What’s the Difference Between Transgressions, Iniquity, and Sin?

Jan 24
Transgression Sin Iniquity

While reading scriptures in the topical guide on the atonement of Jesus Christ, I came across this verse which struck me as something I needed to better understand.

Alma 34:8. And now, behold, I will testify unto you of myself that these things are true. Behold, I say unto you, that I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it.

What struck me was the insight that Christ would take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he would atone for the sins of the world. What is the difference? Why transgressions for his people, but sins of the world?

As I dug into this, I noticed other verses where there was a distinction of sorts made between these terms and sometimes the word iniquity was also used. Look at this verse:

Exodus 34:7. Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

For a comprehensive search of these verses, plug this search into your search box to find the combinations.

(iniquit* and sin*) or (iniquit* and transgress*) or (sin* and transgress*)

There are 164 results.

To start, lets be clear that any act of wickedness is sin. However, there seems to have been in the mind of the scripture writers some type of distinction which upon further review you can clearly see.


Until I started looking things up in the Blue Letter Bible I had no idea there were so many different words used for these terms.

This reminds me of learning that Eskimo’s have dozens of words to describe snow. God has nuances to describe sin (which is just as plentiful yet equates to the same thing). Snow is frozen water but it’s still water. Sin is sin no matter what degree of wickedness it is. Perhaps by having multiple terms to describe sin, prophets could take away the excuses the people might have to nuance a justification for their sin. “Well this was because they did (action).” “Sorry that’s still (sin).”

These are partial lists of definitions for each word to summarize. (H – Old Testament Hebrew; G – New Testament Greek)

  • H898-bagad, to act covertly, fraudulently, deceitfully
  • H4603-ma`al, to act unfaithfully, treacherously
  • H4604-ma`al, unfaithful or treacherous act, falsehood, grievously
  • H5647-`abad, to keep in bondage, compel
  • H5674-abar, to pass over or through
  • H6586-pasha`, to break away, apostatize, quarrel, rebel, revolt
  • H6588-pesha`, rebellion/revolt against individuals, nations, and God
  • G458-anomia, violation of law, wickedness, illegality
  • G3845-parabainō, to go contrary to, to violate a command, to overstep, neglect, violate
  • G3847-parabasis, violation, breaking, disregarding, a going over
  • G3848-parabatēs, a violator, breaker

If I had to summarize this list into a simple thought, I would say transgressions are “knowingly crossing the line.” You have a clear picture of the line and cross over it.


The words used for sin in scripture are as follows:

  • H817-asham (masculine noun), guilt; by implication, a fault, a trespass, presentation of a sin-offering
  • H819-ashmah (feminine noun), same as 817
  • H2398-chata, to miss the mark, forfeit, lead astray (induce to sin), condemn, bear the blame, make reconciliation
  • H2399-chet, a crime or its penalty, fault, grievously, offence
  • H2401-chata’ah, an offence, or a sacrifice for it (sin offering)
  • H2403- chatta’ath, habitual sinfulness and it’s penalty, occasion, sacrifice, punishment or purification for sin
  • H7686- shagah, to stray, to mistake, lead astray (morally or mentally mislead), to reel (perhaps through intoxication), deceive, sin through ignorance, be ravished (acted upon by force)
  • G264- hamartanō, to miss the mark (and thus not share in the prize), to sin or trespass
  • G266- hamartia, (feminine of G264 – this doesn’t mean G264 is used for men sinning and this one for women. I’m no expert but knowing a little Spanish and looking at the use of the words, I’m certain it’s just conjugation of the words to fit with the text.)
  • G361- anamartētos, sinless (only used once in John 8:7 to say, “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”)

To summarize sin, it’s missing the mark. It’s the summation of all wickedness.

Here’s a good example of how the word sin carries different meanings. In Leviticus 4:3, notice the 4 times sin is used and 1 time sinned is used. There’s 4 different Hebrew words used for these terms. Try to read the verse looking up each of the meanings of those words from the definitions above and see if that gives it a little different flavor for you.


It’s really interesting to see these words used in the Blue Letter Bible resource (which you can do right from Scripture Notes by clicking the link icon to the right of any verse). If you look at H2398 for sin, one of the definitions is forfeit and among the verses displayed is Joseph in Egypt asking “how then can do this great wickedness and sin against God?” He knew that would forfeit his birthright blessings. An interesting nuance to the story which you don’t pick up just reading the verse in Genesis 39:9.


The words for iniquity in scripture are as follows:

  • H205- aven, to exert oneself usually in vain, trouble, vanity, affliction, false, idol, mischief, unjust
  • H1942- havvah, coveting, rushing upon, desire, ruin, calamity, mischief, naughtiness, noisome, perverse
  • H5753- avah, to crook, do amiss, bow down, make crooked, pervert, trouble, turn, do wrong
  • H5766, evel, perverseness, unjust, unrighteous, wicked, depravity
  • H5771, avon, perversity (moral evil), fault, iniquity, mischief, punishment of iniquity
  • H5932-alvah, moral perverseness, injustice
  • H5999- amal, toil, wearing effort, worry, grievance, labour, mischief, perverseness, sorrow, travail, trouble, wearisome
  • G93- adikia, (legal) injustice (the quality, by implication, the act), wrongfulness (of character, life, or act), unjust, wrong
  • G458- anomia, violation of law or wickedness
  • G3892- paranomia, transgression, breach of law

A summary of iniquity could be a pre-meditated/planned choices stemming from moral waywardness, or perhaps perverse moral failings with intent to sin.

A Summary Analogy

This is undoubtedly a poor analogy as an oversimplification but here goes anyway (Please feel free to improve on it in the comments below). We often relate missing the mark to archery so imagine someone is at the firing line and there’s a target down range to shoot at. The only perfect shot was Christ right in the bullseye. The rest of us…

  • Took the shot and missed the bullseye (Sin)
  • Walked up to the target and put the arrow in the bullseye while the judge is watching (Transgression). (Or maybe just crossed the line to be closer to the target to shoot.)
  • Turned and shot someone we didn’t like (Iniquity)

All 3 in One

If the list searched for above is intimidating to review because there’s so many results (and I haven’t read them all but they’re all in my collection note), do this search:

iniquit* and sin* and transgress*

That will return 10 verses where all 3 terms are used (8 in the Old Testament, 2 in the Book of Mormon). Here is the example used at the beginning of this post. You may have noticed I bolded 3 of the Hebrew words in the lists above. Those 3 go with the 3 uses in this verse if you want to review them.:

Exodus 34

I will share one of the verses in the Book of Mormon here which is where Captain Moroni is fed up with the corruption in the Nephite government. Read it in context of the 3 definitions. The leadership had committed all 3 sins by rebelling against God, not taking care of the people, not providing for their military, allowing secret combinations to get above them, and so on. There were traitors in high places and God commanded Moroni to cleanse the inner vessel if they didn’t repent.

Alma 60:33. Ye know that ye do transgress the laws of God, and ye do know that ye do trample them under your feet. Behold, the Lord saith unto me: If those whom ye have appointed your governors do not repent of their sins and iniquities, ye shall go up to battle against them.

Now try doing this search but filtering for the book of Jacob in the Book of Mormon. This will show any instance of the 3 words.

iniquit* or sin* or transgress*

Notice how Jacob starts off talking about sins, but when he gets to the husbands being unfaithful to their wives, he switches to iniquity. It’s inner moral perverseness.

The last instance in Jacob is where the anti-Christ Sherem shares how he fears he has committed the unpardonable sin and it made me realize there is no mention of an “unpardonable transgression” or “unpardonable iniquity” in scripture. Of course, all wickedness of any kind is sin, but I guess returning to the archery example above, the unpardonable sin would be turning to shoot the judge.

Revisiting Alma 34

Now at the beginning of this post I shared this verse. If you have never noticed the phrase “his people” or “my people” used in the scriptures, it’s worth a study of those verses. In short, it’s referring to his covenant people of Israel.

Alma 34:8. And now, behold, I will testify unto you of myself that these things are true. Behold, I say unto you, that I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it.

You might try this search to pull in all those instances with one form of the 3 sin words we’ve been discussing.

(iniquit* or sin* or transgress*) and ("his people" or "my people")

But why, we might ask, does it say he will take upon him the transgressions of his people, but not their sins?

Well, in searching we find this verse:

Mosiah 13:28. And moreover, I say unto you, that salvation doth not come by the law alone; and were it not for the atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people, that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses.

And there we have it. Word choice is up to the speaker and perhaps pertains to the current set of problems of the people which are on their mind. In some instances the sins of the people may justify using one word over another (and they apparently have plenty to choose from), yet all are sin.

In the Garden

In closing, much has been written about Adam & Eve’s transgression in the garden. There is a further distinction as shared here by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a retired judge who understands the nuances of law and explains this singularly unique episode perfectly.

“This suggested contrast between a sin and a transgression reminds us of the careful wording in the second article of faith: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression” (emphasis added). It also echoes a familiar distinction in the law. Some acts, like murder, are crimes because they are inherently wrong. Other acts, like operating without a license, are crimes only because they are legally prohibited. Under these distinctions, the act that produced the Fall was not a sin—inherently wrong—but a transgression—wrong because it was formally prohibited. These words are not always used to denote something different, but this distinction seems meaningful in the circumstances of the Fall.” (Dallin H. Oaks, “The Great Plan of Happiness,” Ensign, Nov. 1993, 72-74, lds.org).


While driving home last night I thought of one more thing I needed to add to this article. In the Book of Mormon there are references to the people of this continent being destroyed when they are fully ripe in iniquity. I wanted to check for all uses of ripe with these 3 terms to see what else might be found. This was the search I did.

ripe* and (iniquit* or sin* or transgres*)

There are 9 verses in scripture that come up for the results with 8 in the Book of Mormon and 1 in the Doctrine & Covenants. Of these, 7 mention iniquity as the ripening factor, 2 mention sin, and 1 mentions transgression along with iniquity.

I find this interesting that iniquity is largely the term used for when the people are ripe or fully ripe for destruction. Iniquity is perverse moral failings with intent to sin. That’s also a definition of secret combinations which build themselves up to get power and gain over the people. Based on that, I’d say the world is fully ripe for destruction.

Double Addendum

I just realized that repentance is when the judge moves your shot into the bullseye of the target! D&C 82:7 says,

  1. And now, verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, will not lay any sin to your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.

However, if we return to our sins, the judge moves the arrow back where it was.


(Image by damedeeso at 123rf.com)


About the Author

Oak Norton - Just trying to share a love of the scriptures with others.

  • Lindsay Dowding says:

    How long did it take you to put that presentation together. Incredible. I enjoyed it. Again you have proved how little I know when I have read those scriptures before, but that’s the joy of learning.

    • Oak Norton says:

      It was faster than you would think. Once you open up Blue Letter Bible and search for a word, you can ctrl-click the Hebrew or Greek Strong’s number to open it in a new tab. I just did that for each of the 3 words and then made a quick summary of their definitions. Along the way I would occasionally look at the words each was tied to and gained some insights like the one about Joseph. I was quite intimidated trying to put the article together at first but then once I got into it, it went pretty smooth. I’ll credit inspiration from above for that. :)

  • Ryan says:

    The archery analogy is perfect. I chuckled at the imagery of turning and shooting someone to represent iniquity. Ha ha ha

  • Mike Edwards says:

    I enjoyed your analysis and wrote a few pages of Thoughts and comments to share. I’m not sure how a Word document will copy into this comment box. Can I paste a word, or pdf here that will retain its formatting? Or can I post a hyperlink that can be opened?

    I have a subscription but can’t seem to get signed on to comment as a member.

    Thanks much,

    • Oak Norton says:

      Hi Mike, you don’t have to be a member to post here but formatting may be lost bringing in a copy/paste. I believe you can insert html tags though if you want to bold and italicize stuff. You can post a hyperlink to another site that’s got your post as well.

  • Mike Edwards says:

    When we look at the variations and nuances that attach themselves to our word meanings, it’s a wonder that we can communicate as well as we do!

    I wrote a few comments and thoughts related to this post. I’m not sure how meaningful or even interesting it will be to others, but it was personally helpful for me to write it. Sometimes I am not sure what I think until I write about it.

    Thanks Brother Norton, for your post and the opportunity to consider and respond.

    Here a link to my comments. Hope it’s readable. If not, try putting it into your browser.

    Best wishes,


    • Oak Norton says:

      Mike, I read your article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ll post your summary here for anyone that wants to see what you explain.

      “So, my take:

      · Transgressions are violations of rules, standards, and guidelines that may or may not carry the added weight of being morally wrong.

      · Sins are transgressions that violate the will of God and move us away from His Presence.

      · Iniquities are habits of sin that deaden our conscience and lead us to addictions and perversions.”

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