Are Some Sins Worse than Others?
Are there different levels or degrees of sin? Are some sins greater or worse than other sins? This is a common question and one that deserves our consideration in the light of God’s revealed Word.
What is Sin?
The question “What is sin?” must be answered before we can think about answering the question of magnitude in connection with sin. A basic definition of sin is this: “whatever we do (or fail to do) contrary to the will of God.” In Romans Paul writes, “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). The law reveals God’s will for us, telling us what we should and should not do (compare Exodus 20). Whenever we go against God’s law, we sin.
In both the Old and New Testaments the word sin (chata in Hebrew and hamartia in Greek) has a very descriptive etymology: literally, the word sin means “to miss the mark”. The natural illustration given by this word is that of an archer aiming for a target. Whenever the arrow hits outside the bulls eye the archer has “missed the mark”. In the context of Scripture God has established the bulls eye with His requirements for us (His law). Whenever we fail to do what He demands we “miss the mark” or sin. Paul reminds us that this problem of sin is shared by all people: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The result: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). This is the reason for our desperate need of a Savior.
God hates and condemns all sin
Now that we know what sin is we can move work to answer our original question: “Are some sins worse than others?” The answer to this is two-fold. First, we find that in God’s eyes, any sin, no matter how “small” brings about God’s just condemnation on the sinner. Quoting from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, Paul writes to the Galatians: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them’” (Galatians 3:10). Similarly James writes: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).
Any sin, no matter what it is, separates us from God and brings His condemnation upon us (Isaiah 59:2). Any sin, no matter what it is, makes us dependant on the blood of Jesus for salvation (1 John 1:7). In this sense we find that all sins are equal in that they all destroy our relationship with God and bring about a need for reconciliation.
Different Types of Sin
While any and all sin condemns us before God, Jesus speaks of “greater sin” (John 19:11) and “the least of these commandments” (Matthew 5:19). Certainly different sins carry with them different results for ourselves and for those around us. So let’s consider some of the different types of sin mentioned in the Bible (this is not a complete list - other types of sin could also be added to our list).
• Sins against God and Man
• External and Internal Sins
• Sins of Commission and Omission
• Voluntary and Involuntary Sins
• Known and Unknown Sins
Sins against God and Man
Just days before His death Jesus was questioned by scribe who asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” To this Jesus replied: “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). Here Jesus divides all of God’s commands into two categories (often called the first and second table of the law) and says that loving God is the great commandment. Conversely, the sin of idolatry (not loving the true God) is often spoken of, not just as sin, but as a “great sin” (cf. Exodus 32:21,30 and 2 Kings 17:21). Sins against God are surely “great”.
External and Internal Sins
Again Jesus said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19). We commit sins of thought (internal), word, and deed (external). Jesus demonstrated the equality of internal and external sins when He said: “whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).
But there is a distinction to be made here as well. While lust and adultery are the same for the individual sinner, the external sin is worse because it involves others in sin as well. Jesus said, “Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” (Matthew 18:7). It is one thing to involve yourself in sin and another to lead others into sin also!
A study of the Old Testament also shows that God demanded a weightier penalty for certain sins over others. Sins of idolatry and adultery were punished by death (Leviticus 20) as was murder (Leviticus 24:17), but other sins like theft and assault were punished less harshly (Leviticus 24:18-22).
Sins of Commission and Omission
Some think that a sin of commission is worse than a sin of omission, but James writes: “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). Before God both are sin.
Voluntary and Involuntary Sins
There is also a distinction to be made between voluntary (deliberate, willful) sins and involuntary sins or sins of weakness. This difference can be seen in the case of Judas who carefully planned his betrayal of Jesus and Peter’s denial of Jesus which was a sin of weakness. Another example: the fornication of Lot’s daughters by intoxicating their father was a voluntary sin on their part, and an involuntary one on his part (Genesis 19:30-36).
Known and Unknown Sins
In one way it is worse to sin knowingly than to sin unknowingly. Jesus said, “And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few” (Matthew 12:47-48). From one standpoint the servant with knowledge of what should be done was “more guilty” than the one without knowledge. But lack of knowledge is not an excuse for sin, since the law has been written on our heart (Romans 2:12-15). Such sins are still deserving of punishment (Leviticus 5:17)
Distinguishing between sins in this way should not lead us to look down on others who commit “worse” sins than we do, but to remind us of the many ways we ourselves can and do fall into sin, our constant need for repentance, and our constant struggle with our flesh to do the will of God (Romans 7:17-25). God help us!
Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, GA by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.
If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew