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.
Jeremy Sarber says
“In the end, all sins are the same in their effect, but some sins are different in terms of their heinousness.”
I’ve long questioned the assumption that all sins are equal, but I’ve never heard it articulated quite as well as you have. Thank you.
Would it be correct to measure the heinousness of a particular sin based on the punishment warranted for that sin? I say this because I believe the Bible clearly indicates that there are different levels of eternal punishment in the hell for more heinous sins, and the worst punishment awaits those who had more knowledge of God’s Truth in Scripture and yet still spurned it in rejection.
In other words, does Lk 12:47-48 apply in relation to this:
“And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”
The Bible might not say, “All sins are equal in God’s sight.” but James 2:10 comes pretty close, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Thoughts?
Michael Kruger says
That verse has to do with the *effect* of any particular sin (even one is enough to make us guilty lawbreakers), but does not address the *heinousness” of any given sin.
Yes before God, we all equally share in our sinful nature & only Jesus can truly change that.
With regards to the present cultural debate. To be consistant the LGBT camp should therefore equally promote “impatience, anger, gluttony, and so on” as it seeks to make concessions that Scripture doesnt.
We can down play sin as much as over state it when we drift away from God’s instruction, which is for our good in a physical, mental & spiritual sense.
Sin is always deadly & thats why God gives us so much guidance & means to combat it.
Timothy Joseph says
Regardless of the Catechism, I fail to see where your examples, or a biblical basis for any sins to be more heinous in God’s sight, particularly, as you articulate it. You seem to be saying that some sins are less forgivable!
Certainly, some sins are more heinous in there effect within creation. Such sins deserve the greater penalties that they incur in our justice system.
Finally, the idea that there are levels of punishment and reward diminishes heaven and hell
Scripture does speak of reward and punishment but also forgiveness. None of these things diminish heaven or hell.
There were many types of offerings for sin in the OT covenant & the NT church is instructed to deal with various sins in different ways. That in itself justifies Dr Krugers challenge I would say.
In light of all sins are allegedly equal doesnt mean that some are less forgiveable but they require an appreciation with a certain gravity or weight. Some sin effects others or a community or nation, but they all effect or go against God.
Timothy Joseph says
While we may disagree on some points, your third paragraph is well stated and biblically sound. To this I add a hearty Amen!
To the other points, I continue to search the scriptures to ascertain the truth!
All we need to do is read the words of Jesus to Pilate. By simple reasoning, you cannot have a “greater sin” if all sins are equal.
John 19:11 KJV
 Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.
Matt Abel says
Is it more heinous to prostitute/rape/kill a child or prostitute/rape/kill an adult? Why or why not?
Anyway, the WLC #151 asks “What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?” and then goes on to list nine Biblical passages that serve as gateways to understanding the full teaching of Scripture on this matter. Taking time to dig into those nine passages and where they further lead into Scripture will help one understand the Biblical basis.
Matt Abel says
Point of order! I wrote “nine passages” – but that is for only the first section of the Catechisms answer to 151. There are four sections that answer the question with about 110 Biblical passages cited.
My apologies for mis-representing the vast Biblical basis for this teaching.
I found this post excellent. Helps us keep a good balance amidst the danger of letting implications of doctrines (in this case, original sin, total depravity) rule our interpretation of other texts.
In addition to the confessions you quoted we could add that the OT differentiated between sins of ignorance vs sins of volition, how Jesus said the servant who knew his master’s will and disobeys will receive more blows, or how Sodom and Gomorrah will be better off on judgment day.
Great job. Tweeting it now.
I find the phrase extremely unhelpful, especially as those who use it seem to have little concept that sins do differ in seriousness.
It seems clear based on how the world works that sins are not equal. Further, the Bible clearly does not treat them as equal. And if that is not enough, we can always point to Jesus saying that sins are graded in severity.
Peter Jones says
Dr. Kruger you reference Matthew 9:42 in the article, but there is no Matthew 9:42. Did you mean Mark 9:42?
Michael Kruger says
Yes, meant Mark!
James Anderson says
Good post, Mike.
FWIW, I commented on the same confusion earlier this year:
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, James. Good to know!
francis leow says
thank you dr kruger!
a small point: ‘Yes, taking a bite of an apple is enough to separate a person from God (Gen 3:6).’
but u underlined the big point – that act sure did separate us from God!
Todd Thompson says
We must never confuse the consequences of sin with the degree of sin. Sin has one degree, that being death and separation from God (Romans 6:23 / Romans 3:23). The consequences of stealing box of paper clips from your employer are different than murdering your employer. Yet, apart from the forgiveness and salvation found in Jesus, either one will send you to hell as fast as the other. Or, as Cornelius Plantinga put it, “All sins are equally wrong. Not all sins are equally bad.”
Richard Klaus says
Robert Gagnon also has a good discussion of these issues and how they played out regarding the issue of homosexuality: http://www.robgagnon.net/articles/is_homosexual_practice_no_worse.htm
I will not discuss details, but my “big” sin in life is a good example. It had legal, long term consequences here on Earth. It contributed to other’s sin. It was and still is nearly impossible to overcome on my own. My heart was hardened. I wallowed in it for years. I hid it and lied to myself and others. I quit the real and Biblical fellowship with my church families. Lost a prestigious job. Lost friends. Lost everything here on Earth.
When God finally hit the reset button on my life (starting with “getting caught”), I was suicidal.
My contribution to this conversation is that, while if unforgiven, I would have been in the same Hell alongside the unforgiven office paperclip thief, my Earthly punishment is far more hellish than that person’s.
God tells us in Romans 11? 12? (No Bible handy) that He disciplines us as a Father disciplines his son, not for destruction, but for building up. An Earthly Father certainly differentiates both crime and punishment. This verse also differentiates between eternal judgement (certainly “destruction”) and Earthly correction.
In other words, my separation from God and my justification through Christ are both as instantaneous, solid, and thorough as the paperclip thief’s. But my ongoing sanctification process may be far more tedious.
David was an adulterer and murderer. Paul persecuted God’s people. Moses murdered. God certainly still used them.
As much as David’s sin affected others, how much more so has God used David’s sanctification process to also have an effect? When suicidal, I memorized Psalm 51. Thank you, David, for being such a GREAT sinner!
So… Yes, there are greater and lesser sins. God promises to bring all His wandering Sheep back to Him. But some of us wandered farther than others.
This prodigal son has been welcomed home, and is looking forward to eating the celebration feast one day, seated next to his brother, the paperclip thief.
Mike in Georgia
Jn. 1:29, Rom. 3:23, 6:23 and 1 Jn. 2:2 all seem to indicate all sin for all time for all people has been paid for. Anyone who simply believes in Christ for eternal life (Jn. 6:47) benefits from this payment and secures their eternal destiny and relationship with the Creator. Yes, the temporal consequences of different acts of disobedience vary but in the end eternal result is the same, a little poison kills the same as a lot of poison. Moral imperfection is moral imperfection. My impatience and pride cost Christ the same as homosexuality. Thus the popular parsing of sin so as to determine who “genuine” believers are seems inconsistent with the biblical concept of God’s grace and effaciousness of Christ’s payment (2 Tim. 2:13). Paul’s phrase, “…and other sins like these…” (Gal. 5:21) seems to open the door up for a variety of sins that Christians can indeed choose to engage in. Yet, where there is great grace there is great accountability (1 Cor. 3:15, 2 Cor. 5:10, Rom.14:10).