Are all sins equal before God?

Those who flogged Jesus after his trial were guilty of sin, but the Jewish religious leaders who handed Jesus over to the Romans committed the greater sin.

Are All Sins Equal Before God?

 

The early Christian church fathers all acknowledged that some sins were greater than others. But within the last half century a popular belief has developed among Christians, that all sins are equal before God—he sees them all the same. But is this biblical? And how did this belief come about? Let’s examine it, starting with a history of the various views on this in the Christian Church.

 

Mortal sin in church history

All of the early church fathers believed that rejecting God’s grace through Christ was a sin that God would not forgive. It was thus a “mortal” sin since by committing it one would experience eternal death at the final judgment. Many also believed that professing Christ and later denying him (called apostacy) was also a mortal sin—this person would lose their salvation.
Tertullian (155-220 AD) taught that a mortal sin is sin committed against God and his temple, while other lesser sins were not as serious. Jerome (~345-420 AD) wrote that there is a difference between “venial” (lesser) and mortal (more severe) sins, the difference being mainly in degree of severity of the sin.
Caesarius of Arles (~470-542 AD) expanded the definition of mortal sin significantly, arguing that sins such as murder and adultery and sins of passion are mortal sins and merit punishment in hell, but countless lesser sins that people commit do not.

Mortal sin in Roman Catholicism

Later, the Roman Catholic Church expanded the concept even more by producing a detailed list of venial and mortal sins. Today the Catholic Church teaches that true believers can lose their salvation by committing these mortal sins, and that before dying one must repent of all mortal sins to enter heaven. One of the passages used to support this doctrine is found in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.  (Galatians 5:19-21)

A similar list occurs in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. These sins were classified as “mortal” because of Paul’s statement that those who practiced them could never enter God’s kingdom. But Paul wasn’t saying that we are disqualified from eternal life by committing any of them individually. He is saying that people who live like this as a lifestyle are in rebellion against God and if they continue in this path, they will surely perish.

The Reformation and mortal sin

The Reformers vehemently opposed the Catholic teaching that a believer could lose their salvation because of sins such as adultery, murder, fornication, and other sins of passion. Martin Luther (1483-1546 AD) was adamant that salvation is not maintained by a person’s success in repenting of these sins but salvation is received only as a gift through faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross. He firmly believed that Christ’s sacrificial death covered sins that the church had for many years classified as mortal. But he still maintained that denying Christ and rejecting God’s grace was apostacy and an unforgivable (or mortal) sin.

John Calvin (1509-1564 AD) went much farther than Luther and declared that believers cannot lose their salvation for any sin they commit because God chose them before the creation of the world to be saved and nothing can undo God’s decree. Those who were apostate were never true believers in the first place.

Present day beliefs

Today, it seems that many Christians have overreacted to the Catholic doctrine on mortal sin and adopted the belief that all sins are equal before God. A common teaching in evangelical churches is that even the tiniest sin is enough to send you to hell forever. The reason this is supposedly true is that God is infinitely holy and cannot tolerate any sin, however small, and therefore we all deserve the most horrendous punishment possible. But this seems to contradict God’s attributes of patience, kindness, and grace. There must be a better way to explain God’s attitude toward sin.

 

“Sin is sin”

“Sin is sin” is a popular saying in some religious circles today. Most people who use it mean that before God all sins are equal—that in God’s eyes no sin is worse than any other. Some even say since we are saved by grace it doesn’t matter which sins we have—the most important thing is that we are forgiven and are going to heaven. Some people use this logic to justify their own sin, that it’s “not that bad.” Those who believe this frequently quote James:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (James 2:10-11)

But the message of this passage is not that all sins are equal. Here James is warning self-righteous people who don’t consider themselves sinners at all. They may not be murderers, but if they tell lies, then they are still guilty before God as sinners. So, James is not saying that a very small sin is on the same level before God as a heinous crime. He’s addressing people who don’t believe they are sinners because in their minds they don’t commit the really bad sins.

But the fact that we are all sinners doesn’t make all sins equal before God. “All have sinned” does not equate to “all have sinned equally.” The two can’t be conflated—they are two entirely different concepts.

 

Hatred and anger

Another passage that has been used in this discussion is found in Matthew:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:21-22)

In this passage Jesus affirms that hatred is the root of violence and murder. Those who may not commit the outward act of murder are still guilty before God if in a relationship they are motivated and consumed by hatred.

But Jesus is clearly not saying that anger and thoughts of violence are the same as the physical act of murder. He’s saying they have the same root. A closer look at this passage reveals that greater degrees of sin warrant increasingly greater punishments: judgment, the court, and finally the fire of hell.

 

Examples of greater and lesser sin: 

There are many examples of greater and lesser sins in the Bible. Take Jesus’ statement to Pontius Pilate during his trial:

“You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (John 19:11)

Pilate’s sin was not one of malice but of ignorance and indifference. He didn’t even know what the Jewish Messiah was, but he also didn’t care. He was caught up in the controversy only because he happened to be the Roman governor at the time. And likewise with those who flogged Jesus (featured image). They were certainly guilty of sin, and as heinous as this was, they probably didn’t know who Jesus really was. The greater sin was with the Jewish religious leaders who handed Jesus over to the Romans. Their malice and hatred toward Jesus led them to finally and fully reject God’s Messiah.

We find other examples in the teachings of the apostle Paul, who described himself as the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15-16). In his exhortation in 1 Corinthians, he wrote:

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? (1 Corinthians 6:18-19)

Paul here singles out sexual sin as being especially harmful since it affects not only the mind but the body and even our relationship with God whose Spirit indwells us.

 

Sin’s consequences

All sins are not equal before God because different sins are committed with different motives and have different results. Some are therefore more consequential. A child’s refusal to eat his vegetables at the dinner table is not on the same level as a mass murder.

This is also obvious just from life itself. An unintentional oversight during a financial transaction is forgivable by most people. But most of us will not forgive intentional dishonesty during a transaction—we will probably never trust that person again. And someone’s continual dishonesty over time results in a bad reputation with no one trusting them.

A sin can start at a very small scale but turn into a greater problem when it develops into a habit. A small theft of a candy by a child results in a reprimand by their parent. But continual theft by a child results in an established habit of stealing and dishonesty, and parents are rightfully concerned about this. If uncorrected, the person might progress to a life of theft and burglary and eventually become a hardened criminal. This person is clearly a greater sinner than the child who stole the candy.

This demonstrates an important life principle: You become the person you are by the decisions you make. As you follow the paths you choose, you are being transformed into the person you are becoming. That is why repentance is such an important decision because it changes the trajectory of a person’s life. Repentance may come more slowly for some and more quickly for others, but if we continue in it, we become a decidedly different person. And through repentance and faith in Christ we become more like God, a treasure that is truly worth any sacrifice we might make in the process.

 

Inward desire and outward expression

How does sin start? All sins start in the heart, the center of our desires. That’s why Proverbs reminds us:

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23)

James says sin starts with an evil desire and then ends with a “full-grown” sin:

… each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15)

An evil desire is inwardly destructive because it corrodes the soul. But it’s not outwardly evident until expressed in some action, when it “gives birth to sin.” Then we see the fruit of it. And after carrying out a sin to its full conclusion, a person experiences death.

So, what’s the implication of this? Sins of the mind and the heart prove that people are sinners. It’s what a person desires in their heart that makes them righteous or unrighteous. If a person has evil thoughts and desires, they are not righteous regardless of what they do on the outside.

So, sins of the mind are harmful inwardly, but not as harmful as sins actually carried out by the body, which also affect others.

 

Hidden and willful sins

Additionally, some sins are hidden while others are in the open:

But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression. May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:12-14)

Here the psalmist mentions hidden faults, which might include sins of omission—things we should do but fail to do. It also says that some sins are willful, or intentional. This implies that other sins are unintentional, perhaps caused by carelessness or negligence. The willful sin is obviously more severe than the unintentional sin. And the laws of most societies reflect this. Premeditated murder is a more serious crime than second-degree murder, and so the punishment is greater. Second-degree murder is in turn more serious than unintentional death resulting from carelessness.

We also find this concept throughout the Law of Moses. And Jesus affirmed this principle in his parable of the watchful servants:

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.  (Luke 12:47-48)

The master gave servants who willfully ignored the master’s commands a greater punishment than those who knew little about the commands. This means that intentional rebellion and defiance against God always merit a much greater punishment than unintentional sins of ignorance.

 

Rejecting God and his Messiah

The apostle John warned his readers that there is a truly mortal sin that is greater than all sins.

If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. (1 John 5:16-17)

The sin unto death is referring to a person’s final rejection of God and his Messiah. Rejecting God’s Messiah Jesus is an unforgivable sin since Jesus displayed the Father’s love and grace fully and perfectly. Those who reject Christ are rejecting God himself and any forgiveness that God offers. This warrants an eternal punishment as it is the greatest and most consequential sin— clearly greater than any sin of passion, neglect, or uncontrolled emotion. Jesus spoke of sin against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31), which is essentially the same.

 

Responding to God’s warnings

Does it make any difference that there are greater and lesser sins, that all sins are not equal before God? Yes, because there will be a Day of Judgment.

Ignoring God for a day results in distance between God and us. Rejecting God deliberately results in much more severe consequences: significant alienation and separation from God. Rejecting God over a lifetime without repenting results in a complete and final separation from him. Then we receive the most severe punishment possible: total rejection by God and destruction of both body and soul at the final Day of Judgment (Matthew 10:28).

And believers in Christ stand to gain much by shedding the sins that encumber them. Then they will be able to serve God freely, and there’s a great reward awaiting them if they do. But failing to deal with significant sin will keep us from a close walk with the Lord and hinder our service for him. And at the judgment, we will lose valuable rewards that could’ve been ours.

Wherever you as a reader may find yourself in this continuum, there is forgiveness with God as long as you are alive. Make the decision to turn from the sins that encumber you and accept God’s forgiveness. Your life will change forever.

 

 

 

 

 

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1 thought on “Are all sins equal before God?”

  1. We are offered atonement for our sins, through the blood of Christ, but while this allows us to be spared from God’s negative judgment, it does not spare us from the consequences of our own actions. For example, a person dishonest in business will lose the respect and trust of others, and a person who practices sexual immorality will likely face ruin, even though such persons are eligible to be forgiven, should they place their trust in God and Christ.

    I have met people who tried to bargain with sin, essentially abusing the grace of God, by permitting themselves to do things that they know are not pleasing to our Creator. They may well lose the indwelling of the Spirit if they persist in this course. We cannot accept the gift of salvation, yet insult God by deliberately doing what He hates, without negative results.

    God takes no pleasure in rendering negative judgment. He would prefer for all to be saved, and He will show mercy, if that is at all possible. Instead of attempting to bargain with sin, we should seek to avoid it, as much as possible. Even if we are forgiven, our lives will always be better, the closer we come to God’s standards.

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