May 3, 2011

Christian Urban Legend: All Sins are Equal

For some reason this idea has ingrained itself in the thinking of most American Christians. When the topic of sin is brought up, you will quickly hear someone say one of these lines:
"Sin is sin."
"All sins are equal."
"There is no gradation of sin."
or "All sins are the same in God's eyes."
This is said with such confidence and conviction that you would assume there is a clear Bible verse that bluntly states this.  But the truth is, there is not. Now, James 2:8-11 teaches us that any sin makes one a lawbreaker--either we keep the law perfectly, or we do not.  No one should think they can stand before a holy God and claim that they are okay in His sight because they only committed the "ligher" sins.  This passage teaches that all sins have the equal effect of separating us from God, but it is not teaching that all sins are equal in every way. 

The truth is that Jesus Himself taught that not all sins are equal.  Jesus spoke of a "greater sin." 
"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.'" -John 19:11
However you interpret this, it cannot mean that Jesus believed that no sins are greater than any other sins.  There are other passages that teach this as well (such as Ezek. 8:6,13,15; Matt. 5:19; 23:23) but I believe this statement by Jesus in John 19:11 is enough to close the case. 

I've had people get very mad at me for even suggesting this.  One person clearly jumped to the conclusion that if you believed this you would immediately start judging everyone around you.  So, if this concept is new to you, please consider all three points I am about to make before passing judgment on me for being a judgmental person.  I believe this because it is what Jesus teaches, not because I like the idea that I am better than everyone else.  In fact, the opposite is true.  I think that many of my sins are far worse than those of many others people because I know full well what I'm doing. 

Let me give a few key points.

1. There is a sense in which all sins are infinitely terrible.

I realize that this goes against what I am arguing, but I believe this is true as well.  Every sin, even those we consider light, are sins against an infinitely holy God.  This means that even the "smallest" sin is infinitely terrible.  Every sin is spitting on God with our heart.  Every sin is saying to God and the world, "God, you are worth less than this other thing I choose instead of you."  Every sin is infinitely worthy of punishment and this is why none of us could ever finish paying off the penalty for even the "smallest" sin.

2. There is another sense in which some sins are greater than others.

Jesus spoke of a "greater sin."  Some sins are judged differently in the Bible.  It also makes sense.  All other things being equal, it is worse to murder a child someone than to speed.  This doesn't mean than either are "okay" but one is obviously worse.   

All sins being equal in weight would lead to ridiculous conclusions.  Is it really better to kill a child than to speed twice?  If all sins were equal in weight, then speeding twice would be worse because it is two sins, while the murder is only one sin.  Come on? 

Points one and two seem like they contradict each other, but here is how I explain it.  In one sense they are the same but in another sense they are different.  All sins are infinitely bad, but some are like an infinitely tall stack of pennies or dimes and others are like an infinitely tall stack of quarters.  Both are infinite, but there is a difference in magnitude.

3. God does not give us the complete formula for judgment.

It is not a good idea to start ranking sins.  God does not give us the formula, or the ability, to calculate the weight of sins.  There is no logarithm in Scripture where we can fill in all the variables and crank out a total adjusted value for each sin.  We have no way of knowing one sin is a 65 but another sin comes out as a 489.  God knows the full weight.  We do not.  Only God can search the heart of each person to take into account their motives and attitudes.  Only He knows how much a person is aware of what they are doing and total circumstances that might mitigate or magnify the rebellion. 

This is incredibly important to grasp.  It means that you and I are not responsible to be the final judges.  It also means that just because someone believes that sins have different weight does not mean that he or she intends to judge everyone else like some sort of spiritual accountant. 

Having said that, there are some things we can know which make some sins heavier than others.  Many of these factors are internal.  Also please note the critical importance of the phrase "all else being equal."
  • All else being equal, a "high handed" sin is greater than a less intentional sin.  (Numbers 15:30)
  • All else being equal, it is a greater sin to sin against greater light than to sin against weaker light.  (See for example Matthew 11:20-24.)  The more we are aware of God and the seriousness of sin, the greater the weight of the sin.  (Yet no one sins in complete darkness.) 
  • All else being equal, the more responsibility and authority being abused, the greater the sin.
  • All else being equal, the greater our influence, the greater the sin.  (See for example James 3:1)
  • All else being equal, a sin that is acted upon is a greater than a sin that is just in the heart.  (Yet both are sin and neither is okay.)
  • All else being equal, a sin with a greater scope of damage is greater than a sin with a lesser scope of damage.
  • All else being equal, a sin that does eternal damage is greater than a sin that only has temporary consequences. 
  • All else being equal, sins of greater unbelief are worse than sins of less unbelief.
  • All else being equal, some sins are greater depending on the mixture of motives.  The list goes on...
Many of the sins we think are small and actually big.  The "small" sins of a mature Christian might be more serious to God than the "bigger" sin of someone else.  Perhaps this is why Paul thought of himself as the chief of all sinners (1 Tim. 1:15-16).  Again, before you try to decide who is worse, the preacher or the prostitute, please remember that only God knows how all of these factors work together. 

Although we can't judge sin perfectly on this earth, Church elders are called upon to use Biblical wisdom in matters of church discipline (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Heb. 13:17).  As Kevin DeYoung has pointed out, we can't let church leadership become paralyzed so that "the elder who battles the temptation to take a second look at the racy section of the Lands’ End catalog shouldn't dare exercise church discipline on the 20-year old fornicating with every co-ed that moves."

Still, the best use of this knowledge is not for others, but for ourselves.  All Christians are a mixed bag.  None of this is meant to excuse any sin, in others or ourselves.  We all need to repent of any known sin, and we need to ask the Spirit to search our hearts to show us the sins hiding in the deep cracks.

Where did this myth come from?

I think there have been good motives and bad motives to see all sins as equal.  Some of this originated in response to the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins.  All sin makes us worth of condemnation apart from Jesus.  In addition, other good motives include the need for humility, the need to avoid wrongheaded judgmentalism, and the need to remember that no sin in the Christian life should be tolerated. 

On the other hand, I believe there are also unhealthy reasons why this belief is so rampant.  Some people want all sins to be equal so that they can think their own sins are less serious than they really are.  "Hey, all sins are equal. Therefore my illicit sex is no worse than speeding."  Others know the skeletons they have in their closets.  And in today's climate, many Christians are petrified at the idea of being thought of as judgmental.  For many, the flattening of all sin makes it much easier to feel good about one's self as a warm and non-judgmental person.

All sin is grievous, and some especially so. God will judge everything perfectly in the end.


  1. Good and helpful post. Many thanks.

  2. Thanks for this post (and the post I linked from on STR's blog). It is important to fellowship this way - to gently educate one another to a greater understanding of Jesus Christ.

    However, I do believe that there is a way to interpret John 19:11 that does not imply that Jesus believes that there are "greater sins".

    1) The context of the passage is a conversation between Jesus and Pilate, a Roman. In that regard, the "greater sin" to which Jesus refers is more in line with the Roman understanding of sin at that time and not a Christian understanding of sin - since he is talking directly to Pilate.

    2) Jesus isn't teaching or talking about sin specifically in this passage. He's actually affirming God's authority in this situation and acknowledging that He is in fact going to be crucified according to God's Will.

    3) Jesus is actually expressing some mercy towards Pilate, as well - saying the Pharisee who turned Him in to Pilate and accuses Jesus, Caiaphas, carries more blame ("greater sin") for His eventual crucifixion than Pilate will for announcing the sentence.

    Overall, I think it is important to always consider the context of a passage. To summarily come to a conclusion based on the single phrase "greater sin" sets a bad precedent for Biblical interpretation. Especially in light of the fact that Jesus uses parables and hyperbole in His teaching moments to get a point across.

  3. I think this may completely ignore Christ's teaching about anger=murder, lust=adultery, etc. Our tendency is to say to ourselves, "well, I ONLY do such and such, and not that" or like the Pharisee who prayed "Lord thank you I am not like THAT sinner". We lose the absolute horror of our "little" sins. I teach my kids that all sin is equally aweful, and each one is enough to condemn us to an eternity in hell, and each one would be enough reason for Christ to die on the cross for us. When we think this way, our sins are a big deal, and we must turn to Christ to purify us, rather than excusing and continuing in our behavior.

    Now, are there different "consequences" for sins? In a temporal, mortal sense, yes, clearly. The eternal consequences are the same.

  4. Yes, hate is a form of murder and lust is a form of adultery, but is it correct to think that hate is the exact equivalent of murder and that lust is the exact equivalent of adultery? I don't think that Jesus' statements require that.

    And again, none of this should be taken to mean that any sin is not a big deal. All sin is rebellion against an infinitely holy God.

  5. Great post, which which I'm largely in agreement. I found it by searching for a "does not equal" picture to accompany a post I've written on the same topic. It seems we think alike!


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