18 Oct 2013 by Rev Dr Steven Kau –
It is difficult and dangerous to attempt to list sin according to their degree of seriousness. In one sense, all sins are equal in that they separate us from God. The Bible’s statement, “For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6), applies to all sin, whether in thought, word or deed.
At the same time, it seems obvious that some sins are worse than others in both motivation and effects and should be judged accordingly. Stealing a loaf of bread and robbing a bank is vastly different although both will classify the wrongdoer as a thief.
Theologians have sought for centuries to determine what the essence of sin is. Some have chosen sensuality, others selfishness and still others pride or unbelief. In the Old Testament, God applied different penalties to different sins, suggesting variations in the seriousness of some sins. A thief paid restitution; an occult practitioner was cut off from Israel; one who commits adultery or a homosexual act or cursed his parents was put to death. (Exodus 22, Leviticus 20)
In the New Testament Jesus said it would be more bearable on the Day of Judgment for Sodom than for Capernaum because Capernaum’s unbelief and refusal to repent after witnessing His miracles. (Matthew 11: 23-24) The sins of Sodom were identified in Ezekiel 16:21 as arrogance, gluttony, indifference to the poor and needy, haughtiness and “detestable things.”
When Jesus spoke of His Second Coming and judgment, He warned that among those deserving punishment, some would “be beaten with many blows” and others “with few blows.” (Luke 12:47-48) He also reserved His most fierce denunciations for the pride and unbelief of the religious leaders, not the sexually immoral. (Matthew 23:13-36)
SO, ARE ALL SINS EQUAL IN THE SIGHT OF GOD?
It is very common within popular evangelicalism to answer in the affirmative. I think this tendency to assume that all sins are equal in the sight of God comes by means of three influences.
- A reaction by Protestants against the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal sins (sins that kill justifying grace) and venial sins (sins of a lesser nature that do not kill justifying grace).
- A tendency within our evangelistic church culture to express common ground with unbelievers, i.e. if all sins are equal in God’s sight, then your sin is not worse than any other. This way we are not coming across as judgmental or condescending.
- Some biblical passages that have been interpreted in such a way. (Discussed below)
I am of the opinion, however, that all sins are not equal in God’s sight. I do believe that telling people that, it does serious damage to people’s understanding of the character of God and of the seriousness of certain sins.
There are many reasons for this and I will list some biblical arguments.
OUR CONSCIENCE TELLS US SO
I often ask people who say that all sins are equal in the sight of God if they live according to their theology. Think about this. If all sins are really equal in the sight of God and one really believes this, then God’s consternation and anger will be equal for whatever sin we commit. Equally important is the fact that our relational disposition before God should suffer equally from the conviction of the Holy Spirit for all sins.
Most Christians understands what it means to have a conscience weighed down by unrepentant sin. But this weighing down normally comes from those sins that we perceive to be more severe. If it is true, however, that all sins are equal in the sight of God and one actually lived according to that theology, then they should be just as troubled spiritually and just as repentant before God when they break the speed limit as when they commit adultery. After all, breaking the speed limit, even by 1 km is breaking the law and breaking the law is sin (Romans 13).
But nobody does this. We all see speeding down the road as water under the bridge of God. Apparently our conscience bears witness that it is not as bad as other things, even if we confess differently. Either that or the ability for our theology to actually affect the way we believe and think is non-functional in this situation.
SCRIPTURES SHOW DIFFERENT DEGREES OF SINS
Next (and more importantly) I think that it is biblical and necessary to say that some sins are more grievous in the sight of God than others. This also translates into the assumption that some people are sinners to a greater degree than others. Even though Protestants may not agree with the theology behind the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins, there are many instances in the Scriptures where degrees of sins are distinguished.
- Christ tells Pilate that the Jewish leaders have committed a worse sin than him, saying, “He who has handed me over to you has committed the greater sin.” (John 19:11)
- Certain sins in the law are distinguished in a particular context as an abomination to God, implying that others are not as severe. (Lev. 18:22; Deut. 7:5, 3:18; Isa. 41:24)
- Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is set apart as a more severe sin that blasphemy of the Son. (Matthew 12:31)
- Proverbs 6:16-9 lists particular sins in such a way as to single them out because of their depraved nature, separating them from others.
- There are degrees of punishment in Hell, depending on the severity of the offense. (Luke 12:47-48)
- Christ often evaluates the sins of the Pharisees as greater than the sins of others. You strain out a gnat while you swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:2). If all sins are equal, Christ rebuke does not make any sense. (Luke 20:46-47)
- Similarly, Christ also talked about the “weightier things of the law.” (Matthew 23:23) If all sins are equal, there is no law (or violation of that law) that is “weightier than others.” They are all the same weight.
- Unforgiveness is continually referred to as a particularly heinous sin. (Matthew 6:14-15, 18:23-35)
SO, WHERE DOES THIS FOLK THEOLOGY COME FROM?
Most people would refer to Christ’s comments in the Sermon on the Mount. Most particularly, reference is made to Matthew 5:27-28 as justification for this way of thinking:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery” but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already commit adultery with her in his heart.”
Is there a difference in the eyes of God between thinking about adultery and actually doing it? Absolutely! If we say anything other than this, I believe we do injustice to God’s character and encourage the act based upon its premonition. The point Christ makes in Matthew 5:28 is not that lust and the actual act are equal but that they both violate the same commandment, even if the degrees of this violation differ.
Thus, Christ was telling people and particularly the religious establishment of the day that thought they were safe because they had fulfilled the letter of the law that the law runs much deeper. The spirit of the law is what matters. Therefore, if you have lusted, you have broken the sixth commandment. If you have ever hated your brother, you have broken the fifth commandment. (Matthew 5:22) But, again, the breaking of the principles of the commandments is the issue, not the degree to which it is broken.
This is the same argument that James makes in James 2:10 when he says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” He is not equating all sin but showing how any violation of the law, no matter how small, is still breaking the whole of the law because the law is connected to such a degree.
Think about this; if you believe that adultery and lust are equal in the sight of God, then here are the consequences any man or woman can justify divorce based upon the fact that in Matthew 5:32. Christ condemns divorce except for marital infidelity. All they need to do is make the safe assumption that their spouse has lusted to some degree during their marriage. This will make their divorce justified and biblical. In the same way, if a man were to lust after a woman on the Internet, he might as well commit the actual act since in God’s sight he already has. Or, if you have ever lusted after a girl, then you are under God’s mandate to marry her since in God’s sight you are one with her. (1 Cor. 6:16)
I think that this way of thinking is not only wrong biblically but it also has repercussions that lead to a distorted worldview and to discredit the integrity of God and the Gospel of Christ.
It is true, all people are sinners. (Romans 3:23) All people are sinners from birth. But not all sin is equal. I think this is a safe way to stay humbled and accurately represent the biblical witness: While not all people sin to the same degree, we all share in an equally depraved nature.
In other words, no one is less of a sinner because of an innate righteousness about which they can boast. All people have equal potential for depravity because we are all sons of Adam and share in the same depravity, even if we don’t, due to God’s grace, act out our sinfulness to the same degree.
WHAT IF ALL SINS ARE REALLY THE SAME?
If you disagree with this, really think about what you are saying about God. You are saying to an unbelieving world that your God is just as angry about the act of driving our car going at 56km/h in a 55km zone as He is about the act of one who rapes and murders a six year girl. Do you really want to go there? Do you really think this position is sufficiently supported to justify such a belief? Can you really defend it? If the Bible teaches it, fine; we go with the Bible and not with our emotions or palatability decoder. But I don’t believe that a viable case can be made for letting our theology argue for such a belief. I can’t think of many more things in Evangelical pop-theology that is more wrong, more damaging or more misrepresentative of God’s character and the nature of sin.
So we have seen that the bible does teach that some sins are more serious than others and that some virtues are greater than others. There is moral law hierarchy. But what does this practically mean?
First, let’s look at the debate over public policy.
When determining where to focus your effort on a particular law, you must consider its seriousness. A great example is abortion. Many Christians focus on the abortion issue because it is such a serious moral failure in many countries. Abortion kills millions of would be babies every year. Taking innocent human life is pretty high up the moral law measuring stick.
Some people ask why Christians aren’t more outspoken about global warming. My answer to that question is, “The death of millions of innocent babies today is far more serious a moral issue than the possible rise in temperature of the earth over the next 100 years.” The consequences of global warming are surely speculative and uncertain, as any future prediction of ultra-complex climate activity must be, whereas we have a definite problem, abortion staring at us in the face today. We have to make this kind of decisions all the time.
Second, what about the Christian life in particular?
In this life, the worse we sin, the more out of touch with God we are. God keeps us from sin and sin keeps us from God. If you, as a Christian are engaging in adultery, then clearly this sin will have greater effect and consequence on your walk with God than if you once neglected to call your mother to wish her “Happy Birthday.”
Paul taught that a particular kind of sexual immorality (a man having sexual relations with his father’s wife) should cause the expulsion of the man committing this sin (1 Cor. 5) but he didn’t write a letter demanding expulsion for someone scrawling graffiti in the streets of Corinth. Damaging or defacing public property is wrong and may be a sin but it is less serious than sleeping with your father’s wife.
Different sins demand different punishments. There are also rewards in heaven for the Christian, based on her/his moral behavior in this life. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul teaches that the good works we bring to God after we die, determine our rewards in heaven. Some of our works will be so worthless that they will be “burned up.” Those works of high quality will survive the flames. The kind of moral actions we pursue in this life matter for eternity.
The Bible seems to teach that the quality of our good works on earth will determine our ability to enjoy heaven. Again, our sins and our virtues matter for eternity. So how can we summarize?
All sins are equal in that they condemn us before a perfect God. This is an important point to make when we are evangelizing the lost.
But all sins are not equal when it comes to public legislation, temporal punishment and praise, sanctification (our walk with God where we become more like Christ) and eternal rewards. When we talk about sin, let’s make sure we consider the situation and apply the correct teaching.
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