While studying in seminary,
in Louisville, I had a job at Chick-fil-A. Taking drink orders was far more complicated than it needed to be because so many people ordered “a Coke.” For me, a native Northeast Missourian, a Coke means a specific dark cola. For those living in more Southern states, “a coke” is synonymous with soda. When people ordered a Coke I had to learn to ask “which kind?” In my lingo, all Cokes are sodas but not all sodas are Coke. Too many of our customers, all sodas were Cokes. There are many other English words like this which we use interchangeably, but on further inspection, there actually is a bit of difference in meaning.
Iniquity in Scripture
In the Bible, the terms sin and iniquity are often used interchangeably. We know that both of them aren’t good and we know that, in some sense, they are an offense against a holy God. In fact, if you look up the word, iniquity, in most Bible dictionaries, you’ll be redirected to the word “sin,” yet, there is a bit of a difference between these two concepts. At least 70 times, we see these terms used together. The following Bible verses reference “iniquity” for some context of how this term is used in scripture:
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. – Psalm 51:5
Keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. – Exodus 34:7
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. – Ezekiel 18:20
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ – Matthew 7:21-23
Then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes – Psalm 89:32
And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. – Jeremiah 31:34
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 2:2
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. – Isaiah 53:6
What Do Sin and Iniquity Mean in the Bible?
There are three principle Hebrew words that are often used interchangeably. These words are often translated as sin, iniquity, or transgression. Chattah, which is most often translated as sin, means to miss the mark. Awon, often translated as iniquity, relates more to the inner character and points to an intentional twisting of a given standard. Pesha, often translated as transgression, is more of a willful rebellion against the given standard. We see these words in their nuances and also used interchangeably in Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my pesha [transgressions]. Wash me thoroughly from my awon [iniquity], and cleanse me from my chattah [sin]! For I know my pasha [transgressions], and my chattah [sin] is always before me. Against you, you only, have I chattah [sinned] and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in awon [iniquity] and in chattah [sin] did my mother conceive me.
We see here that while there is a great deal of similarity between sin and iniquity (and they are at times used interchangeably), there is also a bit of a difference. Much as I had to ask “which kind” when someone ordered a Coke, so also when we see the word, “iniquity,” in the Scriptures, we shouldn’t just assume it is merely a synonym for sin.
This illustration is a bit of an over-simplification, but perhaps, it will prove helpful. If an archer wildly misses a mark, we would use the word chattah. He was shooting for something and he came up short. Morally speaking, we are aiming for righteousness and actions which accurately model the God we were created to image. As the apostle John said, “Sin is lawlessness.” It is breaking the law and missing the standard which is set for us. But we’ve yet to say why this archer missed the mark. If we wanted to explore why the archer fell short, we would likely use a word like awon (or iniquity). Iniquity points to the character/heart which causes the missed shot. Iniquity points to our perverse desire to twist God’s holy standard. We break God’s standard because our iniquity drives us to twist God’s Word.
What Does Jesus Say about Sin?
This is similar to what Jesus taught in Luke 6. It is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks. The issue is not simply the outward expression of sin, it is also the heart that created the standard-breaking behavior. This will impact the way we disciple (and especially the way we parent). We are not merely aiming for changed behavior. In other words, our goal is not simply to stop sin, but also to address the iniquity of the heart which fueled the sinful action.
Consider Isaiah 6. I liken Isaiah’s experience to wearing a black shirt under a black light. In high school, I decided to wear my favorite black shirt out on a date to black-light bowling. When I left the house, I assumed I was looking at least socially acceptable, but once I was put under the all-searching black-light, every piece of lint and every blemish on my shirt and pants were exposed for all to see. I left the house thinking I would make a favorable impression and I ended up realizing I was a bleach-stained and lint-covered fool. When Isaiah found himself under the glaring holiness of God, he was undone. Every blemish stood out and Isaiah immediately thought of his unclean lips.
We can learn about Iniquity from Isaiah:
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt [awon] is taken away, and your sin [chattah] atoned for. (Isaiah 6:7)
God doesn’t only atone for our sin, he also takes away our iniquity. The work of Christ addresses sin, transgression, and iniquity to the fullest. This is great news. God doesn’t just clean the outside of the cup, but he does substantial heart work. He finds us at our vilest and cleanses us. There is no sin or iniquity so deep that Christ cannot forgive, heal, and transform, for he was “pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities…” (Isaiah 53:5)