Ask any group of longtime believers this question: Is a bad thought the same thing as a bad action in God’s eyes? Most will say “yes.” If you want to get more specific, ask if God equates anger to murder. Again, I bet most will agree. For most of my life, I thought the same thing.
But I was wrong.
In his recent book The Utter Relief of Holiness, John Eldredge points out that “something really pernicious has sneaked into the Church’s understanding of holiness and sin.” What’s that idea? It is, to quote Eldredge and countless ministers through the years, “all sins are pretty much the same.”
Instinctively, we know this is not true. Otherwise, we’d lock up litterers in the same prisons as child murderers and never let either out. Even on a spiritual level, we ascribe differing weights to different sins. The pastor who confesses pride is congratulated for facing his shortcomings. The pastor who confesses an attraction to pre-teen boys is (or should be) removed from the pulpit and placed in counseling. Why? Because some sins are worse than others.
But don’t take my word for it. Look at Jesus’ reaction to different sinners. To the woman caught in adultery, he said, after refuting her would-be stoners, “I do not condemn you. Go. From now on sin no more.” Pretty tempered. Probably less harsh than we’d be inclined to be. But that was His response: no condemnation, just an admonition to stop living in sin.
Now compare that with His response to the Jews of His day: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father.” Ouch. Now consider the judgment Jesus said would come to those who rejected His disciples: “Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.” Worse than Sodom and Gomorrah? Clearly the rejection of Christ is, in God’s eyes, far worse than an adulterous lifestyle. This does not excuse the “lesser” sin, but it does demolish the idea that all sins are pretty much the same.
So where do believers get this idea of equality of sin? I believe it comes from misunderstanding the words of Christ in Matthew 5. This passage begins with the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus contradicts the religious teachings of the day by saying things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Consider his audience. He’s talking to the Jewish people, most of whom ascribed to the Old Testament law. The most righteous among them were the Pharisees and Sadducees, those who followed the law the closest and would have been considered rich in spirit. They were also the ones who enforced the law, meting out punishment to those who fell short. Yet Jesus also said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
He goes on to assert that His purpose was to fulfill the law, which He later did with the crucifixion and resurrection. At the same time, He placed the bar impossibly high for those law-abiders by saying, “…unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” His audience knew that they could not, on their own, surpass the supposed righteousness of those who held so strictly to the ancient laws.
Then He made an argument that has wrongly led to modern assertions that “all sins are pretty much the same.” Again, ask churchgoers if Jesus said that lust is a sin on par with adultery or anger is a sin just as bad as murder and I bet most would agree. But that’s not what He said. Read His words closely:
“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”
Jesus is talking in the context of the law. He’s saying that one who harbors anger is, like a murderer, guilty before the court. It’s like saying, “You know you’ll go to jail for drinking and driving, but according to the law, you’re also guilty for driving 56 mph when the speed limit is 55.”
So what’s His point here? Over the next two chapters, He continues to lay out a new way of thinking. Indeed, a new way of obtaining salvation. He is announcing the end of the age of the law and the beginning of what Paul later called the “age of grace.” Christ was stressing the need to know Him personally, not simply practice a religion. This is why the rejection of Him would bring a worse judgment than any pardonable sin. He would be our proxy for the righteousness that could never be obtained through the law, but if we do not have faith in Him we suffer the condemnation that the law brings.
So the idea that “all sins are pretty much the same” is an artifact from the Old Covenant – one that Paul would later go to great lengths to explain could only result in death. That is why our assurance of salvation comes only through Christ. “Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:4-6).
This week on LIFE Today, Beth Moore points out that after we enter into salvation through the grace of God, we have a devastating tendency to live under the letter of the law. She illustrates how this can only lead to a life of shame, since we feel the need to continuously atone for our sins. But Christ has already atoned for them. He does not condemn us. Instead of living in shame, we simply need to “go and sin no more.”
Next week in Words of LIFE, I will show you why understanding today’s truth impacts our daily lives. John Eldredge also writes, “Confusing the weights of sins actually hurts our ability to resist temptation.” Once we are free from this artifact of the Old Testament law, we can “consider it all joy” when we face temptation, because when the shame of our bad thoughts is gone, we can learn how to achieve victory over them. You will see why your thoughts of lust, anger, and every other ungodly impulse is not what defines you, but rather what provides an opportunity to cash in on the promise that we can overcome in this life.
Randy Robison is the author of Rise Above: How to Go Faster, Farther, and Higher in Your Faith.