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Are All Sins Equal? Part One

Nov 12, 2010

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/

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16 Responses to Are All Sins Equal? Part One

  • If we wrote penalties for law breaking down a page and then wrote the lawless acts beside them we would find murder at the severe end of the Biblical and the modern Australia scale. Other things such as fornication would be a the top of one scale and the bottom of the other.

    Should we be concerned with making this two scales meet, or bringing the larger sins under stricter law, or should our focus be on where the battle rages hottest? Abortion and homosexuality are both hot topics but one concerns sex and one murder.

    Kylie Anderson

  • Thanks Kylie

    But now you raise the million dollar question, and open a whole can of worms as well! Christians are deeply divided on this. Some, like the Christian Reconstructionists, say yes, let’s have all the OT laws (or most of them) also apply to modern democratic nations today. I will have to write some of this up with all the pros and cons, but it is a big discussion indeed. You just want me to do more work!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I recall that some years ago Peter Barnes from Sydney wrote something similar on this. I just googled it and found it. We are on the same page. He closes with these words: “Rather than declare that all sins are equal – which violates both common sense and Scripture – we ought to recognise that any sin cuts us off from God. It is misleading to say that God is equally opposed to each of our sins, but it is true to say that He utterly opposes all of our sin.”
    http://www.revesby.pcnsw.org.au/?p=270

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I have been studying in law school recently whether the Bible approves of the lex talionis is all cases. While the lex talionis was approved as to personal damage (murder, loss of eye, tooth ect.) it was not used as to property damage. There the law of restitution applies with additional damages to be paid to the injured party as ‘punishment’. By the way it is interesting to note that when Jesus talked about the eye for an eye principle not be valid he was talking about it applying between individuals and not the civil authority where it was originally proscribed.

    Anyway, I thought it was interesting that you should bring this point up when I was studying it.

    Timothy Coombe

  • Paul never rank sins so much as he rank himself as the worst of sinners. If he was the worst, where do we stand ? Worst of the worst? Thanks to Calvary, I am just a sinner saved by grace.
    Barry Koh

  • The ‘greater’, ‘lesser’ sin distinction made by the Bible seems to make a lot of sense to me.

    It is today’s morally perverse world that has totally inverted the natural moral order, where food receives greater emphasis from the nanny state, but right sexual behaviour is left up to the individual; read The Vast Child-Fattening Conspiracy

    http://www.investors.com/NewsAndAnalysis/Article/553580/201011121750/The-Vast-Child-Fattening-Conspiracy.htm

    Damien Spillane

  • “There are venial sins and there are mortal sins. It is one thing to owe ten thousand talents, another to owe but a farthing. We shall have to give an accounting for an idle word no less than for adultery. But to be made to blush and to be tortured are not the same thing; not the same thing to grow red in the face and to be in agony for a long time. . . . If we entreat for lesser sins we are granted pardon, but for greater sins, it is difficult to obtain our request. There is a great difference between one sin and another” (Against Jovinian 2:30 [A.D. 393]). – Jerome

    Julian DeSouza

  • There aren’t theological degrees of sin. Sociologically, it is another ‘ball game’; open to all sorts of chicanery & semantics, whether between person & person, or person & “Society”
    Arthur Hartwig

  • I felt led by the Lord recently to look up just what He thinks is a crime worthy of death. I found 14 in the Law. There are probably more. But I wanted to know what is a big deal to Him. 6 of the 14 involve sex. Many were surprises to me. Striking mother or father, cursing mother or father, consistently rebellious son, a woman not a virgin when she married, homosexual “sex”, kidnapping.
    But I suspect one that really gets up His nostrils is pride. That’s what caused the devil’s downfall in the first place. God opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble. Of the 7 abominations to the Lord, a proud look is prominent.
    Being indifferent to His voice is I think a big big problem. To this one will I look, says the Lord, he who trembles at my word. It also struck me – after the famous Romans 1 passage about homosexuality, that it immediately speaks about how bad it is for us to act as people’s judges. Our sexuality is so close to where we live, and is therefore an extremely touchy matter, to be handled with great delicacy. If I was caught in this stuff, I would automatically be forced to live on the fringes of society, and to constantly live with guilt and shame. The last thing I would need would be someone to tell me I was sinful and deserved the wrath of God. We somehow have to get past the yuk factor and love these people. They need us desperately.
    Ian Brearley

  • It is clear that the greatest sin of all is the denial of the Holy Spirit. How can we be convicted of sin if we do not allow the Holy Spirit to convict us of our sinfulness and understanding and acceptance that Jesus died for our sins.We live in an age where denial of sin is the root of evils straggle hold. We must learn to kneel at the cross and accept that we are miserable wretched failures in keeping Gods will for us.
    Bill Heggers

  • Thanks for tackling this one Bill – the old “all sins are equal” chestnut can often be used to excuse sin (esp sexual).
    And the one you didn’t tackle…
    I keep hearing about Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit being a complex topic, but when I read the passage (Matt. 12:22-32) it seems pretty clear that Jesus was targeting the sin of “saying that Jesus did His miracles by the power of the devil”.
    I hope this is in Part 2 !
    Tim Lovett

  • Oh… or Part 3 perhaps?
    Tim Lovett

  • In recent months, I have been pondering the “unforgivable sin”. Jesus speaks about it in the context of His healing of the man who was blind and mute. The people were beginning to be convinced that this might be the Son of David (Matt 12:23). Before this went much further, the Pharisees decided to step in and set the record straight by announcing their take on it – Jesus was healing by the power of Beelzebub (Satan). The Pharisees, by stating this, were playing with ultimate Truth – turning upside down who is God and who is Satan – what is good and what is bad. Jesus warns them that they are speaking against the Holy Spirit, by Whom Jesus healed the man.
    I apply this again and again to our current age, which, in much of the media at least, plays with truth, turning it inside out and upside down and issuing latest edicts on how to read the moral and historic events of our times and lead “even the elect” in their madness.
    Angela Parham

  • Hi Bill,

    Thanks for raising this important topic and offering some helpful insight to boot. Now, I have a big juicy can of worms that I would like to open up and spill all over your blog if that’s ok. Perhaps you won’t find them too hard to clean up!

    A question for you on the matter of sexual sins, and how they compare in their ‘unequality’.

    How do you think actual physical adultery weighs up against mental adultery or fornication (in the case of unmarrieds)? When I say mental adultery, I would also lump in pornography and associated lust issues with it, as they seem to be very similar. Jesus seems to make considerably serious judgment on mental lust in Matt 5.

    Do you think the two areas are somewhere about on par in terms of their seriousness? or is the mental lust issue less so?

    And what implications if any does the mental lust issue have for marriage/approaching marriage (from a single perspective)? To expound – Adultery is massively bad as sins go on the equality scale – if mental adultery is similar, is it e.g. grounds for divorce? Is it a similar state of affairs when it comes to sexual immorality before marriage (fornication)? how serious are issues of mental fornication before marriage?

    Lots in there I know! but I believe that my question is basically dealing with very closely related issues.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Blessings,
    Isaac Overton, ACT

  • Thanks Isaac

    Good questions. I can’t do them full justice here. Just on the lust/adultery issue and which is worse: Take the parallel case of hate/murder. Obviously a person is basically better off just being hatred as opposed to being actually killed! At least he is still alive. But in God’s eyes of course both are equally sinful says Jesus. Indeed, he is trying to remind us that all outward sin spring from an inward sinful nature, and it is the inner man that needs radical surgery. So he concentrates on the heart, but of course outward actions are also serious. Both thought and deed will separate us from God. But I may do an article on this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, I think we need to distinguish between sins and crimes to understand this issue.

    Governments make distinctions among various crimes and their punishments. I suspect that the passages which make such distinctions are given as advice to governments in carrying out their job of restraining sin and its effects in this world.

    Genesis 9:6, for example, emphasizes this by saying “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.” (NRSV, emphasis mine)

    I believe that “humankind” (i.e., government) is to administer this punishment.

    Sins are, as you point out, different, since their price is the same, death (Romans 3:23). And in faith I proclaim that this is either the sinner’s life or the life of a Savior.

    Blessings!
    Bob Ford

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