By Eric Johnson
Although the two words are similar, there is a difference between sin and transgression in Mormonism. Sin is “willful disobedience of God’s commandments or to fail to act righteously despite a knowledge of the truth.” It is knowing what you ought to do or not do but doing the opposite. Transgression is the “violation or breaking of a commandment or law,” although the person may not know it is wrong.
According to Doctrine and Covenants 1:31, God “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.” Yet everyone has sinned, not based on what Adam did but based on what each individual has done. Alma 11:37 in the Book of Mormon puts it this way:
And I say unto you again that he cannot save them in their sins; for I cannot deny his word, and he hath said that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore, how can ye be saved, except ye inherit the kingdom of heaven? Therefore, ye cannot be saved in your sins.
Children are not considered to be sinners until they turn eight. Tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith explained,
Since all mankind come into the world innocent so far as this mortal life is concerned, and there is no sin laid to their charge, should they die in their childhood before they are accountable for their deeds, it would be manifestly unjust to condemn them, whether they are white, brown, or black” (Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions: A Course of Study for the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorum 1972-73, p. 120).
While many Latter-day Saints think they just need to get rid of the “major” sins, this is not what twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball taught. He wrote in his classic book The Miracle of Forgiveness:
And let us not suppose that in calling people to repentance the prophets are concerned only with the more grievous sins such as murder, adultery, stealing, and so on, nor only with those persons who have not accepted the gospel ordinances. All transgressions must be cleansed, all weaknesses must be overcome, before a person can attain perfection and godhood (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 16).
Kimball taught that not only should sin be “abandoned” but even the inclination to sin must be lost. He wrote about the righteous man’s attitude:
It is that the former transgressor must have reached a “point of no return” to sin wherein there is not merely a renunciation but also a deep abhorrence of the sin where the sin becomes most distasteful to him and where the desire or urge to sin is cleared out of his life” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 354. Referring to Alma 13:11-12. See also Book of Mormon Student Manual Religion 121 and 122, 1989, p. 78).
While the word is similar to sin, transgression in reference to Adam has more of a connotation of innocence. Mosiah 3:11-12 found in the Book of Mormon states,
For behold, and also his blood atoneth for the sins of those who have fallen by the transgression of Adam, who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned. But wo, wo unto him who knoweth that he rebelleth against God! For salvation cometh to none such except it be through repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith put it this way: “I never speak of the part Eve took in this fall as a sin, nor do I accuse Adam of a sin” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:114). He also said, “This was a transgression of the law, but not a sin in the strict sense, for it was something that Adam and Eve had to do!” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:114-115. See also the Pearl of Great Price Student Manual: Religion 327, p. 13). While some have called it a “fall upward,” Apostle Bruce R. McConkie called the disobedience of Adam and Eve a “blessing.” He wrote,
Properly understood, it becomes apparent that the fall of Adam is one of the greatest blessings ever given of God to mankind. It is the way and the means whereby the spirit children of the Father go forth from their celestial home to gain mortal and then immortal bodies. And it provides the way for the experiences, tests, and trials that prepare the faithful for eternal life. (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, p. 87. See also Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon 3:310).
Explaining there was a difference, McConkie also said, “It is proper and according to the scriptural pattern to speak of the transgression of Adam, but not the sin of Adam” (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 804. Italics in original).
What doe the Bible Teach
Sin and transgression in the Bible are synonymous terms. First John 3:4 says, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” The Bible teaches that all people are sinners, based both on Adam’s sin (Romans 5) but also on their own works. Thus, everyone is a sinner and deserves death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23).
While Mormon leaders have taught that all people, age 8 and over, are sinners, their version of how to get forgiveness of their sins is different from what the Bible teaches. As the second part of Romans 3:23 puts it, “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This only comes by faith in the believer in the work done by Jesus on the cross. Making reference to Abraham, the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 4:
24 But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; 25 Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.
Imputation is being credited with righteousness not based on what the individual has done but based on what Jesus has done. Ephesians 2:1 says that humans were dead in their trespasses and sins. Yet verses 4 and 5 say that God, who is “rich in mercy,” had such love to provide grace to those who received this free gift provided not on their good works but on His.