All sin is not the same

One of the church’s teachings that is most easily shown to be (at least partially) wrong is the teaching that all sin is the same. All sin, quite clearly, is NOT the same. This teaching is based mostly on the passage where Jesus says,

Matthew 5:27-28 (NIV)
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’
28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

The  standard teaching, based on this passage, is that lust and actual adultery are equivalent in the eyes of God. In a way this is nice because it has an equalizing effect. I shouldn’t be able to look down on the murderer because I have sinned too. Maybe my sins seem smaller to me, but to God they are the same. That’s the idea. The problem is that it’s not true, and cannot be true.

Question: If thinking of a woman lustfully is actually “the same” as committing adultery with her, why not just go ahead and commit adultery? That would be ludicrous, of course, and everybody knows this. And we know it precisely because we know deep down that all sin is not the same. It’s not “just as bad” to think of someone lustfully as to commit adultery with her, and Jesus isn’t saying it’s the same thing in this passage. He’s saying that desire precedes action, and desire has a moral quality of its own. In the sense that act springs from desire, they are one and the same (that’s qualitative). But they are not at all the same in the sense of quantity (that is, enormity). Peterson makes this clear in his The Message translation:

Matthew 5:27-28 (MSG)
27 “You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’
28 But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.

That’s the point — that lust happens not just in the body but in the mind. And it happens in the mind first. But adultery is much “sinnier” than lust. It has evil consequences that reach further, is more damaging to the one who commits it and the victims of it, and reaches further down into one’s self-image than a mere thought or even pattern of thoughts. Only people who have not worked with adulterers (or been cheated on) could ever make with a straight face the claim that the act and the thought actually are the same.

It may be easier to think of it in terms of some other quality. Let’s say I am growing two oak trees, a huge one, and a brand new baby one. Are they both equally oaky? In one sense, yes. The small oak tree carries within itself all of the qualities that the larger oak contains. Leaves, branches, chlorophyll, bark, potential for making acorns, pulp — everything.  But it certainly cannot be said that they are equally oaky in the sense of quantity. The larger oaktree is clearly just that — larger. There’s more to it, and that matters in practical ways. It reaches higher and deeper and wider. It requires more water. Since it is more deeply rooted it is harder to remove. All of that matters.

Bringing it back home, does all sin create a sense of distance between human beings and God? Yes. That’s a quality issue. Sin, in its nature, has a separating, dividing quality. But does all sin do this equally? Definitely, firmly, positively, conclusively NO. Some sins, in fact, do this a great deal more than others. If I commit murder, it will leave me far more alienated from God than if I steal a box of paper clips from my office. The evil of murder is far more pervasive. It affects the victim, his/her family, my own family, my friends, and society.

If all sin is sin, and if we were really able to believe this, why hasn’t that pervasive teaching led to a sense of profound humility in the church? Because everybody knows it’s crap. And yet my sin being “smaller” than someone else’s is no reason for even the slightest arrogance. Sin still separates and divides us from God, from others, and from ourselves. How much cancer do you want in your body? The answer, of course, is none. Is is better to  have just a little cancer than a lot of it? Of course. But cancer kills. That is what it does in its nature. While a woman might be glad to keep her breast and have “just” a lumpectomy, she takes the decision very seriously — because she has cancer. That’s never a good thing.

Sin, in its nature, divides and separates. Sin, in a spiritual sense, kills. Some sins are definitely “sinnier” but only in the sense that a large oak tree is “oakier” than a small one. Still, the difference is real, and it matters.

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Dan Rutty

    I would like to respond to this David. I read your blog quite a bit and really enjoy it, so please hear my humility brother. I have the utmost respect for you as a man and a Pastor. Although this is a non-issue really, you could be wandering into dangerous Pharisee territory :)

    I am going to respond to this as an adulterer and a victim of adultery. Now, as a Pastor and one who works with adulterers and victims there are very few subjects I’ve studied more. I want what you say to be true, because then I could be ‘better than the next guy’. But I’m not. It’s like saying that I’m safe as long as I’m behind Charles Manson in line. But if Billy Graham is in front of me I’m screwed.

    What you’re referring to in this post is not unequal sin, it’s the consequences of sin. God does not have a sin meter at His side to weigh the different levels of sin. He’s pointing out that we are all sinners.

    Romans 3:19-20 (NLT)
    19 Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. 20 For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.

    Sin is sin is sin. The consequences of sin vary though. I’ve worked with plenty of couples that have committed adulterous acts in their mind and still done serious damage to their marriage. The ones who physically follow through with another person definitely deal with greater consequences. The point is though, both are sinners and in need of redemption. Their sin is the same. Their consequences here on earth are different.

    The passage in Matthew that you are referring to is in direct response to those who think they are righteous. It’s easy for the one who committed the act of adultery to say, “I have sinned” and conversely, equally as easy for the righteous to think they are off the hook. Jesus calls out this sort of thinking over and over.

    You don’t have to read very far into the gospels to see that Jesus’ most difficult audience was the righteous teachers of the law who most definitely thought that there were levels of sin. When you think this way David, where does it end? Is lying worse than stealing? Or is it the other way around? So if I look at a Victoria secrets magazine and pleasure myself, but love my wife and kids, I’m only committing a tiny sin and probably still cool? Both of the Oak trees are Oak trees and need to be uprooted. Only one has deeper roots, deeper consequences.

    Since you used the message version of the Bible to get your point across, I will use the same version. Look just a few verses earlier in Matthew.

    Matthew 5:21 (message)
    “You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder.

    To us as humans, equal sin sounds ludicrous. It’s almost as ludicrous as God putting on flesh and handing His sinless life over to a Roman cross. Our God plays by different rules.

    Hope you don’t mind me responding. I feel bad because I should have said good things about your other posts! Forgive me. I love you man. Your still one of my heroes :)

    Your brother in Christ, dan

    • http://davidkflowers.com thefallencleric

      Hi Dan. Thanks for reading and responding. And don’t worry about it, it’s always more motivating to respond when you don’t agree with something. :-)

      Honestly, when I read your objections, I don’t think we’re disagreeing all that much. If you read my post again, you will see where I ask the question, “How much cancer is acceptable?” You will also see that I make the point that there can never be any cause for arrogance or pride.

      But this does not change the fact. “Bigger” sins produce a greater sense of separation and alienation from God than “smaller” ones. John writes in his gospel about sins that do and do not lead to death. I don’t pretend to understand what all of that is about in detail, but it very much supports what I’m getting at, which is the simple notion that sins are not the same. If there are sins that do and do not lead to death, then that’s the fact: they’re not all the same.

      Scripture of course can be parsed in ten-thousand ways to qualify this, but I believe my post has very clearly made my point. Nothing you said really nullifies my basic point. It is a nuanced and reasonable explanation, really, of the paradox that — at the same time — sins are alike (all sin divides and separates) and yet different (they do not all do so to the same degree).

      Thanks again for your feedback, pal. Consider is a sign of my love for you that I responded in detail, since I usually avoid Biblical back and forth on my blog! Great to hear from you, in any case, agree or not, and you’re my brother forever my friend.

      • Dan Rutty

        Thank you sir. Like I said, It’s a non issue for me. It’s a subject that we could probably have coffee over, discuss and refine each other. In the end I’m pretty sure we would end up on the same side of the issue. I like doing that with my friends and I’m certainly not a know it all. The disciples had lots of moments like that! God loves it when we pursue Him. You, my dear friend, have always pursued. Peace brother. In love, dan

  • Ruth

    Very interesting. I’ve never thought of it this way. I was pretty much taught that all sin is the same…but when you put it this way it makes a lot more sense!

  • Kim Nebel

    I was raised Catholic, and we were always taught that some sins were worse than others, not that all sin is the same. There were venial sins, and mortal sins.