A multitude of teachings from many religions, especially Christianity, have exacerbated the perception of sin within the church and society. The nature of sin, its many nuances, and its relevance, should and must be understood by Christians in order to avoid misrepresenting and defiling the Word of God among civilization (1 Peter 3:15). One of the main misconceptions of sin is the false notion, unfortunately held by many believers, that all sins are equal in the eyes of God. While it is true that all sins separate each individual from God, there is no Biblical evidence or logical reason for the position that all sins are equal. On the contrary, there are many reasons and passages supporting the inequality of sins. Three prominent reasons supporting this theory are the differences in punishment given in the Old Testament, the condition of the heart during a sin, and the fact that Jesus stated it Himself.
The first reason, which is logically derived from the Jewish justice system, is there are many different punishments for various different offenses, some much more severe than others. It is important to note this justice system is no longer in effect, nor should it be, since the new covenant has been instituted. Adultery was punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10). When men quarreled and someone was struck, payment equal to the loss or punishment equal to the injury was required of the perpetrator of damage (Exodus 21:22-25). Concerning thievery, it was different. If a robber was caught while in possession of what was stolen, he was required to repay double (Exodus 22:4). If, however, a stolen animal was sold or killed, then the thief was required to repay the owner four to five times depending on the livestock (Exodus 22:1). If food was stolen out of hunger, then he repaid seven-fold (Proverbs 6:30-31). Clearly, restitution for a stolen animal was necessary because the owner was at a loss, but there was a much more severe punishment for robbers who sold or slaughtered the livestock. Basically, if a man was caught with a stolen ox, he only paid double; if the ox was dead or sold, then he paid fivefold. The scale changed based on the sin committed. Also, when an innocent person was struck, the punishment was equal to the injury inflicted. There is not some universal punishment for every sin or crime. The punishments changed accordingly, and it is vital to know that God instituted the standards by which the Israelites were to establish their justice system. Scripture is clear that God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8), and He will not pervert it (Job 34:12). Since God cannot and will not be unjust, the justice system, including punishments by which He commanded the Hebrew people to abide, must also be just and fair. The punishments vary drastically depending on each sin, so it follows logically that the sins worthy of each different punishment cannot be equal. If all sins have equal value in the eyes of God (or are equal by some other vague standard that advocates of this misconception insist to be true), then the punishments would be equal. Yet for some reason stealing a loaf of bread, resulting in a retribution of seven loaves of bread, is unequal to killing an innocent bystander in a fight, resulting in death. Essentially, because God who is just determined greater and lesser punishments, there must exist greater and lesser sins deserving those punishments.
The next reason accounts for the condition of man’s heart while sinning. The heart, which is the volitional intent of the will, determines the level of malice or wickedness in each person. To put to rest any doubts of there existing people of differing degrees of wickedness, king Manasseh was more wicked than all other Amorites before him (1 Kings 21:11). However, Jesus preached in Matthew 5:28, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NASB). From this verse it can be induced, if a man wishes evil, it is equivalent to and just as morally reprehensible as acting upon the evil he desires, regardless if he ever does have the chance to act upon it. That is why Jesus said, “…has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Likewise, it says in Matthew 5:22 – “But I say to you that everyone who continues to be angry with his brother or harbors malice against him shall be guilty before the court…” (AMP). From these two brief passages, sin is not limited to physical acts but also thoughts. Furthermore, it is clear that the intention of one’s action (the condition of the heart) should determine punishment. Exodus 21:12-14 – “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. (13) But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. (14) If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die” (NASB). For the same crime there is a different punishment. In the case in which the murder was planned, the punishment is death, but in the case in which it was unintentional to kill but still ended in death, the punishment is less severe because a place of refuge is provided. The reason God determined a different punishment for the same crime (murder in this case) can be deduced from the following verses:
• Proverbs 16:2 – “All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives.”
• Jeremiah 12:3 – “But You know me, O Lord; You see me; And You examine my heart’s attitude toward You. Drag them off like sheep for the slaughter and set them apart for a day of carnage!”
• 1 Samuel 16:7 – “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”
From these verses it is clear that God weighs the motives of men, examines the attitudes of the heart, and looks at the heart. It is already established that differing degrees of punishment implies differing degrees of sin. Because the punishments differ in severity for the murder described in Exodus 21, the sin in each case must differ in value. However, the physical results (murder) were the same in each case. Therefore, the condition of the heart determines which sins are lesser and greater, not just the physical action. Sentencing capital punishment or exile for the same crime is justified because the evil intentions of the heart from both scenarios are disparate; they are unequal, and so, God’s reputation is untainted. Since the conditions of the heart in both cases are unequal, neither are the sins equal. A simple way to understand this is to ask the question: Would a person’s desires be just as wicked if he steals food for sustenance as they would be if he stole food to spite his neighbor?
Probably the most blatant reason for holding to a position of the inequality of sins is that Jesus iterated it himself. Jesus was responding to Pilate’s question in John 19:11 – “Jesus answered, ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason, he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” Jesus was referring to the sin of those who handed him over to be crucified, deeming it as the greater sin. The possibility of a greater sin ensures the option of a lesser sin, which proves that not all sins are equal. Also, consider Matthew 22:36-39 – “‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ (37) And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ (38) This is the great and foremost commandment. (39) The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” There are two commandments, one greater than the other. Logically, disobeying the greater commandment is a greater sin than disobeying the lesser commandment, otherwise it is futile mentioning the salience of one commandment over the other.
Additionally, it is insinuated that some sins contain more morbid consequences than others in 1 John 5:16 – “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. (17) All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.” Verse sixteen differentiates sins leading to death and those that do not. Not to be overlooked is the emphasis in verse seventeen about how all unrighteousness is sin. Nonetheless, the revelation that only some sins lead to death renders indubitably the inequality of sins.
To be fair, an adequate representation of the contrary position should be made. Most proponents of the sins-are-all-equal position emphasize with unwavering fervor that all sins separate humanity from God, which is true (Isaiah 59:2). However, it cannot be deduced that sins are equal just because they all separate humans from God. The main line of argument comes from James 2:10 – “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” In order to fully understand the literal meaning of this passage, it must be viewed in light of the entire context.
James 2:8-12 – “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (10) For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. (11) For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (12) So, speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.”
Verses eight and nine reveal that committing a seemingly minor sin is enough to render one a lawbreaker or guilty of transgressing the law. Verse ten is self-explanatory; a broach of one area in the law makes the lawbreaker guilty under the entire law. Verse eleven unmistakably stresses the insignificance of which law is broken, for if any are broken, then the perpetrator is guilty by the standard of the law. In other words, someone caught speeding on a highway is just as guilty of breaking the law as someone caught in murder, yet the respective laws broken are disparate in nature. This analogy only serves to make sense of the text, not to bolster the point. Verse twelve is basically a call to obedience.
The truth is clear, and scripture leaves no room for discrepancies on this subject. An important caveat from this message should be practiced, and that is to abstain from falsely assuming some sins are trivial just because they are lesser or do not lead to death. All sin is offensive to God, no matter how inconsequential the results may be.