It happens every year. In a class I teach on introductory theology, people get particularly shocked about one issue: not all sins are equal. For whatever reason, many Christians think that all sins are equal. Perhaps it’s because we’re marinated in a culture that incessantly preaches the equality of humans. Maybe some of us (rightly) don’t want to appear superior because we don’t struggle with certain odious sins of others. Whatever the reason, it’s common to think all sins are equal. But this is mistaken and will affect the church’s mission.
In one sense, all sins are equal because any sin cuts us off from relationship with God (Rom. 3:23). James explains why:
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10, NIV)
James’ point is that individual sins cannot be isolated. The Bible’s commandments are an interconnected whole reflecting God’s character, and if one is broken it is tantamount to rebellion against God himself.
But this does not mean that all sins are equally heinous before God. The Bible is clear they are not. Jesus, for example, said that he who handed him over to Pilate, was guilty of a “greater sin” than Pilate himself (John 19:10-11). Moreover, Jesus drew distinctions between a “speck” and a “plank” in one’s eye (Matt. 7:3) and the Pharisees who “strain out a gnat” and yet “swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:24). In the Old Testament, when his people rebelled against him, God revealed the sins of Israel in three stages to Ezekiel. And in each stage Israel’s sins were “more detestable” (Eze 8:6-16) than the previous ones. So, from these simple examples, it’s clear that some sins are more offensive to God than others.
So what makes some sins more serious? Here are three important factors amongst others.
- The first is how much we know about God and his ways. Jesus did say, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:47-48). The more revelation we have about God, the more responsible we are to God. Jesus said that it would be “more bearable” on judgement day for the Gentiles of Tyre and Sidon who never saw Jesus, compared to the Jews of Chorazin and Bethsaida who witnessed Jesus’ miracles and rejected him (Matt 11:21-22).
- The second principle is: the more we intend to sin, the more serious the offence. The OT Law meted out lesser punishments for a person who sins “unintentionally”, and greater punishments for those who sinned “defiantly” (Numr 15:27-31).
- Third, sins are more serious the greater effect they have. So James can say about preachers: Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1, NIV). This is because the public preacher can lead more astray than the person who privately misguides (Gal 2:11-14). It’s far more serious to actually commit adultery than to privately fantasise about it. It is true, the more one privately fantasises about adultery, the more likely it will actually happen. But the effects of committing adultery, as opposed to dreaming about it, are far worse.
Why is this issue so important to the church’s mission? Because some sins are so serious that if a person who claims to be a Christian commits them, church discipline needs to be taken. What are these grave sins? Paul lists some:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–10, NIV)
Paul here is not talking about temptations to commit these sins. He is not talking about those who fall into one, aware the sin is wrong, and so sorrowfully repents. Paul is talking about those who practise these sins thinking it is ok to do so. Believers don’t live this way because those who do “will not inherit the kingdom of God”—it’s evidence they are not saved. This is not salvation by good works. Rather it is that good works are a sign of salvation (Eph. 2:10).
When sin of the kind mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 exists in the church, it compromises her mission to be the light of the world. There won’t be the clear distinction between God’s people and the world. A person who claims to be a Christian but is sleeping with their girlfriend or boyfriend, is living like they haven’t been saved. The one who steals, whether from a shop, a friend, or in a tax return, without giving it a second thought, is living like they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Sins in a local church are contagious (1 Cor 5:6-7). That is why it is so critical for church leaders to be “above reproach” (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:6). This does not mean perfection but having no serious character flaws. Because when leaders fall into sin, the damage is far greater.
If and when the serious sins of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are discovered in the church, they are to be dealt with via the process set out in the NT that may ultimately lead to church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Thess. 3:14-15). And we must remember that the fundamental reason for disciplining a church member is unrepentance: they are unwilling to admit to, or turn from, their (serious) sin. Discipline is enacted not to punish but to restore (1 Cor. 5:5).
Because some sins are more serious than others we can be tempted to look down on others who struggle with sin that we don’t. However, Paul’s words are sobering:
Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. (Galatians 6:4–5, NIV)
The wonder of the gospel is that if we do sin, we can be forgiven and restored. Jesus’ sacrifice is that powerful (1 John 2:1-2). It’s enough to make us want to put off sin!