Are All Sins the Same in God’s Eyes?

Are All Sins the Same in God’s Eyes?

Are All Sins the Same in God’s Eyes?

By Matt Ayars, Christopher T. Bounds, Caleb Friedeman

The idea of all sin being the same in God eyes is commonly accepted in the church. It pervades contemporary Christianity. Through sermons, Sunday school classes, Bible studies and friendly Christian conversation, we pick up the idea quickly. To question it is to invite immediate suspicion. However, no major theologian or historic Christian tradition has ever taught the equality of sin. It exists only as “folk theology,” a belief uncritically held by laity and preachers.

Historic Christian Teaching. One of the most famous examples of historic Christian instruction on the subject is the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins. Mortal sins are so serious they lead to a Christian’s spiritual death if continued without amendment of life. Venial sins, in contrast, are “light;” they do not harm irreparably a believer’s relationship with God.

Unfortunately, the idea of some sins being worse than others is dismissed too quickly as “Catholic teaching.” Every major Protestant expression of Christianity, however, has recognized there are degrees of sin, as witnessed by the Presbyterian tradition’s Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q. 150. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?

A. All transgressions of the law are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition also makes similar distinctions when reflecting on what makes some sins worse before God. The sin itself, motivation behind the sin, the age and maturity of person who commits it, how many times committed, and in what manner it is done are taken into consideration in the evaluation of sin’s severity.

Biblical Teaching. The Bible shows repeatedly some sins are worse than others. While there is not enough space to walk through all biblical evidence, here are three clear examples.

First, God sees intentional sin as more serious than unintentional sin. In the Pentateuch, God distinguishes between the two. Unintentional sin is forgiven through the sacrificial system (Leviticus 4), intentional sin is not (Numbers 15:30-31). On the holiest day of Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the high priest enters the temple’s holy of holies to give a blood offering for unintentional sins (Hebrews 9:7). In the end, there is no atoning sacrifice provided in the Old Testament for intentional sin. 

A similar distinction is carried into the New Testament as well. Paul declares to the church at Rome that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Paul, however, has a clear operating definition of sin here:  a deliberate transgression of a known law of God. This is not about unintentional sin or a sin of ignorance. In larger context, the apostle begins his letter by discussing the problem with the Gentiles. They have been given an internal code to follow, the law of conscience. Nevertheless, they have chosen deliberately not to obey it and God has judged them accordingly (1:18-32). Paul then turns to the Jews (2:17-3:23). They have been given the written Torah and intentionally broken it as well. Therefore, he asserts “all have sinned” (3:23). Both Gentile and Jew have deliberately disobeyed God’s law. Paul’s opening discussion of sin, then, provides his definition of it in 6:23.  He warns Christians of the dangers of continuing in intentional sin – spiritual death. 

The Letter to the Hebrews picks up the same theme. Here, the author makes an exhortation for the church to persevere in their faith, lest they fall and miss the Promised Land (Hebrews 5:11-6:12). While Christ is a greater priest who makes a superior sacrifice in a better sanctuary than the temple (7:1-10:18), Christians are warned if they continue in “intentional sin” there is no sacrifice that can atone for their sin, not even the blood of Jesus (10:26-27). Again, a clear distinction is made in the eyes of God between intentional and unintentional sin. 

Second, the Bible indicates that a person’s relationship to God impacts the severity of sin, not just knowledge of it. After Israel committed idolatry with the golden calf, Moses accused them of a “great” sin, and God threatened to destroy them (Exodus 32:30). In this moment, Israel reverted to what they had done in Egypt. The calf represented a common god in the ancient Near East. They had returned to what they had practiced in the past. What made their sin now more “grievous” is the covenant they had made in Exodus 19, where they promised to serve only Yahweh. The change in their relationship with God at Sinai, the sacred vows taken, made their idolatry here far worse than in Egypt.

Jesus also recognized the relational nature of sin in his words to Pilate, “The one who betrayed me is guilty of a worse sin” (John 19:11). Judas’ sin was worse than Pilate’s because he was Jesus’ friend who had followed him for three years. Pilate had just met Christ. Both Judas and Pilate sinned against Christ, but Judas’ sin was worse because of the type of knowledge and relationship he had with Christ.

Third, greater and lesser sins are seen in the New Testament through how they are addressed. Jesus warned the religious leaders of an “unpardonable sin” (Matthew 12:22-32). Paul instructed the Corinthian Church to ex-communicate a young man sleeping with his stepmother (1 Corinthians 5:1-5), while “grumblers” in the community were only given a warning (9:24-10:13). Similarly, he disciplined Hymenaeus and Alexander by “handing” them “over to Satan” because of false doctrine (1 Timothy 1:18-20). He further warned the Galatian churches of the “works of the flesh” and that “those who live like this will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21). And the apostle John in his letter made a distinction between Christian engaging in sins that lead to “death” and sins that do not (1 John 5:16-17).

Theological Teaching. Theology also teaches that all sin is not the same before God. While we can have good without sin, we cannot have sin without good. Sin is ultimately the expression of a corrupted or broken good. The more sin is corrupted of original goodness, the worse it is. Because God is the creator of the good, God is fully aware of the degree to which it has been corrupted.

First, while it may seem counter intuitive, all sin has its source in the “good.” For example, God created us male and female for the purpose of procreation. Without sexual relations, humanity will cease to exist. But there is more to human sex than reproduction. God has made humanity to experience pleasure in the giving and receiving of love between a husband and wife through sexual relations. Sex and the sexual drive are good. However, when they become corrupted, they bring a host of sexual sin in thought and deed. 

The same is true for love of oneself. God formed us to love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). A part of self-love is the desire for self-preservation, seen in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed for the “cup” of crucifixion and death to pass from him (Matthew 26:36-46). However, when the love of self becomes corrupted in us, it leads to pride and selfishness on one hand and self-loathing and hatred on the other.  Both extremes were avoided by Christ in his full surrender to the will of the Father and his embrace of the cross.    

Second, every sin reveals different degrees of damaged goodness; the more corrupted a sin is of its original goodness, the worse it is in God’s eyes. Some sins express greater degrees of “falleness” from their intended goodness. Sexual violence, as such, is worse than consensual sex between a man and woman who are not married. Why? Because sex between a consenting male and female more closely approximates the original design of sex between husband and wife than sexual violence. While both are sinful, one is more so because it expresses a greater corruption of the original good of sex, in addition to the violence perpetrated against the victim. 

Practical Teaching. On a practical level, saying all sin is the same in the eyes of God does not work.

First, if we are not careful here, we can make God look like a monster. Sometimes, to elevate the holiness of God and our sinfulness, we portray God in unhelpful ways, trivializing real depths of depravity in the world. Parents who mistakenly offer loving advice to their children, but unintentionally lead them astray from God’s “perfect will” is not the same before God as Adolf Hitler murdering six million Jews. To equate them is to misrepresent the God revealed to us in Christ. Jesus warned the Pharisees of being so focused on the minor details of God’s law, they missed “the more important matters” like justice, mercy, and the needs of others (Matthew 23:23). 

Second, it undermines wise pastoral counsel. Genuine progress in the process of sanctification can be stunted by the “all or nothing” mentality of “sin is sin.” Often Christians make improvement in one area of their lives without having complete victory in it. To say all sin is the same risks denying the growth that has taken place and the encouragement accompanying it. It is a real step forward when alcoholics stop drinking, even if they still desire to get drunk; when people who struggle with anger management no longer lash out, even if they think about it; when gossips stop talking in unflattering ways about others, even though they continue to imagine doing so. In each case, Christians are not where they need to be, but they are more like Christ than they were.  Sometimes as we pray and counsel other believers, we just want to see them take the next step toward full victory over a particular sin.    

Conclusion. All too often the contemporary church suffers from a simplistic understanding of sin. Biblically, theologically, and practically, the church has recognized that some sins are worse than others in God’s eyes. The purpose of which is to help Christians and the church avoid “mortal” sins, those which pose a serious spiritual threat to them, and to provide a guide for discipline and accountability that leads to transformation into the likeness of Christ.    

Dr. Matt Ayars is president and assistant professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi; Dr. Christopher T. Bounds is professor of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky; and Dr. Caleb T. Friedeman is associate professor of New Testament at Ohio Christian University in Circleville, Ohio. This essay was adapted from Holiness: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Theology (IVP Academic, 2023) by Matt Ayars, Christopher T. Bounds, and Caleb Friedeman. Utilized by permission.