    I think this passage is so interesting – especially when it talks about sin being in the world before the law was given. This is referring to the period between Adam and Moses, when the Ten Commandments (and other laws) had not yet been written. Paul also states that “sin is not taken into account when there is no law.” This is a simple phrase, yet it stands out to me. The reason we know that we sin and fall short is because we don’t measure up to a certain standard. If there was no standard, then we wouldn’t feel guilty. One of Paul’s main points in Romans is that the law, though it points out our sin, cannot save us. Truly, on Jesus Christ can!

  10. Christina W. says:

    How do you address sin in your own life and the life of those around you?
    I address sin in my life by confessing it to the Lord and repenting of it. When my sin has directly affected someone around me, I go to them also and seek to make things right. Sin needs to be dealt with seriously but there is also love and grace in that process as well.

  11. Olyn says:

    What is Adam’s role with regard to sin?
    He was the first sinful man
    What is sin?
    Rebellion against God.
    How has sin ruined your life?
    It has distanced me from God many times.

  12. 1. It is through Adam that sin entered all men.
    2. It is through Christ that our sins are atoned for and His righteousness is imputed to us so that we may be counted as righteous in God’s sight.
    3. Sin is anything we do that goes against our holy and pure God.
    4. While God is always present with me, sin tears me up and makes me feel isolated from His presence. Not only does it take away from my intimacy with God, it also eats away at my relationships with others.
    5. Lots of prayer and honestly calling it out and trying hard to work it out of my life by God’s strength. When addressing those around me, my goal is to lovingly speak grace and truth into their lives.

  13. 1. Sin entered mankind through Adam
    2. Through Christ, our sin is atoned for and covered, so we are looked upon as righteous by God.
    3. Sin is more than just an act of rebellion, it’s a state of mind and effects all of who we are.
    4. Sin makes me forget about God and try my hardest to satisfy the desires of my heart.
    5. For myself, I need to rely on the Holy Spirit more and more, and continue to pray that God would keep me from sinning. For others, we should respond in love and emphasize that we aren;t judging or condemning them and we aren’t any better than them.

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