If Jack cheats at Scrabble, is that as bad as if he cheats on his wife?
If Elmer pilfers $10 from the offering plate, is that as bad as if he embezzles $10,000 from the church?
If Annie shoots her neighbor’s dog, is that as bad as if she shoots her neighbor?
To most people, the answers to the questions are quite obvious. In each case, the answer is no: both of the actions mentioned are sinful, but the second is worse than the first. All too often, however, I encounter Christians (including some of my students) who seem confused about this issue, or who at least hesitate to give the seemingly obvious answer. I’ve heard Christians say things like, “All sins are equally sinful in God’s eyes,” and therefore they conclude that we shouldn’t discriminate between ‘lesser’ and ‘greater’ sins or make comparative judgments regarding different sins.
What lies behind this kind of thinking? I imagine some of these Christians are reasoning like this:
- God is infinitely holy.
- All sins are offenses against God.
- Any offense against an infinitely holy God is infinitely serious.
- Therefore, all sins are infinitely bad.
- Therefore, all sins are equally bad.
Properly understood, I think the first three statements above are true. However, conclusions 4 and 5 don’t follow because the argument conflates two distinct things: the seriousness of the offense against God and the moral badness of the sin. To put it in somewhat simplistic terms, the offensiveness of a sin against God is a function of two things: (1) the moral badness of the sin, and (2) the holiness of God. It’s the second, rather than the first, which accounts for the infinitude of the offense. Hence, to reason that all sins must be equally bad because they’re all infinitely offensive to God is as mistaken as arguing that all natural numbers must be equal in value because any natural number multiplied by infinity will give you the same result (i.e., infinity).
Another, closely-related line of reasoning runs like this:
- Every sin is sufficient to send a person to hell.
- Hell is an infinite punishment.
- Therefore, every sin is infinitely bad.
There are two problems with this argument. First, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think it’s misleading to describe hell as an infinite punishment rather than an eternal or everlasting punishment (which is how the Bible puts it, e.g., Matt. 25:46). Only in a very technical sense (distinguishing between an actual infinite and a potential infinite) can hell be described as infinite in duration, and duration is not the same thing as severity (two punishments could be equal in duration while differing in severity).
Secondly, I think the rationale for the second argument is grounded in the central idea of the first argument, namely, that every sin constitutes an infinitely serious offense against God. But as I’ve pointed out, the first argument isn’t sound. Even if we grant that every sin merits eternal punishment because it constitutes an infinitely serious offense against God, that would seem to be due to the infinite holiness of God rather than the infinite badness of the sin.
What then should we say about how one sin compares to another? It would be hard to improve upon the excellent summary statement in the Westminster Larger Catechism:
Q. 150. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?
A. All transgressions of the law are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.
The catechism then helpfully elaborates on those “several aggravations”:
Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
A. Sins receive their aggravations,
1. From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
2. From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many.
3. From the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.
4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord’s day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.
Immediately following this fine-grained analysis, however, the catechism makes clear that even though sins can vary in their heinousness, every single sin, from the greatest to the least, has a common consequence and one exclusive remedy:
Q. 152. What doth every sin deserve at the hands of God?
A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserveth his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.
Clearly then the Westminster Larger Catechism rejects the notion that all sins are equally bad. As such, it’s in line with the broader Reformed tradition and (I would argue) Roman Catholic tradition as well.
But is that traditional view in line with the Bible? It’s instructive to consider the scriptural “proof texts” that the authors of the WLC offered in support of their answer to Q. 150:
John 19:11 — Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”
Ezekiel 8:6 — And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see still greater abominations.” (See also Ezek. 8:13, 15.)
1 John 5:16 — If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. [The inference here is that a sin that leads to death is more heinous than a sin that doesn’t lead to death.]
Psalm 78:17, 32, 56 — Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. … In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe. … Yet they tested and rebelled against the Most High God and did not keep his testimonies… [The suggestion here is that unbelief and rebellion in the face of divine wonders is even more heinous than it would be in the absence of such demonstrations of divine power and mercy.]
To the texts above I would add the following:
Matthew 23:23 — “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
If some matters of the law are weightier than others, it follows that (all else being equal) failing to observe those matters is more sinful than failing to observe the less weighty matters — although, of course, one ought to observe all matters of the law!
Luke 12:47-48 — And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.
It’s reasonable to conclude that since the first servant received a more severe punishment than the second, the sin of the first servant was greater than that of the second. Moreover, the reason why the first servant’s sin was greater is explicitly stated: the first servant knew better and therefore was more culpable.
Matthew 11:20-24 — Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
Again, the same underlying principle applies: greater punishment is incurred by greater sin, which presupposes that some sins are greater than others.
So then, the Bible supports our natural moral intuitions on this issue: some sins are worse than others and therefore merit more severe punishments.
But why is it important to have clarity on this issue? Does it have any significant practical implications? Very briefly, here are just three areas of application:
- If some sins are more heinous than others, that should be reflected in our criminal justice system, according to which the severity of the punishment should be proportional to the severity of the crime.
- If some sins are more heinous than others, that has implications for the practice of church discipline, i.e., for how the leaders of local churches deal with the sins of church members.
- If some sins are more heinous than others, that should direct us in our efforts to “mortify sin” (as the Puritans put it, following Col. 3:5). For example, if Harold has a tendency to speak sarcastically to his employees, and is also habitually using hardcore pornography, I suggest he should focus more of his attention and effort on the latter, even though both are sinful and need to be “put to death.” (If Harold is operating under the misconception that all sins are equally serious, I rather suspect he’ll be more inclined to take his pornography use less seriously than to take his occasional sarcasm more seriously.)
To be absolutely clear: none of the above should be taken to imply that some sins don’t really matter. As the Westminster Larger Catechism rightly states, every sin invites the wrath and curse of God, and requires nothing less than the sacrificial death of the sinless Son of God to make atonement for it. But while it is a mistake to think that some sins aren’t heinous, it is also a mistake to think that all sins are equally heinous. Both errors can cause havoc in the individual Christian life and in the life of the church.