“All sins are the same! Sin is sin!” I have heard this confusion even from pastors. So how can we blame the laity if they get it wrong?
Not all sins are equal, say the Scriptures. There are two perspectives to clarify the question.
The first perspective is eternal and heavenly, and the second is down here on earth and practical.
First, heavenly and eternal.
Before the heavenly, holy tribunal, even one sin disqualifies us from permanently standing before a thrice-holy God on our own merits and righteousness (Is. 6) and keeps us permanently outside of his presence. Therefore, God has to declare us legally guiltless, once we repent of our sins and ask for his forgiveness in Jesus’s name. This legal declaration is called justification. We now have right legal standing before God. (Incidentally, this is not the same as saying that all sins deserve equal punishment in hell; instead, it is saying that one sin disqualifies us from standing in God’s holy presence without his gracious atonement and invitation.)
Second, down here on earth as humans interact with each other, it is obvious that sins have degrees of severity according to the personal and social impact. Stealing a candy bar as a ten-year-old boy is different from robbing a bank as an adult. Or more dramatically, a poor adult stealing a loaf of bread (a petty crime and sin) is not as harmful as genocide (a massive ethnic crime and sin). God views the latter set of sins as more serious and harmful because they violate moral law more severely and damage his highest creation (humans) more directly and extensively and extremely.
So is there Scriptural evidence for degrees of sins in the earthly realm?
1.. The Old Sinai Covenant distinguishes between unintentional sin and “highhanded” sin.
In Lev. 4-5, when priests, leaders, the whole community, and members of the community sin unknowingly, they are still guilty, yet the law prescribes the sacrificial remedies, which eliminates the penalties. They are not removed from the community
For intentional, rebellious (highhanded) sins and blasphemes the LORD, the rebellious are to be cut off or removed from the community (Num. 15:27-30). So the degrees of sin and the corresponding punishments are clear.
2.. The Old Sinai Covenant prescribes the death penalty for certain crimes and not for others.
Thankfully, the death penalty is not imposed on the following kinds of misconduct today, like breaking the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36), sexual sins (Lev. 20), and murder (Gen. 9:6), while the sins in the first point do not get the death penalty.
The point here is not to debate the proportion of the penalties by modern standards, but simply to show the degrees or gradations of sins and punishments. Some sins are indeed considered worse than others in God’s and humankind’s sight in the Old Testament.
3.. National sins deserve national punishments.
This is the whole purpose of the ten plagues of judgment on the entire nation of Israel (Exod. 7:14-11:10). It would have been disproportionate to slap the wrist of a peasant for the sins of the Egyptian Pharaoh who had misled the entire nation. But since the entire nation, under the Pharaoh, committed the sin of slavery, the nation was subjected to punishment. Do we have to talk about the American Civil War and the horrible toll it took, north and south?
Israel and Judah (northern and southern kingdoms) were punished by national exile, after God waited hundreds of years for their repentance and obedience to the covenant. Punishing one shopkeeper in a town for the sins of the nation would have been unjust. National sins require national punishment, showing the degrees of sin and punishment.
Japan and Germany had been waging international war, particularly Japan for several decades, until the allies worked together to stop them, finally in 1945. Punishing one German or Japanese craftsman for the entire nation would have been disproportionate and unfair. Once again, the crimes and sins of the nations were punished nationally. Scales and degrees of sins and punishment must match up. This is why it is so critical for people of modern nations to overthrow their unjust, cruel leaders.
4.. Even the New Covenant Scriptures recognize degrees of sins and punishments.
When Jesus stood on trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus said, “The one who delivered me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). Speaking in the singular (“the one”), he was referring to Judas, not the Jewish leaders. Judas behaved worse than Pilate.
James 3:1 warns, “Don’t be numerous teachers, dear brothers, knowing that we shall receive greater judgment.” In other words, people who attend church do not have as great a responsibility as those who lead it. The leaders have the potential to wreak more harm on the greater number of church goers. Sins with greater impact are judged more severely.
Luke 12:47-48 talks about two servants. The one who knew his master’s will but did bad things got a severer beating. The other servant who did not know his master’s will but also did some bad thing got a lighter beating. No, this parable should not be transferred literally to social policy today (or for any time), so that we bring back beatings. Rather, it illustrates this main point: To whom much is given, much is required. A man who has been given much, from him shall much be demanded. Greater responsibility can potentially incur greater judgment because the sin and harm are more extensive and has widespread negative impact. Knowledge, responsibility and actions matter.
In 1 Cor. 3:12-15, Paul teaches that a believer who builds the church with gold, silver and costly stones (God-led and inspired good deeds) will receive a greater reward in the last judgment. A believer who builds with wood, hay and stubble (selfish or misguided works) will be saved at judgment, but his useless works will have to go through fire and be burned off. The works of gold, silver and costly stone have a higher degree of reward than the other class.
Finally, all throughout Scripture, those who do good works will get a better reward than those who do bad works (Ps. 62:12; Jer. 17:10; Matt. 12:36-37; 25:45-46; Luke 16:19-31; Rom. 2:6-7; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 20:13)
All of these Scriptures show degrees of good and bad works, which in some cases can be sins, and the corresponding great and less great rewards and lighter and heavier punishments. God notices the degrees of differences, so should we.
5.. The law courts recognize degrees of sins.
They see that some crimes are much worse (murder) than others (shoplifting). Each crime deserves different degrees of punishment. It is a blessing that a thief does not have his hand chopped off, because the punishment does not match the crime. It is just that a murderer does not get only a slap on the wrist. The law courts are right to make these distinctions. We get this knowledge from our reason and the Scriptures to see the distinctions and severer degrees.
5.. God shows more displeasure for the greater sins than the lesser ones.
This is true from the nature of the case—the verses in point no. 4 demonstrate this truth. God judges and disciplines us more strongly and strictly when our sins bring greater harm, particularly to others and even more specially to his holy people (1 Cor. 3:13-17). He protects humanity, his highest creation, and his church, an assembly of redeemed humanity.
On a personal level, God will show more patience with your character development to purge out old sins. The degrees of sin and his dealings can be seen in the mature and immature believer. If you are a new believer and have a problem with your temper and one day you lose your temper in a Bible study, then God will be patient. He will rebuke you, but he sees that the harm is not as much as the second situation, next.
The second one: if you are a church leader and lose your temper in church, God will be patient with you, but the harm is worse, and he will deal with you more strictly and strongly. The church elders may have to take disciplinary action, depending on the circumstances.
How does this post help me grow in Christ?
Back to the two perspectives:
In the first one (heavenly and eternal), yes, even one sin disqualifies us to stand permanently before a thrice-holy God in his presence in heaven on our own merits and righteousness (Is. 6), until the time we repent and receive his forgiveness of sins and have saving faith in Christ by his grace. Then he declares us not guilty, acquits us, and justifies us. We now have right legal standing before him. If we have difficulty in getting rid of sins, then God does not withdraw his legal declaration. Rather, he sends his Spirit into our lives to help us overcome them.
We must not transfer the first perspective to the second one in the world of humanity interacting with each other. If we do, we will have bad and confused theology.
In the second perspective, down here on earth, sins and crimes really are worse than others, and the degrees of punishment correspond to the degree of sins and crimes. Some sins and crimes impact society more severely than others, and God takes note of the different harms. This is right and just.
Finally, let’s end with hope.
With all the talk of sin and harm or consequences, let’s not lose sight of the biblical truth that God is still willing to forgive. All we have to do is repent in Jesus’s name, and he instantly forgives. The believer who gossiped can receive God’s forgiveness, and so can a death-row murderer before he is executed.
The prostitute who poured ointment on Jesus’s head and washed his feet with tears and wiped them with her hair had her “many” sins forgiven. “Your sins are forgiven … Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Luke 7:48, 50).
Therefore, all sins may not be equal, and the persons who sin worse than others will love the Lord more when they are forgiven (Luke 7:41-42). Despite the different levels of sins, God extends the same powerful forgiveness to one and all who repent and receive his Son into their hearts.