Is quite common to hear the notion that all sins are the same in God’s sight or that no sin is worse than any other sin. The reasoning behind this is that one breach of God’s law makes us guilty of breaking all commands (James 2:10). Another way this is justified is by saying that all sin meets the same penalty (Romans 6:23) or that its remedy is the same in the cross of Christ. The motivation behind this can be well-intentioned, perhaps not wanting any sin to be seen as small in itself. It deflects unwanted moral judgments by requiring that others must be without sin themselves to avoid hypocrisy. Perhaps the overwhelming emphasis on equality in our culture also steers people towards this idea. But is it right to say that all sins are equal?
It is certainly true that the least sin is an offence against the infinitely holy God and therefore absolutely evil. There is no such thing as a sin that doesn’t matter. But this is not all that can be said. The claim that sins are judged absolutely equally by God does not stand up to Scripture (James 3:1; Matthew 23:14; Matthew 11:24; Luke 12:48; Mark 9:42; 1 Corinthians 3:10-17). Forgiveness also relates to different levels of sinfulness (Luke 7:41-42, 48). To reason from what sin deserves to what sin is in itself risks ignoring what the Bible says about whether some sins are more sinful than others (1 John 5:16). Christ Himself says that some sins are greater than others (John 19:11).
Let’s be clear that Scripture does say that some sins are worse than others (Exodus 32:30).
- Some idolatry is even worse than other forms (Ezekiel 8:6, 13,15; Ezekiel 23:11);
- Some commandments are of greater weight than others (Matthew 5:19; Matthew 23:23);
- Some sins are worse because they involve sinning wilfully and defiantly (Numbers 15:30 and 15:22, 24, 27, 29);
- Some sins are worse than others, such as sexual sin (1 Corinthians 6:18);
- Some sexual sins are worse than other sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1; Romans 1:26-27; Leviticus 20:10-16 compared with 20:17-21)
What Makes Some Sins Worse Than Others?
None of this excuses or belittles any sin, it simply gives us God’s perspective on degrees of sinfulness. The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q150), like the Shorter Catechism (Q83) makes it clear that “all transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous”. Yet some sins “are more heinous in the sight of God than others”. They are either more heinous “in themselves” or because of certain “aggravations”. Aggravations are the things that make a sin more serious. It is a term still used in the law courts to mean an aspect of a crime which increases its guilt over and above the offence itself. Aggravated assault, for example, is different from simple assault depending on the intent, the weapon used or the extent of the injury. In Q151 the Larger Catechism goes on to explain what these “aggravations” are in relation to God’s law. When we consider these we see that the whole subject is much more extensive and challenging than the “all sins are equal” mantra acknowledges.
(a) The Person Sinning Makes Some Sins Worse
- if we are older and “of riper age” (Job 32:7,9; Ecclesiastes 4:13) it is more serious than in someone younger. Wisdom should have come with years and experience. This is because we have had greater opportunity to learn God’s will, experience His grace and how to overcome temptation.
- if we have greater experience or grace. Solomon had experienced much from God and the example of his father yet he sinned against what he knew and had received (1 Kings 11:4,9). The greater progress someone has made in holiness and godliness, the less excuse they have and the greater their fall when they sin.
- if we are “eminent for profession” of Christianity. David made the enemies of God to blaspheme (2 Samuel 12:14) because of the prominent nature of both his sin and relationship with God. The inconsistency of one so committed to serving God made it worse than it would have been in others.
- if we have greater gifts and responsibility. Where God has blessed us with greater knowledge of the Bible and opportunities to gain this we are more responsible for using these gifts not to sin (James 4:17; Luke 12:47-48). Where we are in a position of responsibility towards others in society, work, church and family we have greater guilt in sinning because our actions carry more weight and influence (Jeremiah 5:4-5. 2 Samuel 12:7-9; Ezekiel 8:11-12. Romans 2:17-24). Higher standards are expected of us and more eyes are upon us.
- if our example is likely to be followed by others. If we are likely to lead others astray we incur guilt for that as well as our own actions. It can have a significant impact on a lot of others who may follow our example (Galatians 2:11-14).
(b) The Person Sinned Against Makes Some Sins Worse
- sinning against God is worse than sinning against others (1 Samuel 2:25; Acts 5:4; Psalm 51:4). This is because of the infinite majesty and holiness of God and because our greatest responsibility is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind.
- sinning against things by which God makes Himself known is worse. This may include His attributes (Romans 2:4) or name (Exodus 20:7). It may also include despising His worship (Malachi 1:3-4) which is meant for displaying His glory.
- sinning against Christ and His grace is worse. We are warned solemnly against refusing His message, promises and offers of grace in the gospel (Hebrews 2:2-3; Hebrews 12:25)
- sinning against the witness and working of the Holy Spirit is worse. If we lie to Him or resist, despise and blaspheme Him it is worse (Acts 5:3-4; Hebrews 10:29; Matthew 12:31-32; Hebrews 6:4). If we grieve and quench Him it is worse (Ephesians 4:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:19)
- sinning against superiors is worse. This is because they have a God-given authority and are to be respected and obeyed (Jude 8; Numbers 12:8-9; Isaiah 3:5)
- sinning against relations is worse. We have particular family or other social bonds that we must respect and not abuse. We have greater obligations and responsibility towards them (Proverbs 30:17; 2 Corinthians 12:15; Psalm 55:12-15).
- sinning against the souls of others is worse, such as when we mislead them spiritually especially in matters of salvation (Matthew 23:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:15).
- sinning against believers is worse because of the bonds and ties of grace. (Matthew 18:6; 1 Corinthians 6:8; Proverbs 6:19).This is especially so in relation to those of the Lord’s people who are weaker (1 Corinthians 8:11-12; Romans 14:13,15,21).
- sinning against a corporate body is worse (Joshua 7:20, 21, 25; 1 Kings 14:16).
(c) The Nature of the Sin Makes Some Sins Worse
- the clearer the command sinned against, the greater the sin. The more expressly God has commanded or forbidden something the greater the guilt in disobeying (Romans 1:32; Ezra 9:10-12; 1 Kings 11:9-10).
- the greater number of commands sinned against, the greater the sin. Some sins break more commands than others. Covetousness is idolatry as well as being against the tenth commandment (Colossians 3:5; 1 Timothy 6:10). Achan’s sin involved coveting and theft (Joshua 7:21). Ahab coveted and took Naboth’s land by perjury, theft, murder and injustice.
- the greater the impact, the greater the sin.It is a serious thing to stumble and harm others by our sins (Matthew 18:7; Romans 2:23-24).
- the more openly committed, the greater the sin. Sin is still sin in the heart but when it is expressed in words or actions it brings greater public dishonour to God and damage to others (James 1:14-15; Matthew 5:22; Micah 2:1).
- the greater the consequences, the greater the sin. We cannot make amends for our sin by our own actions as it relates to its guilt before God as though we could atone for it. But sometimes we can pay back something that was stolen or lost. It is more serious when we cannot make any restitution. David could not restore the life he had taken away or the marriage he had destroyed (1 Samuel 12:9; see also Deuteronomy 22:22 compared with Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Some damage to reputation and honour cannot be removed (Proverbs 6:32-35).
- the greater the restraints, the greater the sin. God may use various means that ought to restrain us from sinning. Some saw the miracles of Christ and heard His teaching but it did not restrain their unbelief (Matthew 11:21-24; John 15:22). It increased their guilt that they had such privileges. God’s goodness, mercies and deliverances towards us should also restrain us (Isaiah 1:3; Deuteronomy 32:6). It is a serious matter to despise His goodness and forbearance (Romans 2:4). To sin against judgments also increases our guilt (Amos 4:8-11; Jeremiah 5:3; Revelation 9:20-21). Other things that should restrain us are the light of nature and convictions of our own conscience (Daniel 5:22; Titus 3:10-11). Certain things should be obvious to us even without special revelation (Romans 1:20, 26-27; Romans 2:14-16). Outward restraints include the warnings of others in public or private (Proverbs 29:1). Official church discipline (Titus 3:10; Matthew 18:17) and civil punishment (Proverbs 27:22; Proverbs 23:35) ought to restrain us. It is also serious when we sin against our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or others (Psalm 78:34-37; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 42:5-6,20-21; Ecclesiastes 5:4-6; Proverbs 20:25; Leviticus 26:25; Proverbs 2:17; Ezekiel 17:18-19).
- the greater the wilfulness, the greater the sin. If we sin deliberately, wilfully, presumptuously, boldly, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance (Psalm 36:4; Jeremiah 6:16; Numbers 15:30; Exodus 21:14; Jeremiah 3:3; Proverbs 7:13; Psalm 52:1; 3 John 10; Numbers 14:22; Zechariah 7:11-12; Proverbs 2:14; Isaiah 57:17; Jeremiah 34:8-11; 2 Peter 2:20-22).
(d) The Circumstances Make Some Sins Worse
- sinning in or around the time of worshipping God or on the Lord’s day is worse (2 Kings 5:26; Jeremiah 7:10; Isaiah 26:10; Ezekiel 23:37-39; Isaiah 58:3-5; Numbers 25:6-7; 1 Corinthians 11:20-21; Jeremiah 7:8-10; Proverbs 7:14-15; John 13:27,30)
- sinning after God has chastised us is worse (Ezra 9:13-14)
- sinning in public, or in the presence of others is worse. This is especially true if they are likely to be encouraged to sin by it (2 Samuel 16:22; 1 Samuel 2:22-24).