This is a biblical and theological question which may not be as easily answered as might be expected. The short reply is this: Yes, on the one hand they all are, but on the other hand, no, not necessarily. So let me unpack that a bit further in this article.
In one sense of course the Bible makes it quite clear that all sins are equal, since every sin separates us from God and every sin is an assault on the holiness and majesty of God. Every sin is an act of self will against our creator and judge.
We are all sinners, and we all stand equally condemned before a just and righteous God. And in God’s eyes, to commit one sin is really no different than to commit a million sins. That is why we read in James 2:10, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
Thus any one sin is enough to result in our separation from God, and any one sin is enough to require Jesus to come and die on our behalf in order to obtain our reconciliation with God. In that sense every sin is a capital crime against God, deserving of death.
But as we will see in a moment, not every sin is given the death sentence as the fitting punishment. But in terms of offending and violating the holiness and perfection of God, the sin of gossip is equal to the sin of murder. Any sin is deadly in that it separates us from God and offends his holy character.
But in another sense sins can be quite unequal. We certainly get this understanding by simply looking at the consequences or punishments for various sins. In the Old Testament some sins were so severe that the death penalty was mandated for them. Murder is one such obvious example.
Other sins received much lighter penalties or punishments, such as an animal offering. Thus a lesser crime, such as theft, was punished by paying a fine of an equal or greater amount. Often principles of restoration and reparation were in operation in biblical criminal justice.
In Leviticus 24:17-21 we find these words: “Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution – life for life. Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death.”
That is the doctrine of lex talionis (an eye for an eye), and clearly implies a tit for tat punishment for crime, with lesser penalties for lesser crimes, and greater penalties for greater crimes. So there is gradation here, with more serious crimes warranting more serious punishments.
But it is not just the OT which speaks of degrees of sin. The New Testament also speaks to this. For example in Luke 12:42-48 we read of a parable in which evil doers are punished either with more or less blows. The unfaithful servant who did wrong out of ignorance will be subject to a less severe punishment than the one who did wrong knowingly. It seems that there will be degrees of punishment in the next life based on such considerations.
The OT also speaks to this issue of criminal activities done either out of ignorance or done deliberately (see for example Numbers 15:22-26). Thus it seems that there are degrees of sin, in part based on one’s knowledge. The principle is this: the greater the knowledge, the greater the responsibility, and the greater the punishment.
And in Luke 19:11-26 we have hints of degrees of blessedness in heaven as well as degrees of punishment in hell. At least that seems to be one of the lessons presented in the Parable of the Ten Minas. Paul also speaks about a judgment of believers’ rewards in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
Also, in John 19:11, Jesus speaks about “a greater sin” which may also imply that there are varying degrees of sins or of culpability. The context has to do with the sin of Pilate, but also of Judas and Caiaphas who are even more guilty of their sin.
And in 2 Peter 2:20-21 we read about those who have “escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome” They are “worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.” Again we find the principle of greater knowledge leading to greater responsibility and punishment.
And even more important, consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:23-24: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
Here Jesus clearly distinguishes between more important matters and less important matters. He does say all these things should be done, but he also indicates that we should major on majors, and not major on minors. While all these things are important, some are more central while others are more peripheral.
Indeed, Jesus could also speak about the greatest of the commandments (Matt 22:37-39). While all God’s commandments are important, Jesus could say that some really seem to take priority. And some may well sum up and encapsulate the others.
Then of course the NT speaks about an “unpardonable sin” (Matt 12:31-32). Suffice it to say that this passage has resulted in much ink being spilt, and there are many different understandings of what exactly the sin against the Holy Spirit means.
I will not enter into that very big debate here. I merely point out this passage as another indication of certain differences in the various sins one can commit. Having at least one unforgivable sin does remind us that not every sin is exactly equal, in at least this one sense that is.
But how all this translates into our role as salt and light in a dark world remains to be discussed. Thus the place of believers in the world and their prophetic voice to it will be examined more closely in Part Two of this article: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/12/are-all-sins-equal-part-two/