By David Kowalski
There has been some disagreement in the church as to whether all sin is the same in God’s eyes or if God sees some sins as worse than others. In examining this issue, I will look at its history, the big picture in Scripture into which it must fit, and Scriptures used by both sides to defend their position. I will conclude with comments advocating my view that God does see some sins as worse than others.
It was popular in the latter half of the twentieth century to say that all sin is the same to God even if sins may vary in the degree of their earthly consequences. Though many people still believe this, all-the-same-ism has faded to a minority view in the 21st century. In a recent internet search I was only able to find one blogger who clearly advocated the concept, though there are no doubt others. Preachers and authors who espouse the view are becoming increasingly hard to find.
This fad seems to have started in the mid-20th century in response to two factors. First, the notion that one misdeed is not worse than another was being promoted at that time by some psychologists and ethicists such as Erich Fromm. Secular, academic trends of this kind often find their way into the church, becoming Christianized by a proof-text or two.
Secondly, many evangelists of the day were stressing that even one sin was sufficient to send one to the same hell as someone who had committed many more (this is true). These evangelists, however, did not take time in their evangelistic appeals to explain that though there is only one hell, the Bible teaches differing degrees of punishment in hell (according to extent of sin — Psalm 62:12; Proverbs 24:12; Jeremiah 17:10; Ezekiel 18:20, 30; Romans 2:5–16; 1 Corinthians 3:8, 11–15; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Colossians 3:23–25; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 20:12; and according to extent of accountability arising from the amount of light and proofs given — Matthew 11:21; Luke 20:47; Hebrews 10:28-29; James 3:1). In Luke 12, for example, Jesus, with clear implications for eternal punishment, compares those who receive greater and lesser punishment:
And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says in his heart, “My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers. And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more. (Luke 12:42-48 1)
Nevertheless, many all-the-same Christians tended to believe the only issue to be considered in the judgment is whether or not one has believed the gospel. The Bible, however, teaches that though the difference between the two destinations is distinguished by genuine, saving faith alone, retribution and rewards within these two destinations are according to deeds:
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal. (Mathew 6:20 — This verse tells believers that what they do now will effect what is waiting for them in heaven. We also see that there will be various kinds of crowns for believers in 1 Corinthians 9:25, 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 2 Timothy 4:7-8, 1 Peter 5:4)
For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. (Matthew 16:27)
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; (Romans 2:5-7)
Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:12-15 — Christians will receive differing rewards, according to what they have done and why they have done it. “Saved as through fire” teaches that genuine Christians may receive no reward for works if they have failed in this regard due to sloth or impure motives — it does not teach that reprobates will be saved.)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10 — This verse applies to both retribution and rewards.)
If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; (1 Peter 1:17)
And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. (Revelation 20:12)
Teachings as new as all-the-same theology should always be examined with greater scrutiny. We should see a red flag when anyone claims to see something in the Bible that others through time have not. Historically, Christianity (including Protestantism) has affirmed that some sins are worse than others in God’s eyes. Just a few quotes to this effect (all emphases are mine):
But that [the infinitely heinous nature of sin] does not hinder but that some sins may be more heinous than others in other respects: as if we should suppose a cylinder infinitely long, it cannot be greater in that respect, viz., with respect to the length of it; but yet it may be doubled and trebled and made a thousand fold more, by the increase of other dimensions. Of sins that are infinitely heinous, some may be more heinous than others…some of them may be a thousand times more dreadful than others. — Jonathan Edwards 2
Little sins lead to great ones. — Charles Spurgeon 3
Another distinction to be attended to is, that some sins are mere delinquencies, others crimes and flagrant iniquities. — John Calvin 4
If however, anyone does not feel that his conscience is burdened by such or greater sins… — Martin Luther 5
The Scriptures recognize different degrees of guilt as attaching to different kinds of sin. The variety of sacrifices under the Mosaic Law, and the variety of awards under the judgment are to be explained upon this principle. — Augustus H. Strong 6
Nevertheless they [Christians] may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins… — Westminster Confession of Faith XVII, III 7
Nearly allied to this was another grievous evil… — John Wesley 8
Yet excessive scrupulousness may be a greater sin… — Richard Baxter 9
All graver faults extend the sphere for diligence in watchfulness proportionably to the magnitude of the danger… — Tertullian 10
Thou hast seen the greatness of his [Nebuchadnezzar’s] evil deeds… — Cyril of Jerusalem 11
“Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.” — Thomas Watson 12
Again, my subject photographs all those who are abhorrent of small sins, while they are reckless in regard to magnificent thefts….we find that a sin is inexcusable in proportion as it is great. — T. De Witt Talmage 13
Yet theirs [their sin] that delivered him to Pilate was the greater sin. By this it appears that all sins are not equal, but some more heinous than others; some comparatively as gnats, others as camels; some as motes in the eyes, others as beams; some as pence, others as pounds. — Matthew Henry 14
Even when “all-the-same” teaching was more popular, it seems the majority of scholars were reluctant to adopt it. I discussed the topic many years ago with a number of seminary professors and could find only one who embraced the idea that God saw all sin as the same. Scholars from various, theological schools of thought have largely addressed this issue with one mind, agreeing there are differing degrees of sin (all emphases mine):
It is simply an undeniable fact that Scripture makes various distinctions and speaks of several ‘degrees’ of sin….Certainly we hear that ‘there is none that does good, no not one,’ and that God looks down from heaven and finds that ‘all men have gone astray’….But this sort of generalizing or universalizing does not preclude important distinctions and levels in regard to man’s sin. It is an incontestable and universal experience that there are obvious and profound gradations in sin. — G. C. Berkouwer 15
Personal sins may be classified according to their general aspects…As related to sinfulness, they may be greater, or less.” — Lewis Sperry Chafer 16
The Lord ranked Caiaphas’ sin in delivering Him to Pilate greater than Pilate’s sin. But this did not excuse Pilate, for if there is greater sin (Caiaphas’) there must be lesser sin (Pilate’s).” — Charles C. Ryrie 17
Not all sins are on the same level, for Jesus said that the one who delivered him up to Pilate had a ‘greater sin’ than that of Pilate (Jn 19:11). — Leon Morris 18
It is true that some sins are worse than others. — Loraine Boettner 19
The Scriptures recognize different degrees of guilt growing out of different kinds of sin. — Henry C. Thiessen 20
He [fallen man] does not continuously do only evil and in the most wicked fashion possible. — Millard Erickson 21 (Clearly implicit in Erickson’s use of “most wicked fashion” is the underlying concept of degrees since “most” is a superlative).
Many portions of Scripture, including today’s passage, tell us there are degrees of sin, guilt, and punishment. — R. C. Sproul 22
Scripture repeatedly affirms the position of historic orthodoxy that God sees differing degrees of sin. First, degrees of sins are taught throughout the Old Testament, especially in some sins being called “abominations” by God (Lev. 18:22, 20:13; Deut. 7:25, 22:5 etc.). If all sin is the same to God, He could not call certain, select sins particularly abominable to Him.
In the New Testament, Christ himself affirms this.
But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin. (Mark 3:29)
Christ says that there is sin that will be treated more harshly by God in the judgment. This could only be so if the sin were worse in the eyes of God. Another verse that indisputably reveals God’s recognition of degrees of sin is John 19:11:
Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”
This is the view of the second person of the Trinity. There can be no greater and lesser sins without degrees, so God the Son sees degrees of sin.
This teaching of Christ is repeated in the teaching of the apostles.
The “sin lists” of the New Testament (Rev. 21:8, Gal. 5:19-21, 1 Cor. 6:9-10), which speak of those who will not inherit the kingdom regardless of their belief, describe serious acts of misconduct which are obviously treated in these passages as worse than other kinds of transgressions. Since exclusion from God’s kingdom is the consequence, it is God Himself who considers some sins worse in degree.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
Two concepts used to justify all-the-same teaching are heart/deed unity and comprehensive law-breaking. Jesus taught a unity of heart and deed in Matthew 5 that all-the-samers believe indicates no distinction between the two in God’s eyes.
In Matthew 5:27-28, Jesus says the following:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Jesus is teaching that lust, while not physical adultery, is adultery of the heart. It is categorical adultery just as a watermelon seed is categorically watermelon. In another sense, however, a seed is not literally the same as the fruit from the plant.
Likewise, adultery of the heart is not literally identical to physical adultery. Paul makes this distinction clear in In 1 Corinthians 6:18, when he labels physical immorality as worse than sins of the heart alone:
Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.
Within categories there are greater and lesser things. Whether we are considering lakes, mountains, planets, apples, or bananas; some are larger than others. Physical sins are “larger” than sins of the mind or heart alone because physical acts begin in the heart and expand upon heart sins in a more grievous manner.
Lust of the heart and physical adultery are related but not synonymous. One cannot have the watermelon without the seed but one can have the seed without the watermelon. One cannot commit physical adultery without lust in the heart but one can look lustfully upon another without committing physical adultery. Jesus expressed similar sentiments to his saying on adultery of the heart when he spoke of anger and murder (Matthew 5:27-28). Anger is the condition of a murderous heart. Nevertheless, to act on that anger and actually commit physical murder is a sin of greater magnitude.
An even more commonly used concept in support of all-the-same theology is that of comprehensive law-breaking, which is taken from James’ epistle:
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. (James 2:10)
While the NASB translation here is a sound one, so is William Mounce’s, which translates the verse with a slightly different connotation as, “For whoever keeps the entire law yet fails at a single point has become guilty of the law as a whole” (Mounce Reverse-Interlinear New Testament). A legitimate inference from Mounce’s translation would be that any lawbreaker is condemned by the same law that condemns all other law breakers. All lawbreakers are liable to the same law.
Many of the rabbis of New Testament times had erroneously asserted that certain laws were “light” and thus non-essential. Breaking these was tolerable if the weightier parts of the law were observed. The Jewish Christians to whom James is writing were committing the sin of partiality toward the wealthy and James is warning them not to neglect obedience in this matter even if it seemed light or insignificant to them. The rabbis who lightly treated disobedience in “light” things were wrong. God’s law demanded perfect obedience and breaking any law made one liable to the condemnation of the whole. R. V. G. Tasker says of James 2:10, “The great truth communicated in this verse is that men must not “pick and choose’ when confronted with the moral law of God.” 23
Taken in isolation from the rest of Scripture, one could possibly build a case for all-the-same-ism from this one verse, but the great preponderance of teaching in the rest of Scripture forbids it. Two sayings quite often used in seeking to understand the Bible are “We must interpret Scripture with Scripture” and “The Bible is its own best interpreter.” James 2:10 must be understood within the larger context of all Scripture which overwhelmingly contradicts all-the-same-ism.
Secular law likewise only requires one offense for a person to be a lawbreaker, but judges recognize that some offenses are worse than others and should be treated with different kinds or degrees of legal consequences. Before God, all have sinned. Still, within this category of sinner of which we are all a part there are greater and lesser offenses. Some are worse than others.
Some all-the-samers try to discredit the historic, Protestant teaching on sin, which recognizes some as worse than others, by equating it with the Roman Catholic teaching of venial and mortal sins (sometimes claiming that Roman Catholics see all mortal sins as completely unforgivable — something which is not part of their official dogma). This comparison ignores the fact that Roman Catholicism presents a list of mortal sins that differs from Protestantism.
Even if it were true that the Protestant concept of gradations or degrees of sin harmonized with Roman Catholic teaching, this would not disprove the idea. Roman Catholics believe in the existence of God who is a Trinity. They teach that Jesus Christ lived among us, died on the cross, rose from the dead, and is the second person of the Trinity. To say that a teaching is similar to some part of Roman Catholic dogma is an irrelevant attempt to use the logical fallacy of guilt by association. The relevant issue is whether or not something is taught in Scripture.
All-the-same advocates will sometimes portray degrees of sin as untenable because, in their minds, it leads to a kind of points system concerning which even God could not keep track. Even these people, however, inevitably speak and act as though some misconduct is worse than others (Hitler etc.). I would insist that if creatures are able to recognize that some sin is worse than others, the Creator is likewise able.
All-the-samers also sometimes say that if two different sins can both be completely forgiven, this logically means they are equal in degree. It is true that both big and little sins can be equally forgiven but that does not negate the differences between them. People can be forgiven much and forgiven little. But let us not resort to the odd notion that one sin is not worse than another just because both sins can be forgiven.
All-the-same-ism does not logically follow from the fact that different kinds of sin are completely pardoned. Presidential pardons have been given for a wide variety of offenses, some worse than others. The end result of the pardon was the same, but the degrees of the differing offenses and the resulting or potential penalties imposed were not “all the same.”
Any person who advocates all-the-same theology must, if they are to be logically consistent, give up any claims that we should treat differing transgressions differently. We do not have the right to create a moral concept outside of God’s initiative. Right and wrong are determined by what He says, not by what we think or feel.
Therefore, if God sees no difference between sins, we should not either. Churches should never discipline ministers for adultery, theft, rape, or murder if these things are no worse than worrying. If mass murder is no worse morally than grouchiness (and if it is no worse to God it is no worse period) then believers should demonstrate their belief in this by electing serial killers to run their denominations. It does not matter what the world thinks if God says otherwise — but God does not contradict the universal conviction (from the law written on our hearts — Romans 2:14-15) that some misdeeds are worse than others.
One practical problem with the philosophy that all sin is the same is that it sometimes leads to libertine Antinomianism. Some all-the-same churches have had trouble with in-house discipline as a direct result of the teaching. Adulterous Sunday-School teachers ask why they should not be allowed to continue teaching if their offense is no worse to God than jaywalking. I have seen cases of this very kind in which all-the-same leaders are unable to apply biblical standards to fellow ministers in the church.
The teaching that things such as child molestation and mass murder are really no worse in the eyes of God than such things as driving slightly over the speed limit or showing up one minute late for work is an unscriptural absurdity that insults God and harms His church. I consider it a good thing that this fad is in decline.
Classic by Thomas Watson:
Excellent article by Dr. Wave Nunnally:
Two from the CARM website:
© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.
- All Scripture citations are from the NASB ↩
- “Justification by Faith Alone,” http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/justification.htm ↩
- “Little Sins,” http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0248.htm ↩
- Institutes Book 4 Chapter 12http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/calvin/bk4ch12.html ↩
- The Small Catechism, http://bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php ↩
- Systematic Theology, http://m.biblestudytools.com/classics/strong-systematic-theology/part-v-anthropology-or-the-doctrine-of-man/chapter-iii-sin-or-mans-state-of-apostasy.html ↩
- http://www.the-highway.com/WCFChXVII.html ↩
- “The Mystery of Iniquity,” http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-61-the-mystery-of-iniquity/ ↩
- “The Sinfulness of Flesh Pleasing,” http://www.puritansermons.com/baxter/baxter4.htm ↩
- “On Idolatry,” ://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0302.htm chapter 11 ↩
- Jerusalem Catecheses, Lecture Two, ://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/494/Jerusalem_Catecheses_1_12__Cyril_of_Jerusalem.html ↩
- “The Law and Sin,” http://www.gracegems.org/Watson/ten_commandments13.htm ↩
- http://fultonhistory.com/Newspaper%2018/Watkins%20NY%20Express/Watkins%20NY%20Express%201890%20Jan-Oct%201892/Watkins%20NY%20Express%201890%20Jan-Oct%201892%20-%200474.pdf ↩
- http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/john/19.html ↩
- G. C. Berkouwer, Studes in Dogmatics: Sin. trans. Philip C. Holtrop (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1980 reprint), 285-286. ↩
- Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology vol. II (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), 231. ↩
- Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1988), 227-228. ↩
- Leon Morris, New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing [Academie Books division],1986), 278. ↩
- Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism (Phillipsburg, New Jersey; Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1962), 201. ↩
- Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1949), 269. ↩
- Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 628. ↩
- http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/degrees-sin/ ↩
- R. V. G. Tasker, The General Epistle of James (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1957), 61. ↩