Dr. Stephen Wellum of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recently published an article titled, “Are there degrees of sin?” The subtitle to the article posed the question, “So, does Scripture teach there are degrees of sin? The answer is, yes, but in making such an affirmation one can never relativize the serious nature of all sin.”
Dr. Wellum’s article rightly argues that there are degrees of sin. But he warns his readers that this does not change this fact: All sin, even the smallest and slightest ones, are offenses to God and are worthy of eternal death and damnation.
The debate rages in the culture primarily from the left…the cultural left, the political left, and even the theological left. There is a blatant desire by the left to equalize all sin in an effort to reduce criticism and Biblical judgment.
For example, someone might say, “Don’t judge me just because I am a transvestite pedophile. Your shirt is made of polyester and cotton. Mixed fabrics are prohibited in Leviticus. And sin is sin.”
Or, “Don’t judge me because I support a politician who believes in abortion on demand and the radical expansion of LGBTQ policies. Your candidate curses and has suspicious money in an off-shore bank account. And sin is sin.”
Webster’s Dictionary defines sin as, “An offense against religious or moral law.” Augustine wrote that sin is a, “Word, deed, or desire in opposition to the eternal law of God.” But my favorite definition, the one I’ve taught my four kids, is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It states that, “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God
But are some sins “worse” than others and if so, why? I think the answer to that is clearly, “yes.” And I want to submit a few reasons why.
1. The iniquity factor: The type of the sin itself
Some sins are a worse departure from the law of God. For example, adultery violates the decree of God. Homosexuality violates the decree and the design of God. Child sexual abuse violates the decree and design of God and also violates a completely innocent person.
Common sense tells us and our legal system affirms that a passing, lustful thought is not the same degree of offense as aggravated sexual battery. But even though our legal system and our common sense bear this out, neither of those is our standard. We should always ask, “What does the Bible say?”
In the article I referenced, Dr. Wellum points out that some sins in the Bible “cry out to God for justice.” Not all sins are said to do so.
In the murder of Abel, innocent blood is said to have cried out from the ground (Genesis 4:10). God told Moses that He had heard the cries of the enslaved Jews in Egypt (Exodus 3:7). And observing the sexual depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord said, “Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous, I will go down now…” (Genesis 18:20-21)
I doubt anyone believes that a single unkind word is as sinful in degree as the ongoing murderous acts of a serial killer. To be clear, both are sin. Neither is excusable before God. But one is obviously sin of a much greater degree.
2. The information factor: Biblical knowledge of the sinner
In Matthew 11:20-24, the Lord Jesus pronounced judgment on the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. He said that if Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom had seen the miracles that they had seen, those cities would have repented. He said, “It will be better in the day of judgment for them than for you.”
What made their sin worse? It was the exposure to knowledge and truth.
Parents innately understand this truth when dealing with their children. If a 17-year old son is disobeying along with a 5-year old, we instinctively know the older child’s sin is worse. Why? Because even though the younger child’s sin is not excusable and must be addressed, the older child should have known better!
John 19:11 – Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against me, except it were given to you from above: therefore, he that delivered me to you has the greater sin.”
After having seen all the miracles and hearing all the teachings of the Master, the sin of Judas was worse than the sin of Pilate. This is a sober warning for those of us who sit each week in Bible-preaching churches and spend time each day in personal Bible study.
3. The identity factor: The identity and position of the sinner
Lamentations 4:7 declares, “For the wrongdoing of the daughter of my people is greater than the sin of Sodom.” For God’s people, not only do we know better, but typically with that knowledge comes a greater degree of influence. And far from diminishing our sin, this principle elevates the sin of mature believers and faithful Bible students and warns that its discipline will be more, not less, severe.
For example, if a member of our church commits adultery, someone will whisper about hypocrisy and move on. If a deacon commits adultery, there will be open gossip around town, maybe even a critical post or two on social media. But if I, as the pastor, commit adultery, it will besmirch the cause of Christ, greatly hinder the church’s witness in the community, and devastate the spiritual development of hundreds of children and teenagers and new believers.
This is why James 3:1 cautions teachers of the Word that we will incur a stricter judgment. Not only because of our presumed knowledge but because of our position before the people. The bottom line is, some sins are worse, not just because of what we did but because of who we are.
4. The impact factor: The consequences of the sin
Certain sins in the Bible required death. Why? Well, the consequences were different for the person who was sinned against. So, the consequences were more severe for the person doing the sinning.
Exodus 21:22-25 contains one of several civil laws for theocratic Israel. If two men were fighting and a pregnant woman was struck, the punishment was more severe dependent on the damage, if any, that was done.
In the case of David’s infamous sin with Bathsheba, the king was mercifully and gloriously forgiven. But the severe discipline matched David’s great sin, in part, because the consequences were so widespread. In that case, the enemies of God were given occasion to blaspheme.
If something I did caused a greater, negative impact on someone else, then that would be a greater sin and would bring about a greater consequence from the Lord.
Finally, it ought to be repeated: a lesson on the degrees of sin should never be taken to trivialize or minimize sin. All sin is an egregious offense to God and each one is worthy of His holy wrath and just condemnation. And frankly, each sin will incur His Divine fury. And that is why followers of Jesus are so grateful for Calvary.
At the cross of our Lord, Jesus became (2 Corinthians 5:21) and bore (1 Peter 2:24) our sin. He suffered for each sin of every person who would ever believe. In Sovereign mercy, He paid the penalty for the smallest and slightest sin. And yes, He even paid for the sins that were greater.
This article is derived from a message, “Are All Sins Equal?” preached on Sunday evening, November 15, 2020.