Why are some sins more acceptable than others?
As a Christian I believe that sin is real. God has revealed to human beings what His will is through the Bible and disobeying the will of God is sin. Everyone sins, probably multiple times everyday. Jesus is the only human (technically “God-man”) who has never, ever sinned. One obvious conclusion then is that both Christians and non-Christians sin a lot. This all makes sense to me.
What doesn’t make sense, however, is that it is common for some Christians to make big deals out of certain sins while not making big deals out of other sins. This partiality towards sin does not seem right to me. Usually the explanation given is that there are differing degrees of sin, essentially saying that there is a scale for how serious a sin is, and some sins register at the bottom and some register at the top. Typically, when this idea is held by someone, they probably feel that the sins they commit are at the bottom while the sins of most others are up near the top. This would explain why some Christians may be quick to point the finger or treat others’ sin more seriously than they treat their own.
However, this logic is flawed. There is no scale measuring the seriousness of sin, because all sin condemns us to hell. James, Jesus’ brother, taught:
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. – James 2:10-11
James is making the point that all sin is equal because all sin is against the same God. Jesus had to die to forgive the “big” sins and the “little” sins. Even the “little” ones make us objects of God’s wrath without forgiveness in Christ.
My suspicion is that some Christians treat sins differently because not all sins are equally damaging in terms of consequences reaped in this life. Put another way, all sin has the same eternal consequences but may bring varying degrees of consequence in this life. For example, a small lie will do significantly less damage than a mass murder. So the truth is that sin does differ in terms of immediate consequence, but it is also equal in terms of eternal consequence.
What’s my point in all of this? My point is that it is wrong to show partiality to sin because we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. The unfortunate result of partiality is that certain people get ostracized. Usually it is the pregnant teen, the divorced mother, the gay man, or the addicted smoker who are hammered on, while no one seems to care about the faithful church-goers who don’t spend time with their kids, are downloading movies online, not earning an honest living, or eating gluttonous amounts.
The Christian who is harbouring a “small” sin should not look down on the person committing a “big” sin. If they do, what is getting communicated is that certain people really need God to save them, while others have half-earned their salvation. Their sin keeps them out of heaven only a little, but the “big” sinner is in serious danger of going to hell. This thinking may not be intentional but it is nonetheless present.
What then should we do? I suggest that we treat all people, including ourselves, as sinners in desperate need of forgiveness. Practically speaking, this means that even mature believers are humble and recognize that without Jesus they are nothing. It means that we stop ostracizing “big” sinners and instead offer them support and show God’s love to them. It means that all sins should be condemned, not for the purpose of guilt-bombing, but with a focus towards the God who saves sinners. When our sin looks big, God’s mercy looks wonderful. Every one of us should feel like guilty prisoners set free. That kind of mentality does not look down on other guilty prisoners. It wants to show them the path to freedom. It wants them to experience the joy you have. It wants them to be forgiven.
Showing partiality towards sin is a huge reason why the church is often perceived as being filled with judgmental, self-righteous, hypocritical people. We Christians must work hard to reverse these distinctions. In order to do so we need to see our own sinful condition, accept people as they are, and point them to Jesus, allowing him to be their judge and to change their heart and behaviour. Reversing the opinion about Christians is certainly an uphill battle, but if we’re serious about seeing people come to know Christ, it is a battle worth fighting for.
I’m an atheist but also a historian and therefore quite interested in the development of civilization and religion. The different “weights” of sin was a concept first fabricated by early Catholics. There were genuine philosophers in the church, but there were also many people seeking power and trying to create a power structure. To create a successful social hierarchy you need to delineate “ideals”, preferably ideals that are nearly unattainable- then you’re left with guilt and guilt is a good precursor to obedience.
Thanks for commenting. Your last statement that “guilt is a good precursor to obedience” is true to an extent, but guilt also can produce a defeated attitude. I would put forth that the best motive for obedience is joy. When a person knows that obeying is in their best interest and for their joy, and especially once they experience that, they are more inclined to obey.
Jeremy, let me just say that this is very well-written. I think you point out something very important that is often overlooked. Yet I wonder if God turns a blind eye to such sins. It would seem that if God treats, I don’t know…say, homosexual behaviour with the same disdain that He does to genocide or rape, then His justice is flawed. If that’s the case, this raises numerous philosophical and theological issues about the nature of God. If God is benevolent and omniscient, surely He must understand and place some kind of hierarchy on the various sins otherwise His justice is flawed, something that cannot be allowed unless one wants to severely limit one’s own theology. What say you?
Thanks for reading and responding. I would say that God treats all sin equally in one sense (that they are all offences against him) and treats them in varying degrees in another sense (that they bring differing degrees of pain to the world). All sin, wether small or great, makes us unholy and therefore unworthy to be in his presence. But the Bible also references in several places all people being judged according to their works. This judging of our works does not send us to either heaven or hell – faith in Christ is the only criteria for that – but rather this examination of our lives determines the degree of reward one receives in heaven or the degree of punishment in hell. It is this that you refer to in terms of God executing his justice in ways that “fit the crime”.
To me, the most fascinating part of God’s justice is that even the worst sinner a person can imagine, perhaps a rapist or murderer as you referenced, can have their sin removed by Christ’s death. Jesus died for all sin, and his sacrifice on behalf of sinners was perfectly acceptable in God’s sight, meaning that God is just in forgiving people who have done horrible things because their sins have been atoned for by Jesus. Amazing how God can forgive us yet remain just, because all sin gets paid for…either by the sinner in hell or by Christ for the believer in heaven. Make sense?
I like that middle ground approach. I would agree with you there. And I had never really considered that Hell and Heaven have different degrees of pleasure or pain, or however you’d like to word it. Normally I had thought of both as an all or nothing kind of place. Either you’ll be playing the harp with angels or you’ll be receiving lashes from Satan. But the degrees thing changes it up. It removes some philosophical objections. Cheers.