“Sin is sin.”
This is a phrase that you often hear repeated in church circles. The phrase can be misleading because one sense in which it is most certainly true, but there is another sense in which it is absolutely false.
Is it True that Sin is Sin? Yes. And No.
It is true if interpreted as meaning all sin offends God, separates us from God, and will be judged by God either on Jesus’ cross (for those who believe) or on Jesus’ return (for those who do not believe). It is false if what we mean is that all sin is equally offensive to God or has equal consequences. The truth is that God is offended by all sin and God demands consequences for all sin; but precisely how offended he is and precisely what those consequences are depends both on what the sin is and on who commits the sin.
Some Sins are Worse than Others
First, the Bible teaches that while all sin is bad, there are some sins that are unquestionably worse than others in God’s eyes. This is clear in the Old Testament, especially in God’s assessment of various nations and kings. For instance, through his prophet Ezekiel, God rebukes Judah and Israel for their adulterous relationships with Assyria.
Yet, in so doing God assesses Judah’s sin as even more wicked than Israel when he says in Ezekiel 23:11, “Her sister Oholibah [a pejorative term for Judah] saw this, yet in her lust and prostitution she was more depraved than her sister [Israel]. Similar comparative statements are made throughout 1 and 2 Kings. On more than one occasion the sin of one king is said to be greater than those who came before him. The most recognizable example is King Ahab who “did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him” (1 Kings 16:30). The author then goes on to list some of his most heinous offenses before concluding that Ahab “did more to arouse the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him” (1 Kings 16:33). Later, in the story of Manasseh God compares the evil of both king and nation when he declares first that under Manasseh’s leadership the people of Judah “did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites” and second that Manasseh himself did “more evil than the Amorites who preceded him” (2 Kings 21:9-11). If it were true that “sin is sin” there would be no standard by which God could call some more evil than others.
The fact that some sins are worse than others in God’s eyes is also made clear in the New Testament. Both Jesus and the Apostle John teach there is a particular sin worse than all others. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven all their sins and all the blasphemies they utter. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29). John may be describing the same core sin when he writes, “If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that” (1 John 5:16). In both cases there is a distinction made between at least two different groups of sin – each of which is an offense to God, but one that is even worse than the others. Further evidence is found in Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment on those towns that rejected him.
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed inyou had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you” (Matthew 11:21-24).
Jesus’ proclamation confirms that “sin is sin” in the sense that all sin will be judged, whether the sin of Chorazin and Bethsaida or Tyre and Sidon. But his speech denies that “sin is sin” in the sense that all sin is equally offensive or faces equal consequences, for “it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
This should not surprise us in the least. As human beings we intuitively recognize that that a child abuser should receive worse punishment than someone who goes two miles per-hour over the speed limit. This is because we are created in the image of God, who as the personification of justice hates all sin but does not hate all sin in the same way.
Some Sinners Will be Judged More Strictly than Others
Second, the Bible teaches that while all sin is bad some sins face harsher consequences because of who commits them. Most notably, those who lead God’s people face consequences that the rest of God’s people do not, both in this present world and at the final judgment.
The unique consequences that church leaders face in this present world include being removed from their office and being publicly corrected, if at any point they fail to meet the leadership qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. These combined lists of leadership qualifications only include two skills – the ability to teach true doctrine and expose false doctrine. Every other qualification is character based. For instance, those who serve as pastors must be faithful to their wife, hospitable, not given to drunkenness, not lovers of money, not quick-tempered. The mere existence of these lists disproves the idea that “sin is sin,” for God chooses to list some sins as disqualifying sins and not others. Thus, if a pastor is found sinning in these specific areas they are to be removed from their office and “reproved before everyone” (1 Timothy 5:20). Their sin earns these severe consequences both because of the nature of the sin and because of the nature of their position. As church leaders, their sin causes significant harm to those they lead and brings increased shame upon the gospel in the eyes of a watching world.
Moreover, church leaders face additional consequences in the final judgment, including a harsher judgment. The Apostle James writes, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). While not explicitly stated, it is likely that they will be judged more strictly because of how their sin impacts those they lead. As Jesus explains in Luke 17:2, “It would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around your neck than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
In light of all the above, to claim “sin is sin” as a way to minimize the extent of our own wickedness is to lie. Worse still, to claim “sin is sin” as a way to minimize the extent of our own wickedness is to deny God his glory. Jesus’ finished work on the cross is sufficient for our past, present, and future sin – from the most apparently minor to the most heinous. The more we make our sin appear small or common the more we make Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin appear small or common – and it is anything but that. Instead of talking down our sin as if it is no different from anyone else’s we ought to talk up our sin, because we are acutely aware of how desperately we need Jesus to save us. That’s what the Apostle Paul did. He did not take a “sin is sin” attitude toward his wickedness. He saw it for what it was and, as a result, he saw Jesus’ glory magnified.
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 2:15-17).