For advocates of Reformed theology, we are keen to emphasize the seriousness of sin. Sin is a big deal. Each and every one of them. Indeed, this is precisely why we all desperately need a Savior.
As true as this is, however, our enthusiasm for maintaining the seriousness of sin (which is good) can lead us to make additional statements which may not be so true (depending on how they are understood). One of these statements, and the next installment in our “Taking Back Christianese” series, is, “All sins are equal in God’s sight.”
On the surface, this phrase seems like a great way to uphold our commitment to sin’s seriousness. It is the equivalent of the phrase “there are no little sins” (a line you probably first heard from your parents after you locked your little sister in her room).
Our purpose in this post (as in all the posts in this series) is simply to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this phrase. We will do this by asking three questions: (1) Why do people use this phrase? (2) What is correct or helpful about this phrase? and (3) What is problematic about this phrase?
Why Do People Use This Phrase?
We should begin by observing that this phrase does not come from Scripture. People do not use it because it appears in the Bible. Why then do they use it?
One reason, as noted above, is that some Christians use this phrase to uphold the seriousness of sin. It is viewed as a way to remind people not to be dismissive about their sin or regard it is a triviality.
Others use this phrase as way to “flatten out” all sins so that they are not distinguishable from each other. Or, to put it another way, this phrase is used to portray all human beings as precisely the same. If all sins are equal, and all people sin, then no one is more holy than anyone else.
In a world fascinated with “equality,” this usage of the phrase is particularly attractive to folks. It allows everyone to be lumped together into a single undifferentiated mass.
Such a move is also useful as a way to prevent particular behaviors from being condemned. If all sins are equal, and everyone is a sinner, then you are not allowed to highlight any particular sin (or sinner).
Needless to say, this usage of the phrase has featured largely in the recent cultural debates over issues like homosexuality. Yes, homosexuality is a sin, some Christians reluctantly concede. But, they argue, all sins are equal in God’s sight and therefore it is no different than anything else. Therefore, Christians ought to stop talking about homosexuality unless they are also willing to talk about impatience, anger, gluttony, and so on.
What Is Correct or Helpful about This Phrase?
If understood correctly, this phrase captures some important biblical truths. Let me just mention two.
First, this phrase might be used to indicate that any sin is enough to separate us from God and warrant his wrath. My hunch is that most people use this phrase to make exactly this point. They want to remind us that God is so holy that any violation of his law, no matter how trivial in our eyes, is an offense in his eyes worthy of condemnation.
Yes, eating some fruit is enough to separate a person from God (Gen 3:6). Even Achan’s seemingly small sin incurred God’s wrath (Josh 7:1).
The Westminster Larger Catechism 152 affirms this truth:
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.
Second, this phrase might be used to remind us that small sins can lead to big sins. We need to avoid all sins, even minor ones, lest they grow, fester, and multiply. Sin cannot be contained or controlled. You either kill it or it grows. For a great sermon on this topic, see C.H. Spurgeon, “Little Sins.”
Of course, it should be pointed out that both of these points already presuppose that not all sins are equal in God’s sight. If all sins are the same, then the WLC and Spurgeon’s sermon would make no sense.
What is Problematic about This Phrase?
The above two uses are probably the best take on this problematic phrase. Unfortunately, sometimes it used to teach exactly what it says, namely that no sins are worse than any other. And that is where things get problematic. Several points need to be made:
First, to say all sins are the same is to confuse the effect of sin with the heinousness of sin. While all sins are equal in their effect (they separate us from God), they are not all equally heinous.
Second, the Bible differentiates between sins. Some sins are more severe in terms of impact (1 Cor 6:18), in terms of culpability (Rom 1:21-32), and in terms of the judgment warranted (2 Pet 2:17; Mark 9:42; James 3:1).
Again, the Westminster Larger Catechism 150 agrees:
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.
Third, although all people are sinners, the Bible makes it clear that some are more holy than others. The Bible has the category of the “righteous” person who is singled out by God as notably different (see my article on that subject here).
In the end, all sins are the same in their effect, but some sins are different in terms of their heinousness.
And this should impact the language we use. I don’t prefer to use the term “small” when talking about a sin (because of sin’s serious effects). But I am comfortable using the term “smaller” when talking about a sin (because of the differences in heinousness). The use of the comparative is what matters.
This may seem like a tiny nuance. But, big theological differences are usually captured in just such minor details.