The Difference between a Sin and a Mistake

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Recently I’ve noticed an interesting tendency for people to admit to mistakes rather than sins. It happens at every level, whether someone is caught cheating on their spouse, filing false insurance claims, or shoplifting from a clothing store. After the National Inquirer broke the news about John Edwards’ affair, he said.

“Two years ago I made a very serious mistake, a mistake that I am responsible for and no one else.  In 2006 I told Elizabeth about the mistake, asked her for her forgiveness, and asked God for His forgiveness. And we have kept this within our family since that time.”

On the surface, this admission looks humble and contrite. What more could you want?  But when someone refers to this kind of behavior as a mistake rather than a sin, he or she is either consciously or unconsciously evading responsibility.

Why? Because of the fundamental difference between the two.  Many think they are synonymous but they are not.

Mistakes are not intentional

The term “mistake” implies an error in judgment – something done unintentionally.  For example, a legitimate mistake might be:

  • Turning onto a one-way street the wrong way
  • Pouring salt not sugar into your coffee
  • Mis-typing a web address and ending up on a porn site.

These could all be legitimate mistakes because we are distracted or careless.  But sin is more than a mistake.  It is a deliberate choice to do something we know is wrong.

The word “transgression” is even stronger.  It implies deliberately stepping over a boundary.  The word “trespass” is similar.  It implies entering a person’s territory or property without permission.

At the bridge table recently one player told another woman she needed to go on a diet. Yes, the other player was fat but the critic did not know her well enough to be advising her on a personal matter like that.  She stepped over a social boundary.

Sin is deliberate

Unlike a mistake, we choose sin.  Therefore we must accept responsibility for it – and the consequences that follow. This is a measure of maturity and marks the transition from adolescence into adulthood.  It is the foundation of civilized society.

What can we do to make sure we preserve this distinction between sins and mistakes?

I suggest 5 actions.

  1. Choose your words carefully. Don’t minimize your sin by calling it a mistake.  The meaning of the Greek word  homologeo – translated confession in I John 1:9 is “to speak the same word.” In other words your words should be the same as God’s words.  If He calls it a sin, so should you.  You cannot be cured of a sickness if you continue to deny it.
  2. Take responsibility for your behavior. If you have sinned, own it. In fact, if you have made a mistake own that too. Take the hit. Even if someone else provoked you, own the response. If they were 90% responsible, accept 100% of your 10%. When it comes to sin there is never an excuse unless you are a true victim.
  3. Acknowledge your guilt. It is normal to be guilty when you sin. Guilt is God’s gift, designed to motivate you to initiate reconciliation.  The sooner you acknowledge your responsibility the sooner you can resolve the problem, if the other person receives your confession. And never follow the confession with the word “but.” This is a preface to an excuse. It negates everything you have said before.
  4. Change your behavior. Words are cheap. Some people are very adept at saying they are sorry – but then – nothing changes. Repentance is not just a change of mind; it is a change of direction. Unless you change your behavior, you have not fully repented, no matter how many tears you may have shed.  Repentance in  the Bible is the word for “change your mind.” Once your mind is really changed so will be your actions.
  5. Ask for forgiveness.  You can’t demand it. You are not entitled to it. You can only ask and hope that the person you have sinned against will extend grace. Sometimes they will wait until you have demonstrated a change of behavior, called the fruit of repentance (see Matthew 3:8; Acts 26:19-20.)

The world is watching the Christian to see how he/she reacts to real life.  It is a part of our public testimony.

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The Ministry of the Watchman – An observer on the wall sharing a report of what God is seeing and doing in the world at large and also in the congregations of His people. Cornelia Scott Cree, Watchman, Change Agent, Essayist.

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The Ministry of the Watchman – An observer on the wall sharing a report of what God is seeing and doing in the world at large and also in the congregations of His people. Cornelia Scott Cree, Watchman, Change Agent, Essayist.

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