What Is the Difference Between Transgression and Sin?

Transgression Can Refer to Unintentional Sinning or Mistakes

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Things we do on earth that are wrong cannot all be labeled as sin. Just as most secular laws make a distinction between intentional law breaking and unintentional law breaking, the distinction exists in the gospel of Jesus Christ as well.

The Fall of Adam and Eve Can Help Us Understand Transgression

In simple terms, Mormons believe that Adam and Eve transgressed when they partook of the forbidden fruit.

They did not sin. The distinction is important.

The second Article of Faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states:

We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.

Mormons view what Adam and Eve did differently than the rest of Christianity. The articles below can help you understand this concept thoroughly:

In short, Adam and Eve did not sin at that time, because they could not sin. They did not know the difference between right and wrong​ because right and wrong did not exist until after the fall. They transgressed against what had been specifically prohibited. As unintentional sin is often called a mistake. In LDS parlance, it is called a transgression.

Legally Prohibited Versus Inherently Wrong

Elder Dallin H. Oaks gives perhaps the best explanation of what is wrong and what is prohibited:

This suggested contrast between a sin and a transgression reminds us of the careful wording in the second article of faith: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression” (emphasis added). It also echoes a familiar distinction in the law. Some acts, like murder, are crimes because they are inherently wrong. Other acts, like operating without a license, are crimes only because they are legally prohibited. Under these distinctions, the act that produced the Fall was not a sin—inherently wrong—but a transgression—wrong because it was formally prohibited. These words are not always used to denote something different, but this distinction seems meaningful in the circumstances of the Fall.

There is another distinction that is important. Some acts are simply mistakes.

Scripture Teaches to Correct Mistakes and Repent of Sin

In the first chapter of the Doctrine and Covenants, there are two verses that suggest there is a clear distinction between error and sin. Errors should be corrected, but sins need to be repented of.

Elder Oaks presents a compelling description of what are sins and what are mistakes.

For most of us, most of the time, the choice between good and bad is easy. What usually causes us difficulty is determining which uses of our time and influence are merely good, or better, or best. Applying that fact to the question of sins and mistakes, I would say that a deliberately wrong choice in the contest between what is clearly good and what is clearly bad is a sin, but a poor choice among things that are good, better, and best is merely a mistake.

Notice that Oaks clearly delineates that these statements are his own opinion. In LDS life, doctrine carries more weight than opinion, even if opinion is helpful.

The phrase good, better, and best was eventually the topic of another important address of Elder Oaks at a subsequent General Conference.

The Atonement Covers Both Transgressions and Sins

Mormons believe the Atonement of Jesus Christ is unconditional. His atonement covers both sins and transgressions. It also covers mistakes.

We can be forgiven of everything and become clean through the cleansing power of the Atonement. Under this divine design for our happiness, hope springs eternal!

How Can I Learn More About These Distinctions?

As a former attorney and state supreme court judge, Elder Oaks thoroughly understands the differences between legal and moral wrongs, as well as intentional and unintentional mistakes.

He has visited these themes often. The talks "The Great Plan of Happiness" and "Sins and Mistakes" can help us all understand the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ and how they are to be applied in this life.

If you are unfamiliar with the Plan of Salvation, sometimes called the Plan of Happiness or Redemption, you can review it in brief or in detail.

Updated by Krista Cook.