The Heart of It All: Sin

October 16, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

Are There Degrees of Sin?

Audio length: 12:49

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

We have seen that through both “original sin” as well as the actual sins we commit, our “legal” standing with God is affected. Every sin we commit is an offense against His holiness; no matter how minor or major the sin, we are transgressors, and therefore guilty before God. So in this sense, all sin is equally bad.

However, in another sense, while all sin makes us legally guilty before God, some sins are worse than others in relation to the consequences of those sins. The reason for this is that some dishonor God to a greater degree, or they may cause greater damage to ourselves and others, or bring about more harmful or more widespread consequences.

Jesus made reference to some sins being greater than others when He told Pilate that the one who betrayed Him, Judas, had the greater sin.

Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over Me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered Me over to you has the greater sin.”[1]

Judas knew more truth than Pilate did. Therefore he was more accountable for that truth, and thus his sin was greater.

Another example of degrees of sin is seen in the book of Ezekiel where God is showing Ezekiel about the sins committed in the temple and how each sin being committed is progressively worse than the one before it.

He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive Me far from my sanctuary? But you will see still greater abominations.” … And He said to me, “Go in, and see the vile abominations that they are committing here.” So I went in and saw. And there, engraved on the wall all around, was every form of creeping things and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel. And before them stood seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel … Each had his censer in his hand, and the smoke of the cloud of incense went up. Then He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark … For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land.’” He said also to me, “You will see still greater abominations that they commit.” Then He brought me to the entrance of the north gate … and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz [Sumerian deity of food or vegetation]. Then He said to me, “Have you seen this, O son of man? You will see still greater abominations than these.” And He brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord. And behold, at the entrance of the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the Lord, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east.[2]

The Bible also speaks about the difference between sins which are committed deliberately and defiantly—with the full knowledge of wrongdoing—and those which are committed in ignorance or without knowledge that the action is a sin. The first is referred to as sinning defiantly, the second as sinning unintentionally. In the Old Testament, sins committed defiantly were treated severely, while those committed unintentionally could be forgiven through offering a sacrifice.

The person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him.[3]

Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord's commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them … then he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering.[4]

A differentiation is made throughout Scripture between deliberate sin, committed without remorse or repentance, and sins which are unintentional and unpremeditated—whether due to negligence or in moments of weakness and human frailty—for which one is sorry and asks God’s forgiveness.

Theologian Wayne Grudem explains:

We can readily see how some sins have much more harmful consequences for ourselves and others and for our relationship with God. If I were to covet my neighbor’s car, that would be a sin before God. But if my coveting led me to actually steal the car, that would be more serious sin. If in the course of stealing the car I also fought with my neighbor and injured him, or recklessly injured someone else as I drove the car, that would be even more serious sin … Our conclusion, then, is that in terms of results and in terms of the degree of God’s displeasure, some sins are certainly worse than others.[5]

Louis Berkhof wrote:

Sins committed on purpose, with full consciousness of the evil involved, and with deliberation, are greater and more culpable than sins resulting from ignorance, from an erroneous conception of things, or from weakness of character. Nevertheless, the latter are also real sins and make one guilty in the sight of God.[6]

As Christians, we are not condemned for our sins, because Jesus’ death on the cross has brought forgiveness for our sins. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t sin, that sinning doesn’t matter, or that we don’t suffer the consequences of our sins in this life, in the damaged relationship with God that sin brings or in the hurt that sin causes others and ourselves.

As Christians, sin does not affect our legal standing before God. We are saved, we are His adopted children, members of His family, and we don’t lose that; we are not condemned.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.[7]

Sin, however, is displeasing to God. He doesn’t stop loving us, just as we don’t stop loving our children when they disobey or do wrong things. We may feel some relationship “distance” from children who have deliberately disobeyed, and we may need to discipline them in some manner, but they are still our children and we still love them. This is similar to God in relation to us when we sin. He is still our Father, He still loves us, but there is some damage done to and some distance created in our relationship with Him.

When children are disobedient or do wrong things, parents expect them to apologize, and when appropriate take action to make restitution of some sort. While there may be consequences, their acknowledgment of wrongdoing and their apology and asking for forgiveness help to repair the damage done to the relationship between the child and the parent. The same concept holds true in our relationship with God. He expects us to ask His forgiveness when we sin. As Jesus has already paid for all of our sins, asking for forgiveness isn’t related to our salvation, but rather is a means of repairing the damage our sins cause in our relationship with God. When His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, Jesus taught them the “Lord’s prayer,” which includes:

Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins … [8]

Jesus told His first disciples to ask the Father to forgive their sins, and as His disciples today, we should do the same.

Scripture also teaches that God, in His love for us as His children, disciplines us for our own good and so that we may share in His holiness.

The Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.[9]

As Christians, we should want to grow in our faith, in our relationship with the Lord. Sin in our lives hinders our spiritual growth and hurts our relationship with God, which negatively affects us in this life and has potential repercussions in the afterlife as well.

The issue is not our legal guilt, as this has already been covered by Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are already given eternal life through Christ.

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.[10]

However, the lives we lead on earth have some effect in relation to the afterlife, as shown in Scripture when it talks about our coming before the judgment seat of Christ.

We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.[11]

We will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.[12]

The Bible teaches that there are degrees of rewards for those who are saved, and that the lives we lead factor into those rewards.

If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.[13]

The first came before him, saying, “Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.” And he said to him, “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.” And the second came, saying, “Lord, your mina has made five minas.” And he said to him, “And you are to be over five cities.[14]

The lives we lead in accordance with God’s will, our relationship with God, our decisions to sin or not sin, and the fruit we bear, all factor in to our lives now and beyond. So as Christians, we should be very mindful of our thoughts and actions as we try to live godly lives. We won’t and can’t be sin-free, but we can make the effort to not sin, and we can regularly ask God to forgive us when we do.

Being reconciled to God through Jesus, being forgiven for our sins, being redeemed, is the greatest gift one can receive—a personal gift directly from the hand of God. It not only changes our lives today, but for eternity. It is a gift that each of us has received, and that we have been asked to pass on to others. It’s the good news we are commissioned to tell others about, so they too can be freed from sin’s grasp and can become children of the eternal, loving, gracious, and merciful God.

[1] John 19:11.

[2] Ezekiel 8:6, 9–16.

[3] Numbers 15:30–31 NAU.

[4] Leviticus 4:2–3.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 503.

[6] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 252.

[7] Romans 8:1.

[8] Luke 11:3–4.

[9] Hebrews 12:6–11.

[10] John 5:24.

[11] 2 Corinthians 5:10.

[12] Romans 14:10–12.

[13]1 Corinthians 3:12–15.

[14] Luke 19:16–19.