In recent years, I have noticed an increasing tendency for people to confuse mistakes with sins. It happens at every level, whether someone is caught cheating on their spouse, filing false insurance claims, or shoplifting from a clothing store.
Last week I read about the sex scandal that shipwrecked Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. Married for five decades, he threw it away for a female staffer thirty years his junior.
Bentley, now divorced, no longer talks with his family. He hasn’t even met his eighth grandchild, according to a well reported story in GQ. But what stood out for me is how the governor spoke about his affair.
“I made a mistake. Two years ago I made a mistake,” he said at a press conference. “Today I want to apologize to the people of the state of Alabama and once again, I want to apologize to my family. I am truly sorry and I accept full responsibility.”
The admission reminded me of the scandal that sank Senator John Edwards. He was having an affair with a staffer while his wife was dying of cancer. He also characterized it as a mistake.
“Two years ago I made a very serious mistake,” he admitted, “a mistake that I am responsible for and no one else… 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.”
Like Bentley’s admission, Edwards’ statement seems humble and contrite on the surface. 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—even while they claim to accept responsibility. Why?
Because of the fundamental difference between the two terms. Many people assume they are synonymous. They’re not.
A Critical Difference
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’s 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.
5 Actions that Honor the Distinction
What can we do to make sure we preserve this distinction between sins and mistakes? I suggest five actions:
- 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—as “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.
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.
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.
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.
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.