The Varied Heinousness of Sins

Dear Church Family,

This past Sunday in our adult Sunday school class on how pagans have sought to divine the will of God, our concluding point of application was that ultimately, idol worship and divination is rebellion against God and demon worship. You may listen to the audio of that class and download the handout online here. In making this point, we looked at several Scriptures: 1 Samuel 15:23, Deuteronomy 32:17, 1 Corinthians 10:20.

That first passage gave rise to an ancillary discussion on whether or not all sins are equal in the eyes of God. We didn’t have time to go into much detail, but I thought it warranted some fleshing out. The verse in question comes in the context of Samuel’s rebuke of King Saul for not obeying the Lord’s command. The Lord had previously commanded Saul to completely wipe out the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:1-3); however Saul spared the king of the Amalekites, as well as the best of the animals (1 Samuel 15:9).

Thus, Samuel comes to King Saul and, having seen that Saul disobeyed the Lord’s command, Samuel rebukes Saul saying, “For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king.” (1 Samuel 15:23) The point of Samuel’s rebuke seems to be that Saul’s disobedience of the Lord’s command as the king is as heinous as divination and idolatry.

Are all sins equal?

The question then arose in the class: Are not all sins equally heinous in the eyes of the Lord? Sin is sin. Right?

The answer to that question is: Yes and no.

Yes, all sins are deserving of God’s wrath and curse

On the one hand, the answer is, “Yes. Sin is sin.” All sins, no matter how great or how small, are deserving of God’s judgment and wrath. This is something that is clearly and explicitly taught in the Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q. What doth every sin deserve at the hands of God?
A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserveth his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ. (WLC 152)

 

Most Christians are familiar with this understanding of sin. And, it is clearly taught in Scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that a person who hates another in his heart is guilty of murder (Matthew 5:21-22), and a man who lusts after a woman in his heart is guilty of adultery (Matthew 5:27-28). In so stating, Jesus teaches us that we break the Law of God in thought, word, and deed every day. According to our sinful nature, which all men and women are born into, we walk in the desires of the flesh and the mind and are therefore, “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1-3).

Because of our own sin and corruption, we require an outside source – the mercy and love of God – to save us. Nothing we may do can atone for our sins. It is only by God’s sovereign mercy, love, and grace in Christ Jesus that we are made alive (Ephesians 2:4-6). And this mercy, love, and grace is appropriated to us only through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;  not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Understanding that every, and all, of our sins are deserving of God’s wrath and curse illuminates the greatness of God’s love, mercy, and grace to us in Christ. It is also a helpful insight for the purpose of witnessing to those who don’t know Christ. A person cannot understand God’s love, mercy, and grace until he first understands the nature of his sin and that he abides under a curse. A ministry called “The Way of the Master“ (headed up by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron) effectively uses this understanding that all sin is deserving of God’s wrath in their method of witnessing. You can watch an example of this methodology at work in this on-the-street witnessing video.

No, some sins are more heinous than others

At the same time, even as we understand that every sin is deserving of God’s wrath and curse, the Bible also teaches that some sins are more heinous than others. This also is clearly and explicitly taught in the Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?
A. All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous, but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others. (WLC 150)

 

In the next question, WLC 151 (a question that probably has more Biblical references than any other in the Larger Catechism), the several aggravations which make some sins more heinous in the sight of God are enumerated. There are four general aggravations that are listed: (1) the persons offending; (2) the parties offended; (3) the nature and quality of the offense; and (4) the circumstances of time and place.

I encourage you to go and read for yourself all of the details of question 151 in the Westminster Larger Catechism, but let me offer just a couple of instances in the Bible where we see this truth taught – this truth that some sins are indeed more heinous in the eyes of God than others due to their aggravations.

In the category of sins being more heinous depending on the persons offending, we read these words in James 3:1 – “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” Teachers in the church incur a stricter judgment because by their example they lead others astray and ought to know better.

In the category of sins being more heinous depending on the parties offended, we read these words from Jesus in Matthew 9:42 – “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.”

So some sins are more heinous than others in the eyes of God depending on who commits them and against whom they are committed. Indeed, Jesus reserves his harshest judgments for the scribes and Pharisees who “shut off the kingdom of heaven from people” (Matthew 23:13) and “travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).

In the category of sins being more heinous depending on the nature and quality of the offense, again, as Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees of his day, he points out how they seek to observe the minutia of God’s Law, but neglect the weightier parts – “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24) We also find a differentiation in the nature and quality of the offense in Proverbs 6:24-35 where the sin of adultery is compared to the sin of stealing. If one steals, he may repay what has been stolen, but if one commits adultery, he can never restore what he has stolen. In this regard, adultery is more heinous than theft.

In the category of sins being more heinous depending on the circumstances of time and place, the Apostle Paul rebukes the church in Corinth for a sin committed by one of the members: he has taken his father’s wife. Paul seems to indicate that this sin is greater than those committed by the Gentiles, those outside the church (1 Corinthians 5:1). More to the point, Paul points out that the greater sin is that the church has not dealt with the public sin of this man (1 Corinthians 5:2). We also have examples in the Scriptures of the greater sin of not giving testimony when a person has received a public adjuration to do so (Leviticus 5:1). Also, the adulterous woman of Proverbs increases the heinousness of her sin by pursuing a man on the same day that she has paid her vows in the Temple (Proverbs 7:13-15).

Conclusion

While we admit and confess that every sin, even the least, is deserving of God’s wrath and curse, it is also taught in Scripture that some sins are more heinous than others. This is an important insight for several reasons. For one, it helps in making determinations and judgments about how we ought to respond to certain sins. For instance, if a woman has lustful thoughts for a man who is not her husband, Jesus teaches that she has already committed adultery in her heart and is guilty before God of violating His holy law. At the same time, lusting in one’s heart is not grounds for a divorce unless it leads to the greater and more heinous sin of sexual immorality (adultery and fornication).

Likewise, in the church, we ask candidates for ordination a question about their personal lives: “Is there anything in your life which if brought to light would bring shame and scandal to the church of Christ?” Misunderstanding the various degrees of the heinousness of sin, I have heard several candidates respond, “Of course!” I understand the intent, but this is a false humility. Those who hold office are not perfect and do sin in thought, word, and deed every day. At the same time, ministers of the gospel are held to a higher standard in their office, particularly with regard to errors in doctrine and scandalous sin (BCO 34:1).

We all make judgments in our minds as to the degrees of heinousness of various sins. [By the way, we even see this understanding of the degrees of heinousness in our legal system. For instance, if a man shoots and kills a private citizen it is murder and a heinous act for which he is tried and prosecuted; however, if a man shoots and kills a person holding office or representing the state (e.g., the president, a policeman) it is still murder, but under the law it is deemed more heinous and carries a greater punishment.]

In our personal judgments, we often use our own biased scales. However, we would do well to take note of the biblical reasons for which some sins are more heinous than others. To better help our understanding of what the Bible teaches about these things, the Westminster Larger Catechism, questions 150-151, are helpful guides.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch