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4. Degrees of Sin

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Are some sins worse than other sins? Yes, and no. There are two things that we must consider when answering this question:

1. As for our legal standing, all sin separates us from God and makes us eternally guilty.

Romans 3:23 says, “the payoff of sin is death.” Again, death simply means separation. This was true with Adam and Eve. Because of their sin, they died. They were separated from God both spiritually and physically, and this is still true today. Sin separates us from God whether that be a “small sin” or a “large sin.” James 2:10-11 says:

For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a violator of the law.

If we break one of God’s laws, we break the whole law. James pictures God’s law as a mirror or chain; if part of it is broken, all of it is broken. In a legal sense, every sin breaks the entirety of God’s law, and since all people are sinners, we equally stand before God as lawbreakers.

2. As for our life and relationships with God and others, some sins are worse in the sense of them having greater consequences.

In the sense of consequences, coveting a neighbor’s car is not as bad as stealing it. And likewise, slandering someone is not as bad as murdering him. In that sense, some sins are greater than others. Also, though all sin displeases God, certain sins will arouse his displeasure more, interrupt our fellowship with him more, and merit greater consequences from him. For example, God is more displeased with those who sin with full knowledge of how bad something is and its consequences than those who sin without that awareness. In Luke 12:47-48, Christ said this:

That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or do what his master asked will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know his master’s will and did things worthy of punishment will receive a light beating. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.

This also probably demonstrates why James says that those who teach will receive a stricter judgment from God (Jam 3:1). Their knowledge of what is right and teaching it makes them more responsible before God than an immature believer.

In addition, Scripture teaches that some of God’s commands, though equally God’s Word, are weightier than others. In Matthew 5:19, Christ said: “So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” In addition, Christ rebuked the Pharisees for their keen focus on things like tithing but neglecting the “more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness!” (Matt 23:23). The Pharisees were right for giving their tithes but not to the exclusion of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. If a person is giving tithes but cheating others and condemning the righteous, what good is the tithe? The fact that Christ taught that some teachings were greater than others implies that some sins are worse than others. Again, certainly murdering someone is worse than gossiping about them.

Wayne Grudem gives several reasons why it may be important to distinguish between degrees of sin:

1. “First, it helps us to know where we should put more effort in our own attempts to grow in personal holiness.

2. Second, it helps us to decide when we should simply overlook a minor fault in a friend or family member and when it would be appropriate to talk with an individual about some evident sin (see James 5:19–20).

3. Third, it may help us decide when church discipline is appropriate, and it provides an answer to the objection that is sometimes raised against exercising church discipline, in which it is said that ‘we are all guilty of sin, so we have no business meddling in anyone else’s life.’ Though we are all indeed guilty of sin, nonetheless, there are some sins that so evidently harm the church and relationships within the church that they must be dealt with directly.

4. Fourth, this distinction may also help us realize that there is some basis for civil governments to have laws and penalties prohibiting certain kinds of wrongdoing (such as murder or stealing), but not other kinds of wrongdoing (such as anger, jealousy, greed, or selfish use of one’s possessions). It is not inconsistent to say that some kinds of wrongdoing require civil punishment but not all kinds of wrongdoing require it.”1 (numbering added for emphasis)

Reflection

  1. What stood out most to you in the reading and why?
  2. Are all sins equal in God’s sight? Why or why not?
  3. Why is it important to distinguish between degrees of sin?
  4. Are some doctrines more important than others (cf. Matt 5:19, 23:23)? If so, how can we discern which are major or minor doctrines (or even primary, secondary, or tertiary doctrines)? Also, what are the implications for fellowshipping or breaking fellowship with other believers over such things (cf. Gal 1:8)?
  5. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

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1 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 504). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Hamartiology (Sin)

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