Intro: John 19:10-11 – Then Pilate said to Him, “Are You not speaking to me? Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and power to release You?” 11 Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”
A question to ponder this morning: “Are all sins equal in the eyes of God?” This question was submitted to me for Sunday evening FAQ’s, but I thought, given our theme for April, that I would consider it in this morning’s sermon. How do we typically answer this question?
- “All sin is the same. One sin is not greater than another.” Why do we traditionally answer it this way?
1) False Distinctions: Catholicism wrongly distinguishes between what is referred to as a mortal sin (a sin that kills justifying grace and is punishable by separation from God in Hell) and a venial sin (a sin that does not kill justifying grace and does not cause one to be punished in hell). In reaction to this false distinction, many state unequivocally that all sins are equal.
2) Equal Grace – In an effort to express common ground with unbelievers, where one person’s sin is not worse than another person’s sin – we are all saved equally and fully by God’s grace. This keeps us from coming across as judgmental or condescending.
3) Equal Result – The biblical passages that express the common result of unrepented sin. We will consider some of these today. The wages of sin (all sin) is death (Rom. 6:23)
I. The Equality of Sin: First consider how every sin is equal…
A. James 2:10-11 – For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. In the previous verses James categorically states that the Christian cannot pick and choose whom he will love. If he shows partiality he commits sin. (2:9). Is that a big deal if one is obeying other laws faithfully? Is partiality a big sin or a little sin? James tells us that to break any law makes one a transgressor of law. He is “guilty of all” not that he has literally guilty of violating every law of God, but which law he breaks does not matter – He is a lawbreaker. (if one throws a pebble or a boulder at a glass window, he breaks it all the same.)
B. Earlier James describes the “genealogy of sin.” James 1:14-15 – But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. 15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. It begins through our desires, but the common result of every sin that is not forgiven by God is death. Donald Burdick’s comment is insightful when he observes: “James is not suggesting that only when sin has reached its full development does it result in death. The penalty of sin of any kind or extent is spiritual death” (1981, 172). The liar, gossiper, adulterer and murderer have the same destiny. In this sense, they are equal in the eyes of God. Sins cannot be distinguished between venial (excusable) and mortal (deadly).
C. 1 Peter 2:24 – who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed. 1 John 2:2 – And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. The equality of sin can also be viewed in the single satisfaction of its offense. The concept of venial and mortal sins teaches that God will overlook some sins, or they can be forgiven through the efficacy of confession, or even the prayers of others after one has died. But the Bible clearly teaches that every sin is forgiven through the atonement offered in Jesus’ blood. Jesus death was necessary for every sin, or even one sin. All sin is equal in the payment necessary for forgiveness.
II. The Inequality of Sin: But to simply state that all sin is equal in the sight of God poses some problems. How do we understand all the scriptures that describe sin in comparative language? (22 passages)
A. The passage we opened with from Jesus’ appearance before Pilate. He told Pilate, He who delivers me unto you has the greater sin’ (John 19:11). Jesus was obviously referring to Caiphas the high priest and his cohorts in the Sanhedrin.
1. The term “greater” is an adjective indicating a comparison. First, it implies “sin” on the part of Pilate. Pilate knew Jesus was innocent, but he caved to the pressure and ordered Jesus to be crucified. (19:16) Jesus was not exonerating Pilate of his crimes.
2. But Caiaphas’ sin was greater? In what way was he more culpable?
a. He ignored the testimony of the Hebrew scriptures and the more than 300 OT prophecies that detailed the identifying qualities of the Messiah.
b. He was not moved by the miracles of Jesus.
c. His sin was not one of ignorance or weakness. It was selfish rebellion. As bad as Pilate’s sin of weakness and self-motivated “political correctness” was, Caiaphas’ sin was greater. His responsibility was greater, because of His broader knowledge and his opportunity to believe and yield to what was right.
B. There are several instances of such descriptive comparative language of sin throughout the Bible.
1. When Israel molded a golden calf at Sinai: Ex 32:30-31 – Now it came to pass on the next day that Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great So now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! A “great sin” appears to be more serious, in some sense, than just “sin.”
2. Although both Samaria (capital of the northern kingdom) and Jerusalem (capital of the southern kingdom of Judah) were both guilty of idolatry, leading to their exile, Ezek. 23:11 describes Jerusalem’s sin as “more corrupt”.
3. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he denounced any Christian man who neglected his family. “But if anyone does not provide for his people, and especially his own household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
4. 2 Tim 3:13 – But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.
C. Jesus often spoke of circumstances where some sinners had accrued a greater condemnation.
1. Matt 11:23-24 – And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.” Again we might notice that their condemnation is the result of neglected opportunity to believe and obey God.
2. In Luke 12 we read Jesus’ parable about servants being ready for their master… Luke 12:35-36 – “Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; 36 and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Peter asks Jesus if he was talking about them or everybody (v. 41). Jesus points to the greater punishment of those who knowingly rebel against their master – 47-48– And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. 48 But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more. Some were more culpable than others, deserving of greater punishment.
3. Heb 10:28-29 – Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?
4. James spoke of teachers who would receive greater accountability [stricter judgment] (James 3:1); Peter tells us that those who come to the truth and then reject it are worse off than if they had never heard the truth (2 Pet. 2:20-21)
D. Biblically understood, the difference in sins does not lie in the sin itself, or in a sin’s ability to separate us from God, but in the circumstances or intentions that accompany it. Every sin demands repentance. Any sin that remains unforgiven is equally deadly. But there are principles to notice in this comparative language about sin.What is a greater sin?
1. A Presumptive Sin; A sin of “presumption”, or conscious rebellion, is condemned as a greater sin than one committed in ignorance because it issues from an arrogant spirit and openly mocks God’s words. It insults the Spirit of Grace. (this does not excuse the sin of ignorance)
a. Consider the OT distinction in Numbers 15:27-31 – “And if one person sins unwittingly, then he shall offer a she-goat a year old for a sin-offering. And the priest shall make atonement for the soul that errs, when he sins unwittingly, before Jehovah, to make atonement for him; and he shall be forgiven. You shall have one law for him that does anything unwittingly, for him that is home-born among the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourns among them. But the soul that does anything with a high hand [presumptuously — KJV], whether he is home-born or a sojourner, the same blasphemes Jehovah; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of Jehovah, and has broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him”. This OT law does not provide authority for developing NT doctrine, but illustrates the principle that God notices the intent of both obedience and disobedience. It is no wonder that the psalmist prayed:“Keep your servant from presumptuous sins. Let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be upright, and I shall be innocent from great transgression” (Psalm 19:13). The “presumptuous” sin is a “great” transgression, and the practice of yielding to “presumptuous” sins soon makes the man the slave of his own weaknesses. Caiaphas’ sin (and the Pharisees) was greater; Capernaum’s sin was greater; Israel’s sin at Sinai was a great sin, because it was born out of a rebellious heart.
2. Sin that has more severe consequences. Some sins are “greater” because of the consequences they bear. It is important for us to view these consequences in connection with the sin itself.
a. 1 John 3:15 – Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. A man who hates his brother is, in principle, a murderer, and, should such a disposition be sustained, he will be lost. The hater may not, however, suffer the same consequences as the one who actually takes the life of another. The latter sin is more serious in terms of the immediate price to be paid.
b. Some sins are divisive of the body of Christ and demanded extreme discipline of the church. The immorality of the brother in Corinth needed immediate attention by the whole church because it provided a leavening influence of evil. (1 Cor. 5)
c. The sin of apostasy as described in Hebrews and 2 Peter 2 are great sins because of the consequence that follows. Not only does the person commit sin, but they wound their own conscience and make it impossible for others to restore them to the right way. The last state is worse than the first.
3. Sin that leads to more Sin. Jesus warned against those who would lead the weaker one to sin. Mark 9:42 – “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.
a. The sin of hypocrisy, especially among the leaders of God’s people is described as a greater sin – Luke 20:45-47 – Then, in the hearing of all the people, He said to His disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”
b. 1 Tim 6:10 – the love of money is a root of all kind of evil,
c. James 3:16 – For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.
d. Paul’s description of sinners that wax worse and worse (2 Tim 3:13) point to this quality of a greater sin. When the sinner refuses to repent, he becomes a greater sinner because his sin is not static. Sin is a pathway away from God, and one sin begets more sin. (Cain; David; Judas, etc)
Conclusion: What can we take from this question? It is not enough to just say, “all sin is equal”. To see sin as it is revealed in scripture is to see all that God reveals about it – the intentions of the heart; the responsibility that is born through the opportunity to respond to God’s word; the digressive and corrupting influence of some sins; how our personal sins affect others.
From what we have viewed today, if you know what God says in his word, understand the implications of Jesus’ miracles, recognize that you are a sinner condemned to God’s wrath, would it be a great sin for you to turn and walk away from the gospel message of the cross?