Are All Sins Equal? Part Two

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:


27 Replies to “Are All Sins Equal? Part Two”

  1. I came to a conclusion this year that the people who make a difference are the ones who are passionate about one, or a few, important areas. If I spread myself equally among every problem humanity has I will not effect anything.
    Kylie Anderson

  2. Thanks Kylie

    Yes good point. There are far too many issues for us individually to target, so better to just concentrate on one or two. But with so many Christians with so many passions, all sorts of issues can and will be covered.

    Having said that, while Wilberforce spent most of his energy on slavery, he also dedicated his life to the ‘reformation of manners’. Thus he was involved in around 70 voluntary societies, dealing with everything from gospel literature distribution to the care of animals!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Yes Bill, I did not mean we cannot be involved in more than one thing, just that it is better to spend most of our energy in one place and then support others in smaller ways.

    The same goes for money. I can give $1 to everyone who knocks on my door or I can give a lot to a few specific causes that I feel God leading me to.

    Kylie Anderson

  4. Many of the differences lie between the malum in se crimes vs. the malum prohibitum crimes. The first are the common law crimes (murder, adultery, theft) which are supposed to be crimes according to the law of nature and nature’s God (to quote Blackstone). And the malum prohibitum crimes are just those which the states says it is wrong to do but they are not wrong according to the law of reason.

    Also there is the difference between the jurisdiction of the civil government and God’s jurisdiction. Civil governments can only really punish for physical acts (rather than thoughts) which is why most (if not all) crimes must have an actus reus (or guilty act) as well as a mens rea (guilty mind). While it is a sin to harbour lustful thoughts according to the Bible that cannot be really punished by the state.

    There is also the sins that defile a land (murder, homosexuality etc.) which God says will cause the land to vomit you out. These sins are more important to address than others because they have a greater social impact. This is certainly a good argument that Gentile nations should enforce these laws for the well being of the community as these particular sins cause the death of a nation.

    Timothy Coombe

  5. Thanks Timothy

    You raise some valuable points here. I especially like this: “There is also the sins that defile a land (murder, homosexuality etc.) which God says will cause the land to vomit you out. These sins are more important to address than others because they have a greater social impact.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. It is true that all sins are equal. Even merely eating an apple, as with the case of Eve, from God’s infinite vantage point, was no different to Hitler’s crimes against humanity.

    However, as you have highlighted, Bill, they do come with different price tags with regard to payment in the next world.

    But even in this world some sins have graver consequences for us now, Romans 1 talks about homosexuals receiving in themselves the due penalty for their sin.

    1 Corinthians 6:!3-20 talks about the way sins done inside the body as opposed to those done outside are particularly destructive:

    “The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.
    Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.”

    Unlike other sins. What we do with our bodies sexually cannot be divorced from our entire personhood. The sin of adultery is the constant charge against Israel and the Judeans in the Old Testament.

    The communists and cultural Marxists know that if they can corrupt and demoralise the West, particularly our children with so – called compulsory sex education, then they have us.

    It is significant that during the Lambeth Conference, held in 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, took all the 600 plus bishops off for a march into London to demonstrate against world poverty. This was clearly meant as a diversion from the fact that Gene Robinson and Katherine Jefferts Schori were the elephants in the room.

    David Skinner, UK

  7. Bill – note Romans 1: 18-32 seems to argue that homosexual desires, acts and other depravity is the ultimate outcome of denying that God is creator.
    Should we place greater empahsis on the final symptoms of depraviity without equally condemning the initial causes of fhe slide?
    Stephen White

  8. Hi Bill and David, could you or David comment more on 1 Cor.6:13-20; as sexual sins being ‘sins against your own body’. I’m asking because my understanding is that it is the defilement and mixing of other human spirits and any associated psychological & spiritual problems that a person has becomes ‘attached’ to your soul – a soul/spirit tie develops and probable demonic bodage also. Also it is my theory that the sexualisation of any nation, ethnic group, society leads to an acceleration AWAY from the Lord, as it would appear that a penalty of all types of open sexual sins is UNBELIEF. Sexual sinners find it harder to accept the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ, as they ahev seared their consciences & hardened their hearts. If you could comment, as it is like looking at the diamond and the different facets of truth. Thanks.
    Neil Innes, NT

  9. Neil, all I can say is that when we break the sixth commandment forbidding adultery (any relationship outside that of monogomous, gender complementary and enduring marriage), we automatically break all the others. Sexual sins, in a way unlike all others, such as stealing or lying, are the doorway into all the others. This does not require a great deal of theological hair splitting, for it is something all human beings know but maybe don’t want to admit.

    David Skinner, UK

  10. Thanks Neil

    Yes that passage does indicate a difference in sins – at least in terms of those sins done against one’s body and sins that are not. What exactly that means is a bit more difficult, and may require a full article to properly deal with

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Thanks Bill & David, I look forward to a future article. I have studied theology and heard probably 1000’s of sermons over about 30 years and the topic of 1 Cor.6:13-20 has been lightly brushed over – but it is my contention that a great truth about the power & grip of all types of sexual sins is contained in these verses. It is like the obesity epidemic – we all know that eating fast food every day will make us fat – but if we were told the truth that the fast food contains arsenic that will kill us – we would seriously consider the consequences. Same with sexual sins; even the unbeliever knows that hurt and health risks are applicable to unrestrained sexuality, but the pleasure seeking outweighs those pains; BUT if they knew that arsenic (or a greater pain/cost) was associated with sexual sins then they would pay more attention – I think the arsenic or sting in the tale is that the ‘sin against the body’ is the strong poison that causes unbelief against God Almighty and hardens their hearts.
    Neil Innes, NT

  12. Hi Bill
    As you say, there is a lot of debate – and confusion – over this topic which, to my mind, has its origins in understandingb the word ‘law’ in the Bible, both in terms of its use in the OT and NT.
    As you rightly (to my mind) point out, in the theocracy that was Israel, there were OT ‘laws’ that we would classify today as ‘civil’. Bringing this into the 21st century would be the equivalent of how fast you could drive your car in different areas. However, as well as grouping other laws under the heading of ‘moral,’ I would also suggest there was a group of laws which could be placed under the basic heading of ‘ceremonial,’ i.e. those to do with Temple worship.
    David states that all sins are equal and cites Eve eating the forbidden fruit (not an apple, by the way!) being the same as Hitler’s crimes against humanity. However, for probably the first time, I find myself questioning something David has written since this comparison adds a significant complexity to the argument. Eve’s act predates the Mosaic Law and when she consumed the forbidden fruit, there was only the one ‘law’ on the statute book – and that was not to eat that particular fruit. So, in effect, Eve broke the whole of the ‘law’ at that point in time – a far greater ‘crime’ than simply eating an apple!
    What is of more concern to me, though, in this debate is not so much the facts, i.e. what the Bible says is wrong, but the interpretation of the facts.
    It is here where I have a major concern about the comment that all sins are equal. To start off with, it assumes a correlation between ‘sin’ and ‘law’ (at least the breaking of) when I’m not sure there is total clarity in people’s minds between the two terms and how the NT relates to the Mosaic Law and the OT theocracy of Israel – let alone the period prior to that.
    As a result, this “all sin is the same” teaching can be extremely dangerous when interpreted by the more liberal elements of the church or those who would like to minimize the effect of sin (often their own). When the moral sin of adultery or homosexuality is potentially equated with the civil crime of breaking the speed limit by 5 kph, we are not comparing like with like. Furthermore, we are simply failing to teach the seriousness of sin and, as David puts it so well, “the different price tags” associated with different sins.
    Roger Birch

  13. Bill you have mentioned previously (I think) that homosexuality is a crime against creation and therefore one of the worse kinds of sin. I have always thought of homosexuality as a sexual sin (1 Cor 6) and therefore equal to fornication and adultery. I struggle with the churches hard stance on homosexuality (no-one should do it) as oppose to the stance on other sexual sins (Christians shouldn’t do it). Homosexuals seem to be the victims of prejudice, while fornicators are not excluded from staying in Christian camps or working with Churches. I must admit that when I learnt about homosexuality in my teens I was disgusted and repulsed but now, though I still believe it is a sin, I no longer have the same visceral response.
    Is there a Biblical reason for these different responses or is it just the church feels that it has lost the fornication battle but still has hope where homosexuality is concerned?
    Kylie Anderson

  14. Thanks Kylie

    Paul in Romans 1 makes the case that homosexuality is both a sin against creation as well as a sexual sin which is a major manifestation of man’s rebellion against God. However I have said many times on this site that heterosexuals have a lot to answer for as well, with their fornication and adultery being in one sense equally bad.

    As to your changing reaction, is that part of the general social trend of desensitisation, in which we have allowed the MSM and its sanitised picture of homosexuality to catch us off guard, softening us up to start accepting the unacceptable? There is a massive PR effort underway by the homosexual activists and a compliant media to secure the very thing you are talking about.

    Some years ago two homosexual activists put it this way: “In any campaign to win over the public, gays must be cast as victims in need of protection so the straights will be inclined by reflex to assume the role of protector. . . . Our campaign should not demand direct support for homosexual practices, but instead make anti-discrimination as its theme. . . . In the early stages of the campaign, the public should not be shocked and repelled by premature exposure to homosexual behavior itself. Instead, the imagery of sex per se should be down-played, and the issue of gay rights reduced as far as possible, to an abstract social question.”

    They have been quite successful in this.

    But there is also some truth to your last sentence. Unfortunately the church did not take a strong enough stance on adultery, fornication, and so on years ago, so in many respects that horse has bolted. But we can still act to thwart same-sex marriage etc.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  15. Kylie, A few years ago now, Rev Dr. William Strange of St. Peter’s Carmarthen, Wales, set the scene like this:

    … “most heterosexual Christians will know lesbian and gay people whom they like and respect. One of the consequences of the increased openness of lesbian and gay people in the past generation or so is that the discussion is no longer about a faceless and anonymous ‘them’. It concerns a person with a face, a story and perhaps a pain. The introduction of a human element into reflection about homosexuality … makes discussion more complex… The secular world seems to be a good deal more accepting and tolerant on this issue than parts of the Christian church, and that also is an uncomfortable feeling…Most Christian arguments in favour of recognition and celebration of same-sex unions build up to proposals which alleviate this discomfort by arguing for something reassuringly familiar, something comparable to same-sex marriage: stable monogamous unions which apparently preserve the social landscape by doing no more than to ask us to extend the existing concept of marriage to include a hitherto excluded group.”

    It is worth reading the whole of this article, even if it is see how public acceptance as moved in just a few years:

    David Skinner, UK

  16. Kylie, the irony is that whilst the straight population abandons marriage, the gays are demanding it. They too would reject the essential content of marriage for the same reasons as the straights but what the gays want is the packaging, the public acceptance and respectability – but not the contents.

    And you say, “Homosexuals seem to be the victims of prejudice… I must admit that when I learnt about homosexuality in my teens I was disgusted and repulsed but now, though I still believe it is a sin, I no longer have the same visceral response.”

    How long before we no longer have a visceral response to loving and consensual incest, bestiality, necrophila, padedophilia, poly sex and all the rest of it? There are advocates for these groups who use exactly the same arguments for public acceptance as the gays.

    David Skinner, UK

  17. Thanks Stan, and we sure need encouragement as the times grow forever darker.

    But what’s wrong with homosexuality? It is not just what it does to the physical and emotional well being of the individual (HIV and AIDS) and the way anyone afflicted with this condition will be, no matter how accepting society becomes, ill at ease with themselves, saddled forever with an internalised homophobia that often leads to depression and suicide. It is also, in addition to this personal tragedy and peculiar to our own times, a militant, Marxist, gay ideology, personified in Peter Tatchell. Read his articles, especially one entitled “Beyond Equality.”

    This proselytising ideology denies the Truth and beauty of Jesus Christ, God’s written revelation and that which is visible, for all to see, in the created order (epistemology). It denies and would smash down God’s created boundaries and catagories (ontology). Thirdly it denies the moral sense that is written on the conscience of each and every one of us

    Do we not see that homosexuality, with its revisionist theology, self identification and reversal of morality is the denial of foundational, biblical pre-suppositions, and apart from Islam is the greatest threat to Christianity in the West?

    But as Bill says, the homosexual activists have won us over, spectacularly through clever packaging. Listen to what Michael Bronski said some years ago,

    “But this isn’t how it works. You don’t win the right to marry by telling the world that queer people’s lives are as confusing, messy, tattered, and complicated as heterosexual lives. You win the right to marry by presenting to the world, and to the courts, the most acceptable, most homogeneous, most lovable, most traditional couples (with kids if possible) you can find. And given that marriage is, for everyone, a form of sexual regulation, it is also important to present to the world the most conventional images of gay sexual behaviour.”

    David Skinner, UK

  18. Hi Bill,

    I hope you will forgive my long post given that commenting on this topic has somewhat tailed off.

    I suppose one’s view on the proper NT relationship between church and state largely depends on whether one sees OT Israel as a whole, or just the Levitical priesthood as prefiguring the church.

    If one sees the whole of Israel prefiguring the church, then there are radical differences in the role of the church and its relationship to the state in the NT, and one must conclude that God has said very little specifically to Christian rulers who want to run a state well. If, however, one sees the Levitical priesthood prefiguring the church and the OT civil laws of Israel prefiguring the modern state, then there is a great deal of continuity between the testaments and God has said a great deal to Christian rulers who want to run a state well. I, of course, think the second view is the plainest reading of scripture.

    Looking at things this way Israel was, in the main, not a theocracy in terms of God ruling directly, but a theonomic state relying on God’s law. God set up the institution of civil government and gave laws (both specific and general principles) to the civil governors (whether Judges or Kings) for them to apply to particular circumstances. The civil governors were given a sphere of sovereignty and within this were to exercise authority on God’s behalf.

    Likewise God also set up the priestly system as a separate institution from the civil governors with its own sphere of sovereignty to teach the people about God’s word and facilitate the atonement of sins amongst other things. I would therefore identify the Levitical priesthood as the OT equivalent of the NT institution of the church.

    Seen in this way, the origin of separation of church and state, in the sense of separate institutions ordained by God for distinct roles is properly found in the OT. And the distinction of the state basically dealing with crime and the church/priesthood dealing with sin is also found in the OT.

    It is important to point out that when Jesus says we should render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, He is not addressing governors, nor is he saying anything about how governors should govern, or the rightness of governors departing from OT civil laws. He is addressing private individuals and telling them how they should react to Roman laws. It is therefore quite right that we, as Christian private individuals should apply this teaching to our situation under ungodly governors, but it would be taking it grossly out of context to infer that Jesus was condoning governors departing from OT law. This passage, therefore does not give any evidence for discontinuity.

    Similarly I must disagree with you when you say that there are “some very real differences here” between today and OT Israel because “Today therefore there are many sins which are not treated as crimes” and “not all crimes are necessarily sinful”.

    In OT Israel, there were also sins which were not treated as crimes. Of course there were sins of the mind such as lust, the same as today, but also physical sins too. Failing to tithe was certainly a sin (Malachi 3:8), but nowhere do you find a civil penalty for it; so not all sins were crimes in the OT.

    And in contradiction to what you wrote, I think all genuine crimes are necessarily sinful both in OT Israel and today. You cite the example of laws to use certain railway gauges as a crime which is not sinful. However, if specifying railway gauges is within the civil government’s god given sphere of sovereignty and doesn’t cause us to break any of God’s other explicit laws then if I were then to break this law, surely I would be committing a sin in not being subject to the civil authorities as Romans 13 says.

    I am not claiming there are no difficulties with this Theonomic or Reconstructionist view, but the difficulties are far fewer, in my opinion, than with other views, and so I believe this is the plainest and correct reading of the Scriptures. A consequence of this view is that God has said a great deal to Christian rulers who want to run a state well, and so defining the limits and role of government from the Bible is much more straightforward.

    Mansel Rogerson

  19. Thanks Mansel

    As I said, it is a very large and complex topic, one in which even the theonomists disagree in various areas themselves. Suffice it to say, it won’t be resolved here in a short comment, or even in a short article. But if time permits I will try to pen a few pieces on all this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  20. Excellent article Bill, a very commonsense approach and to Kylie, some good points raised. The main thing here is to make sure that your foundation is God’s word for any of these issues, as Christians we oppose it because the Bible makes it clear that God calls it sin. Your antagonists will say things like “Is that all you base your opposition on?” all you need to do is to reply, “Yes”, God will do the rest. I think we sometimes as Bill has often said before that we need to choose our battlegrounds and while there is a time to further expound our arguments, I feel that we must not allow this to dominate our position, every time we participate in these debates. I think sometimes that Chrisitans can be led off the beaten track by having long discussions about these issues with proponents of them only to walk away having not achieved anything.
    Steve Davis

  21. Steve and David thank you for your comments. It seems I did not make myself clear. I did not mean that we should treat homosexuals like we treat fornicators, but that we should treat fornicators the way we treat homosexuals. I don’t struggle with whether homosexuality is right or wrong. The Bible is clear. I struggle with the inconsistent way the church deals with sinners.

    In saying I no longer have a visceral response I was not suggesting my response determines what it right and wrong but confessing that I have become desensitised over the years by what I have heard and seen in the media. Most sitcoms these days seem to have a gay character.

    And I do agree that it is a very small step from the acceptance of homosexuality to acceptance of other sexualities that society currently sees as wrong.

    Kylie Anderson

  22. Kylie, I was initially referring to the first 2 posts you wrote – they are good common sense approaches. My main point above was to be always careful about how to debate these things because sometimes you can get into some very heavy discussions with people without having achieved anything except a sweat. With regards to “treating” anybody, I think the most important thing we as Christians must do is to first and foremost, see every human being as someone that Jesus died for. If you use this as a base then things become a lot clearer. Also as far as the inconsistency in the way the church deals with sinners, remember that the church is made up of fallible human beings who will not always make a fair and righteous judgement. All the best.
    Steve Davis

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