Degrees of Sin/Punishment

Due I believe to the influence and predominance of the leaven of Free Grace Theology in the Christian community, many Christians have a misconception concerning God's judicial nature. Very simply, does God treat all sins equally? Are all sins worthy of the same degree of punishment? Or even more basic, are there different degrees of punishment, which imply different degrees of sin? For many are under the misconception that all sins are treated with the same degree of punishment.

Awareness and Accountability

"If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.  It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them." 2Peter 2:20,21
This is the sin of Apostasy - abandoning one's faith. Consider this:
1. What was their fate if they had never come to know the way of righteousness?
Answer: Eternal Damnation!

2. In what way would have been better if they had never come to know the way of righteousness?
Answer: Because if they knew and turn their backs, they would have a worse fate.
But what is worse than eternal damnation?
What is implied in Peter's statement is that even among the damned there are degrees of punishment in hell.

3. What is it in this case that invokes a greater degree of punishment?
Answer: A greater degree of awareness

Another example of this same principle is found in Luke 12:46,47
"That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."
And so also Matthew 11:21,22
"Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you."
So while these teach us that the degree of one's accountability is associated with the degree of one's awareness, more fundamentally the Lord is teaching us that there are indeed different degrees of punishment for those who will suffer God's wrath.

Categories of Sin with differing degrees

 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" Matt 23:23,24 One principle we learn here is that from God's perspective with regards to His commands, some matters are weightier than others.

Jesus mentioned some sins were in the same category. For example he said, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." Matt 5:21,22 The apostle John affirms this saying, "Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him." 1John 3:15  But while hatred and murder are in the same category of sin, are they necessarily punishable to the same degree? For we have already seen that Jesus teaches that there are different degrees of punishment among those eternally damned. So what about this case? For even on earth murder invokes the death penalty yet hatred has little if any judicial punishment associated with it. One who acts upon their evil desires invokes a greater penalty than those who simply have evil desires.

What can we learn about God's judicial nature in these matters from the Law which God gave to Moses? We learn this very principle. For even while God explicitly states in the 10th commandment - on covetousness - that He is concerned about attitude, attitudes without action are not punishable under the law of Moses. They do have eternal consequences, but what is implied is that God tolerates a good deal of lesser sin (sin worthy of lesser punishments).

One such sin is the sin of polygamy. God tolerated polygamous marriages in the Old Testament, even though Jesus later revealed that such marriages were adulterous. But while in the same category of "adultery", the more overt form of adultery - namely having sex with someone else's spouse - was punishable by death, there was no punishment for polygamy. And by "polygamy" I am not just referring to parallel polygamy whereby one is married to many women at the same time. I am also referring to "serial polygamy" commonly practiced today (even in the Christian community today) of which Jesus said, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery." Mark 10:11,12 Parallel polygamy he revealed as also adulterous when in Matthew 19 he invoke Adam and Eve as the model for marriage, namely - one man/one woman.

Thus polygamy, in whatever form, God reckons as a lesser sin than the more overt form of adultery. And I would also imagine concerning lust which Jesus spoke of in Matt 5:28 "I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Of which again there was no punishment under the Law of Moses, nor among civilized societies. It's when people take action on their lusts that judical action may come into play in human societies. But again as I mentioned God's standards include attitude and thus all unforgiven sins are punishable, but to different degrees.

Do Christians Sin?

I haven't met a Christian who actually doesn't sin at all. Though rarely I've heard from a few among the Charismatic persuasion that claim to not sin any more. But just like non-Christians who claim not to sin, they just ignore alot of their sins. Yet the Bible teaches,
"No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.  Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God." 1John 3:6-9
John teaches us here that those born of God are not even capable of sinning. And yes, he's talking about actual outward measurable behavior. For he says in the verse that follows: "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother." 1John 3:10 And yet we see for example in Romans 7 that the apostle Paul struggles with sin even as a Christian. And also when we read all the letters to the Christians in the New Testament that they also struggle with sin. But what John is referring to here is that Christians no longer sin in a lifestyle sense. And Paul also advocates this principle when he says, "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 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." 1Cor 6:9-11 For example, among those born of God you won't find a single one among them who is living a homosexual lifestyle. Nor will you find a drunkard, nor someone who makes his living by stealing from others, and so forth. If you think you've identified one, what you've found is simply one who is a Christian in name only - a "Christian" who has not been born of God.

So in this sense we can say that the Bible teaches that born of God Christians do not sin. In fact this sense of the word "sin" is commonly used among non-Christians. For when asked whether they are a "sinner" they may say that they are not because they don't live a lifestyle of sin by their standards. (Of course they're not aware of God's standards). And so also the Old Testament when it contrasts the righteous and the wicked - like in the Psalms and Proverbs - it is not speaking of the "righteous" in the sense of being perfectly sinless. For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And yet even the Bible speaks of a relative degree of righteousness and wickedness. And thus while all are in the category of "sinners" from the standpoint of perfect sinlessness, not all are "sinners" or "wicked" from a lifestyle standpoint. Here are just some verses contrasting the wicked and the righteous:

Ps 1:6  For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Ps 31:17  Let me not be put to shame, O LORD, for I have cried out to you; but let the wicked be put to shame and lie silent in the grave.

Ps 37:21  The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously;

Ps 37:35-39  I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil, but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found. Consider the blameless, observe the upright; there is a future for the man of peace. But all sinners will be destroyed; the future of the wicked will be cut off. The salvation of the righteous comes from the LORD; he is their stronghold in time of trouble.

Pr 12:10  A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.

So also when it comes to the issue of a person's goodness. Is there anyone good? Jesus said, "No one is good— except God alone." Mark 10:18 And yet the Bibles says of Barnabus, for example, "He was a good man." Acts 11:24  For Jesus was speaking of perfect goodness while Acts was speaking of relative goodness. In fact I think even Jesus was speaking of relative goodness when he said, "The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him." Mt 12:35  And so also Paul when he said, "Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die."Rom 5:7

The Down Side of Equating All Sin

1. Considering the gnats and camels passage I mentioned above from Matt 23:323,24, one possible effect of considering all sin equal is that of becoming like the religious hypocrites of Jesus' day. What would actually happen if gnats get elevated to the status of "camel"? Well see as there are generally a whole lot more gnats than actual camels, one would get so bogged down dealing with gnats as to overlook the real camels. That's part of what happened with Judaism. They got so bogged down with the observance of the particulars of the Law - exalting minors points above what they deserved - that they did not consider who weighty the major points were.

2. When Christians say that they are "sinners" just like their non-Christian neighbors, and certainly when they live a lifestyle no different in this respect than their non-Christians neighbors, then the Bible seems to indicate that they are not really Christians at all. They are deceiving themselves. And yet Free Grace Theology encourages such a perspective. And so also it discourages the pursuit of holiness. For if every sin is equivalent to every other sin, then no progress towards holiness can be accomplished unless the person becomes perfectly sinless. And what incentive is there to repent from gross sin, if it's viewed with equal weight as any other sin. If one is actively involved in adultery or fornication - physically having sex with others - he may think he's no different than those who have a lustful thought from time to time. And if lustful thoughts are no different in degree that overt acts of sexual immorality, then what does it matter if one gets involved in the latter compared to the former?

3. Another downside of perverting God's judical nature with such false theology is that one's own concept of justice get's corrupted which affects how one treats others. Thus if one does something minor wrong it's considered equally punishable as doing something majorly wrong. And so also other people aren't appreciated for doing anything good because all are viewed as equally sinful.

4. Fourthly is the effect on the gospel. Non-Christians would rightly perceive that the God advocated by such theology is cleary unjust, and so why should they believe in an unjust God?

The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources