Are Some Sins Worse Than Others?
One of my close friends was telling me about a recent interaction he had at a Reformed seminary with a student who was preparing to go into college ministry. In the course of their conversation, my friend and this seminarian entered in on the subject of sexual sin.
This young man insisted that there is no sexual sin that is more heinous than another. My friend pushed back on that idea, explaining to him that the Scriptures and our Reformed Confessions teach otherwise. The young man then gave my friend the common rebuttal, "Jesus talked more about self-righteousness than sexual sin, and he said that self-righteousness was worse than sexual sin."
Ironically, this response only lends support to the idea that some sins are more heinous than others. However, it has sadly become the most common way in which many pastors have recently sought to downplay the severity of sexual sin. Contrary to the current narrative, the Scriptures, the Reformed Confessions, and principles of nature teach us that some sins are more reprehensible than others.
Twice in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus references Sodom and Gomorrah in order to teach varying degrees of condemnation for the unrepentant. When he first commissioned his disciples to preach the gospel to the cities in Israel, Jesus told them,
"Whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Assuredly, 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!" (Matt. 10:14-15)
Then, after the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum rejected his words and works, Jesus said to his disciples,
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” (Matt. 11:21-24)
Commenting on Jesus' appeal to Sodom, John Calvin wrote:
"Christ mentioned Sodom rather than other cities, not only because it went beyond them all in villainous crimes, but because God destroyed it in an extraordinary manner, that it might serve as an example to all ages, and that its very name might be held in abomination. And we need not wonder if Christ declares that they will be treated less severely than those who refuse to hear the gospel. When men deny the authority of Him who made and formed them, when they refuse to listen to his voice, nay, reject disdainfully his gentle invitations, and withhold the confidence which is due to his gracious promises, such impiety is the utmost accumulation, as it were, of all crimes. But if the rejection of that obscure preaching was followed by such dreadful vengeance, how awful must be the punishment that awaits those who reject Christ when he speaks openly!"
The purpose of Jesus' appeal to Sodom and Gomorrah was not to lighten the sin of those cities. It was to heighten the sin of the cities in which he did his mighty works and wonders. When he wanted to find the most egregious example with which to draw a comparison, Christ appealed to those cities that were engaging in homosexual gang rape and violence. In Israel in Jesus' day, no civilizations were considered to be as far gone as those of Sodom and Gomorrah. When God spoke through the Old Testament prophets about the sin and judgment of Israel and the nations, he often did so by comparing them with Sodom (Isa. 1:9, 10; 3:9; 13:19; Jer. 23:14; 49:18; 50:40; Ezek. 16:46, 48, 53, 55, 56; Amos 4:11; Zeph. 2:9).
The Westminster Shorter Catechism question 83 captures the essence of Jesus’ teaching:
Q. 83. Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?
A. Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.
The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 151 explains that the aggravations of offense are based on a number of different factors, the first of which has respect to the persons offending. When explaining what they meant when they spoke of "persons offending," the members of the Westminster Assembly wrote:
If they be of riper (i.e. older) age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
Certainly, no one would take issue with this explanation—at least, not in part. Our society unequivocally acknowledges that it is a heightened offense for men who hold positions of power to abuse that power in order to prey on women for sexual gratification. When God places men or women in positions of power or influence, such individuals have an increased responsibility to use that power for the glory of God and the well-being of others. When, instead, men or women choose to abuse that power for self-pleasing ends, God considers it to be a more heinous sin. This is just one small example of what the members of the Assembly mean when they reference "aggregations from...place" and "aggravations from...office."
While there is a great deal more to unpack and glean from Westminster Larger Catechism 151, it is important for us to note what the members of the Assembly say in Larger Catechism 152:
Q. 152. What does every sin deserve at the hands of God?
A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserves his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.
Though some sins are most certainly more abhorrent than others—and deserve greater judgment than others—"every sin, even the least...deserves the wrath and curse" of God and "cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ." There are no grounds for anyone to think that he or she is in a better spiritual position than others by nature. We are all, by nature, under the wrath and curse of God (Eph. 2:1-4). Just because we may not have fallen into some particular sin doesn't mean that we are, by nature, more righteous than others. The Scriptures level the playing field, so to speak, at this point.
All of us are condemned by the Law of God, by nature, because of our natural depravity (Rom. 3:19; Gal. 3:22). Neither does this, in any way whatsoever, give us a license to make light of what we may deem to be “less heinous sin.” We cannot, because of Jesus’ teaching on varying degrees of judgment, downplay even the least sin in our lives.
The same Jesus who teaches us that there are varying degrees of judgment teaches us that if we so much as look at someone to lust after them, we have already committed adultery with them in our hearts and are, therefore, liable to judgment—unless we repent (Matt. 5:28-30).
Additionally, we must acknowledge that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cover the sins of any, no matter what sins they have committed or what sinful lifestyles they have embraced. If men and women will repent and turn to Christ, trusting only in his blood and righteousness, they will be forgiven and redeemed. The blood of Jesus is of such infinite and eternal value that it covers every sin of those for whom it was shed, no matter how atrocious that sin.
John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke V1 (1845), trans. William Pringle, pp. 447-48.
Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen; edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor
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