Parity Among Sins

May 26, 2010

“Does the New Testament teach that some sins are worse than others?”

So asks my colleague Jeffrey Jay Lowder.  

A Sin Is a Sin Is a Sin… Or Is it?

The occasion for Jeff’s query was a debate between “Bible-believing” Christians over how upset one ought to get about homosexuality, assuming as they do that God has prohibited it (in itself a fascinating and complex question for another day). Some are willing to admit that homosexual practice is a sin, but then everybody’s a sinner. Why pick on the poor gays? Are they worse than eminently forgivable adulterers (especially those in the ministry)? Than white collar criminals? Than liars or over-eaters (“gluttons”)? To make such a big deal out of homosexuality is holier-than-thou, isn’t it? And boy do we know Jesus detested that one! A sin’s a sin, and everybody’s a sinner, right?

The stricter camp replies that, while all sins are equally “sins,” offenses against God’s will, some are more serious than others, both in terms of their worldly consequences and in the degree of punishment they merit. Who would glibly suggest that child-molestation is really not much worse than shop-lifting, so we shouldn’t give the pederasts such a hard time? Does either side in this debate seem to have the balance of New Testament teaching on its side? I don’t mean the homosexuality issue per se; I mean the notion that sins may be ranked by gravity.

I think that New Testament writers do grade some sins as worse than others. First Corinthians 5:1 speaks of a kind of incestuous marriage that is outrageous even by pagan standards. (Seems some guy had married his stepmother after the death of his father.) Paul demands his ouster from the congregation, lest he ruin the reputation of the church. Luke 12:47-48 says people (probably church administrators) who know their duty and blow it off will receive worse punishment than those who do the same but ignorantly. So sins of ignorance receive some mitigation. Mark 12:38-40 says pious hypocrites who evict destitute widows will receive worse punishment than others. First Corinthians 6:18-19 makes prostitution uniquely wicked since it degrades the body in a way other sins, involving actions external to the body, do not. Why this should make it more heinous is not quite clear to me. I’m not even sure how this sin is uniquely “bodily.” After all, are you astral projecting when you commit the rest? 

Mortal versus Venereal Sin

But even such sins may be forgiven, or so the New Testament writers say. God is very patient and does not relish the destruction of the wicked. No, he would much prefer people avail themselves of the ample opportunities of repentance he has provided. But even God eventually draws the line. Where?

First John 5:16-17 speaks of "mortal sins," unidentified transgressions of some type that are so severe that the writer advises not to waste the time praying for any friend who has committed them. Why doesn’t he spell it out? Maybe he figured the readers all knew which sins were fatal. Or maybe he thought it best to keep them guessing and thus to keep them on their toes.

Mark 3:28-29 makes the astonishing remark that “all sins will be forgiven men,” a general amnesty, except for one sin that outweighs them all: blasphemy, the single unforgivable sin. The relevant quote has been worked into a larger context where Jesus’ opponents are dismissing his exorcisms as mere magic, and he warns them not to defame what is patently the work of the Spirit of God. Thus he speaks of “blaspheming the Holy Spirit.” But originally the saying must have meant something all by itself. Another version of the saying occurs in Matthew 12:32. “Whoever says anything against the son of man may be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, whether in this age or in the age to come.” “Son of man” here only means “human beings,” as in Psalm 8. No one is saying you can badmouth Jesus ( the Son of Man) and get away with it, but that you’d better watch out if you start taking pot-shots at the Holy Ghost! No, just as “son of man” only means “man,” “the Holy Spirit” here refers to God, period. It is pious paraphrase, “hallowing the name” of God. It denotes God, the Divine Spirit. So we are talking about blasphemy as traditionally conceived, nothing special or more specific. 

Covering a Multitude of Sins

Fundamentalists seem to be quite uncomfortable with the notion of a single act that causes one to forfeit salvation. So when they run across such passages in scripture they try to persuade themselves that “blasphemy” or “mortal sin” refers (instead) to a stubborn refusal to accept Christ as one’s personal savior. According to their doctrine, it is no particular sin or group of sins that leads to damnation. God forgives one’s sins, even the ones not yet committed, as a package deal once one receives Christ as one’s personal savior. In short, they are telling us it is a particular religious allegiance that provides the ticket to salvation, so that, in effect, it is the failure to join up that damns. “He that believeth not is damned” (Mark 16:16b). “If you do not believe that I am he, you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). “There is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). “All who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death … so that… we might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). “Whoever hears my word and believes on him who sent me will not come to the judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). “Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). 

But is it really simple unbelief that damns? Here we gaze down into one of the greatest chasms in New Testament theology, for we are still said to have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and to hear the verdict on our lives and how we lived them (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12; Acts 24:15-16, etc.). Why should that be, if it has all been taken care of at the cross? Did Christ die in vain (Gal. 2::21)? We still have to watch our step or we will be damned, no? Christ’s coming does not seem to have changed that prospect. So what has changed but religious allegiance? This may be the biggest doctrinal problem of the New Testament. Some, e.g., Lutherans, have tried their best to make the New Testament teach with one voice that salvation is by grace as of the coming of Christ, but they just have too many passages to explain away. It becomes what I call “hermeneutical ventriloquism.”

The question, “Are some sins more sinful than others?” masks a deeper question: “Are the righteous saved, or is only believers in a particular doctrine or savior?” If one prefers the latter answer, then all sins are interchangeably unimportant, since the only thing that damns is not joining the club. 

Robert M. Price