Yesterday, in the midst of a sermon linking the story of the “good” thief to the experience (and practice) of forgiveness, I shared with our congregation a summary of five words used in the New Testament that are often defined as “sin.” The intent was to help us more fully understand the concept of sin, and how and why it does factor into our lives; especially because use of the term over the years has left some people unable or unwilling to hear it.
I drew that portion of the sermon from one of William Barclay’s classic commentaries, and so am re-posting here that section from Barclay for those who want to read more.
FORGIVENESS HUMAN AND DIVINE
Matthew 6:12, 14-15
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors… For, if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you too; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Before we can honestly pray this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we must realize that we need to pray it. That is to say, before we can pray this petition we must have a sense of sin. Sin is not nowadays a popular word. Men and women rather resent being called, or treated as, hell-deserving sinners.
The trouble is that most people have a wrong conception of sin. They would readily agree that the burglar, the drunkard, the murderer, the adulterer and the foul-mouthed person are sinners. But they themselves are guilty of none of these sins; they live decent, ordinary, respectable lives, and have never even been in danger of appearing in court, or going to prison, or achieving some notoriety in the newspapers. They therefore feel that sin has nothing to do with them.
The New Testament uses five different words for sin.
(1) The most common word is hamartia. This was originally a shooting word and means a missing of the target. To fail to hit the target was hamartia. Therefore sin is the failure to be what we might have been and could have been.
The nineteenth-century writer Charles Lamb has a picture of a man named Samuel le Grice. Le Grice was a brilliant youth who never fulfilled his promise. There was a time when people said: ‘He will do something.’ There was a time when people said: ‘He could be something if he would.’ There was a time when people said: ‘He might have done something, if he had liked.’ The poet Edwin Muir writes in his Autobiography: ‘After a certain age all of us, good and bad, are grief-stricken because of powers within us which have never been realized: because, in other words, we are not what we should be.’
That precisely is hamartia; and that is precisely the situation in which we are all involved. Are we as good husbands or wives as we could be? Are we as good sons or daughters as we could be? Are we as good workers or employers as we could be? Can any one of us dare to claim that we are all we might have been, and have done all we could have done? When we realize that sin means the failure to hit the target, the failure to be all that we might have been and could have been, then it is clear that every one of us is a sinner.
(2) The second word for sin is parabasis, which literally means a stepping across. Sin is the stepping across the line which is drawn between right and wrong.
Do we always stay on the right side of the line which divides honesty and dishonesty? Is there never any such thing as a petty dishonesty in our lives?
Do we always stay on the right side of the line which divides truth and falsehood? Do we never, by word or by silence, twist or evade or distort the truth?
Do we always stay on the right side of the line which divides kindness and courtesy from selfishness and harshness? Is there never an unkind action or a discourteous word in our lives?
When we think of it in this way, there can be none who can claim always to have remained on the right side of the dividing line.
(3) The third word for sin is paraptoma, which means a slipping across. It is the kind of slip which someone might make on a slippery or an icy road. It is not so deliberate as parabasis. Again and again, we speak of words ‘slipping out’; again and again, we are swept away by some impulse or passion which has momentarily gained control of us and which has made us lose our self-control. The best of us can slip into sin when for the moment we are off our guard.
(4) The fourth word for sin is anomia, which means lawlessness. Anomia is the sin of the person who knows the right, and who yet does the wrong; the sin of the one who knows the law, and who yet breaks the law. The first of all the human instincts is the instinct to do what we like; and therefore there come into many people’s lives times when they wish to kick over the trces and to defy the law, and to do or to take the forbidden thin. In ‘Mandalay’, Rudyard Kipling makes the old soldier say:
Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments, an’ a man can raise a thirst.
Even if there are some who can say that they have never broken any of the Ten Commandments, there are none who can say that they have never wished to break any of them.
(5) The fifth word for sin is the word opheilema, which is the word used in the body of the Lord’s Prayer; and opheilema means a debt. It means a failure to pay that which is due, a failure of duty. None of us could ever dare to claim that we have perfectly fulfilled our duty to other people and to God: such perfection does not exist in this world.
So, when we come to see what sin really is, we come to see that it is a universal disease in which we are all involved. Outward respectability in the sight of others and inward sinfulness in the sight of God may well go hand in hand. This, in fact, is a petition of the Lord’s Prayer which we all need to pray.
William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 253-256
exegesis of and commentary on Matthew 6:12, 14-15