It’s a small word, yet it carries so much weight. The word is thrown around to label, judge and condemn. It’s a word of only three letters, yet millions of words been devoted toward understanding it. In all of the studies, articles, commentaries and sermons about sin one question constantly emerges: Are all sins the same?
We ask because while we know that all sins cause us to be separated from God, we cannot believe murdering a child is the same thing as deceiving a potential employer by padding your résumé.
Before we attempt to respond to the question about all sins being the same, it would do us well to ask a few more questions. The first being, “What is sin?”
Not Just Breaking Rules
I grew up believing sin was breaking God’s rules. My action made God angry, disappointed and saddened. As a result, I had to make things right with God as quickly as possible. I was often instructed to keep a “short account of my sin” with God.
This is a small, self-centered view of sin. It centers on me, and ignores others in my life and world. But this is not how sin works. Sin always affects others—even if no one knows about my sin. Sin’s impact on me is connected to its impact on others.
We need to see sin as a part of a bigger story; one that involves all of us. Cornelius Plantinga offers a definition of sin, saying it is a “disruption or disturbance of what God has designed.” When we consider all God has designed and recognize sin is an action or thought that disturbs his world, the implications are massive.
It’s no longer a small story about my doing something wrong and God being mad. It’s recognizing we have disrupted the harmony and peace of God. Whether we do that a lot or a little ceases to matter. The simple point is we have done it.
But the question remains, “Are all sins the same?” Which naturally, leads us to our next question.
Do We Need to Rank Sin?
American Culture loves lists. From TIME magazine’s annual Top 100 influencers, to the Billboard Top 40, to the greatest athletes of all time—we love ranking people and things. It’s no surprise then, when it comes to sin, we want lists.
But there is a danger here worth noting:
We are never commanded, asked or called to rank sin. We are invited to be honest about our sin; to address the plank in our eye first. It’s only when we are honest about our mistakes and our sin that we will ever have the heart of compassion and wisdom needed to address the mistakes and sin of our brothers and sisters.
Ranking sin can lead us to believe we are not as bad as others. Consider the story Jesus told about a “holier-than-thou” religious man and a corrupt businessman who prayed alongside one another. The religious man thanked God he was not as bad as the sinner next to him.
It’s possible that those who insist on ranking sins from greatest to least may want to believe their sin is on the bottom of the list. Many of us live like this to one degree or another. If you meet a judgmental person, you’ve just met someone who is unwilling to be honest about her sin. Regardless of where our sin falls on a given list, the reality is this: it has disrupted God’s design for this world.
“Yes!” you say, “But don’t certain sins have greater punishments attached to them?”
Punishment Absent of Restoration
Few conversations about sin ignore the reality of punishment. The two seem inseparable, which may be the reason we believe certain sins are greater than others. Here in America, we know a breaking the posted speed limit carries a different punishment than robbing a bank. Therefore, we believe robbing a bank is a worse sin than speeding.
But what we actually measure is punishment, not the offense. It is true there are natural consequences to certain actions. However, given one’s place, position and relationships, the consequences, even for the same sin, can be entirely different.
This is vital, because our infatuation with punishments stands to harm others more than we could ever know. I say this, because I have never met a person who struggles with materialism or gluttony that believes he is beyond hope. The same, however, cannot be said for someone who has committed sexual sin. Why?
We live in the midst of a gluttonous and materialistic culture, so we ignore that sin. There simply are no punishments or obvious consequences for materialism or gluttony in our country. We conclude it is a lesser sin—or maybe not even a sin at all. But sexual sin is entirely different.
The Church has demonized sexual sin above all others and strapped shame to anyone who has sinned sexually. The punishments are severe and know no limits. This leads us to assume one sin must be worse than the other.
True, some sin causes more harm than others. However, consequences should not cause us to say which sin is worse, because all sin harms and destroys and disrupts and disturbs the good design God so desperately wants for our world.
“So, are all sins the same?” No, and, of course, yes.
No, they are not the same, because there are different consequences. We must remember, however, consequences depend on context, which means if we attempt to rank sin, we may well defer more to consequences in a particular time and culture, and forget these do not necessarily indicate the severity of sin.
Yes, they are the same, because all sin disturbs God’s shalom. But that’s not what really causes sin to be the same. What really makes all sins the same is seen in the Cross. For it was there that the sin of the world was dealt with once for all, which renders all sins the same: forgiven.
If that’s true, maybe we don’t need even need to ask the question.