Are all sins equal and why does it matter?


Since theology is more like music than calculus, imagine theology is a harp. The more strings that are in tune the more celestial the song. When Christians derive theology from the Bible, they are tuning their instrument. The Bible starts with God (Gen. 1:1) and then moves to his relationship with man. Defining sin is necessary to explain God’s holiness. Defining God’s holiness is necessary to explain his relationship with man.

As to sin, some people argue that all sins are equal before God. They point to James 2:10, which says, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” James is saying that if you commit one sin you are guilty of all sins. Some argue that this must mean that sins large and small are equally damning, thus all sins are equal before God.

We must train ourselves to turn to Scripture on all topics and apply its teaching deeper and broader than we are accustomed to doing. In addressing the issue of whether all sins are equal, we are not attempting disembodied theology. We are re-locating human beings—and human sinfulness—in the framework of the Bible.

Are all sins equal?

To set forth the Bible’s teaching on this issue, it is necessary to identify at least six of the biblical principles on the subject.

First, ultimately all sins are against God.

Consider the sin of David against Bathsheba and Uriah. While David’s troops were off fighting the Ammonites, David was at home, taking it easy. He noticed his neighbor’s wife, Bathsheba, bathing. Filled with lust, David ordered Bathsheba to be brought to him, where he then committed sexual sin against a married woman. After David learned she was pregnant, David ordered her husband, Uriah, placed on the front lines to ensure he was killed (2 Sam. 11). Later, God used the prophet, Nathan, to convict David of his sin (2 Sam. 12), at which point David wrote Psalm 51. He confesses his sin to God by saying, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:3). David intended harm against another human being. He didn’t intend to sin against God. Yet, by sinning against Bathsheba and Uriah, he sinned against God (Rom. 3:23).

Second, sin that is intended against God is worse than sin intended only to harm another human being.

Consider the sin of Eli’s Sons in 1 Samuel 2. They were “worthless men” (1 Sam. 2:12) who transformed the house of God at Shiloh into a Canaanite shrine of Baal worship, corruption, and immorality (1 Sam. 2:12-17). We are told that “the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord.” Why was it “very great”? Because “the men treated the offering of the Lord with contempt” (1 Sam. 2:17). Eli then rebukes his son, “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death” (1 Sam. 2:25). This means, then, that sins against the first five commandments are worse than sins against the next five. Blasphemy against God is eviler than lying about your neighbor. Idolatry (i.e., spiritual adultery) is more wicked than adultery. Some sins will receive the double repayment of the Lord (Jer. 16:18).

Third, some sins against people are eviler than other sins against people.

The principle throughout the Mosaic Law is that the punishment should fit the crime (i.e., “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” Ex. 21:24). This reflects the justice of God. The Lord says in Obadiah 15, “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.” Thomas Aquinas explains, “Some sins are graver than others in respect of their species, as murder is graver than theft. Therefore, the gravity of sins varies according to their objects.”[1] The Westminster Shorter Catechism question 83 asks, “Are all sins equally evil?” The answer is, “In the eyes of God, some sins in themselves are more evil than others, and some are more evil because of the harm that results from them.”

Augustine’s little book, The Enchiridion, is a handbook for the Christian life. He distinguishes “great” sins from “small” sins. One way to distinguish great from small sins is the intention and consequence of the sin. He uses the example of lying, saying some lies are worse than others based on the motive of the lie. He says that “every crime is a sin” but “every sin is not a crime.” Great sins are not part of the normal pattern of Christian life, but small sins are. Augustine says that we ought to pray the Lord’s Prayer daily. When we pray “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12) we are praying about our small, daily sins where we fall short and need forgiveness.

Fourth, sins committed by leaders are judged with greater strictness

James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” People follow the examples of leaders. When a leader sins (2 Sam. 16:22), people see and think they can do the same (1 Kings 14:16). Jesus pronounced woe to the Pharisees, saying, “You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Mt. 23:13). Micah denounced the rulers and prophets, saying, “Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them … Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray” (Micah 3:4-5). Similarly, Jesus says the scribes “will receive the greater condemnation” (Lk. 20:45-47) because to whom much is given much is required (Lk. 12:48). (See also Romans 2:23-24).

Fifth, sins in knowledge are more wicked than sins in ignorance

Jesus concludes the parable of the wise manager by saying “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. 48 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” (Luke 12:47-48). This principle helps explain Hebrews 10:26-31, which discusses how the person raised in the covenant home earns “much worse punishment” when they reject the Lord (Heb. 10:29; see also Heb. 12:25). Jesus denounced the cities that refused to repent even after they had witnessed his mighty works,“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. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 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. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Mt. 11:21-24). Similarly, Jesus said of those who refuse to receive his apostles, “It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Mt. 10:15).

Jesus said to Pilate, “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” (John 19:11). Whether “he who delivered” Jesus to death refers to Judas or Caiaphas, the point is that they are committing “greater sin” than Pilate. Why? Because Pilate was not prepared to comprehend the truth about Jesus like the Jews were. To the Jews belonged “the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all” (Rom. 9:4-5).

And so it is that some sins are more heinous than others (Lev. 18:24-30), and sins in knowledge are worse than sins in ignorance.

Sixth, there is an unforgivable sin

Jesus taught, “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mt. 12:31-32). Notice the distinction. What sin can be forgiven? Speaking “a word against the Son of Man.” What sin will not be forgiven? Speaking “against the Holy Spirit.” The point, for our purposes, isn’t to explicate the distinction but to merely point it out and in so doing point out that one sin is treated as worse (unforgivable) than the other (forgivable).

So, in summary, what shall we say? Are all sins equal? The answer is no. All sins are not equal. But it’s not that some sins are evil and others are not evil. It’s that all sins are not equally evil in God’s sight.

Why does it matter?

It teaches us about discipleship

When Augustine distinguished between great sins and small sins, he taught that great sins should be rare in the ordinary life of a Christian. Nevertheless, in the Old Testament, God warned against “greater abominations” (Ez. 8:6, 13, 15). In the New Testament, we see the Corinthian church so hardened to heinous sins that they not only tolerate but boast in them (1 Corinthians 5:1-8).

We ought to talk about sin like God talks about sin. God’s language about sin is designed to train and jolt us to detest that which God detests. This training is necessary to counteract the fleshly tendency to explain away sinful behavior with plausible excuses.

If we talk, like Jesus, about “greater sin” (Jn. 19:11) that leads to “greater condemnation” (Lk. 20:47), won’t some enterprising sinners justify the lesser sins? Indeed, there is always a tendency within human beings to make light of those vices which are concealed. However, this tendency isn’t justified by Scripture’s greater/lesser sin distinction. For instance, anger is a sin that can be concealed. Murder is not. Jesus saw it fitting to call each by its own name (Mt. 5:21f). In so doing, it’s not that anger is identical to murder (Mt. 5:21-22) or that lust is identical to adultery (Mt. 5:27-28). Jesus’ point is that when each sin is forbidden under the category of “murder” or “adultery,” we are trained to see that anger and lust are both sinful in God’s sight. This helps the aforementioned ‘enterprising sinner’ see the gravity of his concealed sin which he previously justified. It’s important to understand our sinful condition because, as John Owen wrote, “The man that understands the evil of his own heart, how vile it is, is the only useful, fruitful, and solidly believing and obedient person.”[2]

The distinction between greater and smaller sins is also helpful in the practice of church discipline. The church administers discipline differently depending on if it is a private sin or a public sin. For private sins (i.e., “If your brother sins against you” Mt. 18:15a), Christ says “Go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Mt. 18:15b). For those in persistent sin, Paul tells Timothy, “Rebuke them in the presence of all” (1 Tim. 5:20). Paul modeled public rebuke in the case where Peter sinned openly. Rather than admonish Peter privately, Paul rebuked Peter “before them all” (Gal. 2:14). To correct the greater sin of which the Corinthians boasted, Paul doesn’t just exhort but punishes with excommunication, saying, “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:1-13).

It’s also the case that some principles of God’s law are more important than others. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faithfulness.” Jesus defines the lesser matters of the law as tithing mint and dill and cumin (Mt. 23:23a). Jesus affirms that the Pharisees “ought to have done” the more important things “without neglecting the others.” Hosea 6:6 is another example of God giving one part of the law precedence over another. God says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Yet God also desires burnt offerings, as we see from the detailed instructions on how they ought to be performed (Leviticus 1). This means that God desires love and sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean they are equal. God desires steadfast love more than he desires sacrifice.

It teaches us about the gospel

We saw earlier that sins in knowledge are more wicked than sins in ignorance. In particular, if you’ve received the means of grace in the preached Word and Lord’s Supper, if you’ve learned the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, if you’ve been washed in the baptismal waters, yet still reject Jesus Christ, then this is a sin in knowledge. The day of judgment will be more tolerable for Sodom than for you (Mt. 11:21-24).

Yet Christ still says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Why would Jesus say this even to those who commit the greater sin (Mt. 11:24)? It’s because even when sins are unequal, they have the same remedy. Even when sinners are different, they are saved in the same way, through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

All sins are mortal sins, indeed, “The soul who sins shall die” (Ez. 18:4, 20). Sins great and small earn God’s just wrath (Rom. 6:23); sin is rebellion against the will of God. God’s judgment is pronounced upon all violations of His law. The point of James 2:10, quoted earlier, is that even a lesser sin is against God. Yet, the Lord declares, “As I live … I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel” (Ez. 33:11)? When a sinner puts faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and His righteousness, and His promises which are fulfilled in the New Covenant, “whoever believes in him is not condemned” (John 3:18). “For therein the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). “The Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).

A final word of wisdom from Augustine, “Let us not bring forward false balances to weigh what we please and as we please, according to our own opinion, saying, ‘This is heavy’: ‘This is light.’ But let us bring forward the divine balance of the Holy Scriptures, as from the Lord’s treasury, and in that balance let us weigh what is heavier. No—not weigh; rather, let us recognize what the Lord has already weighed.”[3]

[1] Summa Theologica II: 73:3

[2] John Owen, Sin and Temptation, xviii

[3] Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists II. Vi. 9 (MPL 43. 132; tr.NPNF IV. 429).

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.