10 Key Bible Verses on Sin

This article is part of the Key Bible Verses series.

As Far as the East Is from the West

Because of Christ, our sin does not have to separate us from God. In fact, when we confess it and believe in him, we are cleansed from our unrighteousness and called sons and daughters. Be encouraged from God's word with these verses and commentary adapted from the ESV Study Bible.

Galatians 5:19–21

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

“Works of the flesh” means actions flowing out of fallen human nature and its desires. Apart from the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, these are the actions toward which sinful humans instinctively gravitate. These are evidences of a desire to be in touch with the spiritual realm through humanly invented means: they supposedly have God as their ultimate object, but they reject the revealed way in which he should be worshiped. Because Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), all other ways to God are false. “enmity, strife, etc.” When people reject God, they turn in on themselves, and so relationships between human beings are destroyed as well. Envy comes about when people are not content with what God has given them, longing instead for what he has given others. Drunkenness and orgies are examples of how people misuse God’s good gifts in destructive and sinful ways, in rebellion against God as the gracious giver of all good things. In the Old Testament, wine was associated with joy and celebration (e.g., Neh. 8:10; Ps. 104:15; see note on John 2:3), but when abused was seen as being highly destructive (Prov. 20:1; Prov. 21:17; Prov. 23:29–35), and drunkenness is consistently condemned throughout Scripture (e.g., Eph. 5:18). Sex is a precious gift for husband and wife, but when abused it also has highly destructive consequences for all involved (1 Cor. 6:18). “those who do such things.” The present participle (Greek, prassontes, translated here as “do”) refers to those who “make a practice of doing” such things, as a pattern of life. Their outward conduct indicates their inward spiritual status: that they are not born of God, do not have the Holy Spirit within, and are not God’s true children.

James 1:14–15

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

“Lured and enticed” is a fishing metaphor for drawing prey away from shelter in order to trap them with a deadly hook. Here it is the person’s evil desire that ensnares; in 1 Pet. 5:8–9 it is Satan who “seeks to devour.” Sin is never God’s fault. The picture changes to a birth/rebirth metaphor, as full-grown desire bears its own child, sin, which itself grows into maturity and bears the grandchild, death. This dramatic depiction shows the terrible result when one gives in to temptation.

Genesis 3:6

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

Like all the other trees in the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (2:9). The irony is that somehow the serpent has made the woman discontent with the permitted trees, focusing her desire on this one. Its deadly appeal to her, apparently, is its ability to make one wise (see note on 2:17)—wise, however, not according to the “fear of the LORD” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). The fact that Adam was “with her” and that he knowingly ate what God had forbidden indicates that Adam’s sin was both an act of conscious rebellion against God and a failure to carry out his divinely ordained responsibility to guard or “keep” (Gen. 2:15) both the garden and the woman that God had created as “a helper fit for him” (2:18, 20). The disastrous consequences of Adam’s sin cannot be overemphasized, resulting in the fall of mankind, the beginning of every kind of sin, suffering, and pain, as well as physical and spiritual death for the human race.

Romans 6:12–14

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

The tension surfaces here between what God has already accomplished and the responsibility of his people to obey. They are still tempted by desires to sin and must not let those desires gain control. Each day they must give themselves afresh to God. “Sin will have no dominion over you” is not a command, but a promise that sin will not triumph in the lives of Christians. Because they live in the new era of fulfillment, they are no longer under the old era of redemptive history; that is, they are no longer under law, where the Mosaic law and sin ruled over God’s people. By contrast, under grace means living under the new covenant in Christ, in an era characterized by grace (compare Rom. 3:24; Rom. 4:16; Rom. 5:2, 15–21).

Colossians 3:5–6

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.

Based on their death and resurrection with Christ and the hope of a future life with him, Paul encourages the Colossians to continue eliminating sinful behaviors from their lives and cultivating Christian virtues. Paul calls the Colossians to make a decisive break with the sinful tendencies they have carried with them into their Christian lives. Because believers have died with Christ (Col. 2:20; Col. 3:3), they can get rid of sinful practices (Rom. 6:11; Rom. 8:13). The language of putting to death indicates that Christians have to take severe measures to conquer sin. Watchfulness and prayerfulness against it will be the first steps (see Matt. 26:41), with self-discipline following (Matt. 5:29–30). Sexual immorality (Greek, porneia) refers to every kind of sexual activity outside of marriage. Five of the items that Paul lists have to do with sexual purity, stressing the importance of bringing this area of life under the control and lordship of Christ. “which is idolatry”. Greed, sexual sin, and other vices can intrude into one’s relationship with God, taking his place as a focus of devotion.

Romans 3:9-12

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”.

Paul cites the OT to charge all with sin, both Jews and Gentiles, preparing the way for the claim that right standing with God is available only for those who trust in the atoning death of Christ. Even though God has promised to fulfill his saving promises to the Jewish people (vv. 1–4), they do not possess any inherent advantages, for they too are under the power of sin. Greeks here refers to the entire Gentile world in contrast to the Jews.

Paul focuses on the sinfulness of every human being, citing Ps. 14:1–3 and perhaps echoing Eccles. 7:20. When Paul says none is righteous, no one seeks for God, and no one does good, he means that no human being on his own seeks for God or does any good that merits salvation. Paul does not deny that human beings perform some actions that conform externally to goodness, but these actions, prior to salvation, are still stained by evil, since they are not done for God’s glory (Rom. 1:21) and do not come from faith (14:23).

1 John 3:4-6

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.

Lawlessness (Gk. anomia) is activity bereft of God’s guidance and in violation of his law. sin is lawlessness. Even Christians sin (1:9; 2:1), so it may seem like a trivial matter. But to disregard sin’s grave implications is disastrous.

Jesus appeared in order to take away sins, not only so that sin might be forgiven (1:9) but also so that it might cease to exercise its tyrannical bondage. in him there is no sin. A reminder that “God is light” (1:5), and his Son embodies his sinlessness.

No one who abides … keeps on sinning. True followers of Christ do not recklessly and habitually violate what their anointing (2:20, 27) has planted within them (see note on 3:9–10). Those who do habitually sin have neither seen him nor known him. They are not genuine Christians.

Romans 5:12–15

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—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 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. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.

Adam brought sin and death into the world, but those who have believed in Christ are full of hope, for Christ has reversed the consequences of Adam’s sin and has given his own life and righteousness to secure their eternal glory. The extended parallel between the one man Adam’s sin and the one man Christ’s obedience shows that Paul considered Adam a historical person, not a fictional or mythological character; it also shows the importance of insisting on the historicity of Adam today (compare 1 Cor. 15:22, 45–49). These verses also show that Adam had a leadership role with respect to the human race that Eve did not have, for even though Eve sinned by eating the forbidden fruit before Adam did so (Gen. 3:6), it was “one man’s trespass,” that is, Adam’s sin, through which “sin came into the world” (Rom. 5:12) and through which “many died” (Rom. 5:15), “death reigned” (Rom. 12:17), and “many were made sinners” (Rom. 12:19).

Sin came into the world through one man, namely, Adam (Rom. 5:14; compare Gen. 3:17–19; 1 Cor. 15:21–22). And death through sin is contrary to secular thought that regards death as a “natural” part of human life. In the biblical sense, death is never natural, but is “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26; compare 1 Cor. 15:54) that will be conquered finally and forever at the return of Christ (Rev. 21:4). “Death” in these verses most likely denotes both physical death and spiritual death together (Paul often connects the two). Most evangelical interpreters think “that” and “so” means “and in this way,” and the phrase “all sinned” means that all sinned in Adam’s sin because he represented all who would descend from him (just as Christ’s obedience would count for all his followers, whom he represented, Rom. 5:15–19). Another interpretation is that all sinned personally because they were born into the world spiritually dead. The word translated “men” is the Greek word anthrōpos, which in the plural can mean either “people” of both sexes or “men,” depending on the context. It is translated “men” here (and in Rom. 5:18) to show the connection with “man” (anthrōpos, singular), referring to Christ.

2 Corinthians 5:21

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

This verse is one of the most important in all of Scripture for understanding the meaning of the atonement and justification. Here we see that the one who knew no sin is Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and that he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin (Greek, hamartia, “sin”). This means that God the Father made Christ to be regarded and treated as “sin” even though Christ himself never sinned (Heb. 4:15; compare Gal. 3:13). Further, we see that God did this for our sake—that is, God regarded and treated “our” sin (the sin of all who would believe in Christ) as if our sin belonged not to us, but to Christ himself. Thus, Christ “died for all” (2 Cor. 5:14) and, as Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). In becoming sin “for our sake,” Christ became our substitute—that is, Christ took our sin upon himself and, as our substitute, thereby bore the wrath of God (the punishment that we deserve) in our place (“for our sake”). Thus the technical term for this foundational doctrine of the Christian faith is the substitutionary atonement—that Christ has provided the atoning sacrifice as “our” substitute, for the sins of all who believe (compare Rom. 3:23–25).

The background for this is Isaiah 53 from the Greek (Septuagint) translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, which includes the most lengthy and detailed Old Testament prophecy of Christ’s death and which contains numerous parallels to 2 Cor. 5:21. Isaiah’s prophecy specifically uses the Greek word for “sin” (Greek, hamartia) five times (as indicated below in italics) with reference to the coming Savior (the suffering servant) in just a few verses—e.g., “surely he has born our griefs” (Isa. 53:4); “He was crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5); “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6); “he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11); “he bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). In a precise fulfillment of this prophecy, Christ became “sin” for those who believe in him, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. This means that just as God imputed our sin and guilt to Christ (“he made him to be sin”) so God also imputes the righteousness of Christ—a righteousness that is not our own—to all who believe in Christ.

Because Christ bore the sins of those who believe, God regards and treats believers as having the legal status of “righteousness” (Greek, dikaiosynē). This righteousness belongs to believers because they are “in him,” that is, “in Christ” (e.g., Rom. 3:22; Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:17, 19; Phil. 3:9). Therefore, “the righteousness of God” (which is imputed to believers) is also the righteousness of Christ—that is, the righteousness and the legal status that belongs to Christ as a result of Christ having lived as one who “knew no sin.” This then is the heart of the doctrine of justification: God regards (or counts) believers as forgiven and God declares and treats them as forgiven, because God the Father has imputed the believer’s sin to Christ and because God the Father likewise imputes Christ’s righteousness to the believer. (See further notes on Rom. 4:6–8; Rom. 5:18; Rom. 10:3; Rom. 10:6–8; see also Isa. 53:11: “the righteous one, my servant, [shall] make many to be accounted righteous”).

1 John 1:7–9

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

“Walk in the light” means to reflect God’s perfection (1 John 1:5) in the human sphere and includes both correct doctrine (truth) and moral purity (holiness). The symbolism of light as knowledge (see note on 1 John 1:5–10) also implies that when Christians “walk in the light” their lives will be known, and will not contain hidden sins, falsehoods, or deception. Such walking “in the light” results in deep divine and human fellowship (1 John 1:3) and progressive cleansing from all sin. The devil (1 John 3:8) or the world (1 John 2:15) may contribute to human straying, but in the end each individual bears responsibility for his or her own sin. Some sin remains in every Christian’s life (“have,” present tense), even that of the elderly apostle John (“we”). Christians must confess (their) sins, initially to receive salvation and then to maintain fellowship with God and with one another (1 John 1:3). “faithful and just to forgive.” God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Num. 14:18). Yet John also makes it clear (1 John 3:6, 9) that persistent unrepented sin is not the mark of a Christian—God “will by no means clear the guilty” (Num. 14:18).

All commentary sections adapted from the ESV Study Bible.


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