What is iniquity? What are transgressions? What is sin?

1 John 3:4

Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law

Is this saying that transgression is to break, move away from, or attempt to live outside, the knowledge of the law?

Does iniquity mean to be tried and come up short?

What does God want us to understand about the act of forgiveness giving three conditions of adherence?

  • Welcome to the site, and an up-vote for a good first Q. I assume you are looking for the meaning of those three words as used in the Greek text of the Bible,and not English meanings. Or do you also want the Hebrew meanings? As one Q at a time is supposed to be asked, could I suggest that your last Q (what God wants us to understand... etc) be held back until a satisfactory answer has been given for this, and then used as a basis for that last Q?
    – Anne
    Dec 29, 2022 at 14:11
  • 1
    This is a huge and complex subject but very important to everyone who feels 'the plague of their own heart'. So up-voted +1 and answered below. The entire text is in my book 'The Burden of Sins' and is freely downloadable without charge or registration. See my profile for the web address.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 29, 2022 at 14:59
  • The Bibleproject.com website has the following short videos that explain sin, transgression and iniquity: youtube.com/watch?v=aNOZ7ocLD74 youtube.com/watch?v=cq-r9FFN5ew youtube.com/watch?v=w1zkwkI9oAw Dec 31, 2022 at 15:05

5 Answers 5


A good place to start in studying how scripture (both Hebrew and Greek) expresses the

  • the act of sin,
  • the state of sin, and the
  • presence of guilt

is in Romans 4:6 where Paul the apostle quotes David's thirty second psalm.

Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. [Romans 4:6 and 7 KJV]

The Hebrew words pesha, chattah and avon in Hebrew are mirrored by anomia, hamartia and paraptoma in Greek.

These words relate to transgression, sin and offence. The actions of transgression, sin and offence derive from the inward states of lawlessness, alienation and lifelessness.

These states are contrary to the righteous nature of God, the holy, spiritual being of God and to the divine life of God.

The Hebrew word nasa means uplift and is mirrored by the word aphesis in the Greek. Aphesis does not mean remit. It does not mean forgive or pardon. It means unburden.

The Hebrew word kaphar does not, precisely, mean cover nor do the words 'atone' or 'expiate' helpfully convey its true meaning. I believe it means something that cannot be expressed by a single English word. “Containment in hand” is as close as I am able to express it at this time.

I cannot find - anywhere - in the Hebrew or the Greek scriptures any word that should be, properly, translated as either of the English words “forgive” or “pardon”. The concept which these two words conveys is, to my own understanding, just not there in the Bible.

Personally, I prefer to bring the Hebrew word kaphar (from Hebrew) into English and to bear in the mind its unique meaning, which is considerable, diverse and rich. I prefer also to bring the word aphesis (from Greek) into English in order to retain its unique weight of meaning in relation to the singular unburdening which only occurs when it is preached by Christ himself and applied by the Spirit.

This is a very big subject and is, of course, highly important to one's own apprehension of one's own sinful state, to one's own sinful deeds and to one's own sense of guilt and distance from the God who is not only righteous but is also holy.

I have only touched on the subject here, but I hope there is enough to point you in the right direction.

Reproduced from the book 'The Burden of Sins' Belmont Publications by Nigel Johnstone.

  • The quote is demonstrably false: "The Hebrew word nasa means uplift and is mirrored by the word aphesis in the Greek. Aphesis does not mean remit. It does not mean forgive or pardon. It means unburden." cf. BDB, s.v. “נָשָׂא,” 671 for a long list of examples where נָשָׂא means "forgive." (and also: HALOT, s.v. “נשׂא,” 2:726.)
    – Epimanes
    Dec 29, 2022 at 21:23
  • @Epimanes The problem with the English word 'forgive' is its etymology. The word is of uncertain vintage and its usage is undisciplined. Most imply that sin can be 'forgiven' in the sense of being arbitrarily dismissed, unrighteously. That is not what scripture conveys by Justification by Faith. I recommend you read the entire text (of the book, The Burden of Sins ) that you might see the entire argument.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 30, 2022 at 8:48
  • Could you please share a link to your book? As you flesh out your 'take' on forgiveness, is you issue, then, that the English concept (as the received language) doesn't overlap enough with the source (Hebrew)? In my own brain, I'm thinking of פֶּשַׁע, where 'rebellion' & 'overstepping' have overlap, but it's not a big one, or your contention something entirely?
    – Epimanes
    Dec 30, 2022 at 11:03
  • @Epimanes See my profile for the website address.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 30, 2022 at 11:32

Let us begin with the Hebrew. The text of Ex 34:7 reads:

  • NKJV: keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”
  • NASB: who keeps faithfulness for thousands, who forgives wrongdoing, violation of His Law, and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, inflicting the punishment of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
  • NIV: maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

The three words used here (and variously translated above) are:

  • עָוֹן (avon) = iniquity, guilt, punishment for iniquity (Strongs & BDB)
  • פֶשַׁע (pesha) = transgression (of a law)
  • חַטָּאָה (chatta'ah) = sinful thing, sin

These words are frequently used as synonyms in Hebrew parallelism so their meanings overlap considerably. Thus, the thrust of Ex 34:7 is to say that God forgives all kinds of sin/wickedness etc, without exception.

1 John 3:4 is more problematic because of the quite misleading translation provided by the KJV which translates a single word, ἀνομία (anomia) with a whole clause, "transgression of the law". Here is a faithful, literal rendering of 1 John 3:4 -

BLB: Everyone committing sin also commits lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.

Note that we have two words defined here as equivalent:

  • ἀνομία (anomia) which literally means "without law" or "lawlessness". It also occurs in Matt 7:23, 13:41, 23:28, 24:12, Rom 4:7, 6:19, 2 Cor 6:14, 2 Thess 2:7, Titus 2:14, Heb 1:9, 10:17 (15 times in total).
  • ἁμαρτία (harmartia) which literally means "missing the mark" and results in "no share, loss and forfeiture because of not hitting the target. It is usually simply translated, "sin". It also occurs about 173 times in the NT such as: Matt 1:22, 3:6, 9:2, 5, 6, 12:31, etc.

Thus, sin, missing the mark set by the law, results is lawlessness.

Paul discusses these ideas in Rom 3-7 extensively by making the points that:

  • all are sinful (Rom 3:10-18)
  • all have sinned but all are freely forgiven (Rom 3:22-28)
  • this forgiveness is a free gift of God that is received by faith (Rom 4)
  • Jesus' life and sacrifice provides the means of salvation for not only our sins (acts) but also our sinful lives (Rom 5)
  • Does sin result in lawlessness in the future or become lawlessness presently? I ask because of esti. Dec 31, 2022 at 14:04
  • 1
    @MikeBorden - the present continuous verb is used as a coupler and equivalent statement as in "God is Love" (1 John 4:8). This statement is saying "Sin is lawlessness" - it is a state of being.
    – Dottard
    Dec 31, 2022 at 20:01

In Exodus, three words are used for sin. Each of these has their own context. Here's the verse:

  • ”נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה“ (Ex. 34:7 BHS-T)
  • "maintaining mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin..."

The first word Moses uses is, "עָוֹן" ("Ahh-vohn"). As HALOT aptly defines it: "guilt caused by sin (and the consequences thereof)"(HALOT, s.v. “עָוֹן,” 2:800.). So, here the emphasis is not on a guilty feeling, it's on a guilty verdict and the consequences that flow from it. Often, in English, this is translated with the word, "iniquity."

The second word is, "פֶּשַׁע" ("Pesh-a"). The word means, "rebellion, revolt" (HALOT, s.v. “פֶּשַׁע,” 3:981.). This word then describes the internal attitude of pushing against what God wants. This internal attitude then overlooks to action. In English, when translating the word, some translations shift the thought slightly. Instead of keeping the 'rebellion' thought, they shift to 'transgress' (Latin for 'march on over without permission.') This is found in the greek, ⲡⲁⲣⲁⲡⲧⲱⲙⲁ. It's nice to see modern translations return to the original thought in the Hebrew (rebellion).

The third word is, "חַטָּאָה". It comes from the verb, "חָטָא". BDB defines the verb this way: "2398 † חָטָא 238 vb. miss (a goal or way), go wrong, sin (NH id.; Aram. חֲטָא ܚܛܳܐ" (BDB, s.v. “חָטָא,” 306.). This noun, too, has a picture behind it. It's the picture of 'missing the mark.' As the previous post explains, it's NT counterpart is "ⲁⲙⲁⲣⲧⲓⲁ" ("hamartia.") It carries with it the concept of missing the standard that God sets.

These are the three words that Moses uses in Ex. 34. We can see that we have different nuances to them. But, we can also see that when they are used in parallel constructions like this, Moses is letting us also know that there is overlap in meaning too.


It is a rhetorical figure called “hendiatris” (εν δια τρις), that is to say, “one through three” which means that one and the same notion is expressed by three synonymous words for creating a rhetorical effect. Like if I say, “I am perplexed, puzzled and bewildered by Pelé’s graceful play” - he died yesterday, at 82, the GOAT of football, may God rest his immortal soul.

  • I agree. Overanalyzing words, simply because they are biblical, can lead to systematizing things that were meant to be understood with a natural reading. When we take into consideration that the words from Hebrew (Semitic) had over 2000 years of development by the time of the NT and that John was writing in Greek, it is asking too much to give concrete distinctions between three synonyms and try to connect the dots from ancient Hebrew to NT Greek. It's simply a literary tool. DISAGREE: Messi is the GOAT, but yes, may God rest the soul of Pele.
    – trozzel
    Dec 30, 2022 at 17:25
  • 1
    @trozzel I grudge nothing to Messi, love him, he can be a good candidate for GOATness along with Pelé and Maradona, as a Christian, I am open to accept a non-hierarchical trinity of GOATs Dec 30, 2022 at 17:38

What is iniquity? What are transgressions? What is sin?

Let's look at the passage

1 John 3:4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

What is sin? According to the passage, sin is breaking the law.
What are transgressions? In the passage a transgression is when the law is broken. There is no difference between sinning and breaking the law.

The point of the passage is to address the idea that it's OK to keep on sinning as a follower of Jesus. John tells us that sin = breaking the law.
Anyone who continues to sin does has not seen and does not know Jesus.

In Greek the word for "sin" is "hamartia"
/hamartía ("sin, forfeiture because missing the mark") is the brand of sin that emphasizes its self-originated (self-empowered) nature Strongs

The idea is missing the mark, missing the target. What is the target? In the broadest sense the target is meeting God's expectations. Any time we fail to do what God wants us to do we sin which is the same thing as breaking the law. In a narrower sense the target is the law of which explains God's expectations. Jesus summed up the law in Matthew 22

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Anything that misses this mark is sin and as 1 John 3:4 says, sinning = breaking the law

What does God want us to understand about the act of forgiveness giving three conditions of adherence?

An answer should be based on a passage to provide context. The question is unclear.
What does God want us to understand about the act of forgiveness - the act of God's forgiveness, the act of human forgiveness or about forgiveness in general?

Forgiveness is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Please add a reference to allow for focus.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.