INIQUITY, TRESSPASS, TRANSGRESSION AND SIN
Exodus chapter 34 describes how the glorious attributes of the Father were revealed to Moses:
“Yahweh passed by before him, and proclaimed, Yahweh, Yahweh El, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty …” (Ex. 34:6,7).
In these words, we learn that by His Grace the Father will forgive “iniquity and transgression and sin”. These three words, along with another word – “trespass” – are employed by the Spirit to describe various manifestations of mans’ fallen condition – words which are often taken to be synonymous with each other, but which in fact, describe different aspects of man’s failures in behaviour. In this study, we propose to examine each of these words, in order that we might see the true import of each.
The Hebrew for “iniquity” is ‘avon; or ‘avown, and is derived from ‘avah, which signifies “to crook, literally, or figuratively”. The word thus signifies “crooked” in a moral sense, or “perverse” – hence David speaks of “the iniquity of my sin” (Psa. 32:5). It is often used in connection with false worship, or deliberate acts against the laws of God. In Numbers 5:15,31 it is used of sins of a sexual nature, where a wife was suspected to be unfaithful to her husband, and similarly Joshua 22:17 speaks of “the iniquity of Peor.”
The iniquity of Peor is described in Numbers chapter 25, where we read that “the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto Baal-peor: and the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel.” (Num. 25:1-3).
Here, the people as a nation departed from the worship of Yahweh, and turned to idolatry. But mixed in with their false worship was the whoredom that they committed with the Moabitish women – described in Revelation 2:14, as committing “fornication”. Truly, this was a crooked, or iniquitous form of worship, where the people no longer walked uprightly before their Maker.
The word “iniquity” is also used to describe the sins of Eli and his sons, at the time of Samuel:
“I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not. And therefore have I sworn unto the house of Eli, that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering for ever” (1 Sam. 3:13-14).
Here, the “iniquity” involved corrupting the Tabernacle worship, particularly the offering of sacrifices:
“the priests’ custom with the people was, that, when any man offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant came, while the flesh was in seething, with a fleshhook of three teeth in his hand; and he struck it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fleshhook brought up the priest took for himself. So they did in Shiloh unto all the Israelites that came thither” (1 Sam. 2:13,14).
The priests’ custom therefore, involved stealing from Yahweh. They stole from the sacrifices, and took for themselves more than was allotted to them under the Law of Moses. So the words of rebuke came:
“Wherefore kick ye at my sacrifice and my offering, which I have commanded in my habitation; and honourest thy sons above me, to make yourselves fat with the chiefest of all the offerings of Israel my people?” (1 Sam. 2:29).
“Iniquity” then, is a form of behaviour which often specifically involves the corruption of divine service and worship. And it is associated with taking to oneself that which rightfully belongs to Yahweh, whether it be in terms of sacrifice, or other forms of obedience.
“Trespass” in Scripture involves the infringing of the ‘rights’ of another party. The term is used by Jacob when Laban chased after him, having discovered that his teraphim (a form of Idol) had gone missing, at the same time as Jacob’s departure. Laban searched all of Jacob’s goods, but found nothing. “And Jacob was wroth and chode with Laban: and Jacob answered and said to Laban, What is my trespass? What is my sin, that thou hast so hotly persued after me?” (Genesis 31:36). In other words, “What have I done against you, that you come after me so vigorously?”
Solomon, in his prayer at the dedication of the Temple speaks of the circumstance “if any man trespass against his neighbour …” (1 Kings 8:31). This again shows that it is something performed against another party. So, under the Law, if a man was found guilty of trespass in a particular matter, he was to restore that which had been taken from his neighbour, plus a fifth: “if a soul sin, and commit a trespass against Yahweh, and lie unto his neighbour in that which was delivered unto him to keep, or in fellowship, or in a thing taken away by violence, or hath deceived his neighbour … he shall even restore it in the principal, and shall add the fifth part more thereto, and give it unto him to whom it appertaineth in the day of his trespass offering” (Lev. 6:1-5).
An interesting feature of this case, is that although the crime is committed against the man’s neighbour, it is considered to be against Yahweh Himself: “If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against Yahweh, and lie unto his neighbour …”. It was a violation of His Laws; a breach of the conditions of Israel dwelling in the Land—and therefore the trespass was against Yahweh, the Law-giver Himself.
There are two main words rendered “transgression” in the KJV, and both are worthy of our consideration. ‘abar signifies “to cross over,” and is used many times in a context which has nothing to do with sin. But it is also used to describe a crossing over the commandments of Yahweh. As if Yahweh had drawn a line in the sand, so to speak, and men had crossed over that line, when forbidden to do so. The line is Yahweh’s Law, or Covenant: “all Israel have transgressed thy Law” said Daniel (Dan. 9:11). Again, Moses asked, “Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of Yahweh? But it shall not prosper” (Num. 14:41). Saul, in his disobedience in the case of Amelek confessed to having transgressed: “I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of Yahweh, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice” (1 Sam. 15:24).
The other word is pesha‘ which signifies “to rebel” or “revolt”. So Israel was told that the Angel that went before them would not forgive any rebellion against Yahweh’s words: “he will not pardon your transgressions” (Ex. 23:21). Again, a rebellion against the authority of one’s parents by robbing them, is a transgression: “Whoso robbeth his father or his mother, and saith, it is no transgression; the same is the companion of a destroyer” (Prov. 28:24).
In each of the above definitions it will be observed that there is considerable overlap. For example, a single action may be both a trespass and a transgression. But all behaviours which manifest a failing in the sight of the Most High are Sins. Each of the above actions are all described as sins in the verses cited. The word describes a “missing of the mark,” that is, a failure to hit that target of Divine righteousness.
In Judges chapter 20, it is said of Benjamin: “among all this people there were seven hundred chosen men lefthanded; every one could sling stones at a hair breadth and not miss”. The word translated “not miss” is a common word for “sin,” being rendered such 188 times in the Old Testament—showing the sense of the word; they did “not miss” the mark.
Romans 3:23 reads: “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”. Again, this describes how all have fallen short of the target of Yahweh’s Glory, rather like an arrow that is fired, that falls short of it’s target. Sin then, is a general term, used to describe any behaviour which does not meet the standard of Divine Righteousness (cp 1Jno 3:4); either missing it, or falling short of it.
But there is another, secondary sense in which the Scriptures use the word. In Elpis Israel, Bro Thomas writes:
“The word ‘sin’ is used in two principal acceptations in the Scriptures. It signifies in the first place, the transgression of law; and in the next, it represents that physical principle of the animal nature, which is the cause of all its diseases, death, and resolution into dust. It is that in the flesh ‘which has the power of death’; and it is called ‘sin’, because the development or fixation of this evil in the flesh, was the result of transgression . . . . ‘ (p.113). “Sin, I say, is a synonym for human nature. Hence, the flesh is invariably regarded as unclean” (p.114).
Again, WH Boulton in his book “The Epistle to the Hebrews” writes:
“Sin is a term of double import in the Scriptures; it has a physical as well as a moral application.” (page 181)
“No one can read the Epistle to the Romans carefully, and accept its teaching candidly, without realizing that sin is used in reference to something else than action. It is clearly used to define that which is the cause of sin in action.” (page 57)
The allusion of both brethren is to Romans 7, where the very cause within men which gives rise to temptations and acts of disobedience is itself called “sin” – “sin that dwelleth in me” (vs. 17,20). Here, the “sin” referred to is quite obviously not an actual act of sin, for it is not only said to dwell in the Apostle, it is also described as doing those things which are against Divine law: “Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me” (Rom. 7:20).
This indwelling Sin then, is the principle or “law” (vs 23) of our being, which gives rise to thoughts and temptations to disobey Yahweh. Sin dwells within us as a physical law (not a physical substance which can be extracted and analysed under the microscope, as some misrepresent us as saying, but an overriding principle of our Being). It is this which has the power of death, for Romans 6:23 informs us that Sin pays death as wages. It is this that was condemned in the death of Christ, as it is written:
“What the Law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3).
The Sin here, which Christ condemned, is the same Sin that dwelt in the Apostle Paul—the same law which dwells in each one of us. It dwelt in Christ also—for as Bro Thomas rightly states, it must have been in him, for him to condemn it. He bore our flesh of sin, with all it’s desires and temptations. In order for him to be “tempted in all points like as we are” (Heb. 4:15), he had to experience the “lust of the flesh” (cp Gal. 5:16,17), as do we. Yet he was “without sin” in the sense of acts which fall short of Yahweh’s Glory, for he was wholly obedient to His Father in all things. Only he could say: “I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do” (Jno. 17:4), for only he attained to the standard of Yahweh’s Righteousness.
“Sin in the flesh” is the root cause of iniquities, trespasses, transgressions and sins. The Master, in never permitting Sin to reign in his members, instead declared the Fathers’ Righteousness as the basis for our forgiveness. He, “in his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes we are healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). As the antitypical Scapegoat (Lev. 16), he has taken our sins away from us, that we might be delivered from the bondage of sin and death, and be granted a glorious hope of Eternal Life. Let us therefore consider the various manifestations of human failure to glorify the Father – our own failures – and contrast this with the example of our Master. Let us resolve to follow him in crucifying the flesh, that we might be partakers of his victory in the age to come.