Monday, August 19, 2013

Are All Sins Equal?

It’s wrong to steal a pack of gum from the convenience store. It’s also wrong to eat a stranger’s face off. Though these two crimes belong to the same category – they are both crimes – they’re worlds apart. And the penalties our justice system metes out reflect this difference.

What about God’s perspective? Does God think chewing stolen gum is just as bad as chewing a stolen face? The answer may not be as obvious as you think.

God is, by definition, quite different from us. If God tells us that, from his perspective, all sins are equally grave then we should take him at his word – even if it violently contradicts our intuitions.

Many Christians believe that God does in fact consider all sins to be equal. After all, Jesus says that to look at a woman lustfully is to commit adultery with her in one’s heart (Matthew 5:28). And his brother, James, says that if one obeys the entire law but fails at one point he is guilty of breaking 
the whole law (James 2:10).

The conviction that all sins are equal in God’s sight (even if not in ours) comes up frequently in current controversies. Most of us recognize that Christians often fail in our aim to live holy lives. From that premise the argument goes something like: Since speaking unkind words to a spouse is on par with aborting a baby in God’s eyes then we should treat the two sins the same (i.e. with equal leniency).

If gossip and rape are equal then I believe we should consider gossip to be a very serious matter. After all, sin is sin. But what if they aren’t equal? What if our intuitions are right?

Different Punishments
You’ve heard the old expression, “an eye for an eye”? That comes from the Bible. The idea was that if a person lost an eye in a violent attack the offender was sentenced to lose an eye too. If a tooth was lost then a tooth was taken. The punishment was tailored to fit the crime.

In the Old Testament some sins were punished by death (Ex 21:16; Lev 20:10-12; 24:17; etc.) Others were punished by whipping or a fine (Deut 25:1-3; Ex 22:1-4; etc.). Before the perfect sacrifice came (Jesus) different sins also required different sacrifices (Lev 4-7).

The New Testament reveals that God still punishes some sins more severely than others (Heb 2:2-3; 10:28-29; 1 John 5:16). The practice of certain sins unequivocally precludes one from entering the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21).

If all crimes were the same in God’s eyes we could reasonably expect that all punishments would be the same. After all, we know that God is just. Since the punishments God issues differ it’s reasonable to think that, from his perspective, there are gradations of guilt – that some sins are worse than others.

Jesus’ Perspective
If God in the flesh said anything about this subject we ought to pay close attention. Jesus told us that some parts of the law were “weightier” than others (Mat 23:23), that some had committed a “greater sin” than others (John 19:11), and he warned that some will receive harsher sentences than others on the Day of Judgment (Luke 12:47-48). Jesus also spoke of one particular sin that could never be forgiven (Mat 12:31).

It sounds like Jesus considered some sins to be worse than others.

Relationships and Transgressions
All sins do not impact our relationships to the same degree. If, for instance, my wife steps on my toe out of anger the effect on our relationship would be minimal. If I then responded by giving her a concussion the effects would be much more severe. I contend that the same is true of our relationship with God – some sins hurt the relationship more than others.

Gossiping would damage my relationship with God (especially if I know better). Abortion, being the greater sin (especially if I know better), would do even greater damage.

This recognition, that some sins are more destructive to our relationships with God and neighbor, should impact the way we exhort (and even rebuke) one another. If I see a brother or sister sin a “small” sin I may only need to pray for them or offer a very mild and meek correction. If, on the other hand, I see my brother or sister engaging in a more serious offense I will need to respond in a way that fits the higher stakes of the situation. The goal is and must always be to preserve and protect sacred relationships.

Hate and Love
As Christians we have two great commandments – Love God and Love our Neighbors. There’s a flip side to that commandment. When our affections begin to line up with God’s we begin to not only love – we begin to hate. Loving my God and my neighbor means hating sin. That means the big sins and the little sins, the few sins and the many sins – it especially means my sins.

Since all sins are not equal we should hate some sins even more than others. But, since all sinners are equal (made in God’s image), we should love all sinners equally – sincerely and sacrificially.