During my ordination, one of the questions that I was asked by a seminary professor was “Are all sins equal in the sight of God?” I hesitated. Not because I did not have a strong opinion on this, but because I was not sure what the answer was that he was looking for. Are all sins equal in the sight of God? My ordination may have depended on the answer.
Although I posted on this before, it would seem that many remain unconvinced about this issue. Therefore, I thought that I advance my “thesis” a bit further with some more evidence.
It is very common within popular evangelicalism to answer this question in the affirmative. This was one of the main assumptions in a book that I just recommended last week. Most find this theological concept very appealing and accept it, I am afraid to say, without doing much homework.
I think this tendency to assume that all sins are equal in the sight of God comes by means of two influences.
1) A reaction by Protestants against the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal sins (sins that kill justifying grace) and venial sin (sins of a lesser nature that do not kill justifying grace).
2) A tendency within our evangelistic church culture to express common ground with unbelievers—i.e. if all sins are equal in God’s sight then your sin is not worse than any other. This way we are not coming across as judgmental or condescending.
3) Some biblical passages that have been interpreted in such a way (discussed below).
However, I don’t believe that all sin is equal in God’s sight. I also believe that telling people that it is does great damage to the character of God and the seriousness of certain sins. There are many reasons for this, but let me start with a reductio ad absurdum and them move to a biblical argument.
I often ask people who say that all sin is equal in the sight of God if they live according to their theology. Think about this. If all sin is really equal in the sight of God, and one really believes this, then God’s consternation and anger will be equal for whatever sin we commit. Equally important is the fact that our relational disposition before God should suffer from the conviction of the Holy Spirit for all sins equally. Most Christians understand what it means to have a conscience weighed down by unrepentant sin. But this weighing down normally only comes from those sins that we perceive to be more severe. However, if it is true that all sin is equal in the sight of God and one actually lived according to that theology, they should be just as troubled spiritually and just as repentant before God when they break the speed limit as when they commit adultery. After all, breaking the speed limit, even by 1mph, is breaking the law and breaking the law is sin (Rom 13).
This, of course, nobody does. We all see speeding down the road as water under the bridge of God. Apparently our conscious bears us witness that it is not as bad as other things, even if we confess differently.
Next (and more importantly) I think that it is biblical and necessary to say that some sins are more grievous in the sight of God than others. This also translates into the non-politically correct assumption that some people are sinners to a greater degree than others. Even though Protestants may not agree with the theology behind the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins, there are many instances in the Scriptures where degrees of sin are distinguished.
1. Christ tells Pilate that the Jewish leaders have committed a worse sin than him, saying “he who has handed me over to you has committed the greater sin” (Jn. 19:11).
3. Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is set apart as a more severe sin than blasphemy of the Son (Matt. 12:31)
4. Proverbs 6:16-19 lists particular sins in such a way as to single them out because of their depraved nature, separating them from others.
5. There are degrees of punishment in Hell depending on the severity of the offense (Lk. 12:47-48).
6. Christ often evaluates the sin of the Pharisees as greater than the sins of others. “You strain out a gnat while you swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:24). If all sins are equal, Christ’s rebuke does not make any sense. (See also Lk. 20:46-47)
7. Related to the last, Christ also talked about the “weighter things of the law” (Matt. 23:23). If all sins are equal, there is no law (or violation of that law) that is “weightier than others.” They are all the same weight.
8. Unforgiveness is continually referred to as a particularly heinous sin (Matt. 6:14-15; 18:23-35).
So where does this folk theology come from? Well, most people would refer to Christ’s comments in the Sermon on the Mount. Most particularly, reference is made to Matt. 5:27-28 as justification for this way of thinking.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery’” but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:27-28 27).
Is there a difference in the eyes of God between thinking about adultery and actually doing it? Absolutely. If we say anything other than this, I believe we do damage to God’s character and encourage the act based upon its premonition. The point Christ makes in Matt. 5:28 is not that lust and the actual act are equal, but that they both violate the same commandment, even if the degrees of this violation differ. This way, Christ was telling all people (particularly the religious establishment of the day) that thought they were safe because they had fulfilled the letter of the law that the law runs much deeper. The spirit of the law is what matters. Therefore, if you have ever lusted, you have broken the sixth commandment. If you have ever hated your brother, you have broken the fifth commandment (Matt. 5:22). But, again, the breaking of the principles of the commandment is the issue, not the degree to which it is broken.
This is the same argument that James makes in Jam. 2:10 when he says “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” He is not equating all sin, but showing how any violation of the law, no matter how small, is still breaking the whole of the law because the law is connected to such a degree.
Think about this (another reductio), if you believe that adultery and lust are equal in the sight of God, then here are the results: Any man or woman can justify divorce based upon the fact that in Matt. 5:32 Christ condemns divorce except for marital infidelity. All they need to do is make the safe assumption that their spouse has lusted to some degree during their marriage. This will make their divorce justified and biblical. As well, if a man were to lust after a woman on the Internet, he might as well commit the actual act, since in God’s eyes he already has. As well (I am rolling), if you have ever lusted after a girl, then you are under God’s mandate to marry her since in God’s eyes you are one with her (1 Cor. 6:16).
Again, I think that this way of thinking is not only wrong biblically, but it also has repercussions that lead to a distorted worldview and a discrediting of the integrity of God and the Gospel of Christ.
It is true. All people are sinners (Rom. 3:23). All people are sinners from birth. But not all sin is equal.
I think that it is safe to say that while not all people sin to the same degree, we all share in an equally depraved nature. In other words, no one is less of a sinner because of an innate righteousness about which they can boast. All people have equal potential for depravity because we are all sons of Adam and share in the same depravity, even if we don’t, due to God’s grace, act out our sinfulness to the same degree.
I answered with the above answer during my ordination. I was relieved when I saw the approval of the ordination committee. I have often wondered whether or not they would have passed me if I had answered according to the traditional Evangelical folk-lore, saying that all sins are equal in the sight of God.