Is all sin the same?

We, in the evangelical world, often hear phrases like this: “To God, sin is just sin. There’s no bigger sins or smaller sins.” And from the onset of phrases like these, I understand the idea to be communicated. I do believe that God is a forgiving God of all sins, whether great or small. I believe, however, that we may be asking the wrong questions when we approach issues such as this one. Instead of asking if all sins hold the same weight, we should be asking if all sins bear the same consequences.

As James Arminius wrote in his eighth disputation, “Because we say, that ‘the wages of every sin is death,’ we do not on this account, with the Stoics, make them all equal.”[1] Throughout this post, I want to take a round-a-bout way and hopefully help us think biblically better about sin and its weight in our lives.

Sin Defined

Essentially, the root word from which we get sin means “not only an act of wrongdoing but a state of alienation from God.”[2] What we must understand from the onset is that our sin – in its entirety – has separated us from a holy God. God’s holiness demands that sin be free from his presence. Leroy Forlines notes “God’s judgment against sin reveals His determination to remain holy.”[3]

Of course, the more popular definition of sin is “to miss the mark” – relating it to an arrow missing a target in archery. This is an accurate description of sin in its simplest of terms. James wrote that to commit one sin under the law means you have broken the law in its fullness (James 2:11). This is essentially what sin does to us. It leaves us “dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1).”

Adam and Eve saw this happen first hand in the Garden. The Lord told them, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die (Gen. 2:16-17).” This not only signifies the spiritual death they received upon their disobedience but it also affirms the judgment of God upon one single act of wrongdoing toward his commands. 

A More Effective Question

The real question, though, regards the consequences of the sin rather than the sin itself. The simple reality is that the consequences of an action define its weight and value. For instance, you can spit on your friend and he may spit back, but when you murder him with a gun your friend has no opportunity to retaliate. Both are equally sinful acts, but one’s consequences are much greater than the other.

Do all sins bear the same consequences?

I think we can all agreeably say, “no.” We agree within our own judicial systems that spitting on someone is not the same as killing them. However, when we speak in terms of Christianity, we are quick to draw back and claim that “all sins are equal.” But we must think about this question in light of God’s holiness and his justice.

God’s Holiness

The holiness of God is his basic attribute. Without the holiness of God, there would be no bias toward the sinless character of his being. “For holiness to be holiness, it not only differs from sin, but it is intolerant of sin.”[4] This was even the thoughts of the Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In an article for Christianity Today, J.I. Packer noted: “In the forefront of their [the Puritans] minds was the holiness of God, the awfulness of his anger, and his amazing patience in nurturing and correcting his irresponsible, recalcitrant children.”[5] So what we really need to understand is that we are the ones who are differing from history on the issue of sin and its consequences, not the other way around.

Yet, if we were to pin another attribute of God as his basic attribute, say his love, we would find ourselves in danger of leading to a universal salvation – a view which is not supported in Scripture. For argument’s sake, we want and need God’s holiness as his basic attribute because without it morality becomes compromised. Without the holiness of God, Forlines notes that hell and the atonement are no longer maintained.[6] Therefore, we can conclude that without the holiness of God, we have no basis for any consequence against sin because morality is compromised and God seems to eventually save everyone in the end.

God’s Justice

Moreover, God’s justice is at stake if we allow all sins to be equal. Arminius argued that the only love God possessed for something other than his creation was his justice. [7] What we find in God is a two-fold purpose: he desires to save sinners, but also, because of his holy nature, must condemn sin. This belief falls in line with the thesis of this post that all sins are not the same.

Arminius hit the nail on the head – to have a God who loves only his justice more than his creatures is to have a God that condemns (judges) sin, but also desires to forgive sin. For the issue at hand, we must understand that God’s justice, like his holiness, requires him to judge sin because of his character. In essence, all sin is the same because it must all be judged by God, but not all sin requires the same consequence. 1 John 5:16 supports this argument: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.”

John writes that there are some sins that do not lead to death, but there are other sins that do lead to death. MacArthur wrongly notes that the life and death here refer to physical life and death – a view that is in direct opposition to the context of the letter. The entire purpose of redemption through the character of God is to give spiritual life to his spiritually dead creation. They already have physical life because of their being born – they don’t need more of it. Lenski observes, “What God does when he gives life for these sinners is to strengthen their damaged, declining spiritual life, which they have not as yet lost.”[8]

Conclusion

What can we conclude from Scripture regarding the question of all sin being the same? I think we can affirm a couple of different propositions:

  1. All sin is the same (in some sense). 1 John 5:17 shows us that “All wrongdoing is sin.” According to the character of God -specifically his justice and holiness – all sin must be punished accordingly. Whether the sin is indirect, direct, presumptuous, or out of ignorance, it must be confessed before a holy God in order for him to act as he desires and forgive them.
  2. All sins do not bear the same consequences. Along the same lines, all sin cannot bear the same consequences. Disobeying your parents will not bear the same consequences as stealing something from Walmart. This is not only logical, but it is also Scriptural. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus is explaining to the Pharisees that they were more concerned with the external things of life (specifically tithing) and were unconcerned with the “weightier matters of the law.” Jesus taught that there were certain sins that were “weightier” than others.
  3. In the end, all sin will be dealt with in the same manner. We cannot have such a discussion without the end in mind. At the end of time, there will only be two types of people: lost and saved. As Jesus taught in many of the parables, you will either be taken to the barn or be burned (parable of the weeds); you will be separated like the good fish from the bad fish (parable of the net). In the end, all sin will get punishment it deserves.

[1] James Arminius, “The Works of James Arminius,” London ed., trans. James Nichols and William Nichols (Nashville.: Randall House, 2007), 160.

[2] Walter A. Elwell. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1103.

[3] F. Leroy Forlines. The Quest For Truth: Theology For Postmodern Times (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 72.

[4] Ibid, 185.

[5] J.I. Packer, “All Sins Are Not Equal,” Christianity Today, accessed October 24, 2018, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/january/19.65.html.

[6] Forlines, Quest, 73.

[7] J. Matthew Pinson. Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Nashville: Randall House, 2015), 43.

[8] R.C.H. Lenski. Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1966), 535.

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