Editors’ note: 

Taken from the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, general editor, D. A. Carson. Copyright © 2015. Used by permission of Zondervan.

Sin is another name for that hideous rebellion, that God-defiance, that wretched opposition to the Creator that crouches at the door of every fallen human heart. Sin is both a condition, inherited from Adam (Rom. 5:12–21), and an action—manifesting itself in thought, word, and deed—that when full-grown gives birth to death (Jas. 1:15). In simplest terms, sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). It means we have broken God’s commands and have fallen short of his glory (Rom. 3:23). But sin goes deeper than merely missing the mark. Sin is idolatry (Col. 3:5; 1 John 5:21). It is worshiping false gods, whether these deities are overt and physical or more subtle and internal. Sin can also be considered adultery, a spiritual whoring after other lovers and other sources of satisfaction and meaning (Ezek. 16:15–42). Sin is pollution (Jas. 1:27). Sin is pervasive (Rom. 3:9–20). And sin is the problem in the universe. The redemptive story of the Bible does not make sense without it.

Sin Infiltrates the Garden 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth—the land, the sky, the sea; the birds, the fish, the animals; the sun, the moon, the stars; a man and a woman. He created all this, and it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31).

And sometime later everything good started to come undone.

We know very little about the first sin, except that it manifested itself in an angelic rebellion. Jude 6 explains that some angels “did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these [the Lord] has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” First Timothy 3:6 suggests that the fall of the devil was the result of pride (see Ezek. 28:11–19 for another possible allusion). However it happened, Satan (“the adversary”) fell. It’s important to note that sin originated in the world of spirits, not in the world of human beings. Moreover, it is critical to see that these spirits did not sin by some external power or temptation, but in and by themselves. The devil’s sin came out of the devil’s own self-twisted arrogance and deception (John 8:44).

While the angelic rebellion is merely hinted at in Scripture, human rebellion is put front and center. Tempted by a speaking serpent—a slithering embodiment of Satan (Rev. 12:9)—Eve partakes of the forbidden fruit, with Adam joining in at her side (Gen. 3:6). Immediately, they both realize their nakedness and experience shame in God’s presence for the first time (Gen. 3:7). As a result of Adam’s failure to pass the test of the probationary tree, God curses the woman, the man, the serpent, and the ground. The New Testament later uses this episode to unpack the doctrine of original sin. Because of Adam’s transgression, the entire human race has inherited both guilt and corruption (Rom. 5:12–21). As our federal head, Adam’s sin has been imputed to us, and we bear the consequences as those who have participated “in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22) in his rebellion. Consequently, we are by nature dead in transgressions, disobedient, and deserving wrath (Eph. 2:1–3).

After Adam, and east of Eden, nothing is the way it is supposed to be, especially for the sons and daughters of Adam.

Sin Continues to Spread

At the end of Genesis 3, the Lord God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden and bars them from entering again. Although there is already the promise of an offspring-mediator who will crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15), the mood of the biblical narrative gets worse before it gets better. Sin continues to spread not merely by imitation but also as an expression of humankind’s innate rebellion against God. So Genesis 4 introduces us to the first murderer (Cain) and the first polygamist (Lamech). By the time we get to Genesis 6, the wickedness of the human race has become so great that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). God wipes out the earth with a flood and reboots a kind of Creation 2.0.

But sin is just as widespread in the new postflood world. Noah gets drunk, leading his son Ham to sin by seeing his father’s nakedness (Gen. 9:20–27). As Noah’s descendants multiply, so does their wickedness, culminating in plans for a self-congratulatory and self-aggrandizing tower of Babel (Gen. 11:4).

Even after God calls Abram to be a great nation and the divine conduit of blessing to the nations, wickedness persists. God blesses the patriarchs and their families, but it is despite their perfidy, not because of their perfection. Abraham and Isaac lie about their wives; Sarah laughs at God’s promise; Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt; Jacob shows himself to be a conniving manipulator (and his mother, Rachel, is not much better). Laban is a cheat; Joseph is boastful; his brothers are jealous enslavers; Simeon and Levi slaughter the Shechemites; Reuben sleeps with his father’s concubine; Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law. And this is the good side of the family tree! Sin is clearly the problem, and human beings are clearly not the solution.

The implicit assumption—if not the explicit teaching—on every page of the Bible is that the whole world is caught in the grip of sin, both Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 3:9), those under the law and those without the law (Rom. 2:12–15), the nations that worship the God of Israel and the nations that don’t (Amos 1–2). Most fundamentally and most foundationally what’s wrong with the world is that God’s image-bearers do not love, reverence, worship, and obey the one true God as they ought.

Sin Shows Its Many Colors

From Genesis 3 until Revelation 21, the story of God’s people is, at least in part, the story of sin. But while sin is universal, the biblical language for sin is not univocal. In the Pentateuch sin is breaking the covenant. It is a breach of the legal stipulations given to Moses and to which Israel professed allegiance. But sin is also everyone doing as they see fit (Judg. 21:25). Sin is the stupidity of forsaking God and being satisfied with broken cisterns (Jer. 2:13). Sin is the breakdown of shalom and the sad triumph of evil over good. Wisdom literature often describes sin as foolishness and vanity. In Kings and Chronicles, sin is forgetting God and refusing to humble oneself before him. In the Prophets, sin is often hypocrisy. Elsewhere in the Old Testament sin manifests itself as strident injustice or perfunctory obedience (e.g., rending your garments instead of your heart). And on other occasions it represents a failure to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbors as yourself. Sin is the villain with a thousand faces.

And all of them oppose God. We must never forget that sin frequently has a horizontal dimension. But just as important, we must remember that sin always has a vertical dimension. There are no innocent transgressions. There are no victimless crimes. Every sin, no matter how private or quiet, is an affront to the holiness and benevolence of God. David, in his adultery and murder, may have sinned against Bathsheba, Uriah, Joab, his army, his family, and the whole nation of Israel, but in the deepest sense it was still right for him to say to God, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). No matter how heinous our infractions against others, God still remains the most offended party whenever we sin.

Sin Gets Confronted

Thankfully, the story of sin in the Bible is not the story of unchecked evil and wickedness. Though he may prowl around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8), the devil, as a created being, has always been subservient to the Creator. Satan cannot operate apart from God’s permission (Job 1:12) and plan (1 Sam. 16:14–16). And the divine plan has always been for the downfall of sin and the devil (Gen. 3:15). Satan’s rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure. One little word—the word of the gospel—shall fell him.

More precisely (to speak with the story line of Scripture), we might say the Word made flesh shall fell him. The incarnation was a frontal assault on the devil. Not only does Jesus begin his mission as the second Adam by resisting Satan’s temptation where the first Adam failed (Luke 4:1–13), he also actively makes the exorcism of demons a touchstone of his ministry (Mark 1:39). Even when the crowds and the disciples do not recognize Jesus’ true identity, the demons know who he is and cower in fear (Mark 1:24; 3:11; 5:7; Jas. 2:19). They know that Satan is about to fall like lightning (Luke 10:18) and the ruler of the world is about to be decisively judged (John 16:11).

Of course, Jesus’ confrontation with Satan was also a confrontation with sin. Even before he was born, it was understood that Jesus would save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). Jesus’ miracles impressed the crowds, but what absolutely shocked them was his daring presumption to forgive sins (Mark 2:7). Jesus addressed numerous problems in his ministry—hunger, disability, poverty, fear, demon possession, even death—but the one problem underlying them all, the one that had bedeviled God’s people throughout their whole sordid history, was the problem of sin. This is the problem Jesus came to confront. And in the end, it is the one he triumphantly conquered.

Sin Gets Conquered

Sin cannot be without consequences. Whether this means plagues on Egypt, captivity in Babylon, fire and sulfur on Sodom, a flood on the earth, or expulsion from the garden, God is a God of justice, and in the end every trespass and every trespasser must face recompense. This principle holds true after death as well as in life.

One way God conquers sin is to throw death and the devil into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10), along with all those whose names are not written in the book of life (Rev. 20:15). The eternal punishment of the wicked in hell not only vindicates God’s honor and upholds divine justice, it also exposes the utter sinfulness of sin. God would be less than God and sin would be something less than sin if the Lord allowed our treacherous disobedience to go unnoticed and unchecked. If there is any axiom the Bible assumes from start to finish—from the Garden of Eden to the heavenly city, from before Adam to after death, from the Old Testament to the New—it is that sin must be paid for.

But of course, hell is not the only way sin, death, and the devil can be finally and decisively judged. Hell is but a minor theme next to the soaring melody of the cross. On top of Golgotha we see most clearly the reversal of the curse as the reviled Son of God becomes the curse for us (Gal. 3:13). Here Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath (Mark 14:36). Here Christ lays down his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Here at the cross we see not the abandonment of justice but the complete fulfillment of it. Jesus overcomes sin by becoming sin for us. Jesus conquers the God-defiant wretchedness of sin by divine satisfaction through divine self-substitution.