THE BLOG
01/05/2016 04:25 pm ET | Updated Jan 05, 2017

All Sins Are Not Equal

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"All sins are equal in God's sight."

One regrettable trend in many parts of the contemporary American Christian church is the propagation of "Christian" clichés that are neither Christian nor true. One of these is the idea that no sin is greater than any other sin. From God's perspective, they are all equally bad.

This is something I've heard repeated for years, in one version or another. People say that all sins are the same in God's sight. Since God is morally perfect, any form of wrongdoing is just as bad as any other form of wrongdoing. There are several reasons, however, for rejecting this claim.

  • First, it is clear that there are degrees of wrongdoing. The claim that murder and stealing a pack of gum are morally equivalent actions is absurd, for many reasons. For instance, the level of harm is vastly different in each case, and harm can be used as one criterion for judging actions in this manner. If someone steals a pack of gum from me, that's not good, but I'm not dead. Moreover, the right to life is a fundamental right. It is the most important right we possess, much more important than property rights.
  • Second, this oft-repeated claim, that all sin is the same in God's sight, contradicts a statement attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is reported as saying

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:23-24)."

Jesus himself, the moral and intellectual exemplar for Christians, rejects the claim that no sin is worse than any other. There are matters that are more important, morally speaking. For example, justice, mercy, and faithfulness are more important than giving a tenth of their spices.

  • Third, there are other reasons for thinking that Jesus believed that some things matter more, morally speaking, than others. In the first half of Matthew 12, Jesus and his followers are thought to be involved in breaking religious law, by working on the Sabbath, which was to be a day of rest. Over the years, many rules and regulations had cropped up around this day. In reply to these criticisms, Jesus points out that the welfare of people, including their need for food and for healing from physical ailments, takes precedence over such rules. In addition, Jesus states that the greatest commandments are to love God with all one's being and to love one's neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:28-31). Some things have greater moral significance than others, from the perspective of Jesus.

While the foregoing is a discussion within Christian ethics, it is also relevant for those of other faiths, or of no faith at all. An important mark of sound moral reasoning, and of moral maturity, is the ability to distinguish between different levels of significance in moral matters. This is important to do as we reflect on our own character. It is important for parents as they seek to educate and guide their children with respect to their moral development. And it is important for our society, as we seek to make decisions in the political realm that involve a variety of tradeoffs that have significant moral implications.

We need to think hard about moral issues, and put the fruit of our reflection to work for the sake of the common good.