The Awful Truth About Sin

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Evangelical Christians love their sound bite theology. If it’s a catchy slogan that fits on a bumper sticker, or a refrain in the latest Christian pop song on KLOVE, they’ll believe it. “God is in control.” “God has a plan for your life.” “Jesus is coming soon.” There is no shortage of these kinds of slogans. But are they Biblical? Is God really in control of everything? Everything? And just how long has Jesus been “coming soon?” That’s the trouble with slogan theology. It makes all the sense in the world, but only as long as you don’t think too long about it.

“All sins are equal, you know.” That’s what passes for profound thinking in the church these days. I haven’t seen it on a bumper sticker, but it certainly qualifies. There are variants of that slogan, like this one:  “All sin is sin.” Let’s talk about the notion that “all sins are equal.”

Two views

Unless you are a Roman Catholic, you’ve probably heard and repeated this bit of popular theology. Roman Catholics believe there are mortal sins and venial sins. A mortal sin is a super serious sin that separates a person from God. The only hope for one who has committed a mortal sin is confession to a priest, repentance, remorse, and some kind of penitential service. A venial sin is a sin that must be confessed to a priest, but it’s not nearly as serious a sin as a mortal sin. It won’t stop a person from having fellowship with God. A person can never be eternally condemned just because he commits a venial sin.

That’s a relief. Or is it? Is the Roman Catholic two-step even Biblical? As far as the Protestants go, the great Reformers (Luther, Calvin, etc.) didn’t like the Roman Catholic idea of sin. They thought sin was much more serious than the Roman Catholic Church did. They came up with the idea that man is totally depraved, and no mere talk with a parish priest could help him. They believed that every man is rotten to the core – that sin infects every square inch of a man’s being.

Of course, the doctrine of total depravity, as the Calvinists call it, or original sin as other refer to it, is an accurate picture of sinful man. He is totally depraved. That doesn’t mean he’s as bad as he could be, only that he is riddled with sin (like a disease) and that there is no hope for him apart from a work of grace initiated by God. Martin Luther and his pals, by the way, never once taught that “all sins are equal.” But over the centuries since the Reformation, that’s the impression a lot of Protestants have been left with. In fact, the idea that “all sins are equal” is so ingrained in Protestant consciousness, it’s hard for them to see the truth even when it is in black and white. Or red and white. Verses like these are often misunderstood and used to support the notion that “all sins are equal.”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27, 28 NIV)

Is Jesus really saying that a lustful thought about illicit sex with a woman is just as bad as the act itself? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. What Jesus is doing in these verses is explaining that all sin begins, not with the act itself (like murder or adultery), but with a thought or an attitude. The Pharisees prided themselves in keeping the “letter of the law,” but the problem they couldn’t overcome using the law was the same problem we can’t overcome: total depravity. Jesus’ point was that merely keeping the law really didn’t do anything to change a person’s life; that a list of do’s and don’t’s is useless in making a person righteous. It takes a change on the inside of a person to do that. What Jesus wasn’t doing in that teaching is saying, “all sin is equal.”

Sin versus sins

Essentially, what Jesus was saying is that nobody can get through a day sin-free. Yes, you can make it through a day without committing adultery. You can make it through a day without committing a murder. You can get through a day or two without stealing, telling a lie, taking the Lord’s Name in vain, etc. But you are still a sinner because you are living in sin. You can stop committing a particular sin, but you can’t stop being a sinner. According to Jesus, sin is not just outward acts but an inward disposition; the root of sin goes deep into man’s inner-most parts.

In Romans 7, the apostle Paul describes what normal life is like for the true believer. I know some Bible scholars see Romans 7 as the way Paul was before his conversion, but a Bible reader has to do exegetical backflips to see it that way. Read these verses and I bet you’ll see yourself in them:

I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn I can’t make myself do right. I want to but I can’t. When I want to do good, I don’t; and when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway. Now if I am doing what I don’t want to, it is plain where the trouble is: sin still has me in its evil grasp.  It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love to do God’s will so far as my new nature is concerned; but there is something else deep within me, in my lower nature, that is at war with my mind and wins the fight and makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. In my mind I want to be God’s willing servant, but instead I find myself still enslaved to sin. (Romans 7:18 – 25 TLB)

I believe that to be the normal experience in every Christian’s life. We, as genuine born again Christians, struggle every day with our sinful nature (root of sin, total depravity, original sin). We’re saved and our sins are forgiven, but we still have a natural bent toward sin.

All sins can’t be equal

So, why is this an important topic? Does it really matter if you believe “all sins are equal?” What you believe about God (your theology) influences what you think about God and what you think He thinks about you.  Isn’t it a perverse God who thinks that murder is on the same level as, say, telling a white lie?  Or stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family is just as bad as stealing it because of greed?

Many times our assumptions are wrong or inadequate. A lot of cherished beliefs we hold come not from the Bible but from Aesop’s Fables or some stories we learned from our parents. It’s vitally important to know your theology is Biblical so you can function in the mind of Christ.

All sins can’t be equal because, first of all, such an idea goes against common sense. Is it reasonable to believe that, for example, fudging on your tax return is as bad as molesting a child? Or engaging in a little neighborhood gossip is as serious as poisoning your nagging spouse? Or an act of horrible violence is no worse than reusing a postage stamp?

Common sense tells us that all men are sinners because of what theologians call “original sin.” In other words, all human beings ever born inherit the condemnation heaped upon Adam. We may not be guilty of committing the sin he committed, but Adam is our spiritual and moral “head.”

When Adam sinned, sin entered the entire human race. His sin spread death throughout all the world, so everything began to grow old and die, for all sinned. (Romans 5:12 TLB)

So by virtue of the fact that we descend from Adam, we are sinners just he was. Total depravity and original sin were passed on from Adam to succeeding generations, down to this very day. The finished work of Christ took away the guilt of original sin, but our tendency to sin remains. That’s why Paul wrote this in Romans 6 –

Your old evil desires were nailed to the cross with him; that part of you that loves to sin was crushed and fatally wounded, so that your sin-loving body is no longer under sin’s control, no longer needs to be a slave to sin; for when you are deadened to sin you are freed from all its allure and its power over you. (Romans 6:6, 7 TLB)

And in the very next chapter, this –

I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can’t. I do what I don’t want to—what I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience proves that I agree with these laws I am breaking. But I can’t help myself because I’m no longer doing it. It is sin inside me that is stronger than I am that makes me do these evil things. (Romans 7:15 – 17 TLB)

So all men are sinners, equally. That’s common sense. We know all men are sinners because the Bible tells us, but also all we have to do is look around. The evidence of our own eyes confirms our theology.

Common sense tells us something else: some sinners are worse than others. Common sense tells us that Jack the Ripper was far more evil than some schmuck who pilfers a few thousand dollars from his employer. Of course, we’re talking about crimes here. God is concerned about sins. Both a murderer and a petty thief have two things in common: they are sinners by God’s standard and criminals by ours. Their crimes are not equal. But what about their sins?

Let’s take another example; one that hits close to home – my home. One day, I shouted my order into the microphone at McDonalds. A Big Mac, large fries, and a Coke – a diet Coke, of course. My order as it appeared on the screen was correct, right down to the penny. I drove up to the window, handed my debit card to the girl and she handed me a bag, a diet Coke, then my card and receipt. I drove off. When I got to the office, I sat down to eat. Out of the bag I pulled: A Big Mac, a large fry, and a Double Quarter Pounder with cheese. I checked my receipt immediately. My receipt – what I ended up paying for – was for a cup of coffee! So not only had I been given an order I hadn’t ordered, I actually paid for a much smaller order. All of this happened without my knowing; I didn’t look in the bag before driving off and I didn’t look at my receipt. The fault was McDonald’s, not mine.

I admit I enjoyed both burgers immensely.

So the question is: did I sin by not going back to McDonalds to straighten out the order; at least pay for what I got? What if the mistake was really God’s blessing in disguise? And after all, who was hurt? It’s a trivial event in my 50 years of life, but it’s stuck with me all these years. If “all sins are equal,” is my sin of getting a meal for the cost of a cup of coffee the same as Jack the Ripper’s sins of murder and who knows what all?

In God’s sight

As always, common sense is revelatory: all sins may be not be equal in terms of human judgment, but they may or may not be equal in God’s sight. There is another folksy saying that goes like this: “How many sins will keep you out of heaven? Only one.” That’s a little better. While all sins may not be equal, God is cognizant of them all, and all sins equally alienate us from God. All sins equally damage our relationship with God. All sins need to be repented of because – note this – they all equally bring condemnation. All sins, from telling a little white lie to stealing an old person’s pension to killing another human being equally grieve God.

So are the Roman Catholics right with their two-step approach to sin and are the Protestants, with their “all sins are equal” wrong? Or is their a third view? A Biblical view?

In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul confronted a particularly nasty situation: a man was sleeping with his father’s wife. The Greek is a bit fuzzy; but at the very least there was a case of adultery going on in the church and at worst it was a case of incest. Paul’s solution seemed harsh:

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Corinthians 5:4, 5 NKJV)

If all sins are the same, why single this loser out? Why excommunicate him when surely there were other terrible sins simmering beneath the surface in this large, metropolitan church? Clearly in Paul’s view, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, not all sins are equal.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! (1 Corinthians 5:1 NKJV)

That’s Paul shocked at what was going on in that church. For sure there were gossipers in that church. There were liars and cheats, too. There were over-eaters and maybe even drunkards sitting in those Corinthians pews. But Paul singled one out. Not all sins were equal to him. Some, in this case sexual sin, were definitely more heinous than others. There is a hierarchy of sins. There are degrees of sin. That is, some sins like sexual sins, do more harm to the Body of Christ than others.

That is why I say to run from sex sin. No other sin affects the body as this one does. (1 Corinthians 6:18a TLB)

Some scholars view “the body” as being the human body. But others, I’m one of them, think “the body” refers to “the Body of Christ.” That it means this seems obvious since in the preceding chapter, Paul dealt with a sexual sin going on within a congregation – the Body of Christ. So the most serious of sins are those that do the most harm to the Church of Jesus Christ. If we view sins as varying in degrees, then we can say that both the Roman Catholics and the Protestants are partly correct. Not all sins are the equal (point to the Roman Catholics) and all sins are equal in the sense that they grieve God and harm man’s relationship with Him (point to the Protestants).

Degrees

We can conclude safely that from the Bible’s standpoint, there are differences in sins. Some harm the Body of Christ more than others. And there is at least one sin that is unpardonable and therefore shouldn’t even be prayed for. But all sins are the same in that they grieve God’s heart and cause a rift to develop between a believer and God and between believers.

Common sense application of tried, tested, and true Bible passages make a lot more sense than sound bite, bumper sticker theology.

 

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