From the Newsletter of Revesby Presbyterian Church
Rev Dr Peter Barnes
In a sermon delivered in 1933, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones asserted quite vigorously that all sins are equal in God’s sight: ‘All sin is sin to God and miserliness is no worse than drunkenness. Both are equally repugnant to Him, and equally to be punished. It is we who classify sin, not God – to Him all sin is sin’. In a similar vein, David Prior wrote in his commentary on Habakkuk: ‘There are no degrees of righteousness or unrighteousness.’ The Old Testament scholar, R. K. Harrison, however, tried to modify this by arguing that there are no degrees of sin, but there are degrees of culpability.
I must confess to finding all this rather bewildering as it seems to me obviously untrue. It is a Stoic belief that all sins are equal but it is hardly a Christian belief. Jeremiah pronounced that his generation had ‘done worse’ than the previous generation in forsaking the true God and His law (Jer.16:12). The Old Testament does not attach the same punishment to all sins. For example, murder attracts the death penalty but stealing attracts restitution plus compensation. It also distinguishes between sins that are done unintentionally and those that are done ‘with a high hand’ (see Numbers 15:28-31). At His trial, Jesus told Pilate, with reference probably to Caiaphas but possibly to Judas, that ‘he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin’ (John 19:11). Similarly, in His denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus declared: ‘For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others’ (Matt.23:23). Clearly, some commandments are more vital than others, and some sins are worse than others.
Jesus speaks of the blasphemy against the Holy God which will not be forgiven, which, I assume, refers to attributing the works of Christ to the devil (see Matt.12:22-32). John writes of a sin that leads to death, and he does not press his readers to pray for a person caught up in such a sin (1 John 5:16). Paul can write of Timothy’s making progress as a preacher, which surely includes moral progress as a Christian (1 Tim.4:15), and also warn against impostors who go from bad to worse (2 Tim.3:13). None of this encourages the notion that all sins exist on the one plane.
Undoubtedly, part of this is related to the issue of culpability. God declares through Amos: ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities’ (Amos 3:2). The sting is in the ‘therefore’. The book of Hebrews testifies that those who reject Christ deserve a greater punishment than those who rejected Moses (Heb.10:26-29). Jesus Himself says that it will be better in the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon, and even Sodom, than it will be for Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum – towns where the Son of God walked and talked and performed mighty miracles (Matt.11:20-24).
Most explicit of all is Jesus’ teaching at the end of the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants: ‘And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more’ (Luke 12:47-48). The experience of everlasting punishment is not the same for all unbelievers. Which is to say, that in the day of judgment, it would be better to have an ignorant savage practising voodoo than Bishop Spong holding forth on television.
It seems to work the other way too. There will be those who, while saved, will suffer some loss in the day of Christ’s return because they have built badly on a good foundation. Fire will destroy their works of wood, hay, and straw while those of gold, silver, and precious stones will remain (1 Cor.3:10-15). In the parable of the talents, Jesus says that the one with two talents receives two more, while the one with five talents receives five more. Again, the lesson is that ‘to everyone who has will more given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away’ (Matt.25:29).
Rather than declare that all sins are equal – which violates both common sense and Scripture – we ought to recognise that any sin cuts us off from God. It is misleading to say that God is equally opposed to each of our sins, but it is true to say that He utterly opposes all of our sin.
With warmest regards in Christ,