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I am writing this blog due to a series of issues that have arisen in recent discussions, which I feel would be very relevant to others. While I plan on discussing several of these throughout the course of time, one feels especially pressing at the moment.
It is often thought, embraced, and even taught that all sins are equal before God. Put in its typical vernacular, “a sin is a sin!” The thought here is pretty straightforward: whatever issues any of us may have with disobedient behavior, we can rest assured that we are all equally guilty before God.
No individual’s sin is any worse than another’s.
At first blush, this no doubt sounds very good: convincing, even. But we are always charged to ask the same question on every issue—is this belief true?
A good place to start in answering this question is in the Old Testament of the Bible. There are two major covenants in the Bible: the covenant made with Israel through Moses, and the covenant made with all believers through Jesus. While the first (or “old”) covenant does not directly apply to Christians in many ways, it certainly does tell us a lot about God’s character and how His laws work.
Including the Ten Commandments, the Israelites were given literally hundreds (about 613 in all) of laws to keep. Attempting to keep all these laws was quite the burden, as the first church council concluded in Acts 15:10. But if we begin to look at the punishments that corresponded with these laws, we begin to see a very interesting pattern emerge.
Consider the following offenses recorded in the book of Exodus, and the punishment they warranted. If someone intentionally plotted and murdered another, he was to be put to death (21:12). However, if someone was unintentionally killed, then the person responsible would not be put to death but would be required to flee to a place appointed by God (21:13). That is a curious difference.
If someone assaulted their parents, kidnapped someone without releasing them, or caused serious injury to a pregnant woman (or her unborn child), the offender would be put to death (21:15-18). If one defends themselves from a break-in and kills the intruder, there is no punishment for this act. However, if they were to kill an intruder after the fact or in broad daylight, the defender would be “guilty of bloodshed” (22:2-3). Similarly, a thief would be forced to make restitution for their crime. If they had no money to pay back, they would have to sell themselves as servants to pay for the offense (22:3).
In the New Testament (under the “new covenant”), Jesus mentions several things that are clearly higher crimes than others. He mentions that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—which, in context, is really about comparing God to Satan or calling Him evil—as being completely unforgivable (Mt. 12:31). Jesus specifically mentions that misconduct towards children carries a heightened degree of punishment:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mk. 9:42)
Concerning his own betrayal, Jesus said: “But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Mt. 26:24). Further, the book of Hebrews reveals that those who commit apostasy—the act of fully renouncing one’s faith and falling away—cannot be restored to faith (6:4-6). 2 Peter 2:20 goes so far as to suggest that apostates find themselves in store for a greater judgment than if they had never become believers in the first place.
There are many, many other examples that could be mentioned from both the Old and New Testaments. Here, it is clear that the common belief that all sins are equal (that “a sin is a sin”) simply doesn’t pass the biblical test. If we look to our own societal laws, we typically see the same general concept: the punishment fits the crime.
This makes sense to all of us, if we really think about it.
If the view that all sins are the same is not a biblical (or rational) perspective, why is it so often taught and accepted? At the end of the day, I believe the answer to this question is fairly easy to pinpoint: self-justification. It is in our fallen human nature to try and rationalize or explain away our own misconduct. Making all sins equal provides a perfect vehicle to get us to this destination. It allows us to tell ourselves, “See, what I am doing is really no worse than what he or she is doing.” This is the primary reason this false belief has seen such widespread acceptance.
In fairness, there is one other contributing factor worth mentioning. Some are persuaded by a couple sections in Scripture that all sins are equal. 1 John 3:4 is one area: “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.” Along the same lines, we have James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” James’ statement is quite similar to Jesus’ in Matthew 5:19.
On the surface, it could appear that committing one sin is just the same as committing any other. This is a misunderstanding. These verses are telling us that breaking any of the commandments makes one guilty of sin before God, therefore placing us in need of forgiveness. I would have equally broken God’s law of I stole something, committed adultery, or even murdered someone. All of these sins would make me a lawbreaker who is in need of repentance and forgiveness. However, that says nothing about the severity of these acts or the punishment that each would entail. As we saw in the myriad examples I discussed, sins vary both in degree and in retribution.
In the end, the belief that all sins are equal is both true and false. It is true in the sense that all sins must be absolved, so that they will not count against us at the Great Judgment. However, it is false in the sense that all sinful acts are equally egregious or carry the same weight of judgment. This is why Jesus consistently told us that judgment is not a one-size-fits-all ordeal: “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12, my emphasis).
This is an absolutely crucial thing to understand. A man who steals his neighbor’s lawn ornament does not commit an equal crime or require an equal punishment to a man who rapes his neighbor’s wife. This is true in most every human justice system, and most certainly in God’s.
For more on these issues, and a host of other interesting phenomena, see my new book God Made the Aliens.