By Bob Russell
There’s a phrase I’ve heard recently that’s becoming a popular spiritual myth. I’ve heard Christian leaders say, “Sin is sin. One sin is just as bad as another.” That line of reasoning is often used as a convenient excuse not to confront flagrant sin in the church. “What right do we have to judge a believer for practicing homosexuality, committing adultery, having an abortion, or getting a divorce when others are guilty of gossip, greed, pride and ingratitude; and little is said about those transgressions? After all, sin is sin and we’re all dependent on God’s grace.”
It is true that any one sin will separate us from a holy God and condemn us for eternity. “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). If a man is dangling over a cliff, grasping onto the last link of a ten-link chain, only one link needs to break for him to plunge to his death. In that sense we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God every day. And “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
It’s also true that we sometimes overlook the “respectable,” private sins in our own lives and point to the scandalous, public sins in the lives of others to justify our feelings of self-righteousness. Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, we are tempted to say, “Lord, I thank you that I’m not a despicable sinner like that tax collector,” and feel better about ourselves.
However, it is not true that one sin is just as bad as another.
There are some sins that are more grievous than others. That’s obvious from a study of the Old Testament law that practiced “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19, 20). If a man killed a neighbor’s sheep because of carelessness, his punishment was lighter than the man who murdered his neighbor out of wicked intent. The penalty for stealing an ox was five-fold restitution. The penalty for kidnapping a person was execution.
Jesus made it clear that some sins were more atrocious than others. He warned of a sin that could not be forgiven (blasphemy of the Holy Spirit), a greater sin (betrayal of Jesus), and the more important matters of the law (justice, mercy, and faithfulness). He warned the child molester that it would be better for him to “have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” than to face God’s wrath (Matthew 18:6).
When the apostle Paul discovered that a man in the Corinthian church was having sexual relations with his stepmother, he was aghast. The apostle chastised the church leaders for not confronting a sin that was “a kind that even pagans do not tolerate” (1 Corinthians 5:1). Incest was so flagrant a violation of moral propriety that even the pagans were appalled by it.
The Bible tells us God’s truth is written on the hearts of humans. People instinctively know something about right and wrong. That’s why common sense has led most judicial systems to acknowledge that some crimes are worse than others. The penalty for speeding is not as severe as the penalty for drunk driving. Mistreatment of animals carries a lesser penalty than child abuse.
So the next time you hear someone protest, “Why single out one sin as being worse than others? Sin is sin and we’re all sinners in continuous need of God’s grace,” challenge the myth. Speak the truth in love—but speak the truth. Indeed, we are all sinners. But there are some sins that incur God’s wrath more quickly than others. And, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
Let’s be thankful that the blood of Christ can cleanse us from all sin, no matter how horrible, if we repent. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8, 9).
Bob Russell is the retired senior minister of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky. Copyright 2013 by Bob Russell. Permission to copy this column may be obtained by writing Debbie Carper, Southeast Christian Church, 920 Blankenbaker Pkwy, Louisville, KY 40243. Find Bob’s books and sermons online (www.livingword.org).