Are All Sins Equal?

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Unless you’ve literally been living under a rock or don’t know what smartphones are, then maybe you’re unaware of this, but just about everyone else in America has been watching the media increasingly make light of sin in general… and much of what is seen in any negative light is relative. Innumerable people are idolaters, not to mention those who are sexually immoral, or who commit adultery (homosexuality is outright celebrated), or those who steal and are greedy and get wasted and revile neighbors and swindle others. It happens all the time. Seriously, every single day. And each of these unrepentant sins are the same in the sense of God’s judgment. They all deserve His wrath. And yet, we’re constantly reminded that “such were some of you” (1st Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 2:1-5).

During the Reformation there was a common saying, Semper Reformanda. It was an important slogan at the time, but today it is unfortunately overlooked. In Latin, it simply means “always reforming.” The Reformers may have gotten a lot right about the Bible, but they didn’t go far enough in their theology. (And they knew that.) As Protestants today, we must always go back to the Bible to see where we have wandered from the truth. We often believe something is biblical just because it feels spiritual, because it feels right, we’ve heard other Christians say it, or a major denominational leader believes it to be true. However, we must go back to the Text every time. Our hearts are prone to deceive us (Jeremiah 17:9).

Referring back to the Text corrects the idea that “God helps those who help themselves” (Benjamin Franklin said this, not God). It equips us to discern whether cleanliness is, in fact, next to godliness (I have no idea where that goofy saying comes from, but people say it). And I believe it can help with another common statement I repeatedly hear Christians say: “All sins are equal.”

When confronted about their sin, it’s sadly not too uncommon for some adulterous husband/wife to respond, “All sins are equal, so who are you to rebuke me?! Your problem with pride is as bad as my infidelity.”

I’ve heard people say that greed is as bad as abortion, selfishness is as bad as divorce, and slander is just as bad as murder… But are these claims in line with what the Bible actually says?

All Sins Are NOT Equal

The Bible is clear that all sins are not equal:

In John 19:11, Jesus says to Pilate, “… he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” Jesus is saying that some sins are considered greater.

In Ezekiel 8:6, Ezekiel is told “… But you will see still greater abominations.” This passage declares that some abominations or sinful actions are greater than others.

In Matthew 5:19, Jesus rebukes anyone who “… relaxes one of the least of these commandments…” This verse reveals that some commands are lesser while others are weightier (Matthew 23:23).

In Numbers 15, the Bible contrasts sin done unintentionally and sin done “with a high hand,” meaning sin done willingly while shaking one’s fist at God. Intentional sin is treated as far more offensive than unintentional sin.

Unrepentant sins are worse than repentant sins. For example, someone who struggles with same-sex attraction but fights it because they love Christ more, is very different than someone who gives themselves over to their sin because they love the sin more than they love Christ (1st John 1:8-10).

Clearly, some sins are more offensive to God than others. Some sins are more “high-handed.” Some sins come from a much darker heart than others. Some sins will carry heavier consequences in this life, hurt in a more far-reaching manner, while some sins will hinder your relationship with God more than others.

… But All Sins ARE Equal

But there is good news. When someone says all sins are equal, they are not entirely off base. All sins are equal in the sense that all sins are offensive to God. All sins are equal in that God demands perfection, and any sin makes you imperfect, thus, making you in need of a perfect Savior. The best news is that all sins are equal in that Jesus’ blood is enough to cover all of them. Whether it is abortion, lying, stealing, rape, cursing, adultery, pride, murder, pornography, or gluttony, Christ’s blood is stronger than both the weakest and strongest of sins.

So, How Should We Live?

This idea offers a warning for those who are tempted to wander into darker and darker sins. Stay in the light. Stay away from things that will hurt you. Don’t allow the phrase “all sins are equal” to blind you from the damaging and damning effects of sin. Don’t fall for the trap that suggests you may as well sleep with the coworker you are flirting with since you have already committed adultery in your heart. That is madness! Don’t buy into the lie that you might as well have premarital sex since you are addicted to porn, anyway. Lesser sins have a way of begetting greater ones.

Conversely, don’t be crushed by the lie that your sin is too great for the grace of God to cover. Don’t buy into the lie that you’re ever too far gone, or that God’s love cannot afford you strength to overcome any snare. All sins may be unequal in the degree to which they offend God and harm others, but all sins are equal in their ability to be forgiven. We are not Christians with an asterisk. We are beloved children of God by adoption, and in Christ, He sees us as perfect.

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Don’t be the fool, forgive.

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I was counseling someone recently about forgiveness and seeking reconciliation, and I couldn’t help but start thinking about some of the stupid things I have done in the past, all the horribly immature and petty things done out of pain, heartache, and bitterness. I began to think about how in some instances, I never really apologized to those I hurt or had an opportunity of reconciliation in some of my past relationships…

I have no excuse for any of my past hurtful actions. I am ashamed and embarrassed of the way I have treated some people; even people I loved, because none of how I treated them, was ever a display of that love. Any good memories there once were of some things, well, I tarnished those with spiteful and childish actions.

I’ve had to work through many of my own heart issues and come to the painful realization that in every bit of the bitterness and pain I felt towards some people, well, it was actually me who was the root-cause. The real issue and problem stemmed from my own selfish and prideful heart (Matthew 6:12-15, Luke 17:3-4). I could not continue to blame anyone else for my actions.

“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” – Teddy Roosevelt

The line between all that I was and all that I hated has been thinner than I’ve ever wanted to believe or acknowledge. Eventually I realized that I could not stay angry, bitter, or resentful towards someone unless I felt superior to them (2nd Corinthians 2:5-11). Because there is no bitterness without pride. I lied to myself, believing I would never do anything like what others had done to hurt me. But if one struggles with anger and bitterness, it is because pride is at the root of it. My own pride made me the fool and robbed me of more joy than any wrong that had ever been done to me. I’m sorry for those I’ve hurt in the past that it took me treating some people so poorly, hurting them, upsetting friends and family, and causing so many problems as the consequences of my own foolishness. It can be quite embarrassing how long it has taken me sometimes to begin to really be convicted about my pride and figure some things out.

Rather than learning many of these lessons from watching others or reading a book, my stubborn self has had to learn by painful experience that false conviction is a reflex reaction caused by self-disgust, a sorrow over the consequences of sin. True conviction is an abiding sorrow over the offence against God, and while not the natural response, it does demonstrate that God has begun a good work that He will complete (Philippians 1:6). True conviction is followed by true repentance. False conviction is followed by counterfeit repentance that only sees and fears the consequences of sin and the pain it causes others. Often this leads to a temporary change in behavior without a heart change.

“Teach me to feel another’s woe, to hide the fault I see, that mercy I show to others, that mercy show to me.” – Alexander Pope

When we begin to grasp that we are unworthy sinners saved by an infinitely costly grace, it destroys both our self-righteousness and our need to ridicule others. God has modeled perfect forgiveness for us. Despite the magnitude of our offense against Him, God does not forget in order to forgive. He forgives in spite of our sin.

If we are ever to learn to truly forgive we must learn it from God. This means we must be forgiven first by accepting the forgiveness extended to us in Christ (Ephesians 1:7, 2:4-10, Colossians 1:14, 2:13, 3:13). As forgiven children, we are not required to forget the wrongs against us. Believers can forgive in the midst of pain because we have been forgiven much. We are set free from the bondage of unforgiveness and the slavery of bitterness in order to extend the life-giving freedom of compassion (Hebrews 10:18). We remember the grace shown to us and extend that same grace to others.

“Everyone wants judgement when it’s not their own foolishness being revealed. Praise Christ for grace in foolish moments and mercy for consistent failures.”

Practically, this may take time, and that is okay. We are often wronged in deeply painful ways. So be true and real. When you are hurting, hurt. But in the hurt and suffering, seek to understand that there is coming a day when all suffering will be removed, and you will be made whole. You have refuge in the only truly innocent sufferer, Jesus Christ, who is understanding and sympathetic to your pain. Because, when the Gospel and the cross are viewed correctly and understood, it will lead not to you standing next to the cross and telling others to get right, but we will instead find ourselves kneeling on the ground at the cross telling others there is room.

So forgive, not to the degree to which you forget, but to the degree to which you realize you have been forgiven much. As one made in the image of Christ, extend the same kind of forgiveness you have received. Because God’s grace came into your hands free of charge to you, we are to redistribute it the same way.

“Forgiveness isn’t an end in itself. The point of forgiveness is to remove the barrier that stands between us and God so that He can give us His Spirit and bring us into His everlasting family.” – Darrell Bock

As for any of you reading this that might be thinking, “Alright, I get it, I’ve been able to forgive others who have hurt me, but I’m still really struggling to forgive myself for some of the terrible things I’ve done. We need to realize that when we say, “I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself,” what we really mean is that we have failed an idol, whose approval is more important to us than God’s. We should remember the words of the apostle John in the book 1st John 1:9, as well as the wise words of C.S. Lewis here, in that: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

Grace-driven effort & Sanctification

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Every truly sane person can agree something has gone wrong with the world. The problem comes from within. It is the self-centeredness of the human heart. The Christian calls this problem sin. The Bible teaches that everyone is a sinner by nature. We are what is wrong with the world. In fact, these evils that come from the heart make us so unclean that Jesus tells His disciples:

“And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'” – Mark 9:43-48 (ESV)

Sinful behavior (the reference to hand and foot) and sinful desires (the reference to the eye) are like a fire that has broken out in your living room. Let’s say a cushion on your couch has ignited. You cannot just sit there and say, “Well, the whole house isn’t burning – it’s just a cushion on the sofa. We’re all safe and sound.” If you don’t do something immediately and decisively about the cushion, the whole house will eventually become engulfed. Fire is never satisfied. It can’t be allowed to smolder; it can’t be confined to a corner. It will overtake you eventually. Sin is the same way: It never stays in its place. It always leads to separation from God, which results in intense suffering, first in this life and then in the next. The Bible calls that hell. That’s why Jesus uses the drastic image of amputation. There can be no compromise. We must do anything we can to avoid it: If our foot causes us to sin, we should cut it off. If it’s our eye, we should cut it out.

“People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, genuine care for their neighbor through acts of kindness and generosity, prayer and obedience to Scripture, faith and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith; we cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”

Grace-driven effort is violent. It is rage-filled and violent. And those are not the words that usually accompany Christianity. Now this isn’t violence towards another person; this is violence towards that residual sin inside of us. For those who have been made alive in Christ, our nature is a holy nature, and it hates the residual effects of sin. It wants it to die. It wants to put it to death. It’s not going to give it quarter, it’s not going to give it room, it doesn’t just want to starve and control it, it wants it dead. This is the one situation where the Christian can just channel a little Al Capone; because they want their sin DEAD, they want the motives of their sin DEAD, and they want every thing that leads to sin burned to the GROUND. Grace-driven effort wants to murder (which is this word in the Greek that means to murder) and put to death these things. It wants to murder sin in our heart and will be diligent to put said sin to death until it is dead. It is very serious about mortifying the flesh. It is very serious about putting to death wicked thoughts and wicked ambitions, both seen and unseen. And for the bulk of you, most of what you will wrestle with will be unseen. Most people won’t see it.

What I have found is that the legalist more often than not doesn’t necessarily want to put their sin to death; they just want to control it. They want to train it. They don’t necessarily want it to die. Here is how it shows back up. Because you don’t want to murder it and because you want it to be your pet, when you get tired and frustrated and angry or when you feel entitled and somebody isn’t giving you what you think you are owed, you run to that sin for comfort rather than to the God of the universe for comfort. This is why so many of get stuck in this cycle of sin where you do really well for a season and then you fall back into it. It’s because you haven’t tried to kill it and put it to death. You have simply tried to train it.

So here’s what happens. It’s almost like when the trained animals turn on their trainers in an episode of “When Animals Attack.” We have a little pet sin, and we think we’ve got it controlled. Then it turns on us and destroys us and we are thinking, “This is crazy. Where did this come from? How did this happen?” Well you gave quarter to something that you can’t really control in the end. And for all the bravado, “I’ve taught him to sit. I’ve taught him to roll over. I’ve taught him to beg. I’ve taught him to shake. I’ve taught him to speak.” For all the “I’ve controlled him,” it only takes the right circumstance or the right setting for him to turn and do what he was created to do, which is deceive you and destroy you and kill you and lie to you. You buy in, and you’re right back to square one. So grace-driven effort is violent, because it understands that the lion is out to destroy. The lion is seeking someone to devour. The man of the house understands that if he is devoured, there are other people that are wounded by him being devoured. There is collateral damage to his failure as a man. So he puts the lion down. He doesn’t just starve him; he starves him to death. He doesn’t strike him once; he strikes him and strikes him and strikes him and will not quit hitting until he’s dead. He doesn’t just assume he is dead, he then rips out the heart and cuts off the head. Next he piles on the wood and gasoline, and he burns what is left until nothing remains. He fiercely and mercilessly destroys the lion until there is literally nothing left to kill. This is how we are to address the sin in our lives.

Because again, grace-driven effort is violent. I think some of the reasons that a lot of us have been stuck in frustration for a long time is that we are simply not violent enough towards our sin. We have somehow said that these sins are respectable sins or they will fade away in time. You have said, “These things I can deal with.” But you forget that out of the same heart that would harbor anger, malice, and slander comes murder, wickedness, lust, and deceit. An idolatrous heart leads to idolatrous actions. It explodes like a volcano that’s dormant if you’re not careful.

The Gospel needs to be the foundation for everything we know and believe; one major reason for this, is that the gospel creates a holy people. Because, as we know, people don’t just stumble into godliness; they don’t spontaneously wake up one day knowing Jesus deeply and pursuing the conformity that Jesus commands and the Spirit empowers. However, we should be very weary of giving people checklists and must refuse to lay a weight on people that Jesus didn’t. Paul uses great phrases to describe our growth into holiness and reflecting the Glory of God and His reign and rule over our lives. Paul talks about “training ourselves in righteousness” (1st Timothy 4:7), “laboring in prayer,” “running to win,” “counting it all a loss” (Philippians 3), and “beating his body” (1st Corinthians 9:26-27). This language doesn’t paint the picture of sitting on the couch and “falling” into godliness.

“… heaven isn’t a place for those who fear hell – it’s a place for those who love God…”

One of the biggest problems with most of those who claim to know and love God, and want to see sin lose its power in their lives and walk in greater intimacy with Christ is that they are exhausted and have been trying to mortify sin by promises and threats rather than through the weapons grace provides. By “promises” I mean they believe that they will have life to the “full” and get a great house in heaven if they behave in this manner or that manner. In the DFW area, this plays itself out with church attendance and comparing ourselves to others. If I go to church frequently and am better than I was a couple years ago or if I’m better than other people who attend my church then I must be good. We love to compare our strengths to others’ weaknesses and grow confident in our goodness. By “threats” I mean that many of us try to behave and modify our behavior because we fear hell and God’s wrath, not because we love Christ and desire more of Him. We try to modify our behavior so we can earn our way out of hell. The problem with this is that heaven isn’t a place for those who fear hell – it’s a place for those who love God.

Another very popular sport in the Bible belt is fighting residual sin with our own vows and resolution – these become our defense. In the end, you are simply pitting sin against sin and in that scenario you lose. We fight sin and grow in godliness by using the weapons grace provides. There are at least three:

Weapons of Grace:

1. The Word of God

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” – 2nd Timothy 3:16-17

The Holy Spirit illumines the Scriptures as the storehouse of weaponry in the battle against sin and for godliness; all that we need to stand and fight are found with in its pages. The reason I think so many people stumble about when it comes to residual sin and maturing in Christ is they have no idea what the Scriptures say when it comes to those subjects. The Scriptures are where we find and are trained to do battle in such a way that victory is found.

2. The Blood of Christ

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” – Ephesians 2:13

One of the reasons Paul constantly preaches the gospel to people who already know and believe it is the human tendency to run back to the law instead of trusting in the blood of Christ to cleanse them from all unrighteousness. You see this especially in Galatians 2:20-3:5. When we stumble and fall we run to God not from Him. This is made possible by having God’s wrath removed from us and absorbed by Christ and Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. A mark of Christian maturity and genuine Gospel understanding is not running away from God to clean yourself up and then come back but a broken and contrite spirit that runs to Him asking Him for forgiveness and strength.

3. The Promises of the Covenant

“Therefore He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” – Hebrews 9:15

If the 10 Commandments were a quiz or test I easily fail. I’ve been guilty of every one of them. One of the reasons the law was given was to be a diagnostic tool to show me I can’t be perfect, that I’m going to fall short, and that I am in desperate need of a Savior (Romans 1-7). When we stumble and fall the Spirit reminds us of the Scriptures that promise that there has been a death for those failures and that there is a new covenant resting on Christ now and not on my ability to obey the law. This allows me to pursue Christ without fear and by “beholding His glory I am transformed.”

[This blog consists of reflections and content that has been adapted from material and sermons by pastors Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian, and Matt Chandler of The Village Church.]

Related articles:

“Gospel-driven Sanctification” by Justin Holcomb

“Gospel-driven Sanctification” by Jerry Bridges

“Real Hope for Real Change” by Matt Moore

Related Video Discussions:

“John Piper and Tim Keller Wrestle with Sanctification: Part 1” by: Desiring God ministries

“John Piper and Tim Keller Wrestle with Sanctification: Part 2” by: Desiring God ministries