A Pecking Order of Sins
“Clare, aren’t all sins equal?” That was the question posed by a guy I was meeting with who was trying to justify a serious sin he had committed. I replied, “Nate, I don’t think even you believe that.”
All Christians rank sin – that is, we all have a mental list, or hierarchy of sins. On our list some sins are moral felonies and others are misdemeanors. Is that true? Are some sins greater or more serious than others? Yes! (And, I’ll explain why later.)
A second question is even more intriguing, “How did you come up with your ‘list’?” Evangelicals generally have at the top of their list rejecting Christ, while Emergent Christians have, not living like Christ. Conservatives have near the top of their list, abortionists, gays and liberal theology. For liberal Christians, indifference to the poor, hypocrisy and intolerance top their lists. Rich Christians often think the poor’s big problem is laziness, while the poor believe the rich are greedy. I’ve actually caught myself looking down from my self-righteous perch at an adulterer or divorcee and glad I’m not one of them.
So, I have a theory; most of us unconsciously rank the sins we’re the least likely to commit at the top of our list, and our own sins in the middle or below. Let’s talk about why we do that.
Are all sins equal? I was raised to believe that all sins were equal. I’m not sure where I got that notion, except in this sense; for those who are lost and have not yet accepted Jesus sacrifice for their sin, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a murderer or a nice person who simply cheats on your taxes. Your unregenerated sin nature disqualifies you from salvation, not the level or types of sins you commit. All serious Christians hold to that position for non-Christians. But, what about born-again Christians? Are all sins the same?
God Himself Ranks Sin God clearly ranks some sins more grievous than others. How do we know this? Just read Leviticus 20. It lists a dozen or more sins which God considers so serious that they are punishable by death. Among them, offering your children to Moloch, going to spiritualists for guidance, disobeying your parents, adultery, fornication (sex before marriage) and homosexual sex. In other places in the Old Testament, it’s the death penalty for worshipping other gods, marrying non-Israelites or lying (giving a false witness).
For slightly less serious sins, God often commanded that offenders be cut off from their people, the Israelites (banishment). For still other lesser sins, he demanded they make restitution. (Paying damages for destroying property or for negligence.) Clearly, if all sins were equal, there would be no difference in the punishment, or that would be unjust.
What about the New Testament? I’ve met Christians who believe this hierarchy of sins was true in the Old Testament, but that all changed with Jesus. I get the impression they think God, the Father, has mellowed a bit. And, that because of Jesus, God the Father is far more understanding of sin. I don’t believe God’s standard for sin has changed at all. I think the only thing that has changed is that Jesus paid the penalty. He’s taken care of “Dad”, the Father for us.
However, Jesus, Paul and almost all the other gospel writers, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, continued to teach about the seriousness of sin and the cost of some sins in this life and the loss of rewards for them in the next.
Ananias and Sapphira were killed for lying. In I Corinthians 5, Paul describes a sexual sin that is serious enough to ask the man to leave the church (banishment – what we now call ex-communication). Jesus tells the story about the Rich Man and Lazarus as a warning about not caring for the poor. Jesus tells us there is an unforgiveable sin in Matthew 12. So, clearly there is a hierarchy of sin in the New Testament as well.
Question: How do you rank sin?
Let’s be honest, most Christians put homosexual sex as a greater sin than sex before marriage, or adultery. Why is that if Lev. 20 and I Cor. 6:9, 10 lump them all in the same category?
“Or do you not know that wrong-doers 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.” I Corinthians 6:9-10
I think it’s because most just can’t stand the thought that our sons or daughters in high school or college, who we suspect may be having sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend, could possibly be as sinful as gays. I don’t think you can prove that from scripture.
By the way, the point of this blog isn’t to minimize the seriousness of same sex, sex. It’s sin. Period. My point is that only God has the right to rank sin, not us.
As an elder, I’ve been accused by spouses who were the cause of a divorce, of an even greater sin, that of being a self-righteous hypocrite and unloving Christian.
A lot of Republican Christians love Fox News because they go after the liberals, who they believe are destroying Christian values. This, in spite of the fact that the shrill and derogatory language their commentators use, even some Christian commentators, is language Jesus reserved only for religious hypocrites (perhaps, like us).
Big radio and TV ministries consistently attack pro-choice, the gay rights movement and the liberal courts and administrations. I’ve never once heard the same passion and equal air time used to attack materialism, and the love of money, which Jesus clearly had close to the top of his list. I suspect it’s because it would put a dent in their donations. Going after some sins, even those Jesus took seriously, isn’t always good for the ministry business.
This scripture comes to mind. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3
Take some time right now, without thinking about it too much, and make a list of the “top five sins” you’ve always believed most displease God. Then ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you two things:
1. The sins Jesus talks about the most (write them down).
2. The sins you most often commit yourself.
I’m not suggesting we back off from calling out sin in the church and the nation. However, I am suggesting we let Jesus set that agenda. I’m also mindful that Jesus was more gentle with sinners, than with religious hypocrites. “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:5
Questions: How do you think you came up with your “top five”? More importantly, after praying about it, do you have a new top five?
Following Jesus in Real Life