Friday, November 27, 2009

The Difference Between Sin and Transgression is Critical

I always have understood "sin" to be different than "transgression". "Transgression" is the broad, umbrella category of "going beyond or overstepping some boundary or limit" - in religious terms, of breaking a commandment. "Sin", otoh, is a subset of transgression where one understands a commandment and consciously chooses to break it. Therefore, a young child can transgress without sinning; a Catholic can transgress the Word of Wisdom without sinning; my retarded cousin can transgress without sinning; etc.

At the most basic level, every person transgresses and every person who is capable of understanding the validity of a limit / law / commandment sins. We all do things we know we shouldn't do, and we all don't do things we know we should do. The trick, imo, is knowing what things we really are capable of doing - so we know what constitutes sin for ourselves as individuals.

The best example, again, is my retarded cousin - or someone with severe dementia. Some things that are sin for me are transgressions for him. However, most (if not all) of us are not fully aware of our own "hidden disabilities" - so we are not fully aware of what actually is within our control and what is not. Therefore, all we can do is our best to understand ourselves and strive to develop the characteristics of godliness that will eliminate our weaknesses that cause our sins and transgressions.

We have been told that we will not be punished for the natural transgressions we commit simply as a result of the Fall (our actions we don't consciously choose, like the words my friend utters in the throes of her bi-polar disorder or my mom's actions when her "sleeping pills" no longer worked), as a reward for the pre-existent choice we made to accept Jehovah as our Lord and Savior and Redeemer. (Iow, we won't end up worse off as a result of our birth than we would have if we had never been born.) We also are told that our sins (incorrect *choices*) can be forgiven *as long as we accept the Lord's redemption and strive to become like Him and our Father*. The promised forgiveness of our transgressions gave us access to a degree of glory; the offered forgiveness of our sins gives us hope for a fullness of glory. The first (forgiveness of transgression) places us above Lucifer and his followers; the second (forgiveness of sin) opens the possibility of being a joint-heir with Christ.

I believe the Restored Gospel we currently teach broadens the gray and shrinks the black and white dramatically - particularly compared to most Protestant denominations. The black and white still exist, but most of us live and learn and struggle in the gray - forever fighting to see and understand and live correctly whatever constitutes the "true" black and white. I believe our church more clearly defines the ultimate objective FAR better than any other of which I am aware and gives us access to more light and knowledge than any other of which I am aware, but I also believe we still "see through a [grayish] glass darkly" - much more than many "black-and-white-ists" believe.

My concern over the distinction comes from seeing so many people who feel "guilty" for their naturally inherited weakness - the things that lead them to transgress - as if they were sinning simply because they couldn't overcome totally that inherited weakness. They have been told so often that "any mistake is sin" that they beat themselves up continually over what amounts simply to being human. They can't recognize that Jesus already has paid that price for them - that "the truth will make you free" in that particular way - that they can "cast those burdens at His feet" and simply look for ways to change without debilitating guilt over how hard it is and how long it takes.

5 comments:

symphonyofdissent said...

Great post! I think members don't realize the full extent of what the atonement can do for them.

KOGE said...

Great thoughts! I find your insights compelling. However, I do notice that your analysis does not rest on any scriptural warrant. Do you consider the difference between sin and transgression to be scripturally defensible? I ask becuase while I agree with you, I nevertheless have no scriptural foundation upon which to be ground the distinction.

Papa D said...

KOGE: I think it's assumed largely in the scriptures, given the dictionary meanings of the two words:

1) Trangress: A violation of a law, command, or duty: The exceeding of due bounds or limits. (Notice, there is no mention of motivation or reason here. ANY "violation" or exceeding" is a transgression.)

2) Sin: Deliberate disobedience to the known will of God: A condition of estrangement from God resulting from such disobedience. (The definitions generally start by placing sin in the overall category of transgression, but they always add an additional defining aspect - deliberate or willful transgression.)

I also think it's clear scripturally in how different people are chastised for their "mistakes" - the condemnation mentioned for those who sin (especially without remorse) and the patience afforded those who "sin without knowledge" (transgress).

There are, however, many scriptural passages that address this core concept - both in the Bible and in other scriptures used within Mormonism. Just a few:

1) The entire system of vicarious animal sacrifice for sins "through ignorance" in the Old Testament was established largely to absolve Israel of their transgressions. There literally are dozens and dozens of passages that describe this process of how transgressions are not imputed as sin to the people.

2) John 9:41 = "Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth."

2) Romans 5:13 = "sin is not imputed when there is no law."

3) Hebrews 10:26 = "For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins."

4) James 4:17 = "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin."

5) Alma 42:17 = "How could he sin if there was no law?"

6) Alma 24:30 = It's better to not have known the law than to know it then "fall into sin AND transgression".

7) Doctrine and Covenants 29:47 = "Wherefore, they cannot sin, for power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before me;"

8) 2nd Article of Faith = "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression."

Frankly, there are lots of instances where "sin" is used when "transgression" probably would be more appropriate and accurate, but that happens with MANY similar words - when precision is sacrificed for a term that is more generally known and more commonly used.

Finally, I also think that "transgression" is used so much less often than "sin" (e.g., in the Bible, the ratio is roughly 4/1 for the use of sin over transgression) because transgressions are covered within the grace of God and Atonement of Christ - while sin is a very serious issue about which the prophets must warn the people continually.

DavidH said...

My concern with distinguishing between "transgression" and "sin" is that it creates a bright line hierarchy of wrongdoing, when, in my opinion, the Atonement knows no such hierarchy or limitations. We can be cleansed and made just as pure if our wrongdoings are pre-mediated and deliberate (even with "planned repentance") than if our wrongdoings are momentary "slips" or due to "carelessness".

A person whose smoking has been a "transgression" must, under the modern day teachings of the Church, stop smoking to be "worthy" just as much as a person raised in the Church whose smoking is therefore a "sin." To the extent, as I believe, that God's grace and Atonement applies just as much to "sins" as "transgressions," I do not know that it will be any more difficult for the "sinner" to recover from that addiction than the "transgressor".

I speak, in part, because of my service for several years in the Church's addiction recovery program (which includes recovery from substance addictions as well as process addictions like sexual addiction or gambling addiction).

I do not know how many times I have heard lifelong or long-term members who are addicted express despair or discouragement or doubt in whether the Atonement can possibly cover their deep sins. It is one thing, many will say, for Jesus to cleanse the nonmember from the effects of their addictions, because they may have been mere "transgressions", or not knowingly started. But "how can the Atonement apply to me," many say, "when I knew better when I started." Or in the case of a convert, "how can God forgive me again when I relapsed after my sins were forgiven through baptism, and I should have known better."

My response is usually that the hardest thing to believe about the Atonement is that it can really apply to us, individually, for our own deepest transgressions or sins, and not just to the transgressions or sins of others. And that, in my opinion, is part of why "faith in the Lord Jesus Christ" usually precedes our repentance and seeking recovery, redemption and forgiveness.

Papa D said...

I agree, David. Thanks for your comment.

What we are discussing really is at the heart of Atonement; it's just that my focus in this post is on those who don't accept the power of the Atonement to cover those things they don't choose (their transgressions), while your focus is on those who don't accept the power of the Atonement to cover those things they do choose (their sins).

I draw the distinction specifically for those who believe their struggles to improve and grow as they strive to move beyond their "natural (wo)man" constitute sin - that they are sinning if they can't overcome their natural "thorns of the flesh" immediately or easily. Like those with whom you have worked who are struggling to abandon **physical** actions that hinder their growth, I have worked with many who struggle to abandon **emotional** attitudes that hinder their growth. The answer to BOTH groups is the Atonement - since that has covered our transgressions already and allows us to change even those areas that don't constitute sin, as well as covering our sins when we strive to repent.