Why Are There So Many Synonyms for Sin?

Iniquity. Evil. Transgression. These are just some of the words we use in place of “sin.” But sin is a very particular word, one whose roots lead all the way to Sheol.

What Is Sin?

“Sin is acting or behaving in a way that does not conform with God’s character or commands. It is about crossing lines that have been laid down for us by God. Sin is thus an act of rebellion and distrust,” Paul Carter explains.

“Sin” means turning away from the heart of God. According to his Word, this could mean committing an act such as gossip or “slander” (Psalm 101:5).

A sin could be not doing what is commanded such as “children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).

Anyone who professes faith in Christ cannot ignore what the Bible says about sin: After all, Christ himself quoted Scripture frequently. “The Bible clearly states that we are required to obey God’s law, but it also states that we ought to desire to keep God’s law.”

Sin is more than action, and it is not always obvious. Any thought or deed, which rejects God’s commands is sin, but the word “sin” is sometimes replaced with synonyms, which frequently convey a different emphasis or a facet of sin.

Words for Sin

1. Evil. “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).

Evil is one of the ways we learn that we ourselves are a mystery; for we are not in full control of ourselves and cannot find any method of gaining control.” When one invites Jesus into his or her heart, our Savior “makes that which is intrinsically evil good, that which is sick whole.”

According to this definition, we are all born with the capacity for evil, which separates us from God. We are incomplete until we call on him for salvation and transformation.

Our modern culture gives the label of “evil” to the likes of serial killers and pedophiles. Evil is also whimsically portrayed as the Devil on one’s shoulder whispering a malignant idea into one’s ear, and the evil action flows from this idea.

Both of these are true, but the deeper truth is more troubling, for every sin is evil, even those our society deems natural or acceptable. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent* has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28,*my emphasis).

2. Iniquity. “Awon, often translated as iniquity,” a synonym for sin, “relates more to the inner character and points to an intentional twisting of a given standard,” wrote Mark Leake.

In “What Are Iniquities and How Are They Different Than Our Sins?”, he says, “if sin is missing the mark, then “iniquity points to the character/heart, which causes the missed shot. […]

We break God’s standard because our iniquity drives us to twist God’s Word.” Iniquity is “an intentional choice, so to commit iniquity is to continue without repentance.”

“God forgives iniquity,” but if left unchallenged iniquity “advances to a point of intentional sin with no fear of God.” Evil and iniquity are similarly foundational to and lead to sin. This interpretation suggests that iniquity is the development of sinful habits.

Sin has become deep and wide; persistently intentional. Like the Prodigal Son who asked for his Father’s inheritance in advance, iniquity conveys to God “I wish you were dead” (Luke 15).

3. Transgression. “Transgression means presumptuous sin,” or sin which is committed intentionally.

Transgression is suggestive of the action born out of one’s iniquity or evil, which leads to slander, violence, adultery, or theft. “When we knowingly run a stop sign, tell a lie, or blatantly disregard an authority, we are transgressing,” according to Dave Jenkins.

Transgressions are landmarks of sin in our lives, which we are invited to put off in order to put on Christ’s righteousness (Ephesians 4:22, 24). “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Sin and the Lord’s Prayer

One might say “forgive us our trespasses,” or “transgressions,” “sins,” or “debts” depending on the translation and whether it comes from Matthew 6:9-13 or Luke 11:1-13. The Weymouth New Testament says, “forgive us our shortcomings.”

Translations, which insert “debt” visually convey the notion put forth by the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18. “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” Our debt is too much for us, but Christ paid it. We, in turn, must do what the Lord’s prayer says: Forgive our debtors, who are just like us.

Synonyms such as transgression, debt, and wrongdoing are suitable to describe the actions of others against us, which we are commanded to forgive; however, “sin” has the ring of something unholy in the way we relate to God specifically.

We forgive others’ behavior, but only God forgives sins. The Lord’s prayer is meant to lead us into a heart position of sincere worship and repentance, not into a ritualistic and superficial transaction.

Politically Incorrect Word

“Our culture doesn’t want anything defined as sin. Everything is simply a lifestyle choice. The idea of guilt is considered medieval, obsolete and unhealthy,” according to Johnathan F. MacArthur. Christians are exhorted “do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2).

The world says you only live once, so carpe diem. Social media, inspirational blurbs, and even many Christians encourage us to live and let live as long as no one gets hurt. When we talk about errors, debts, and evil, there is a victim perhaps, and certainly an antagonist.

Maybe no one was directly hurt. Perhaps a transgression is covered-up such as when a child sneaks out after curfew, his mother is unaware, and she is not hurt by her child’s secret rebellion. The world might call that a “win-win.”

God sees every one of those conscious acts of rebellion as an example of treason against himself. We can get away with iniquity in the earthly sense if our misdeeds go unnoticed or unpunished, but the wages — or consequences — of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

God taught us through Jesus: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

We are taught to beware of the plank in our own eye — that is, do not judge (Matthew 7:3) — but this does not absolve us of our duty to gently redirect someone who is caught in sin. Romans 5:10 in the NIV says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners*, Christ died for us” (*my emphasis).

A lot of people would rather talk about God’s love, which perhaps explains the softening of that word with synonymous terms. According to Robert Godfrey in “Why We Need to Talk about Sin,” “This attitude is widespread throughout American religious groups and denominations, including evangelicals.”

But “If we do not understand our sin, we will not understand the kind of savior we need.” We do not fully appreciate God’s love when we stop at “God demonstrates his own love for us” and overlook that Christ paid for our sin with his life.

Many people want to soften the terrible reality of Christ’s crucifixion by ignoring sin, but this is impossible because “it is finished” (John 19:30).

The Wages of Wrongdoing?

God is no victim to be compensated. He already arranged repayment, but to our benefit, not his. He planned the answer to our sin in advance of our first breath.

Nothing in the Father has changed because of what we did to Christ; he is not weakened by our capacity for evil or by the choices we make. His love for repentant sinners remains unabated.

But we must acknowledge that we need salvation from sin — its unique iterations in our lives and our sin nature as a whole. We cannot free ourselves of this problem, so all who want freedom must realize that only Christ provides the answer.

Our debt was paid. We are then free to either accept the gift and live or deny it and die. Wrongdoing might sound easier on the tongue; iniquity is an archaic, remote idea we can distance ourselves from; but sin is personal, and sin was defeated on the cross.

For further reading:

What Is Sin?

What Are Iniquities and How Are They Different Than Our Sins?

What Is Sin? 

Why We Need to Talk about Sin

Does God See All Sins as Equal to One Another?

What Does it Mean to be a Slave to Sin?

Did God Create Sin?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/efks


Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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