A Word for Today: Missing the mark, Guilt, Sin (Gk. Hamartia)


hamartema, n (Sin, evil deed)

hamartia, n(A missing the mark, guilt, sin)

hamartolos(Devoted to sin, a sinner)

Although there are at least nine different words in the Greek New Testament to describe sin in all its various guises, the word that is used most often is the noun hamartia. But why should the Bible refer to sin so often when there are so many other more pleasant topics to choose from? J. I. Packer perhaps provides us with the answer when he states that ‘the subject of sin is vital knowledge. To say that our first need in life is to learn about sin may sound strange, but in the sense intended it is profoundly true. If you have not learned about sin, you cannot understand yourself, or your fellow men, or the world you live in, or the Christian faith. And you will not be able to make head or tail of the Bible. For the Bible is an exposition of God’s answer to the problem of human sin, and unless you have that problem clearly before you, you will keep missing the point of what it says’1

In the Septuagint (LXX) hamartia is used in Genesis chapter 15 verse 16 of the Amorites who are dispossessed of their land, not simply because of God’s promise to Abraham, but because of their own sin or iniquity. Notice in a similar passage in Leviticus chapter 18 verses 24 to 30 the metaphorical language used by God, that the land ‘vomited out its inhabitants’ because of their uncleanness. This uncleanness not only affected their way of life, but also polluted the land itself, v. 25. This is an early indication in scripture of the way in which sin has a corrosive effect on everything, cp. Gen. 3. 17-19. Abimelech uses the word hamartia when he confronts Abraham in Genesis chapter 20 verse 9, after God reveals to him that Sarah is, in fact, Abraham’s wife, v. 7. It is the use of the word ‘guilt’ here by a pagan king who righteously rebukes Abraham, God’s servant, for his deception, that makes the scene so ironic. Conversely, in Genesis chapter 41 verse 9, the chief cupbearer confesses his sin for failing to speak to Pharaoh about Joseph, Gen. 40. 14, 23. In other Old Testament texts we find that hamartia takes on a metaphorical meaning, as in Judges chapter 20 verse 16 where it refers to a stone slinger not missing his mark. Also, in Proverbs chapter 19 verse 3, the word is used of someone missing the way. So in the Old Testament hamartia had to do with uncleanness, guilt, offence, and of missing a target or pathway. Interestingly, it is the word selected by God for the sin offering in Leviticus chapter 4.

The word was often used in classical Greek in a similar way to describe failure on the part of an individual who fell short of a target. As William Barclay comments, ‘In classical Greek these words (hamartia and related words) are always connected with some kind of negative failure rather than with some kind of positive transgression, but in the New Testament they come to describe something which is very much more serious’2 Essentially then, the Greeks used hamartia as signifying a failure to meet a target or complete an activity. But the New Testament uses the word not just to express failure to hit a mark or navigate a path, Rom. 3. 23, but places an emphasis on human failure to comply with God’s law, 8. 7, and also the active violation of God’s law, 1. 24-31. The word is also used in a collective sense of the aggregate of sins committed either by a single person or by many, 3. 23. Kenneth Wuest points out an interesting contrast when he writes that ‘in Romans the word dikaiosune which means “conformity to the standard" appears as the opposite of hamartia, a missing of the standard set by God, 6. 16-18’3

The New Testament surprisingly uses hamartia sparingly in the Synoptic parallels, but our Lord makes it quite clear that His mission in life was to call ‘sinners [?μαρτωλο?ς = people devoted to sin] to repentance’, Matt. 9. 13. In fact, His very name suggested that He would be victorious over sin, 1. 21. The apostle John has no doubt that this was the reason for His incarnation, and contrasts the sinlessness of Christ with those He came to save, 1 John 3. 5. That sin is universal is confirmed by both the Old and New Testaments, 1 Kgs. 8. 46; Rom. 3. 9-12, 23; so John indicates the comprehensive and universal nature of Christ’s atoning work embracing the sins of the whole world, 1 John 2. 2. Forgiveness of sins is based on an act of repentance, Acts 2. 38; 1 John 1. 9; but for all those who reject Christ, they die in their sins, John 8. 24.

By far the main contributor to our understanding of this subject is the apostle Paul who uses the word some sixty times in his letters. Paul uses hamartia to explain the state of sin that exists through Adam’s fall, Rom. 5. 12, but only actuated and accountable through the law, 8. 7; 5. 13; 3. 20. Nevertheless, the influence of sin, even before the law of God was enacted, reflects the power that sin had in the habitable world, 5. 14. Ultimately, Paul concludes that since we were unable to fulfil the law of God, the law openly condemned us by bringing us into a state of guilt before God, 3. 19. This inexorably leads Paul to triumph in the work of Christ over sin, 2 Cor. 5. 21; Col. 2. 14, 15. By faith-union with Him, we are delivered from the penalty of sin, and through baptism we have died to sin, Rom. 6. 2-3, thus we are freed from the power of sin to be servants of righteousness, 6. 7, 14. But as W. Grundmann writes, ‘tension exists between the somatic life, which is given up to death, and the pneumatic life, which has overcome death, Rom. 8. 10. This tension continues until Christ comes again and definitively abolishes sin and death, 1 Cor. 15. 26’4 May we then not only continue to triumph in the work of Christ, 2 Cor. 2. 14, but seek at all times to be led by the Holy Spirit so that we might no longer serve sin, Rom. 6. 7-9.

For further reading/study


  • ‘SIN’ in Kenneth S. Wuest, Studies in the Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament for the English Reader, pp. 95-100


  • '?ìáñô?á’ in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Edited by Gerhard Kittel), Volume 1 (Á-Ã), pp. 267-335



J. I. Packer, 18 Words – The Most Important Words You Will Ever Know, Christian Focus, pg. 69


William Barclay, New Testament Words, pg. 119


Kenneth Wuest, Studies in the Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament for the English Reader, pp. 95-96


W. Grundmann, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament – Abridged in one Volume, pg. 50 15


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