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The difference between iniquity and sin


Captured by sin. Photo: Chris Karr/Flickr

Handcuffed by iniquity? Photo: Chris Karr/Flickr

Several years ago, a 10 year-old girl was brutally murdered in the city of Toronto. The murderer cut up her body and deposited it in bags in nearby Lake Ontario. She was kidnapped while walking the few blocks from her friend’s place to her home.

The 37 year-old man charged in this brutal murder had no previous record. But he became a suspect when police — while interviewing people in the neighborhood — noticed that he had recently painted his home and installed new carpet.

To the trained eye, this was a subtle indicator of an individual trying to cover up a brutal murder.

When the police went through his house, they found over 10,000 pornographic images stored on his computer, including some involving children. Though he had committed no previous crimes, the repeated viewing of these images apparently built such a potent stronghold in his life that it eventually manifested itself in the brutal sex slaying of a young girl.

For years, I looked upon iniquity as merely another word for sin. Part of this confusion is traced back to some Bible versions that translated the Hebrew word “awon” as sin.

Check Exodus 20:5 and in the link provided you can choose your Bible version. The King James and New American Standard versions translate the word “awon” used in this verse as iniquity, while other versions translate it sin.

However, there is a difference between iniquity (awon) and the Hebrew word ‘chattah’ commonly translated sin because we find these two words often used in the same verse indicating they had distinct meanings.

The prophet Isaiah had a vision where he was taken to the throne room of God and was confronted with his own unrighteousness. After Isaiah declared his unworthiness, an angel of God took a burning coal off the altar and touched Isaiah’s lips and said:

“Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity (awon) is taken away and your sin (chattah) is forgiven.” (Isaiah 6:7 NASV)

Isaiah’s iniquity was surgically removed like some cancerous growth, while his sin was simply wiped away. Clearly, from this verse iniquity and sin were handled in two distinct fashions, because they were different.

So what is the difference between sin and iniquity?

The Hebrew word chattah translated sin means to “miss the mark.” The word is used in Judges 20:16 to describe left-handed slingers who could hurl a stone at a hair and “not miss the mark.” In a moral sense, the word pertains to a distinct and specific act of disobedience — a failure to achieve a certain standard of living.

In contrast, the word iniquity ‘awon’ refers to the character behind the action which is why in Psalms 32:5, David writes about how God forgave the “iniquity of his sin.”

The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia describes iniquity as the character of an individual, which has a twist, perversion or bend towards sin. Though iniquity does include the idea of sin, it involves much more than this and refers to an individual’s very nature.

Because iniquity is the character behind the sin, it becomes the source of the sin acts. In a nutshell iniquity is a sin addiction.

A man can receive an email tempting him to look at pornography. He clicks on the link and views the site. Having been tempted a few times, something changes. Suddenly, these urges start rising up inside him to see these websites on his own. He no longer needs an external temptation.

When that happens, the sin has transformed to iniquity.

This characteristic of iniquity is seen in Isaiah 64:6,7 where God told Israel that they were delivered over to the ‘power’ of iniquity (v 7). The prophet then uses the analogy of leaves being carried away by the wind as a graphic illustration of iniquity’s unusual capacity.

The withered dead leaf (Israel) was helpless in the face of the wind (iniquity) and was blown anywhere the wind decided to go.

This means that when people have iniquity in their lives, they are no longer in control of their own destiny. Another force controls their life.

This is why in Ezekiel 18:30, 31, God warns Israel to turn away from their sin, so that their iniquity (awon) would not become a stumbling block to them.

Simon the magician

We see this principle at work in the life of Simon the magician (Acts 8:5ff), who for years had made his living dazzling the people of Samaria with his magical arts. He was rather famous and promoted himself as the “Great Power of god” (vs 10, 11).

But there was such a powerful move of the true God in Samaria, that Simon became a Christian. Because of his notoriety, Simon’s conversion was quite noteworthy. He was probably Christianity’s first Hollywood-style convert.

Simon joined up with Philip and watched this disciple in action. The converted magician witnessed first-hand the miracles and was suitably impressed by what he saw. But when Simon observed people being filled with the Holy Spirit, he was so awed by the display of God’s power that the magician offered money so he would have the ‘authority’ to do the same miracle.

Simon treated the filling of the Holy Spirit as little more than another magic trick, which he wanted to add to his repertoire. Peter immediately rebuked Simon for suggesting that this gift could be bought and turned for a profit. Peter, through revelation of the Holy Spirit, saw that Simon was in the bondage — literally fetters — of iniquity (Act 8:23).

Simon’s iniquity was attached to his desire for fame and this deep inward compulsion drove the magician to crave this power no matter what price he had to pay to secure it.

This story also shows that iniquity can show up in a variety of areas. It is not relegated to just sexual sins.

Your greatest secret

There is another curious characteristic about iniquity. It is often your greatest secret.

In Job 31:33, the ancient patriarch confesses that he covered-up his sin by hiding his iniquity (awon) in his bosom and even compares his cover-up to Adam’s efforts to hide his sin in the Garden of Eden.

Job states his motivation for concealing his iniquity (awon) — he “feared the great multitude’ and the “contempt” of his family “terrified him” (v 34). The reason that people hide their iniquity is fear of rejection. People snared by iniquity believe that others will be so disgusted with their secret sins that they will no longer have any respect for them. It’s all about losing face.

Iniquity is your biggest secret. Often a person struggling with alcohol addiction will try to keep it hidden, even though everyone knows the person has a problem.  It is part of his cover-up.

Dealing with iniquity

Perhaps one of the most important things you can do is come clean on your iniquity. You have to acknowledge your sin to someone. You have to  confess your addiction.

The second thing is to understand that Jesus died for your iniquity.

But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5 NASV)

Christ came to set us free from our iniquity or sin addictions. It is only by trusting God can we break free. We need to realize that we are not capable of doing this on our own.

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2 Comments

  1. Robert says

    Thank you for the great explanation of the difference between sin and iniquity. The explanation of it being the character behind the sin really brings clarity to the difference.

  2. Connie Hatchett says

    Thank you for this eye-opening explanation. It will help me to be a better counselor to God’s people.

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