11 Jun 2020

Not Created Equal

Have you ever seen someone doing something wrong and had to remind yourself, “Who am I to judge? Their sin is no worse than my sin. We are all in need of God’s grace.” That last statement is a beautiful truth - we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. But what about the statement before it? Is one person’s sin just as bad as any other person’s sin? We commonly hear this, but it isn’t exactly what Scripture teaches. You might ask, “How can that be? Jesus said lust and anger are just as bad as adultery and murder!” It’s worth taking a moment to see exactly what Jesus did and did not say about lust and anger. The full text is found in Matthew 5, but here are some of the more relevant verses.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire." Matthew 5:21-22

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell." Matthew 5:27-29

Within the context of Matthew 5, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees. Specifically, he is calling his disciples to a righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (v. 20). The scribes and Pharisees understood righteousness as something external (Matthew 23:25). Jesus was teaching his disciples that with the mere external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20).

Jesus’ remarks on anger and lust reveal that inward thoughts are a manifestation of unrighteousness that condemns us to severe judgment. Such knowledge should prevent any of us from looking down upon someone else because of their particular sin. Jesus reminds us of the possible log in our own eye and our role in humbly guiding others out of sin, so we should never grow haughty by foolishly comparing our own sin to someone else’s sin. However, in this passage Jesus never indicates that those inward attitudes are the same as the outward actions of murder and adultery. Absolutely, they are sinful, but we should not understand that inner thoughts are on par with outward actions or that they are equally sinful. We want to be careful that we are not reading something into Jesus’ words that isn’t actually there. What we find in Scripture is that all sin subjects us to severe wrath and judgment, but every sin does not incur equal wrath and judgment.

Let’s take a look at some other Scripture. As we examine these passages in both the Old and New Testaments, we want to consider how Scripture speaks of God’s commands, our sin, and God’s judgments.

All Commands Are Not Equal

Let’s start with a brief examination of some statements Jesus makes about God’s commandments.

Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:19

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others." Matthew 23:23

Have you ever considered what it means that some commandments are greater than others? Of course, this shouldn’t surprise us. When Jesus was asked about the great commandment, he didn’t object by declaring all God’s commandments equal, but he provided an answer. In these verses, we see that Jesus was able to classify some of God’s commands as being among the “least” and some commands as “weightier” than others. We want to be careful that we don’t understand lesser commandments to be unimportant. In both verses, it is clear that the less weighty commands are not to be neglected, so we should not think God is unconcerned with our obedience in “lesser things.” But what does it mean for a commandment to be more or less weighty? Rather than think that lesser commands don’t bring severe judgment (we saw in Matthew 5 that they certainly do), we might expect the weight of God’s judgment to be commensurate with the weight of our sin.

All Sin Is Not Equal

Take a few minutes to read through Leviticus 4. (You may also want to read chapters 5 and 6, but chapter 4 is sufficient for our purposes.)

One of the things that should stand out in this chapter is that all sin did not warrant the same sacrifice. For example, we see in verse 3 that if a priest sins, he brings a bull as a sin offering. In verse 22 we are told that if a leader sins, he brings a male goat as a sin offering. Finally, in verse 27, if a common person sins, he brings a female goat as a sin offering. In these laws, the sin is described the same, but the sin of the priest seems to be greater than the sin of the leader, and the sin of the leader is greater than the sin of the common person. God is not treating everyone’s sin the same even when it falls into the same category of sin.

And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see still greater abominations.” Ezekiel 8:6

As with the chapters in Leviticus, it’s worth going back to read the entirety of Ezekiel 8 to gain the complete context, but we will make two observations. First, God describes what Ezekiel sees as “great abominations.” Using the adjective great indicates a distinction from whatever Ezekiel might consider “lesser” abominations. When we say someone gave a “great performance,” we are distinquishing it from an average or ordinary performance. So it seems that even God considers this sin to be out of the ordinary. Second, God goes on to warn Ezekiel that he will see “still greater abominations.” So now there are even worse sins than what were already worse sins.

As we continue reading, the Lord reveals to Ezekiel more of Israel’s sin. Presumably, these are the “greater abominations” of verse 6. Ezekiel sees seventy elders of Israel worshiping idols, which then leads us to verse 13:

He said also to me, “You will see still greater abominations that they commit.” Ezekiel 8:13

We have now moved from implied “lesser abominations” to “great abominations” to “still greater abominations” and now to “still greater abominations” yet again. It is important to recognize that these are descriptions given by God. They are not Ezekiel’s human perceptions of one sin being greater than another, but God’s declaration concerning sin that has grown increasingly wicked. What follows in the rest of chapters 8 and 9 is a terrifying picture of God’s wrath and judgment - a judgment that was not poured out on lesser sins.

Distinguishing between greater and lesser sins is not just an Old Testament concept, but something Jesus taught as well.

Two significant characters play a role in the crucifixion: Judas and Pilate. Both men are culpable for crucifying the Son of God. However, one of them commits a greater sin.

Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” John 19:11

Though Pilate sinned greatly, Judas committed a greater sin in betraying Jesus than Pilate committed in allowing Jesus to be crucified.

Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. Matthew 12:31-32

If pressed, many Christians could probably come up with this verse as evidence that at least one sin is distinct from all the others. I add it here simply to point out that it is one verse among many that shows a distinction between different types of sin and judgment.

All Judgment Is Not Equal

Thinking of sin and its consequences, it is easy for us to see that some sin brings greater consequences in our present reality. The father who drinks too much leaves a lasting mark on his children. The husband or wife who commits adultery destroys his or her marriage. Foolish decisions we make in our youth can follow some of us for the rest of our lives, even when God’s grace brings new life and transformation. Moses was denied entrance to the Promised Land for striking a rock. King David lost a son because of his adultery and murder. So we know the consequences of sin can be a harsh reality in this life. However, Scripture is clear that some sins bring a harsh reality in the life to come as well.

“If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” Numbers 15:27–31

Turning to Numbers, we see that God’s law applies equally to both the native and the sojourner, yet different types of sin incur variations in God’s judgment. In the first case, unintentional sins are atoned and forgiven. In the second case, the one who knowingly sins against the Lord’s command is cut off from the people. The Lord is making a distinction between two types of sin and the appropriate consequences based on circumstance.

For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” Mark 14:21

We saw earlier that Judas committed a greater sin than Pilate. Here we see that he will also face a greater judgment. In stating that, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born,” we should not understand that Jesus is simply telling us that Judas’ eternal fate is the same as every other unbeliever. We might think this statement is true for every person who faces eternal judgment, but what would be the point of Jesus’ words if he wasn’t making a distinction between Judas and other men? The man who walked with Jesus, heard his teaching, saw his miracles, and yet betrayed him faces a judgment that is not common to other men - including Pilate. So we can see that where sins are not equal, they will not be equally judged.

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” Matthew 11:21-24

Map of Hell
Map of Hell, Sandro Botticelli

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Luke 20:47

I have no idea what it will be like to receive a more tolerable judgment or a greater versus lesser condemnation, but just as we saw with Judas and Pilate, it’s clear that all judgments are not equal. In these verses, greater judgment appears to accompany greater privilege. The cities that witnessed Jesus’ miracles will face greater judgment than those that didn’t. The scribes who were most familiar with God’s law will be held to a greater accountability. In other cases, the judgment will be measured according to the actions of the one being judged.

For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:2

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12:36

Similar to the examples of greater privilege, the measure of judgment also seems tied to one’s knowledge and responsibility.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. James 3:1

And that servant who knew his master's will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. Luke 12:47-48

One’s knowledge and responsibility seem to be common themes in many of the references cited above. In Leviticus, those who knew the law best offered greater sacrifices. In Luke, the scribes face greater judgment for using God’s law to be seen by men, while living contrary to it. Those who witnessed Jesus’ miracles first-hand and failed to respond placed themselves under a more severe judgment. William Lamb once said, “The possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility.” Scripture teaches us that the possession of great knowledge implies great accountability.

Why Does It Matter?

So if Scripture does teach varying degrees of sin and judgment, why should we care? Does it really matter whether someone is going to face the first, second, or third degree of God’s judgment? This is a valid question. We preach faith and repentance to everyone regardless of their sin. Salvation comes by grace to all who will be saved regardless of the nature or severity of their sin.

First, it is good to align our thinking with God’s Word on all matters. We want to form patterns of thinking that are consistent with God’s thoughts as they are revealed in Scripture even when we may not immediately see the practical benefit. We want to think and speak what is true because it accurately reflects the nature and character of the God who is Truth. As we cultivate knowledge of God, we will be able to grow in wisdom and understanding to apply that knowledge.

Second, we appreciate the grace we have received in proportion to the sin we have been forgiven. Jesus expressed it this way:

"Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Luke 7:47

As the apostle Paul says, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). We might think of God’s grace in fixed or static terms - as though God covers our sin with an equally measured outpouring of grace at the time each of us places our faith in Jesus Christ and that outpouring will prove sufficient for the rest of our lives. Without doubt the grace we received at the time of our conversion saved us completely and forever. But if we sin, more grace comes to cover it. As we grow in our understanding of the depths of sin in us, more grace comes to transform and renew our hearts. James tells us that as we are confronted with temptation and submit to God, “he gives more grace” (James 4:6). The apostle Peter opens both his letters with the encouragement, “May grace and peace be multiplied to you” (1 Peter 1:2, 2 Peter 1:2). We receive continuous grace according to the measure of our present need, or as John says, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16).

As we comprehend the magnitude of sin in the past lives of other believers, we also grow in our appreciation for the magnitude of God’s grace revealed in Christ. Many of us will not commit sins on the level of the apostle Paul or John Newton, but we can be filled with awe and amazed by the grace that saved even them and trust that God will be merciful to us as well. Paul said this was the very reason he received God’s mercy - to be an example of God’s patience for others (1 Timothy 1:16).

Third, we want to give appropriate warning to those who persist in sin. The sex trafficker should understand that the longer he persists in his sin, the greater judgment he will face. The man who cheats on his taxes year after year will find himself in a much more precarious position than the man who did it once.

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. Romans 2:5

First Timothy 6:19 speaks of the rich man storing up treasure for the life to come through good works and generosity. This accumulation of good works is how they “take hold of that which is truly life.” In contrast, the impenitent heart keeps accumulating more and more wrath for itself. We can find ourselves reticent to speak of God’s judgment and its severity, but we have seen that Scripture reveals the realities of both grace and judgment. God intends his kindness to draw us to repentance, but it is sometimes awareness of God’s judgment that leads to repentance as when Jonah preached in Nineveh.

Fourth, a proper understanding of God’s justice serves as the only reliable foundation for our own exercise of justice. If all sin is equally heinous, how are we to distinguish between the child pornographer and the man who steals groceries to feed his hungry child? Shall they both be punished equally? Should an employer respond in identical manner to the woman who takes a few extra pens from the supply room and the manager who sexually harasses a woman in the office? And how can a parent respond differently to the child who lazily refuses to clean his room versus the teenager who steals money from his mother’s purse? If all sin is equal, on what basis can we render different judgments?

Fifth, as we think more clearly regarding sin and judgment, we can more accurately assess our civic leaders. Those of us living in countries with free elections have opportunity to respond to how well our leaders align themselves with God’s standards of righteousness. We don’t concede that the moral shortcomings of one candidate’s policies are no worse than the shortcomings of another candidate’s policies.

We have a sense that different sins demand more or less severe punishment because we are made in the image of our Creator and, though it is not perfect, we have a sense of his justice. When Colossians 3:10 tells is that we are “being renewed in knowledge after the image of [our] creator,” we should understand that part of that renewed knowledge will include our understanding of righteousness, sin, and judgment and their application in our day-to-day lives. Understanding that God distinguishes between sins allows us to distinguish between the relative significance of tax or trade policies versus abortion laws. We can distinguish between laws that some argue have the potential for harm versus those that intentionally legalize it.

Our present experience is a mere shadow of God’s justice at best and we can often disagree with one another regarding what constitutes proper justice. We can even look back with sorrow upon our past mistakes and lack of clear judgment. However, we should strive for greater justice until the day eventually comes when God’s judgment is perfectly executed.

Judgment Is Universal

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. Revelation 20:12-13

Though it’s not an identical judgment, all those who die will come to judgment. God’s judgment is according to what we have done, and while some judgments will be more or less severe than others, sadly, they will all be permanent. However, there is hope of escaping God’s judgment regardless of its measure.

As we saw at the beginning of this little investigation, even our inner thoughts and attitudes make us all subject to God’s judgment and condemnation. As the apostle Paul teaches, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). And if that death and condemnation are described by Jesus as “the hell of fire,” which of us wants any part of it, regardless of whether it is a lesser or greater condemnation? Fortunately, the apostle Paul also teaches us that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. John 5:24

We all face “the hell of fire” but God offers us the free gift of eternal life. It is a gift made available to each one of us because Jesus lived a sinless life, yet died on a Roman cross as the sacrifice for man’s sin. In his death, he received the condemnation we deserve. Paul expresses it this way: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We sin and deserve to die, but Christ died as our substitute - the righteous in place of the wicked.

Although Jesus died, he did not remain dead. Scripture teaches us that after three days, God raised Jesus from the dead and he offers eternal life to all who receive him and believe in his name (John 1:12). Eternal life is a gift made available, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of God’s mercy (Titus 3:5). We do nothing but believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf and turn from our sin, and God grants to us forgiveness and eternal life. Peter declared on the day of Pentecost, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19).

The Christian faith refers to this as grace - receiving a gift that we did not deserve and could not earn. Though we may not see all sins as the same, we recognize that we are all helplessly condemned apart from God’s mercy and grace. Regardless of your sin, you can confess Jesus as your only hope of salvation from judgment and be assured of eternal life. Won’t you come and receive God’s grace?

Father in heaven, be merciful to me, a sinner. Thank you for sending Jesus to die for my sin. Forgive my sin because of his sacrifice on my behalf. Give me a new heart that desires to please you. Teach me to follow Jesus and observe your commands. Thank you for delivering me from judgment, not because of anything I have done, but because of your mercy offered only through Jesus. Amen.