In part one of this article I examined some of the biblical material which bears upon this question. It was found that one can speak about degrees of sinfulness, responsibility, and punishment. While every sin equally puts us over against a holy God, and into a lost eternity, some sins seem to warrant greater censure and punishment. Here I want to look at how this gets fleshed out in public policy and the issues of the day.
Sin and crime
One other distinction needs to be made here however before going any further. In the Old Testament Israel was a theocracy, and therefore all crimes were viewed as also being sinful. Politics and religion were largely one, so to commit a civil crime was basically to commit a sin against Yahweh as well. But things are a bit different under the New Testament paradigm.
Jesus himself set the stage for this in proclaiming that there are two spheres to which we owe allegiance. In earthly temporal affairs, God has ordained the state and expects us to abide by its laws. But there is another – and higher – realm that we must be subject to, God himself.
Thus Jesus could say that we must render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render to God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21 = Mark 12:17 = Luke 20:25). There is here the basis of a legitimate separation of church and state. Both have their legitimate place, but God is of course ultimately sovereign over Caesar (the state).
Today therefore there are many sins which are not treated as crimes. In most of the Western world adultery and fornication are no longer considered to be criminal acts, while they of course continue to be sinful in God’s eyes. Lust and other inner sins are normally not considered to be crimes at all, and would of course be very difficult to prove in a court of law anyway.
Likewise, not all crimes are necessarily sinful. There are laws on the books about the sort of railway gauge a state must use. These laws exist more for efficiency and convenience sake than because having different sized gauges is seen as being morally wrong.
So today there are some very real differences here. The state basically deals with crime while the church basically deals with sin. Of course the two can and do overlap quite often. For example, murder is both against the law and sinful in the eyes of God.
But many sins, such as not praying for our leaders – as we are commanded to do in Scripture – are certainly not crimes in modern Western nations – or in any nation as far as I am aware. Many things which grieve the Lord and harm the church are not or cannot be crimes in a secular nation.
But how all that is decided and how exactly we discern which is which is not so easily come by. Indeed, Christians themselves disagree on many of these issues. It all involves a lot of biblical spade work, including dealing with the vexatious question of how much is continued between the Testaments and how much is discontinued. But all that will have to be the subject of another article or two.
Public policy debates
So how does all this translate into issues of public policy and the believer’s witness to the surrounding culture? Since there may well be degrees of sin, how can we flesh this out as we seek to be salt and light in the world around us? How are we to be a prophetic people to the secular society we live in?
Let me approach these questions this way: I and others like me are often accused of singling out certain issues and making much of them, while perhaps minimising or ignoring others. In the light of the above discussion, how might I respond?
I would say yes, I do warn of some sins more often than others. I do emphasise certain social, moral, cultural and political issues more than others. So in that sense I am guilty as charged. But there is a method to my apparent madness.
From my vantage point of being involved in cultural commentary and social activity, certain assaults on family, faith and life seem to me to be much more severe, pronounced, orchestrated and militant than others. Thus I write often on the assault against human life, or the war on marriage and family, or the threat of Islamism.
To highlight these concerns is not to suggest that there are no other concerns, or that these issues are more sinful than others. It is simply to say that we must fight where the battles are most fiercely raging. It would be silly to concentrate all our efforts on minor skirmishes while ignoring major battles.
As Martin Luther is reported to have said, “If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.”
Whoever actually said this, he makes a terrific point. There are plenty of battles one can engage in, but the wise general will be selective, and concentrate on those battlefronts which are the most serious and the most at risk of being lost.
Thus I believe the militant homosexual lobby for example is a very real threat not just to Western civilisation but to the Christian faith itself. This seems to be one of the biggest threats to anyone keenly concerned about the wellbeing of faith and family. Thus I spend a lot of time warning about it.
Other people may see other threats as more important, and they are welcome to deal with them all they like. I certainly deal with a wide range of issues in my ministry, not just a few. But again, any good strategist will concentrate on where the attack appears to be the strongest.
So if I do not write a lot of articles on the sin of gossip, it is not because I do not believe gossip to be sinful. It is, but there do not at the moment happen to be noisy gossip pride marches on our streets, gossip awareness days being celebrated, or militant gossip organisations seeking to legitimise and glorify gossip.
But all this of course is quite true of the homosexual activists. So wisdom dictates dealing with the battles where they are most active and most at risk of overcoming the goods we hold near and dear. Again, this is not a question of selective moralising, or of saying all other issues are of no importance. It is simply recognising moral differences and the relevant strategic responses to them.
So yes, all sin is sinful, and all sin is to be shunned, renounced, condemned, and avoided. But on a public policy level at least, some sins are more pressing and troublesome than others. Just as slavery was the pressing sin in the days of Wilberforce, so too things like abortion and the assault on marriage and family are among the pressing sins of today.
To pretend they are not there, or to falsely believe that they are no more pressing than anything else, seem to me to be an indication of both moral myopia and biblical unbalance. But to those believers who demur, well we may just have to agree to disagree here.
Part One is here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/12/are-all-sins-equal-part-one/