The Difference Between a Sin and a Mistake

In recent years, I have noticed an increasing 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.

A Man Experiencing Deep Grief - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/NickS, Image #1146227

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/NickS

After the National Enquirer broke the news about Senator 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, asked God for his forgiveness. And we have kept this within our family since that time.”

On the surface, this admission seems humble and contrite. What more could you want?

But when people refer to this kind of behavior as a mistake rather than a sin, they are either consciously or unconsciously evading responsibility.

Why? Because of the fundamental difference between the two. Many people assume they are synonymous. They are not.

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

  • Turning onto a one-way street, going the wrong way.
  • Pouring salt into your coffee, thinking it was sugar.
  • Mis-typing a web address and ending up on a porn site.

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

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

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

What can we do to make sure we preserve this distinction between sins and mistakes? I suggest five actions:

  1. Choose your words carefully. Don’t minimize your sin by calling it a mistake. The meaning of the Greek word homologeō—translated confession in 1 John 1:9—is “to speak the same word.” In other words, agree with God. Say the same thing about your sin that He says about it. You can’t be cured of the disease 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 provoked you, own your response. If they were 90% responsible, accept 100% responsibility for your 10%. When it comes to sin, there is never a legitimate excuse. None.
  3. Acknowledge your guilt. It is normal to feel 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. And never follow your confession with the word “but.” This is the 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 only a change of mind; it is a change of direction. Unless you change your behavior, you haven’t really repented, no matter how many tears you may have shed.
  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 manifested the fruit of repentance, and that is fine (see Matthew 3:8; Acts 26:19–20).

Yes, we all make mistakes. But more importantly, we all sin. We need to understand the difference between the two and be willing to call it what it is. Until we do, we can’t really repair what has been broken.

Question: How did you feel the last time someone sinned against you and called it a mistake? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://lightenough.wordpress.com/ LLM

    I agree with your post, but it makes me nervous!! I was in an evangelical denomination for 8yrs that taught it was possible for Christians to go days,weeks, even months without sinning.  They made a distinction between a “mistake” and “sin”.  And an awful lot of rationalization or minimization went on. It is so easy to rationalize, overlook our sin, make excuses, and be self-deceived. And very ironically, in this denomination where sin was suppose to be taken seriously, holiness emphasized, and it was taught that you could be sinless for long periods of time…we saw more serious sin/trespass going on than in any other denomination we have ever been a part of!! Somehow the emphasis on our ability to be holy, and the distinction THEY made between “mistake” and “sin” led to a lot of self-deception…

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      That doesn’t surprise me. We have to insist that people call a sin a sin, and yet embrace them with grace when they do so.

  • Sharon

    Most people that get caught in a sin call it a mistake. When this happened in my marriage, by my spouse, it led to divorce. I don’t wish to divulge the ugly sin it was…but when he chose to call it a mistake, it seemed to trivialize the magnitude of his hurt caused by the deed. It was like shrugging his shoulders and saying, oops, sorry…

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I agree. It really minimizes the consequences.

  • Anonymous

    What a great distinction…mistakes vs sin. Another key distinction is between feeling sorry and repentance (metanoia). If we could confess our sin and move beyond our mind to true repentance – oh, what a world!

  • Melanies Reed

    Michael, I read this again today.  I have posted it on my facebook.  You spoke the truth in a society that increasingly is not speaking it (and that includes a growing Christian “culture”) .  You spoke truth about the aim of forgiveness being reconciliation.  Amen!  That is our work: “as Ambassadors of Christ become reconciled to God”  That is to be extended in our earthly relationships as proof of God’s  life-changing, supernatural power.  If it is not, then mercy and forgiveness become empty of their godly power.  Indeed, what then is really sought by the “words without the behavior to back them up”  is indulgence.  And indulgence becomes the dissonance of mercy.  It mocks the surpassing beauty of godly repentance, redemption and reconciliation.  God bless and make powerful this witness of Christ!

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  • http://sevensentences.com Geoff Talbot

    This is a really interesting topic. How much did Jesus actually talk about sin?

    I think sin and guilt need to be protected from condemnation and the downward spiral that follows that. I guess mercy and grace, cover and protect us from condemnation.

    Relationally I think we avoid calling things sin, because often we do not feel secure enough to admit our error… love is actually at stake or that is our it feels (often in our brokenness love probably is at stake); so it is easier to call it an accident or a mistake.

    When we are all covered by mercy and seated together under the acknowledgment of grace it is so much easier to own our sin.

    Thanks for the post
    Geoff

  • Melanies Reed

    Another thought came to me about this from a thought by C. S. Lewis.  To “get” what he is writing requires a bit of understanding of the idiom he is using.  One of his quotes states: “There are just some people who won’t be forgiven.”  He’s not talking about judgement. What he means is what you are talking about here: there are some people who (as Jesus puts it) don’t want to “come to the light”: that humbling of self to have one’s sins admitted in full and without evasion and the freedom from captivity to the sin that affords.  They are too worried about consequences, recompense, exposure, pride etc. to the point that grace can’t come in. In other words, they really don’t want forgiveness no matter how much you may be willing to give it.  They want excuse and covering up of the sin so that they can go on sinning – which is different than covering sin over in love.  Everyone has sinned and fallen short.  But Love restores and makes amends.  It seeks to do justice for the wrong out of love.  We used to live this more deeply than we do now in the main.  Paul has a great discussion about this when he makes the differentiation between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow.  So many  troubled hearts could be relieved by reminding them that the regret they feel can be removed when they are willing to seek to do what is right (amends as far as it depends on them.  Obviously if it involves death, that is something that will have to wait for restoration) and let the Holy Spirit help them to do it and live through them. Rather than cultivating hatred for what is behind us, looking for the wrong kind of grace as Bonhoeffer put it,  there could be love and a witness to others of God’s power if only we would own up and make right.

  • Dyetjt

    Mistake no not when you deliberately do it.

  • http://twitter.com/ChristianRay Christian Ray Flores

    It seems that there has been an overflow of leadership sex scandals in the news but really its just getting harder to hide things with so much connectedness and social media available to communicate to the world. If we are to lead and have impact we need to protect the gift of marriage. 

  • Louise Thaxton

    I remember when this happened that my husband made the same comment – “mistake” or “sin”?  And that no responsibility was being taken.  And unfortunately I can remember times in my own life where I wanted to label my “sins” by another name – “mistake”.  I pray the Holy Spirit will always reveal the Truth to me – sin is sin. 

  • Paul Stanley

    Michael, this article prompted me to write a similar blog. Thanks for our insight and hope you don’t mind the mention.

    http://paulstanley.org/blog

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Paul. I appreciate you writing this and referencing my blog.

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  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    I saw a video once on “How to Speak Christianese” – it was hilarious. One of the lessons was on vocabulary: “I struggle with that” – an expression Christians use to justify moral failure.

  • http://www.mikekey.com Mike Key

    This whole article could be rewritten to say the same thing about people saying they have a problem, rather than admitting sin.

    Example: I have a problem with pornography, alcohol, gambling, etc.

    We don’t talk about sin today, we talk about problems. The reason problems are more convenient than sins is that we don’t have to do anything about problems. If you only have a problem, you can get sympathy for it or understanding for it, or professional help for it.

    SIN on the other hand has to be repented of, confessed and forsaken.

  • http://profiles.google.com/gambill4 Beck Gambill

    Hard hitting! I so appreciate your bold approach to addressing a word our culture would prefer to avoid!

  • Anonymous

    I was on vacation when this article was posted, but I’ve been saying all week (every time Rep. Weiner was quoted):  “It’s not a mistake. It’s a sin.”

    Great article.

    I also see this problem in reverse.  Some people think their mistakes are sins.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks. I think the reverse is far less damaging. Sin is technically “missing the mark.” So is a mistake. The difference is intention. Regardless, a mature person takes responsibility for both.

  • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

    Great thoughts here.  I spent the past week at church camp, and I know this would have made a great addition to several conversations I had.  i wish I’d had it a few days sooner.

    It’s definitely going into my Evernote file for sermons/teaching resoutrces.

    Thanks!

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  • Tinaracheleopp

    So good to read this and know i am not the only one who makes this differentiation.  I tried to tell my ex-fiance this and he didnt get it. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1333302042 Marc Arlt

    Thanks Michael for a great post. I was reminded of something my wife said – often people are not sorry for what they have done, they are just sorry they got caught doing it. The awesome thing is that when we acknowledge our sin, only then are we in a position to receive grace and mercy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Donna-Martin/100001081546104 Donna Martin

    Very interesting post. I believe in God http://www.cigs4girls.com/

  • BC

    When admitting something in a workplace environment to someone who may or may not be a christian and understand sin..would you still use the word “sin”?  And would you ask for forgiveness in that context? Or would it be a matter of owning up to your wrong-doing ?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I think the key is owning up to it. The exact language would depend on the circumstances.

  • http://twitter.com/GFarmer1935 Gordon Farmer

    If god wanted a perfect world, why did he fill it with so many imperfect people?

    • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

      Who says that God wanted a perfect world? And who’s to say that he didn’t create it perfectly? In fact, I believe that the Bible says that, when God created the world, he DID say that it was “good.”

    • Melanies Reed

      Gordon, the short answer is: He didn’t fill it with imperfect people.   People want choice. You want it.  I want it.  But that brings an incredible heart-breaking risk with it, and also a conversely incredible amount of love with it.  A paradox.  I haven’t met anyone , so far, that says: “No, I’d rather not have choice if this is what we have to go through.”   We’ve all seen or read or heard about the explorations of this concept in some sci-fi literature where there is the “perfect” dystopia.  Not a pleasant place to be, is it?  And on thorough examination, a dystopia is missing the one lifesaver that a world, even such as ours filled with evil has: hope!  God thought love (as He defines it) was so important that it was worth the risk of choice gone terribly wrong because evil is not so powerful that it vanquishes hope.  So imperfection doesn’t come from God; imperfection comes from our choosing to be imperfect, in essence, to sin.  That has to be learned.  God chose not to make that an autonomic response on our part but to make us like Him: with choice.  So we choose not to be like God or we choose to be like Him…with the help of the Holy Spirit and following the Way: Jesus.  The idea that God would choose to suffer before striking the sinner with an instant punishment, would choose to live in poverty (born in a manger) when He could have anything He wanted, would choose not to  make a showy display of His power in every circumstance we feel is wrong, would choose to be so patient that years pass (in our eyes) before action is implemented for many injustices and evils, smacks in our eyes as strange….IF we have adopted an attitude that limits the personality of God to the force of brute power as the solution for everything we decide is bad.  And most importantly, limiting God to our concept rather than who He really is prevents us from ever becoming like Him.  (John 1:12)

  • Mason-Theresa

    After reading this I feel like someone beyond hope. I’ve been angry and rebellious for so long I’m not sure there is any redemption left. I’m 56, and tired of the constant struggle against the sin in my life. Thanks for this post, since, I have been a Christian all my life, I finally know the difference now.

  • KeepinthePeace7752

    It continually amuses and amazes me how a people involved in a religion that where the main message is to love, judge so quickly and think they know about sin.  Especially when the information is derived from a book that has been so manipulated, distorted, and used fro control purposes throughout our history.  
    Mere men decided what books would be in and was written and rewritten so many times by various Kings, it’s a wonder anyone can interpret anything.  The words that really count are that of Jesus whether he was the son of God or not.  

    He didn’t judge or cast dispersion on those that made mistakes…  A sin is NOTHING more than a mistake…  Get over it and free your mind from the dogma and control based rules.  If we do everything in love, walk in love, and do what Jesus did most of the time no rules and dogma are necessary.

    Oh, and by the way, Church isn’t only on Sunday and doesn’t exist in side four walls.  Fellowship and church happen in every moment of every day that we exist.  When I am alone in the woods/forest and in peace and meditation, I am in church as two or more of God’s creations are with me.  Everything is energy and we are all one in God and God in us.  We don’t have to get back to God; God never left and we just need to recognize and admit that to ourselves.    

    The Greek word hamartia (ἁμαρτία) is usually translated as sin in the New Testament. In Classical Greek, it means “to miss the mark” or “to miss the target” which was also used in Old English archery.There’s more to this, actually:”The English word sin derives from Old English synn. The same root appears in several other Germanic languages, e.g. Old Norse synd, or German Sünde. The word may derive, ultimately, from *es-, one of the Indo-European roots that meant “to be,” and is a present participle, “being.” Latin, also has an old present participle of esse in the word sons, sont-, which came to mean “guilty” in Latin. The root meaning would appear to be, “it is true;” that is, “the charge has been proven.” The Greek word hamartia (ἁμαρτία) is often translated as sin in the New Testament; it means “to miss the mark” or “to miss the target”.”Sin” was also the name of the Babylonian moon god. Some students in recent times have postulated a connection with the modern English word “sin”, but this can only be a folk-etymology, because the etymology shown above from Anglo-Saxon synn is historically documented, the certified cognates are in Germanic languages, and no connection with the Babylonian religion can be cited.”
    Source(s):

  • KeepinthePeace7752

    Please excuse my typos etc…  :)

  • MMS

    I sinned and made mistakes in my life. May God forgive me through the mercy of Jesus Christ.

  • Darrell Good

    When I was done wrong and the person referred to what he did as a mistake, even though it was on purpose, I felt like the person didn’t care about me. My relationship with that person didn’t matter. Our friendship didn’t mean anything. He was not a trusted friend. I could no longer trust him.

  • kimdodson

    You made a VERY grievous mistake in your article, hope you can correct this one quickly before many people are led astray. You wrote “Yes, we all make mistakes. But more importantly, we all sin.” … instead of “we don’t all sin”. Only true salvation will take care of that.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      No, I meant it just like I wrote it. We all make mistakes. And we all sin. But there is a difference, and they each require a different response. Thanks.

      • kimdodson

        Well I am indeed sorry to hear you say that. You need to search the scriptures out, because it is filled with “Good News”, that Christ came to take away our sins, so that we could live a sin free life as in the beginning. For instance, All of Romans and 1 John Chapter 3. I am thankful that when he saved me, I was done with the sin. I am still human however, and make mistakes like “sinners” do. Your readers need to know that we have a Powerful God, who did not send His son to die, so that we could remain in our sins. I am just just 1 who actually lives it. Thank God by His grace, and not that of myself.

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          I don’t want to debate this. But I would invite you to consider 1 John 1:8—‟If we say that 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.” Note that the apostle John uses the pronoun ‟we.” He includes himself in this group.

          • K. Dodson

            Yes, I know may use that single scripture to try and override all the others. Some had thought themselves without sin, and needed no repentance. We ALL have… but once we have had true contrition of heart which leads to repentance, we do not go on continuing to sin. (Repent, is to turn away from sin) (The willful transgression of the law) Many scriptures not only support this, but the whole of Jesus death would be for nothing if we were not restored and able to do what the Bible promises us. Mind you it does take faith, and without faith in the word that says this, we certainly would not be able to live without sin after salvation (we would just go back to being a sinner again).

          • K. Dodson

            I do not wish to go on in this either, as you seem to be set it that thought. But a quick question. If you could live free from sin, wouldn’t you want to?