First off, please forgive the poor grammar in the title (it is a spoof off of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”).
This week I attended a tough questions night at my young adults group. I always love the hard questions, those moments of wrestling with doubt, those sacred experiences of coming to terms with the fact that no one (no matter how wise) has all the answers. There were a number of very important and interesting topics raised, but there was one that intentionally stood out for me. An anonymous young adult posed the question about God’s forgiveness following someone committing a “really bad” sin with no remorse. This question brought up a secondary question: how exactly does one define “really bad?” This is a very difficult question to answer because there is no clear-cut and definitive response, however, what I do feel strongly about is that pastors need to stop using the cliche “to God sin is sin….there are no big or little sins.” The reasons pastors and Christians in general need to stop saying this line is two-fold: a) because it is an insensitive response to someone who has truly felt the devastating effects of sin (for example as a result of having lost a loved one to murder or having been sexually molested) and b) because it is entirely unbiblical. There is no verse anywhere in the Bible that says “to God sin is sin and all sins are the same.”
The word “sin” is mentioned over 400 times in the Bible and literally means “missing the mark.” It is important to note that all Christians no matter how godly and spiritual they are will sin at various times because it is part of the human condition. Everyone messes up and I don’t care whether you’re the Pope or Billy Graham (1 John 1:8 “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”). Romans 3:23 reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and Romans 6:23 further explains that the results are devastating “the wages of sin is death.” No one can measure up to God’s Holy Standard. In fact in Habakkuk 1:13 we read, “Your [God’s] eyes are too holy to look on evil, You cannot tolerate wrong-doing.” Thus our first take-away is this: God cannot tolerate sin. He hates it. This is one argument in favour of the verdict that sin is sin because God’s heart breaks despite the type of sin we commit. God doesn’t like stealing anymore than He likes lying or sexual immorality any more than He likes idolatry. There will be consequences for any sin that we ever commit and the Bible is clear that we must be accountable towards our actions whether we consider their effects big or small (2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we [believers] must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ so that each one may be repaid for what has been done in the body – whether good or bad.”)
What Sin Is and What It Is Not
In my mind there are essentially six types of sins but I am willing to contend that there might be more. The most common ones you will hear about in church are:
Commission: Sins that we commit (“Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression” Psalm 19:13)
Omission: Things that we don’t do which we should have done and which the Holy Spirit later convicts us of (to me this also includes failing to stand up for justice) (James 4:17, “If anyone then knows the good they ought to do but does not do it, it is sin for them.”)
Intentional: Sins that we commit on purpose knowing that what we are doing is wrong (this category is the most discussed in church) (“If we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sin, but a fearful expectation of judgement” Hebrews 10:26)
Unintentional: A sin we commit without knowing it’s a sin, in other words “not on purpose” (this usually is more the case with younger and less mature Christians who are not as familiar with Scripture and have not been discipled) (Leviticus 4:2 “If anyone sins unintentionally…”)
Leading a Sibling Into Sin: Doing something which is not a sin to you but will cause someone else to stumble (“Never put a stumbling block or a hinderance in the way of a brother.” Romans 14:13)
Habitual Sin: A sin that someone commits so many times that it has now formed into a habit. These are the strongest to break and require prayer, Godly counsel and sometimes inner healing from demonic strongholds. Most commonly these sins are tied to sexual encounters but they can also be found in various forms of addiction or even actions such as gossip or lying (“Sold as a slave to sin” Romans 7:14).
We also know that some sins are immediately evident to others around us whereas others are more secretive. Even if we sin thinking that we will get away with our hurtful actions, we can rest assured that at some point it will catch up with us (1 Timothy 5:24 “the sins of some are conspicuous, going before them to judgement, but the sins of others appear later.”)
There are also a few things sin is not (in my opinon): Sin is not necessarily character defects. We all are predisposed to certain temperments, thoughts, and attitudes as a result of our genetic make up and family of orgin upbringing, yet these do not necessarily have to lead us into sin. For example, you may be be geneticially predisposed to anger, but you can still choose to respond calmly and rationally thus ensuring you do not sin (Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry yet do not sin”).
Being tempted also does not equal sin. All of us will be tempted at various points in our faith walk, but by crying out to God rather than giving in, we do not have to be led into sin (1 Corinthians 10:13)
The Worst Sins
The Bible has several lists of sins which God deems abhorrent (spoiler alert – if you read these verses you will discover that everyone fits into them!) In almost all cases the root cause of these sins is our own pride and selfishness (James 1:14 “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire”).
Yet, we also know that Scripturally speaking God does not see all sins as equal. Throughout the Bible, God gave punishments in line with the consequences of those particular sins. The first judicial system came right from God Himself! A sin like murder resulted in the person’s life being taken (Numbers 35:16), but lesser sins usually only included a time of ritual impurity or a sin offering. A huge factor in how God views sin also comes from our motivations, because God judges the heart of the matter, our intentions are just as important to Him as our actions. Yet, in all sins regardless of their weight or severity, all Christians are called to repentance and remorse, and must take responsibility for our actions.
When Jesus came He created an even higher standard than the law that was laid out before His time. Jesus taught that hate was murder, lust was adultery, and divorce was sexual immorality (except in severe cases) and yet hate alone does not leave a person dead and lust alone does not devastate a marriage to the point of disrepair. Jesus’s words here might have sounded extreme, but they were given through the lens of love Their function to restore relationships. This verse alone does not mean that all sin is the same sin to God, but it does remind us that we must be careful of our actions and how they will be interpreted by those around us. We must do everything with the pretext of drawing others to Christ. We must be careful to see how our witness can be destroyed by anger, careless words, or greed. There are two sins in particular that God knows will destroy our testimony and that is why He mentions them over and over again: sexual immorality (In 1 Corinthians 6:18 we are told that this is one of the worst sins because all other sins are against other people but when we commit impure acts we actually sin against ourselves) and idolatry. Both wrongful sexual attitudes and idolatry run rampant in our day and age. Idolatry is not simply about joining a different religion, but our gods take many other roles in our lives from laziness to apathy to relationships. In fact Paul writes that any earthly sin we commit is actually idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
Furthermore, the Bible reminds us that some of us have more responsibillity not to sin than others. This group includes those who have oversight towards us (pastors, elders, deacons, and teachers). This is not to say that a minister will not sin or that when they sin that their sin is far worse than that of their congregants, but again their sin has far more lasting consequences because it can lead others into sin. Places like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 remind us that anyone who wants to take responsibility must have spiritual maturity and not be given to besetting and controlling sins. This is also why James warns us that not many of us should become teachers because of the extra pressure God has placed upon leaders. Even 1 Corinthians 5:11 warns us that we should not associate ourselves with people who claim to be believers but do not have the fruit of the Spirit in their lives as a result of sin. Again this is not because believers are immune from sin, we will all sin at various times regardless of how spiritually mature we are or how long we have walked with God, but because we can tell a lot about a person’s character through their actions and who we spend time with and wish to emulate will also affect our spiritual walk. If we want to grow in our faith, we need to surround ourselves with people who although sinful still seek to honour and adore Christ above all else. The difference is that when a mature Christian sins they will be led to repentance, they will be sincere, they will seek Godly help and wisdom to help them conquer their trials and temptations, they will have accountability partners, and they will constantly be praying over their sin instead of just accepting that it is the way it is.
However, the Bible does say that there is one sin which is the worst one of all and this is called the “Unforgivable Sin.” Lots of research has been given to discovering and trying to avoid this sin, but most scholars have arrived at the same conclusion: the unforgivable sin is simply to not acknowledge God. There might have been a time in your life even as a mature believer that a severe tragedy struck and you cursed God. This was not good. This was not a nice thing to do to God, but that alone does not mean you are struck from the Book of Life and can never repent. The Bible reminds us that God is merciful and does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9) and so He gives us multiple opportunities over and over again to come to Him, but there comes a time when we are no longer given that opportunity and that is at the point of death. So if we die without having acknowledged His Lordship and still having denied His power, then we have committed the unforgivable sin. We cannot be pardoned from it. 1 John 5:16-17 also speaks to this reality: we are to pray for our brothers and sisters who are in error and are sinning, we are to encourage them, to help them, and to support them in finding healing and forgiveness, but there is one sin that leads to death – the unforgivable sin. We can pray for our brother or sister to come to know Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour, but we cannot force this. God alone can work within a person’s heart to convict them of sin and of their need for Salvation and to encourage them to walk in righteousness (John 16:8).
And yet God has infinite grace towards us. As we read the Scripture we discover that we all fit into several of these categories but we are given this incredible promise “AND SUCH WERE SOME OF YOU, but you were washed, you were sanctified, and you were justified” (1 Corinthians 6:11) In other words, it is through Christ’s merit and atoning death alone that we are made right. It is in this grace that we must recognize our own tendencies to sin which will be different for each person. 2 Peter 2:19 writes that “we are slaves to whatever has mastered us.” Satan works in different ways for different people and what I struggle with might not even be on the radar of things you struggle with, but if I continue to allow the evil one reign over this area of my life it will soon lead to destruction.
Our Response to Sin
It would not be the best practice to simply write about all the ways we sin without giving some practical “how-tos.” When confronted with sin here are some ways the Bible tells us we can address it:
- Flee. Scripture tells us that our first defense against giving into temptation is to get out of there as fast as we can. Examples include Jesus’s injunction to cut off a body part that leads us into temptation (Matthew 5:30), and Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39).
- Resist. There are times when we won’t be able to get out of the situation and we might have to stay in it for various reasons. In those moments we must resist and stand our ground. James 4:7 reminds us that if we keep saying no to Satan he will eventually recognize the authority we have through Christ and will flee from us (so who’s running away now?!)
- Be Aware. We must know our limits and what is going to potentially lead us into temptation (this will be different for each person). 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us that Satan is like a roaring lion always on the look out for who he can devour. If you know that you won’t be able to stop after one drink avoid going to a bar or pub in the first place. If you know that hanging out with certain friends will lead you to gossip or to speak in ways that you otherwise wouldn’t choose new friends. If you know that watching certain movies causes you sexual fantasies don’t watch those movies.
- Be In the Word and In Prayer. The closer you are to God, the less likely you will want to be to hurt Him. We are all still human, we will still struggle and sometimes give in, but remembering to be in daily contact with God means He will be on our radar and we will think of Him when tempted. Being in the Word also means that we will be more in tune with understanding the nature and gravity of sin and that we will understand and be aware of our sins especially when society tells us it’s ok (Romans 12:2).
- Don’t judge others who sin differently than you. We must be careful to maintain our humility and not to think of our sins as less evil than those around us (Matthew 7:5). It is not our job to determine who’s in and who’s out because of God’s redeeming love that seeks to include all people who willingly come to Him.
In university I read a book called “What About Hitler.” The main premise of this book was to talk about how pacifism is possible when an atrocity like WWII takes place. The truth is that we are less likely to come across Hitler and more likely to have to practice peacebuilding in much smaller ways within our own lives. It is the same with sin. Most of us are likely not going to be in daily contact with murderers, we are more likely to be in touch with people who gossip, are sexually tempted, and pursue money more than anything else. In other words, people just like ourselves. In my view, I do believe that some sins are worse than others (sins which are intentional, cause greater harm, are done maliciously, are habitual, or are done by church leaders especially if they use the Christian banner to accomplish them such as in the case of the Residential Schools). However, despite my belief that these sins are “worse” what I am more concerned about is our own personal response to sin: the way we ourselves come into repentance and feel remorse, the ways we work towards avoiding sin and temptation altogether, and the ways we support our fellow believers who find themselves in the grips of struggling with sin. Even though some sins may be “worse” than others, God still finds all sin abhorrent and evil. God is still too Holy to be in the presence of any type of sin, and yet He graciously walks with us, offering us forgiveness and compassion if our true desire is to make things right with Him. The most important role a Christian plays is not in asking “is this sin worse than mine” but “how can I personally grow and be strengthened in my own walk with the Lord?” It is only when we seek to break free with God’s help from the chains that bind us that we will be able to walk in freedom. Our ultimate aim is not “how can I stop others from sinning” but how can I personally walk in victory. All sins are bad, some are “more bad” than others, but Christ’s love covers a multitude of sins, even the worst kind, and as children of God, we joyfully rest in that promise (1 Peter 4:8)