Question: “I have often heard that all sins are the same. There is no such thing as big sins or little sins. Is this true? Are all sins equal?” – B. in Charlottesville, Va.
My Answer: The idea that all sins are basically the same is commonly asserted today. We often see this stated when a person is criticized for committing a particular sin. I have heard people say things like this, “You can’t judge me for this sin. My sin is no bigger or worse than the sins that you commit. I’ve seen you lose your temper or speak sharply!” They may tell you that Christians have no right to label a certain sin as more offensive than any other sin. To give but one example, they may say that sexual immorality is no worse than gossip or selfishness. Their obvious attitude is this, how can you judge an adulterer, fornicator or homosexual if you, yourself, are guilty of being unkind or sharp tongued? After all, sin is sin. All sin is equally wrong, or so they say.
But is this the case? Let’s see what the Scriptures teach in this regard.
In a general sin, all sin is the same. That is to say, all sin is a transgression of God’s law, and is an offense to God. All sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2). All sin brings God’s judgment (Isaiah 13:11). All sin results in death (Romans 6:23).
James is clear that if you commit any sin that makes you a lawbreaker (James 2:10-11). It doesn’t matter if it is a “small sin” or something more egregious. If you are guilty of any one sin, you are in a sense “guilty of all.” Any sin makes you a transgressor of the law and brings God’s righteous judgment.
But a careful examination of the Scriptures will demonstrate that there is more to the issue than this. Let’s consider the biblical teaching about the inequality of various sins.
Not the Same
When asked if all sins are the same, Billy Graham once responded in this way: “It is always difficult and dangerous to attempt to list sins according to their degree of seriousness. In one sense, all sins are equal in that they all separate us from God. The Bible’s statement, “For the wages of sin is death …” (Romans 6:23), applies to all sin, whether in thought, word, or deed.
At the same time, it seems obvious that some sins are worse than others in both motivation and effects, and should be judged accordingly. Stealing a loaf of bread is vastly different than exterminating a million people. Sins may also differ at their root.” (Source: billygraham.org)
As we go through the Bible, we see numerous references that indicate that some sins are more severe, of a weightier nature, or have more grievous consequences. Consider these passages:
Moses told the children of Israel that in making the golden calf they were guilty of a “great sin” (Exodus 32:30). The comparative statement clearly demonstrates a variance between sins.
Numbers 15:30 refers to those sins done with “a high hand.” This phrase refers to sins that are willful, deliberate and defiant in nature. Thus this passage indicates that these sins are inherently worse than others.
The Lord showed Ezekiel many of the sins of Israel. However, God then said to him that he would show the prophet “greater abominations” (Ezekiel 8:6)—another significant comparative phrase.
The Lord Jesus taught that there are differences between various commandments. He spoke of the “least of these commandments” indicating that some commandments are weightier and more serious than others (Matthew 5:19, also see Matthew 23:23). And thus to break these greater commandments would be a greater offense.
Jesus spoke to Pilate and indicated that the one who betrayed him was guilty of a “greater sin” than what Pilate was doing (see John 19:11). This is an explicit reference to one sin being greater than another.
There are several passages in the New Testament that indicate that there are gradations in sin. These passages are somewhat difficult to understand, and there has long been debate about their meaning. However, they clearly show that some sins are worse than others. First, there is the teaching of Jesus about the unpardonable sin (see Mark 3:28-30, etc.). We will not take time to discuss the exact nature of this sin. But it must be noted that the plain teaching of Jesus indicates that there is a sin so final and destructive that it cannot be forgiven. The second passage is found in 1 John 5:16-17. John here draws a distinction between the “sin that leads to death” and sins that “do not lead to death.” While proper interpretation of this passage can be challenging, the teaching is clear. Not all sin is the same. Some sin is so serious that it is spiritually deadlier than other sins. Indeed, it is so deadly that John says that is someone is guilty of such sin we do not even pray for them.
It is obvious from the Mosaic Law (remember, this was given by God Himself) that different sins resulted in different punishments. Some sins required a restoring, for example of something stolen. Some required paying a penalty, essentially a fine. Some required excommunication from the community, or even exile. And some actually required death. Among the sins that were capital offenses are blasphemy, adultery, homosexuality, disrespect for parents, and murder. The various levels of punishment indicate that different sins were considered as being distinct in seriousness and consequence.
To further consider the diversity of sins, let’s think about punishment for sins in general. If all sins were the same, with no difference between one sin and another, then the punishment for all sins would be the same. If there are different punishments, then there must be different levels of offense. God would not be just if He were to exact a harsher penalty for one sin when it is no worse than any other sin. Therefore, if the Bible teaches that there are different degrees of punishment then there must be different degrees of guilt. Thus, not all sin is the same. So does the Bible teach that there are various levels of penalty for sin? Yes, indeed it does. Consider the following examples.
In the parable of the two servants in Luke 12, Jesus indicates that the servants suffered differing grades of punishment based on their knowledge of the master’s will (see verses 46-48).
Jesus said that the Pharisees in their hypocrisy and abuse of people will receive a “greater damnation” (Matthew 23:14, etc.).
The Lord noted that the towns of Galilee would be judged more severely than Tyre, or even Sodom, because they had rejected the ministry of the Savior that occurred right in their midst (see Matthew 11:20-24).
The writer of Hebrews observes that those who disobeyed the law of Moses died “without mercy.” He then goes on to state that those who reject Christ and His atoning work will suffer a “worse punishment” (Hebrews 10:28-29).
And of course there is just a plain ol’ common sense understanding of the differences in sin. Obviously different sins have different consequences, as is evident from history. Are murder and genocide both violations of God’s law and equally deserving of condemnation? Certainly. But can we say that a man who in a fit of rage kills another man is guilty in the same way as Adolf Hitler? No. That is not even reasonable. Are sins of the heart and sins of behavior both sins? Certainly. And Jesus definitely taught that hatred in the heart can be equated in one sense with murder. But do both sins have the same results? No. Think about this. Which would be worse—to discover that someone hated your spouse, or that someone had murdered your spouse? I don’t think anyone would react the same to the latter, as they would to the former.
To conclude, in one sense we could say that all sin is the same. All sin is a transgression of God’s law. Each sin, no matter how big or how small, offends the holy God. And all sin results in condemnation and death. (However, we must always remember that Jesus is the Lamb of God who took away “the sin of world.” That is, He dealt with sin itself as an intrinsic aspect of the human condition.) But to present a biblically balanced view of sin, we must affirm this: While all sin is universal in nature and equally offensive to God, it true to say that not all sin is equal in severity or consequence. To fail to recognize this shows a lack of both prudence and practicality. As a result, we sometimes minimize the serious results that sin ravages on its victims.
I think this is the danger of this far too common teaching. By saying all sins are the same, we inhibit our ability to share the full measure of forgiveness and grace available through the cross. How can we show Christian love, give appropriate godly counsel, and help bring healing to those who suffer the consequences of very serious sins, if we do not admit the severity of the sins themselves? It would be like trying to treat a lung cancer patient with over-the-counter cold medicine. Severe affliction requires strong medicine. Severe sin requires serious biblical counsel and godly “strong medicine.” To fail to acknowledge the seriousness of the “disease” hinders the possibility of effective treatment.