Many Christians confess that all sins are equal and therefore no sin must be viewed as worse than any other. Often this is spoken of in the context of dealing with prevalent social sins. Thus, not only Christians but unbelievers as well must understand that we are all on equal footing before God.
In reply, we may consider the following:
We should, indeed, affirm that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) That is to say, all men have a sinful nature in which they have been conceived and continue to act out in a sinful way. Moreover, every sin deserves eternal death (Romans 6:23), no matter how slight it appears in our eyes.
And even if we have only broken one law, we are guilty of having broken them all (James 2:10). Therefore truly, from this perspective, no one is closer to the kingdom of God for having sinned less or in a more acceptable way than any other. Everyone desperately needs the blood of Christ to wash away their sins and his righteousness to be accepted by God. And thank God he has provided such a faithful Saviour! Truly he can save to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25).
However, this is far from presenting the whole biblical picture of sin and its gradations. In fact, we must maintain that scripture does speak of some sins as worse than or more serious than others. Therefore we must, in good parliamentary fashion, divide the question. The first question deals with the general immorality of sin and the judgment of God against all sinners for their iniquity whereas the second question, which we will explore below, deals with the weight of particular sins (especially in comparison with other transgressions of the law).
First of all, scripture teaches gradations in the opposite of evil, namely good. After and only after God made man did he see that creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Compare this with previous statements about creation being simply good and we rightly deduce that even in a world without sin there were attainments or perfections that were only reached when more was done or added to creation. By analogy or comparison, certain sins are reflective of different levels of evil (e.g. Matthew 12:45).
Second, we see in the Old Testament laws governing the punishment of sin that some transgressions carried harsher penalties than others. For example, depending on the circumstances of the transgression, violations of the first to seventh commandments were to be punished with death. This is not true of the eighth, ninth, or tenth. Some might reply that these civil laws no longer apply to us but this misses the entire point. At one time in redemptive history God expected his people to punish violations of the law in these ways and, more importantly, he was teaching them about sin and its consequences. Even from the perspective of general equity we gain some knowledge of righteousness from these case laws of the Old Testament (see 2 Timothy 3:16).
Now certainly it would be unreasonable (by the standard of natural law as well as explicit scriptural teaching) to take a man’s life for stealing a loaf of bread. But even by the least expectation of justice amongst Gentile nations, scripture teaches that man’s blood is required for murder (Genesis 9:6). Thus we can see how much greater one kind of sin is than the other in their respective penalties.
Third, Jesus taught a twofold obligation of the believer towards God and neighbour (Matthew 22:35-40). The first commandment relates to our love for God. Our Lord remarks that it has priority since it is spoken of being by the “first and great” of the two. That is, this obligation to love God is more important than our obligation to love our neighbour. This is also stressed in the manner of love shown to God as contrasted with the love shown to our neighbour. The former is to done with our whole being: “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (vs. 37) whereas the latter is to be done in a manner consistent with the love we already have for ourselves (vs. 39). Certainly, as Jesus says, they are “like” each other but it cannot be denied that a violation of the first would obviously be a much greater transgression than a violation of the second.
Fourth, we see clearly from Jesus own teaching that he believed that some sins are worse than others: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier [matters] of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23) Notice that our Lord does not say that the scribes and Pharisees shouldn’t have kept the minor aspects of the law, but he condemned them for having neglected the major in favour of the minor. Clearly then, there are some essential matters of the law (i.e. more important) than others which implies that failing to do those by focusing on the minors is a greater sin than the reverse.
Our Lord also speaks of gradations of punishments for sin in hell: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not [himself], neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many [stripes]. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few [stripes]. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” Luke 12:47-48
It may be objected that this teaching is found in the form of a parable and thus should not be taken literally. However, one may grant that without denying that this scripture still teaches us a principle about varieties of sins and their various punishments. After all, the last statement of Jesus’ in the text above is what this story was meant to convey: the more you possess (in this case knowledge of the master’s will), the more you are responsible for what you do with that (or do not). In the explanation, both men are worthy of stripes because they both violated their master’s will, but to the extent that one had more knowledge of his master’s will, he received more stripes. That is to say that not every person who suffers eternal punishment shall experience the same degree of God’s wrath though, to be sure, all will experience God’s wrath in some way.
Fifth, there are gradations of violations within classes (or kinds) of sins. Consider the sin of homosexuality in light of the seventh commandment. Now it might be maintained that having relations with a woman outside of the bonds of matrimony is no less a sin than having relations with someone of the same sex. I would agree that, in a certain sense, this is true as they are both violations of the same law. However, note God’s tolerance of polygamy in the Old Testament whereas there was no tolerance given towards those who had relations with the same sex. Moreover, the apostle Paul speaks of homosexuality as unnatural and as a particularly degrading punishment for idolatrous people who have rejected the living God (Romans 1:21ff.).
Therefore, though it is true that those living in the married state as man and wife cannot, intrinsically, be said to be more pleasing to God, it should be noted they are living closer to God’s design for mankind than someone who is living contrary to that design. As such, the latter can be said to be storing up for themselves more wrath from God than the former.
Sixth, it is clear from scripture’s own teaching, that God’s allowance of generational sin has a certain timeline or determinate end. Noah’s generation was given 120 years for repentance but no more (Genesis 6:3). God told Abraham that the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full (Genesis 15:16). And consider the many chapters devoted in the prophets to the heathen nations for particular sins.
Even as Israel waxed and waned in her service toward God, gradations of sin were marked because certain transgressions of the law had been tolerated and opposed. For example, Jehoshaphat was known as a better king than many that preceded him for it is said that “he walked in all the ways of Asa his father; he turned not aside from it, doing [that which was] right in the eyes of the LORD: nevertheless the high places were not taken away; [for] the people offered and burnt incense yet in the high places.” (1 Kings 22:43). Now surely it would have been better had he removed the high places but the fact remains that scripture says that he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord precisely because he did not worship the gods of the nations. His sin, and that of his people, was not as grievous in the eyes of the Lord though it remained a stumbling block to future generations.
Indeed, God warned his own people time and time again that, without repentance, a particular kind of judgment was coming. Scripture speaks of Israel provoking God to wrath, which would be a different kind of sin than that was regularly committed yet repented of in the sacrificial system (Numbers 14:23; cf. Psalm 95:8-11 with its use in Hebrews 3&4).
Jesus speaks similarly to the people of his generation, warning them of the judgment that will fall upon them for failing to recognize the coming of the kingdom (Matthew 23:29ff. cf. Luke 23:28-31). And his letters to the seven churches in Revelation contain a similar tone in admonition and rebuke (Revelation 2-3).
Furthermore, scripture explicitly makes violations of God’s commandments to be of a more serious nature when committed by believers. Consider Paul’s statement about not fellowshipping with professing believers who commit wicked acts (1 Corinthians 5:11). Though unbelievers will certainly be judged by God, the apostle considers it the duty of the Christian to be more concerned about their own behaviour and those of their fellow Christians. After all, it does not merely reflect on the church but on God himself (Isaiah 52:5 & Romans 2:24). This is why Paul can say that a professing believer who does not provide for their own house is “hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel” (1 Timothy 5:8 – emphasis mine).
In conclusion, what do we learn from all this? It is all well and good to conclude that there are hierarchies in sin, but what point is the teaching itself? What application does it hold out to us?
First, the point is far from concluding that since some sins are less heinous to God and others that we may commit some more safely. Rather, tolerance of lesser sins often leads to greater sins. We think it a light thing to say, tell a small lie or have impure thoughts in our heart towards a woman, but to what opportunities do such sins open the door? There are many biblical examples of those who fell away from God and His people because of the sins they committed which only led to greater and more terrible transgressions (e.g. Cain, Saul, David etc.).
Second, there are times where, in order to keep the first and greatest commandment, we must violate the second. Consider the apostles who refused to obey the authority of the Jewish council when they commanded them to not teach in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:29). Gradations of sins inform us that sometimes it is better to keep one commandment by “breaking” another.
Third, though all sin is must be dealt with through sorrow, repentance and confession, some sins are more noticed more readily in God’s eyes and brought under greater scrutiny. As such, God’s people must be all the more careful about those violations of the law and gospel which would more quickly bring his wrath upon individuals or even the congregation.
Fourth, this principle has application to pastoral ministry. Paul states: “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject.” (Titus 3:10). This would be different than a man who sins against an individual and must be approached on that basis. The reason for this is that a sin affecting the body is greater than a sin being committed by a member (though no less a sin). The member can be isolated and eventually excised if necessary, but if not, he will damage the whole body. Committing heresy or rending the body of Christ is a greater offense than sin in the individual life or the home. The church, after all, is the bride of Christ. Ought we not to cherish her purity more than our own lives or even those of our loved ones? And yet it appears today that our priorities are just the opposite. How quick we may to make certain that everything is right in our family’s life and yet care very little for reformation and restoration in the body of Christ.
We also see that the apostle is gentler with some transgressors than others. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2) It appears that the bearing of another’s burdens means, in context, restoring the brother who has sinned. But note that this must be done in meekness and humility. We ought not to come with a hammer against those overtaken with a fault but seek to lead them to repentance. Contrast that with Paul’s statement as cited in the paragraph above or similar remarks about those who sin with impunity. Jude, too, speaks of different ways of restoring those who have sinned (Jude 22,23). It requires wisdom and discretion to know the difference between these types of sins and when to utilize one or the other approach, but certainly scripture demands distinguish between them.
This is also true of congregations in general. Not every congregation is the same as the other. In some parts of the world the church faces different trials and temptations that are further removed in the experience of Christians in other lands. Pastors and elders must know the flock that God has placed them over and lead them accordingly. In particular, pastors must be encouraged to faithfully preach the word in and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2) which is to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.”
Fifth, this principle holds out a strong rebuke to the modern church. Has the teaching that every sin is equal (in every respect) helped or hurt the church? Do we, in this age, have a more sensitive conscience, a more holy walk, a greater desire to keep God’s commandments than previous generations? I think not. There are many reasons for this but certainly it is due, in part, to our tendency to blur the lines or distinctions that scripture draws. This inevitably downgrades sin itself and makes our lives far less careful than they ought to be. Moreover, scripture does not shy away from noting a hierarchy of sin. If the church is charged with preaching the whole counsel of God, then how can she do any less?
Sixth, Christians bear God’s testimony to the world. That is to say, our testimony is not our own so it is not for us to pick and choose what part of the message we think people need to hear. For example, as we are being practically forced at every turn to admit that the act of a man lying with another man is no different than that of a man who lies with a woman, we have two options: call the scriptures (and God no less) a liar or affirm what the scripture says. Yes we must speak to the world in humility but also with no less than what the scripture says about sins and particularly what it says about particular sins. Why blunt the force of the scripture’s condemnation if for no other reason to achieve (or maintain) friendship with the world? What does it say about us if we are more concerned about how our neighbour thinks of us when we think so little of what God concerns Himself with?
Seventh, this principle ought to lead to self-examination. Have I magnified some sins and not others? Have I tithed mint and anise and cumin but neglected to love my neighbour? By weighing sins and understanding that some are more heinous than others we may be led to see that we are imbalanced in our Christian walk and need to rectify certain injustices and transgressions before our God (Psalm 19:9-14).
Eighth, we must also understand that our conception of sin directly impacts our view of grace. Great sins require a great Saviour. If we flatten out sin and make it all the same, do we drive sinners to Christ or away from him? Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 25 notes concerning repentance: “Man ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man’s duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins, particularly.” It is not sufficient to merely consider sin (as something that condemns) but my sins that have condemned me. Unless we feel the weight of our sin, how can I sense my need for forgiveness? “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” Psalm 32:5 Only when we own our sin as our own can we come to the Lord for forgiveness.
Indeed, may God grant repentance to us for all our sins, and may we believe in the Saviour who is more than sufficient to save us from our transgressions.
1. Or, to put it another way, as Christians condemn sin they must be reminded to condemn all and every sin, not just those that are more common outside of our circles.
2. In addition, consider that Judas was lost due to his sin in Adam but he also compounded his guilt by betraying Christ. It was the latter sin that caused him to be called a “son of perdition” (John 17:12).
3. WCF 19.4. “To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” (emphasis mine)
4. This leads to an important question that must be asked in our time: what makes Christians more upset? The violation of the sixth and seventh commandments (e.g. abortion and sexual immorality) or the first (idolatrous religions)? Do we give at least as much weight and concern for the keeping of the fourth commandment (holy conduct on the Lord’s Day) as we do against lying politicians and leaders?
5. This is made explicit in that Jesus is warning the scribes and Pharisees about their sinful conduct.
6. Sins of commission and sins of omission respectively.
7. See also Jesus’ condemnation of those cities that rejected him when compared to those who did not know him personally (Matthew 11:20-24).
8. Perhaps it would be better to say that the commandment is not being violated so much as it has become irrelevant or inapplicable in light of certain exigencies. This has many applications today as we consider our obligations to the civil magistrate along with the growing opposition to the church’s witness against certain social behaviour.
9. For example, see 1 Corinthians 11:29-31.
10. As Jesus teaches in Matthew 18.
11. See Matthew 16:6 & 1 Corinthians 5:6-8.
12. For example see Titus 1:9ff.
13. For more on this subject, I would recommend working through the content of Q&A 151 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, along with the scripture references.