When talking about the Bible in small group settings, whether with non-believers or believers, Transgression, Sin and Iniquity eventually arise. When they do, it is time to lay down some simple definitions which help people differentiate them for their Bible study and daily lives.
Each word has a clear separate meaning – which comes as a real surprise to many long time Christians who tend to freely interchange ‘Transgression’ and ‘Sin’. This is not what the Bible says or means. If all words, or even two words, had the same meaning, they would not be found in the same sentence, but they are. Exodus 34:7 uses all three in succession: “keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the sons, and on the sons of sons, to the third and to the fourth generation.” (emphasis added) God is careful and sparing with His word use. The three words are there because they have specific meanings which we must know and recognise, such that we may correctly interpret His Word.
Years ago I read this little story which serves well to distinguish the meanings of all three in an easily remembered fashion:
Let us imagine you are walking along a country path. Across a small field next to you, you see some friends. They shout to you and ask you to join them. You look around and all is clear; no animals or crops in the field, so you climb over the fence, cross the farmer’s field and finally climb over the second fence at the other side of the field where your friends stand. Then you look back to where you have come from and there, right next to you, is a sign which reads “Private Property – no trespassing.” You have unknowingly trespassed on private property: you have committed a “Transgression”.
After chatting, you decide to go back to the lane you were on before. However, if you now cross back over that field, in defiance of the “Private Property – no trespassing” sign of which you are now very much aware, you will commit a “Sin.” You will knowingly be doing wrong. If you do not want to sin, you must find another legal way, back to your original path.
However, you are now living in “Iniquity,” for you are guilty of a transgression – in this case, a trespass. As Leviticus 5:15 says: “If a soul commit a trespass, and sin through ignorance …..” Can the iniquity be lifted? Yes, you can visit the farmer and apologise. If he forgives your transgression, you are also no longer in iniquity.
Why is it important to understand? For one reason, it helps us make sense of Bible verses like Exodus 20:5-6 which warns us that “You shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them. For I Jehovah your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy to thousands of those that love Me and keep My commandments.” (emphasis added)
Yes, the transgressions we make, the sins we commit are ours. But if we sin or transgress against God, our iniquity also belongs to our descendants, for three or four generations. If we don’t understand this, we will not try to fix things, and so we will unwittingly heap more problems on our descendants. Hosea 4:6 warns us that “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” This is one more working example.
Amen and Amen.