February 11 – Hierarchy of Sin

February 11 – Hierarchy of Sin

Matthew 5:19

“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)

Some have held that before God there is no difference among sins. All sins are equally vile and there is no legitimate gradation of guiltiness among sins. This curious notion probably originated in a misunderstanding of Christ’s meaning in the Sermon on the Mount. Not only is murder wrong, he taught, but anger is wrong in itself, whether or not it leads to murder; it is in the same category of evil, in the same family of sins. Christ never intended to teach that the first beginning of sinful thought and its mature manifestation in action were equally heinous. The notion is a terrifying one. It is intended to reinforce the sinfulness of sin, but in actual fact it has the opposite effect. If it is as wrong to desire a woman as to take her by force, why not act on your impulses? You are no more guilty. The rest of mankind would plead with the one holding such a doctrine: If you covet my possessions, please keep it at that level and do not take them; if you hate me or fail to love me as Christ does, please keep it at that level and do not assault or kill me.

There is a biblical hierarchy of both virtue and sin. Love for God takes precedence over love for my neighbor. Those who sin without knowledge are to be punished on the judgment day with less severity than those who sin with knowledge (Luke 12:47-48). In the Old Testament where specific punishments were prescribed by God, there was a gradation from capital punishment down to a slight fine. There are “least commandments” (Matt. 5:19) and “weightier matters” (Matt. 23:23). Some insults, for example, are worse than others, and to speak in wrath is worse than merely feeling it (Matt. 5:22).

To hold that all sins are of equal gravity in the sight of God finds no confirmation in either the Old Testament or the New Testament. It is true that one who breaks the least commandment is guilty of the whole in the sense that he has become a lawbreaker (James 2:10). He is no longer an innocent person. It is also true that the least sin separates from a holy God. In this way, it could be said that all sins are equally sin. But it can never be said on biblical grounds that all sins are equally sinful.

Not all sinners will receive the same punishment. For example, those who have sinned deliberately for a lifetime against great light certainly will receive far greater condemnation than those who had no gospel light and died in childhood. Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler will give an account for their rejection of biblical truth they learned so well in their youth.

The notion that all sins are equally sinful does not tend to make guilt heavier on sins of the spirit, like selfishness, as much as it tends to make light the guilt of more heinous violations. Criminal law and church discipline must be based on the biblical view that there is a great difference among sins and that they should be punished accordingly.

To say there is a great difference in the weight of various sins does not mean that our view of that variation is accurate. In the nature of the subject—sin—we could almost assume in advance that fallen human evaluation will go astray. For example, in the sight of God, which would be the graver sin: a ghetto child who steals a loaf of bread to feed his crippled mother, or a university professor who delights in destroying the faith of hundreds of freshmen? Yet which would be punished in the courts of our land if found guilty of such activity? Sins against God are lightly thought of, even by Christians, but from God’s point of view they are the most worthy of judgment. So it is that God alone may evaluate the level of guilt. But far be it from any just judge to assign to Anne Frank and Adolf Hitler the same level of punishment.

Having said all this, however, let us remember that the slightest falling short of God’s glorious character brings separation from God, suffering, death, and hell. Let us remember that the least of all my sin would nail Jesus to the cross as the price of love to set me free. In contrast to murder, what is so terrible about eating a piece of fruit? And yet it was enough to rob heaven of its glory and damn the whole race.

As we have examined what Scripture has to say about the nature and results of sin, where it comes from and what it leads to, we may feel as if we have been sounding the depths of some vast and unfathomable cesspool. We have been probing the edges of some horror of impenetrable darkness. And why is the holy Word of God so full of this foul subject? In order to know God and become like him, it is not enough to love righteousness. We must hate sin. To induce this hatred, God strips sin of all its guises and fully reveals its hideous reality. But there is a prior reason for this grim revelation—against this dark background the splendor of his glorious grace stands revealed. Only when the hideous pollution of our corrupt nature is known will we seek cleansing. And only with this reality pressed upon us will we be willing to acknowledge how utterly hopeless and how helpless we are and run for refuge to the mighty Savior. [8]

What sin might you be excusing? Anger? Yelling? Adultery? Pornography? Fear? Surely not murder, yet perhaps gossip or the destruction of reputations? There is a hierarchy of sin, and the consequences are proportional. Why not admit it, commit to change now and be set free from guilt and separation from God?

[8] Introduction to Biblical Ethics (IBE), Robertson McQuilkin, (2014), 110.

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