Many Christians think all sins are the same. Have you ever heard that before? Imagine someone commits a horrible crime. Let’s say, for example, a man murders his whole family. And when the community hears about it, they’re outraged. But then imagine that some Christians say, “We need to remember that we’re all sinners.” “We all deserve to go to hell.” “None of us is really different from the murderer.”
But is it true that all people are equally sinful?
If someone has sinful anger in his heart, but never acts on it, is that person really the same as someone who has sinful anger in his heart and then murders his whole family?
To answer this question, we need to make some distinctions.
1. Every single sin deserves death and hell.
The Bible teaches in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” In that sense all sins are the same. Every single sin deserves the anger and judgment of God. Galatians 3:10 says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.” That means, if you don’t obey God’s law perfectly, and if you break His law in just one small way, then you are eternally cursed and deserve to go to hell. All sins make us legally guilty before God and liable to eternal punishment in hell.
2. Some sins are greater than other sins.
Ezekiel 8 is about a time when God reveals certain abominations to the prophet Ezekiel. It shows us that some sinful abominations are greater than others.
Ezekiel 8:5-6 says, “Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, lift up your eyes now toward the north. So I lifted up my eyes toward the north, and behold, north of the altar gate, in the entrance, was this image of jealousy. 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.”
The prophet is saying there is some graven image at the North gate of the temple, possibly an image of Baal. That is a great abomination. But then God says, but you will see even “greater” abominations than this. So we learn that there are degrees of abomination. And what are the “greater” abominations?
In Ezekiel 8:7-12, God shows Ezekiel some of the secret sins of the elders of Israel. They are worshipping their idols in secret, hiding their idolatry and trying to get away with it. Those abominations are greater than the first.
And in verse 13, the prophet says, “He said also to me, you will see still greater abominations that they commit.” The sins of Israel are becoming greater and greater.
Then Ezekiel 8:14-15. He says, “Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the LORD, and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. [Tammuz is the Babylonian deity! – The enemy of Israel and of God.] Have you seen this, O son of man? You will see still greater abominations than these.”
So, the people have moved from worshipping false gods in secret to weeping over the Babylonian god publicly. And in the very last verses of Ezekiel 8, God gives the prophet a vision of 25 men in the temple who turn their backs on God, and they are worshipping the sun. This is full, high-handed, idolatry.
The Israelites are becoming more and more sinful. Their hardness of heart and hatefulness toward God became greater and greater. So, the Scriptures show us a progression of greater and greater sins.
The New Testament also mentions greater sin in John 19:11, when Jesus says to Pilate, “he who delievered me over to you has the greater sin.”
3. Some sins are unintentional.
There’s an example of a lesser degree of sin found in Leviticus 4. This passage discusses unintentional sins. Leviticus 4:2-3 says, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, ‘If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins thus bringing guilt on the people, then he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull from the heard without blemish to the LORD for a sin offering.”
But what is an unintentional sin? People sin unintentionally when they forget about God’s commandments. Sometimes Christians commit sins of omission unintentionally. Christians might forget to encourage others. They might at times forget to pray. Often these sins are not malicious. Their minds are sometimes on other things. But unintentional, forgetful sins are still great sins.
Other times, Christians might sin because they misunderstand something in the Bible. Believers sometimes have sincere disagreements about certain biblical commands. For example, does the Bible command the baptism of believers only? Does the Bible command us to observe Sabbath on Sunday? I believe the answer to both of those questions is “yes.”But not all Christians agree. Someone is sincerely wrong. And whoever is wrong is sinning unintentionally.
John Calvin gives us some insight into another kind of unintentional sin, called a sin of incontinence. He quotes Aristotle approvingly and says, a “man loses the specific knowledge of good and evil through his unruly appetites, because he cannot see in his own sin the evil, which he commonly condemns in others. But once desire ceases to blind him, repentance restores him to a state of knowledge.”
Let me give you an example of what Calvin is talking about. Imagine that a Christian hears of an injustice taking place. Maybe one person is committing an injustice against another person. And that makes this Christian angry. And the Christian tries to fight against the injustice. But in fighting against it, he gets carried away in his passions, and he murders another person with his words. He begins to attack and belittle the person in question.
And this Christian commits an injustice himself, even though he’s trying to oppose injustice. In the moment, he didn’t sin knowingly. He wasn’t thinking about sinning. He didn’t plan to sin. It just happened, when he got carried away with his passions. But when he comes to his senses, and his desire for justice doesn’t blind him anymore, he recognizes his murderous sin with his words, and he repents of it.
That’s an unintentional sin. It’s still a great sin, which requires atonement. But it’s a lesser kind of sin.
4. Some sins are high-handed.
Numbers 15 describes the opposite of an unintentional sin.
Numbers 15:29-31 says, “You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is a native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”
Do you see the contrast? It is one thing for a person to sin unintentionally. But it is a greater sin for someone to sin with a high hand. A high-handed sin is presumptuous sin. John Calvin calls this a sin of intemperance. Someone who sins with a high hand knows that he is sinning. He thinks about it, and he does it anyway. Verse 31 makes that clear. A high-handed sinner “despises the word of the LORD.”
He knows what the Word of God says. And he despises it. He presumes upon God’s grace. He thinks, “I know this is a sin, but God will forgive me.” Or, “I know this is a sin, but I’m going to get away with it.” That’s a high handed sin.
5. Greater sins deserve greater punishments.
The Bible also teaches that there are greater punishments for greater sins. While all sin deserves an eternal duration punishment in hell (Rev 14:11), the Bible teaches that some suffer greater intensity of punishment than others. Punishment in hell has more than one dimension.
In Matt 11:22 Jesus says to the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida, “It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.”
James 3:1 says, “We who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”
In Luke 20:47, Jesus says that the scribes will receive “greater condemnation.”
In Luke 12:47-48, Jesus says that those who know the truth and disobey it will receive a “severe beating.” But those who do not know the truth and disobeyed it will receive a “light beating.”
Thomas Boston said, “The degrees of punishment will be suited to the degrees of their sin. They that have committed many sins, shall have many stripes.”
Thus not all sins are the same. God judges some sins with a greater punishment than others.
6. There are important practical reasons to understand that not all sins are the same.
This doctrine about different degrees of sin is very important. Let me summarize a few of the points mentioned by Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology on this matter.
First, understanding degrees of sin is important in our personal sanctification.
We should be working to put our greatest sins to death. If you have a sin that is threatening to dominate you, that’s a greater sin. The patterns of sin that are the most destructive are the ones we should work on the most. Maybe one of your greatest besetting sins is anger. Anger may be the sin that keeps breaking out and hurting others. If so, then you should seek Christ and His grace to mortify your anger. Or maybe one of your greatest sins is laziness, or lust. This is the one that gets the best of you the most often. Then seek to put those sins to death by the grace of the Lord Jesus. May I encourage you to think about your sins and consider what sins are your greatest sins? And then seek the Lord’s grace in those areas.
Second, this teaching about greater and lesser sins can help us to overlook lesser sins in other people.
1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly because love covers a multitude of sins.”
Let me give you an example of covering someone’s sin. Imagine that a brother gets carried away in his excitement and says something foolish or unwise. You may be tempted to rebuke him. But you don’t have to say anything. Love leads us to overlook sin. Imagine what it would be like if we were always correcting each other about everything. It would be miserable. There would be no love or mercy.
We should be loving each other with sacrificial love, words of encouragement, and mercy, not constant correction. Our thoughts about correcting other people’s sins needs to be guided by an understanding of greater and lesser sins. Was that sin a lesser sin or a greater sin? If it’s a lesser sin, then can you let it go?
Third, understanding the difference between greater sins and lesser sins can help us to know when we need to do church discipline.
Church discipline is not for all kinds of sins. We should never discipline for lesser sins. Church discipline is only for greater sins. But even then, church discipline is only for a person who does not repent. Sadly, even true Christians can commit great sins. But if a Christian repents of sin, then they do not need to be disciplined.
Fourth, this gives us an answer to a common argument against church discipline.
Many people who object to church discipline say, “We’re all sinners. If we’re going to discipline sinners, we’d have to discipline everyone. We don’t have any right to judge anyone.” I’ve heard it said, “I’ve seen my pastor sin; so, he has no business recommending discipline to anyone else for their sins.” But the answer is that not all sins are the same. Yes, we are all sinners. And all sin is terrible. All sin deserves hell.
But some sins are greater than others. And we must discipline great sins, if people don’t repent of them.
7. The Bible’s teaching about greater sins is taught in the Reformed confessional tradition.
The Westminster Larger Catechism says:
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, a 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, land 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;s 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 offense: 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 timed 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.
(z) Jer 2:8 (a) Job 32:7,9; Eccl 4:13 (b) 1 Kgs 11:4,9 (c) 2 Sam 12:14; 1 Cor 5:1 (d) Jas 4:17; Luke 12:47-48 (e) Jer 5:4-5 (f) 2 Sam 12:7-9; Ezek 8:11-12 (g) Rom 2:17-24 (h) Gal 2:11-14 (i) Ps 2:12; Matt 21:38-39 (k) 1 Sam 2:25; Acts 5:4; Ps 5:4 (l) Rom 2:4 (m) Mal 1:8,14 (n) Heb 2:2-3; Heb 12:25 (o) Heb 10:28-29; Matt 12:31-32 (p) Eph 4:30 (q) Heb 6:4-6 (r) Jude 8; Num 12:8-9; Isa 3:5 (s) Prov 30:17; 2 Cor 12:15; Ps 55:12-15 (t) Zeph 2:8,10-11; Matt 18:6; 1 Cor 6:8; Rev 17:6 (u) 1 Cor 8:11-12; Rom 14:13,15,21 (v) Ezek 13:19; 1 Cor 8:12; Rev 18:12-13; Matt 23:15 (x) 1 Thess 2:15-16; Josh 22:20 (y) Prov 6:30-33 (z) Ezra 9:10-12; 1 Kgs 11:9-10 (a) Col 3:5; 1 Tim 6:10; Prov 5:8-12; Prov 6:32-33; Josh 7:21 (b) Jas 1:14-15; Matt 5:22; Mic 2:1 (c) Matt 18:7; Rom 2:23-24 (d) Deut 22:22,28-29; Prov 6:32-35 (e) Matt 11:21-24; John 15:22 (f) Isa 1:3; Deut 32:6 (g) Amos 4:8-11; Jer 5:3 (h) Rom 1:26-27 (i) Rom 1:32; Dan 5:22; Titus 3:10-11 (k) Prov 29:1 (l) Titus 3:10; Matt 18:17 (m) Prov 27:22; Prov 23:35 (n) Ps 78:34-37; Jer 2:20; Jer 13:5-6,20-21 (o) Eccl 5:4-6; Prov 20:25 (p) Lev 26:25 (q) Prov 2:17; Ezek 7:18-19 (r) Ps 36:4 (s) Jer 6:16 (t) Num 15:30; Exod 21:14 (u) Jer 3:3; Prov 7:13 (v) Ps 52:1 (x) 3 John 10 (y) Num 14:22 (z’) Zech 7:11-12 (a’) Prov 2:14 (b’) Isa 57:17 (c’) Jer 34:8-11; 2 Pet 2:20-22 (d) 2 Kgs 5:26 (e) Jer 7:10; Isa 26:10 (f) Ezek 23:37-39 (g) Isa 58:3-5; Num 25:6-7 (h) 1 Cor 11:20-21; Jer 7:8-10 (i) Prov 7:14-15; John 13:27,30 (k) Ezra 9:13-14 (l) 2 Sam 16:22; 1 Sam 2:22-24