One of the issues on which Protestants and Roman Catholics have often chosen to disagree is whether there are gradations in sin. As Holy Saturday comes to a close, and as we prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection tomorrow, I thought this subject might be worth a few words. In short, I think both are right, as long as not overstated.
The Roman Catholic church teaches a distinction between mortal and venial sins, the former of which condemn even a Christian to hell, unless forgiven in light of repentance and absolution, while the latter merit time in purgatory, and may dispose a person to commit more serious sins. By contrast, Protestants complain that they do not see such a distinction in scripture, but that any sin merits God’s just judgment, and any sin requires the forgiveness which Christ accomplished on the cross, without which a sinner may expect eternal punishment. (Protestants also complain that they don’t see evidence of purgatory in scripture, which is essential for the Roman Catholic teaching regarding venial sins.)
Roman Catholics tend to cite 1 John 5:16-17:
16 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. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
By contrast, Protestants tend to quote our Lord, in the Sermon on the Mount:
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell…
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
So the question is, are all sins created equal?
On one hand, it seems the answer is no. We can easily distinguish sin in terms of the magnitude of the people affected, and the reversibility of the action. Massacring a thousand people affected a larger number of people than murdering one, and murdering someone is more irreversible than beating them up. Actual adultery affects the two people committing it and their spouse(s), while lusting after someone may not affect the other person (though it probably will still affect the luster’s spouse). Adultery may also lead to pregnancy, which is irreversible (by morally acceptable means). Some sins seem to be greater than others.
On the other hand, even what we might consider minor sins are serious enough. Jesus says that calling a brother a fool is liable to hell; the Roman Catholic church would not consider name-calling to be a mortal sin. Earlier Jesus said, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” But the Pharisees were precisely the people who checked off the boxes of obedience to the Ten Commandments, which specify the mortal sins (according to the Catholic Catechism) and were persuaded that they were fully compliant. The name “Pharisee” means “set apart” in Aramaic (parisha), “set apart” from other people by their obedience to God’s law. Later, Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That admits no “peccadillos.”
Paul himself insisted that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and yet he specifies that Christians should break fellowship with other Christians who commit certain kinds of sins: “anyone who claims to be a brother or sister[c] but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler” (1 Corinthians 5:11). Even while insisting on the universal condemnation due to universal sin, the apostle singled out some sins, the “big ones,” to result in exclusion from the community. It seems that even the Scriptures teach both that some sins are bigger than others, and that even the “little” sins are bad enough.
Does size matter? Yes and no.
I have heard the argument made that if lusting after someone is as bad as adultery, then one might as well “enjoy” the real thing. But we might ask the person who is the object of the lust: would you rather some random stranger want to have sex with you or actually have sex with you? If the random stranger is attractive, in our sexually permissive society some people would say yes, but many would of course say no. Having sex involves them in a way that being mentally undressed does not. Even more tellingly, we might ask a spouse: would you rather your spouse fantasized about sex with someone else or actually had sex with someone else? Most spouses would prefer neither, of course – both are sin – but the preference would also be clear. Our society has willfully muddled its thinking about sex, but the matter is even clearer in the case of anger, mentioned by Jesus just earlier in the Sermon on the Mount. Ask anyone: would you rather have someone call you “a fool” or murder you? Only someone suicidal would prefer the latter. That is clearly the greater sin.
I am not at all saying Jesus was wrong in the Sermon on the Mount. But what did he actually say? He did not say that anger was as bad as murder, or that lust was as bad as adultery. He said that calling someone “you fool” was enough to bring condemnation, and lust was committing adultery “in your heart.” He had just told the crowds, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Christ’s message was that their professed obedience was not sufficient. We should not congratulate ourselves for our righteousness if we spend our time wishing we were sinning! Christ did not say that all sins were equal; he said the “little” sins which we excuse in ourselves are bad enough. In terms of effects in this world, size matters, but against the standard of divine righteousness, size is irrelevant.
Equally, for forgiveness. Common sense as well as Scripture indicate that distinctions can be drawn between sins, but the gospel is that all may be forgiven. Also in 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote of the weighty sins which exclude people from paradise:
9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Had he stopped here, Paul would still have been a Pharisee. But he immediately continued:
11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Some sins are indeed greater than others in their effects, in their irreversibility in this life, etc. And in dealing with those sins in practical terms, we do sometimes need to confront the greater or lesser ramifications. But our Lord’s preaching in the Sermon on the Mount was intended to prevent anyone from congratulating themselves: “At least I haven’t murdered anyone.” That may be, but what you’ve done is bad enough. Yet the good news is that, even if any sin – no matter how small – suffices to warrant eternal punishment, yet God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus is such as to forgive any sin – no matter how big. It does not matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been, as long as you are now in Christ Jesus, forgiven.
As we turn to celebrate the resurrection of our Savior from the dead this Easter, let us do so in gratitude for the depth and breadth of his forgiveness which he offers to us!