“This was a transgression of the law, but not a sin in the strict sense, for it was something Adam and Eve had to do” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:115).
Most Latter-day Saints have either taught or heard the distinction between Adam’s partaking of the forbidden fruit as a “transgression” rather than a “sin.” We even have an Article of Faith that states that we will not be punished for “Adam’s transgression,” instead of “Adam’s sin” (AofF 2). This belief has been a longstanding point of criticism by those not of our faith who contend that failure to abide by any of God's laws inherently constitutes sin.
As explanation, the LDS typically qualify Adam’s actions as a transgression of the law and not a sin, since he had no knowledge of good or evil. It has also been explained, by some, that Adam’s actions constitute a transgression and not a sin because he was the recipient of two conflicting commandments, where one commandment would have to be broken to fulfill the other. Since he was compelled to violate one command to fulfill the other, God could hardly hold him accountable for this as a sin.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught that “the use of the term transgression lays emphasis on the violation of the law or rule involved, whereas the term sin points up the wilful nature of the disobedience” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 804). In the present context, does this mean that Adam was incapable of willful disobedience in the Garden of Eden and thereby incapable of sinning? We know that Adam was specifically told not to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and, presumably, he willfully disobeyed that command.
In their arsenal of attack, critics typically use the above-quoted reference by Joseph Fielding Smith in conjunction with 1 John 3:4 wherein John teaches that “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” James further distinguishes this concept when he said, “therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). Does this mean that sin is only a sin when the person is aware of goodness, yet denies it? Until he partook of the fruit, according to the account in Genesis, Adam did not know the difference between good and evil (right or wrong). Therefore, James’ definition of sin apparently parallels the LDS explanation.
In the Bible, the fall of Adam is almost universally referred to as a transgression. In fact, the first time the Bible even mentions sin is in context with Cain, the first biblically attested transgression after mankind knew the difference between good and evil. In the only instance in which Adam’s action is referred to as a sin, it is concurrently referred to as an offence and a transgression:
12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:
13 (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.
14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.
15 But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.
One may assume, therefore, that Paul used these terms interchangeably. This is further bolstered by Paul's reference to Judas' obvious sin as a transgression as found in Acts 1:25.
What is more, several Old Testament passages consistently refer to, on the one hand, one’s sins and, on the other hand, to their transgressions, thus illustrating a clear difference between the two. For example, Psalms 25:7 states “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions,” and Joshua 24:19 states “he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.” Therefore, biblical writers consistently either used the terms interchangeably or specifically made reference to both as distinct nouns.
Critics of the Church take special issue with the LDS belief of conflicting commandments in the Garden. The one, “Be fruitful, and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), could be fulfilled only if Adam and Eve were mortal, since before the Fall (for whatever reason) they were incapable of having children (see Moses 5:11, 2 Ne. 2:23). Yet they were commanded not to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:3), which was the only way to become mortal.
Although the eternal plan for the salvation and exaltation of God’s children required a mortal existence in a situation where there was opposition, God, being perfect, could not place Adam and Eve into such an imperfect, fallen world. They had to make that choice for themselves, or else God would have effectively limited their agency.
In any event, the key point here is that Adam and Eve knowingly disobeyed a commandment of God. Were their actions in accordance with the divine plan and, therefore, not a sin but a transgression? Or do you adhere to the strict interpretation found in 1 John 3:4?