I got this great question from a blog reader the other day… following is my response:
Question: We are all viewed equally under God’s grace and Jesus’ sacrifice, no matter what sin we have committed, but does this necessarily lead to God viewing all sin as equal or can we derive from scripture that God distinguishes some sins… eg: murder is worse than cheating on a test. We are treated with grace regardless of the sin, but would God view murder with more disdain?
Response: Yes and no.
I think the answer is both YES and NO, depending on what you are talking about. Like many things theological, it may not be as simple as it seems… In order to think through the issue Biblically, I think it important to think in terms of 5 issues:
Soteriology vs. Ethics
Sin vs. Sins
Theological Implications vs. What Daddy Thinks
The Danger of Sin Comparison
The Jesus Factor
1. SOTERIOLOGY vs. ETHICS
I have written here about the important distinction between soteriological issues (that is, issues of salvation) and ethical issues (that is, right living).
In terms of salvation, no, I do not think there is a difference. The scriptures are clear that “the wage (or consequence) of all sin is death”, that all sin comes through Adam and his original sin, and that we all stand under the same judgement. From that perspective, all condemned and sentenced (rightfully) to death, it seems a bit silly to distinguish who is more guilty than another. We all deserve death because of our sin. Period. Without exception. So in this sense, there is no difference.
But from an ethical perspective, yes, I think there is a difference. While the consequence of all sin is death (spiritual death, relational death, physical death) there are also more immediate and worldly consequences to sin. Stealing is stealing, but what Bernie Madoff did had great consequence than a 10 year old shoplifting at WalMart. Similarly, the personal and corporate cost/consequence of murder, rape, etc, are greater than sins like pride, lying, or cheating on a test.
I also think there are degrees of sin-impact/consequence within categories. For example, while the scriptures are clear that all sex outside a covenant marriage is sinful, I think it is fair to say that there are differences. Adultery that destroys a marriage and involved kids is worse than pre-marital sexual activity, from a consequence perspective. While we may not fully affirm cohabitation before (or without) marriage, we can affirm that it is better than someone just sleeping around with whoever they want. While Biblically sex between two non-married consenting adults is sin, it is less consequential than non-consensual sexual activity or sexual activity with a minor, etc. There are even times where Jesus seems to make allowances for sin as the lessor of two evils. While scripture is clear that “God hates divorce”, Jesus (and most Christian ethicists) allow for it under certain circumstances, seeing it as the lessor evil.
2. SIN vs. SINS
As we think about sin, it is important to remember theologically the difference between SIN and sins.
According to the scriptures, Sin is a universal human condition, inherited from the fall. Sin is a disease that haunts the human race and has dire consequences. The wage of Sin is death. The immediate cost is broken shalom and a destruction of the relationship between us and God as well as between us and our neighbors. All evil, conflict and strife is the result of this Sin. In fact, all of creation has been impacted and in many ways is disintegrating before our very eyes. That is why as believers we long for the eschaton — the end times, when all things will be renewed… a new heavens and a new earth!
In contrast to Sin, we also have sins. These sins are really the symptom, not the disease. Selfishness, anger, stealing, sexual immorality, judgmentalism, hypocrisy, lying, gossip, etc, etc — these sins are the result of Sin. This is what Calvin, for example, means when he talks about human depravity — it is not about the sins, but Sin.
Jesus died to conquer Sin. In the midst of that, our sins are also forgiven. You can read more of my thoughts about this distinction here.
In the context of this conversation, part of what that means is that we are all equally under and impacted (burdened) by SIN; and our sins, whatever they may be, are the inevitable consequence of living in a SIN-infested world.
God is less concerned with the sins than SIN.
As one of my seminary professors used to say, “you put a cucumber in vinegar long enough and it will become a pickle” — in other words, our world is filled with SIN (vinegar) and no matter fresh, crisp, pure we are (cucumbers) we will become pickles (sinful) simply by the reality of our environment. Again, the big deal is SIN; sins are the symptom, not the root problem. What is unfortunate is when Christians become obsessed with attacking/treating the symptom and miss the real issue.
3. THEOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS vs. WHAT DADDY THINKS
We know from the scriptures that God hates all sin. He is holy and cannot be in the presence of sin (apart from the incarnation). But the scriptures also do highlight certain sins that seem to warrant God’s anger and wrath more: some that get highlighted are injustice, abusing the poor, stealing from God (by neglecting the tithe), all forms of idolatry, divorce, etc. Paul highlights sexual sin as particularly problematic because it is a sin against the temple of the Holy Spirit; Jesus seems to have no patience of self-righteousness and those that would keep others from God. But we also know that these are all covered by the Cross.
But apart from the theological implications, is the question of your Heavenly Daddy thinks about your sins and what He says to you about them. I believe that God considers all sin human tragedy… all sin has already received the full wrath of God (on the cross)… judgement has already been delivered (in Christ, not guilty), and the shame has been removed.
God doesn’t even remember our sins… they are white as snow… as far as the east is from the west. This is not just pastoral hyperbole nor reserved for “proper” sins… but this is an existential reality in Christ about all sins and all sinners.
I think God is saddened by our sin… I think he is angry at the SIN that wreaks havoc in the world… but I don’t think He is angry at his children for being pickles.
4. THE DANGER OF SIN COMPARISON
While I appreciate the question and think that there is an ethical distinction, I think we need to be careful about too many sin comparisons. Jesus warns us against this again and again in his teachings–especially the Sermon on the Mount.
“You think you are good because you’ve not com
mitted adultery? Well get this… even if you lust in your heart, you’ve done it!”
I don’t think we should read this as Jesus saying that the worldly consequence of actual adultery and lust are the same. No! That would be a very bad reading of the text. I do think he is saying be careful about comparing yourself to others. You think you are OK because you can pass the check list, but SIN as contaminated your heart and sins flow forth from it. He is also saying that we need to take our sin — all sin! — very seriously.
The theme of not comparing comes up often in the Gospels. And even more so, Jesus says again and again that you and I are to perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect… as righteous as the Pharisees… etc etc. In other words, we all fail to meet the standard of “good” as Jesus defines it. “Why do you call me good? Only God is good,” Jesus tells the rich young ruler.
Paul makes the same case in Romans. Really the primary argument of the first few chapters of Romans is that we are all condemned by SIN and our sins — no one is without guilt and no one can stand on their own righteousness. This flies right in the face of the common myth that we can be good enough and that “since I am essentially good, I will get into heaven.” No! None of us meet the standard! Again, when you are all condemned to death, debating the minutia of who is “more guilty” seems absurd.
5. THE JESUS FACTOR
And all of this is why the Gospel is so incredibly scandalous. We don’t like to hear that we are all in the same boat. We prefer to think “well yes, I am a sinner of sorts… but at least I am not like that guy!” (Jesus tells a parable about this specific situation). In Christ, all sins are covered (already) and SIN will be defeated (not yet). In Christ, all sins — past, present and future — have already been paid for, already wiped clean, already forgiven. So again, since all has been redeemed and forgiven and paid for by Jesus, making lots of distinctions between “serious sins” verse regular sins (“venial” vs “mortal”) probably does not make a lot of sense, except in terms of ethics and creating community within our terribly broken world.
BUT… MAYBE IT IS THE WRONG QUESTION…
All of that said, I do wonder if it not the wrong question.
In a recent book focused on the whole issue of sin, scholar and author Gary Anderson explores the biblical images of sin, especially sin as a burden that needs to be lifted.
According to Anderson, the most common image/word for sin is awon, which translates as a burden that needs to be lifted (108x). Second is sin as something to be forgiven (17x) and third, sin as something to be wiped away (6x). (Thanks Scot McKnight for the reference).
The idea of “sin as burden” stems from the SIN vs. sins distinction we’ve talked about. This is not some post-modern, wish-washy re-interpretation of scripture. Rather it is an accurate and raw understanding of the Biblical picture of SIN and its impact on creation (including humanity).
In modern day evangelicalism, we have become obsessed with sins. I think the reason this is true is less because evangelicalism is inherently moralistic (as its critics might suggest) but more to do with the emphasis on the need for personal redemption. In the “personal redemption”/4 Spiritual Laws/Romans Road model, helping people understand that they are “sinners” is important, so that they understand they need a savior. And while this is all theologically true, the unintended consequences are that (1) a reduction of the very serious issue of SIN to a relatively simplistic discussion of sins (“have you ever used God’s name in vain? Gotcha… see, you are a sinner too! Now pray to accept Jesus and it will all be OK.”); and (2) it has created (I think unintentionally) a brand of Christianity that is more moralistic than holy, more obsessed with avoiding certain sins, then in following the way of Jesus; and (3) an over emphasis on sin and salvation as being primarily about the individual instead of the community/corporate body.
Anyway… I am guessing that this is a longer and more detailed answer than you wanted when you asked the question… but I think it is important to really think about these issues.
So here is a question for all of you:
What do you think?
What do you think about the soteriological/ethical distinction?
What about SIN vs. sin?
What about the ethical consequences of different sins?
I would love to hear your thoughts…