Christianity 201

October 20, 2010

A Three-Dimensional Understanding of Sin

Mark Batterson is the pastor of National Community Church in Washington, DC, and the author of In A Pit With A Lion on a Snowy Day, Wild Goose Chase and Primal. This is from his blog, Evotional

In Jewish thought, there was a more nuanced understanding of sin. I think we have a one-dimensional understanding. Sin is sin. But the Jewish people had a three-dimensional understanding of sin. According to tradition, when the priest confessed the sins of Israel over the head of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, it was a confession of three kinds of wrongdoing: iniquities, transgressions, and sins. The difference? Iniquities were willful. Transgressions were rebellious. And sins were unintentional.

I think our confessions are too vague. We pray: “Lord, forgive me for everything I’ve ever done wrong.” I’m sorry, but that’s weak! We don’t even let our kids get by with that. You need to know what you’re sorry for or you’ll make the same mistake over and over again. A vague confession results in vague forgiveness. You’re not really sure if you’re forgiven because you’re not really sure if you’ve confessed.

Did you know the High Priest was removed from his house and “quarantined” in the cell of the counselors for seven days before the Day of Atonement. Confession was a week long process. I wonder if we’ve ever spent an hour in confession? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about languishing in forgiven sin. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. But confession is like cleaning a wound. If you don’t clean it completely, it often festers! Here’s what I’m getting at: the more nuanced our confession, the more nuanced our forgiveness. I think our confessions would be healthier and holier if we specified the sins we’re asking forgiveness for: the words, the thoughts, the motivations, the actions, the reactions.


  1. You are quite correct about the need for real confession. My problem is that when I am faced with a time set aside for confession, my mind and heart both go blank. Real confession happens for me in a moment of epiphany, often as I am reading or thinking about a biblical text I have read many times. A light suddenly shines on specific words, or the story opens up for me like a flower and that is when I see myself as I really am. That is when I can say to God how sorry I am for a specific behavior, attitude, or speech that is my sin. I have learned to grab that moment as the oppportunity it is both to clean out an infection and to grow healthy flesh in its place.
    Liturgical oppportunities to confess often pass by without any such revelation, so my confession there is general. If I were locked up to think about my sins for seven days, I don’t think that would help, either. What actually opens my eyes to my sin is faithful Bible study that from time to time is a real revelation of terrible truth about myself.

    Comment by Katherine Harms — October 21, 2010 @ 6:06 am | Reply

    • That’s a fascinating point about ‘liturgical opportunities;’ because the same thing could be said about intercession. There’s an opportunity for prayer requests and you truly don’t feel you have any; but an hour later you’re pouring out your heart to God on behalf of some individual’s or group’s need.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — October 21, 2010 @ 9:12 am | Reply

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