One of the most common truisms you’ll hear as a kid growing up in Evangelical churches is that “in the eyes of God, all sins are equal.” If all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:20), and breaking one part of the Law means you’ve broken all of it (James 2:10), then there’s a sort of equalizing effect at work here, right? Whether you’re a murderer or a serial jay-walker, you’ve violated the law and so stand accused in the dock on the same charge as anyone else: sin.
Now, there are two main uses to which this doctrine is usually put. First, it’s often used as a way of curbing pride or discouraging judgmentalism. Since everyone is a sinner, including you, there’s no place for feeling better than your neighbor just because they seem to have sinned in a worse way. Second, since all sin is equal in God’s sight, there’s also no use in you thinking you can earn your way into God’s graces, or justify yourself because you haven’t committed any of the “really big” sins.
You may be able to tell, I have a big caveat to add here.
I have to admit, as a kid this idea never sat well with me. I mean, I wouldn’t deny that we’re all sinners in need of salvation, or that no one should feel better than others, or that all sin leads to judgment, but I remember very clearly arguing in Bible study that there’s definitely a distinction between greater and lesser sins. There’s got to be a difference between beating your child and sneaking a peek on a tough answer on your quiz; it seemed to me like utter nihilism to deny any sort of distinction like that. If a human judge gave the thief 25-life along with the murderer, we’d say there’s something off with her ability to discern right from wrong, and subtle gradations of human justice.
But where does that leave our theology of judgment, sin, and salvation? If there are worse and lesser sins, it seems cruel to punish both with the same ultimate judgment. If treating the thief and the murderer equally seems unjust in this life, then how much more in the life/state to come?
As it turns out, there’s good biblical reasons to affirm both the fundamental equality of sinners before the dock of God, as well as the distinctions between sins that seem intuitive to our basic instincts. Bavinck has an excellent little section that will set the stage for us:
Aside from the difference between diabolical and human sins, there is also a great deal of difference among the latter…Granted, in principle sin and virtue are indivisible: those who have one have them all, and those who lack one lack them all. Between good and evil there is no gradual transition. A person consents or does not consent to the law of God. The law of God is an organism that, when violated in one of its commandments, is violated in its totality, for God, who have the commandment that was violated, is the author of all the other commandments as well (James 2:10). But not all sins are for that reason equal. The different names for sin already bear this out. In Genesis 4, in connection with the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, we learn that the inner disposition is of greater value than the gift. Though the law given to Israel contains a wide range of ceremonial commandments, the entire Old Testament makes clear that the value of the ethical conduct far surpasses that of cultic and ceremonial acts. Faith is reckoned as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22; Amos 2:6ff; 5:14, 21f; Hosea 4″1f; 12:6; Mic. 6:6, 8; Isa. 1:11f; 5:8f; Jer. 7:3; 22:3; Ezek. 16:49; 18:5f; 2 Cor. 12:20f; Gal. 5:19; etc.). The law itself moreover, makes a distinction between sins that are committed inadvertently, out of ignorance or weakness, do not break the covenant, and can be expiated within the covenant, and sins that are committed consciously and intentional (…”with a high hand”), place the perpetrator outside the covenant, and make him worthy of death (Lev. 4:5; 22:14; Num. 15:22f; 35:11f; Josh. 20:3, 9). Scripture never abandons the objective position that locates the standard of sin solely in the law of God. Yet the guilt of violation is greater or less to the degree the commandment was violated more or less intentionally.
—Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pp. 149-150
The whole section is worth perusing as Bavinck goes on to parse the biblical material even further. Still, we see both truths, that the law of God is one, and that all who violate it stand condemned, but that even so, God makes distinctions between types of sin. Murder really is a bigger deal than theft. Stealing because you’re poor and hungry is not the same thing as cheating your impoverished employees out of fair wages to pay for a lavish vacation. What’s more, those sins that we knowingly commit, thinking to ourselves “I know this is contrary to God’s demands, but I’m going to do it anyways” have a greater weight than the transgressions that we give ourselves over to in a foolish, unthinking moment. Our everyday, human instincts are not entirely wrong here, but are, in fact, confirmed by biblical material.
What then of the equality of sinners before the bar of God’s justice? Biblically, it’s not so much that all sins are flatly equal, but that any sin is a sign of violation of the greatest sin. “A person consents or does not consent to the law of God.” What Bavinck is saying is that even the “small” sins, flow from the deep, great, fundamental stance of lawlessness towards God. From another angle, Martin Luther said of the first commandment “where the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this commandment is observed, all the others follow” (Larger Catechism). In other words, we only ever murder, or lie, or cheat, or steal, or commit any number of piddling little sins, because we are already caught up in the greatest, most flagrant violation of all: idolatry, worshiping something other than the true God as God.
This is the reason that Paul writes we all have fallen short of the glory of God. His indictment of human sin, debauchery and lawlessness begins with idolatry in Romans 1:18-23, and from there we see humanity given over as a consequence to the various sorts of sin listed in 1:24-32. Considered simply as “thief” and “murderer”, the murderer is clearly guilty of a far greater crime. That said, both thief and murderer stand before the bar under the far weightier charge of “idolater” and “cosmic traitor.”
Incidentally, this is part of the answer to the charge that no one has done anything merit the eternal judgment we are warned of in Scripture. I’ve discussed the inherent symmetry of handing the person who has spent a life-time pursuing everything but God, a future without God. Still, that aside, that many of us don’t observe our idolatry with the horror with which it is presented in Scripture is not an indication of the Bible’s over-scrupulosity, but our own comfortable we’ve become with our own sin. As Anselm famously put it, “you have not yet considered how great the weight of sin is.”
To sum up then, are all sins equally vile, condemnable, and is distinguishing between them a merely human way of looking at them? No. To say so is to go beyond Scripture and even to do violence to our righteous moral instincts about everyday human justice. But are all sinners “equally guilty” before God, in no place to merit their salvation, or boast and brag over others? Yes.And one more question: does God’s extend his abundant, overwhelming, and astonishing grace in Christ to all? Thankfully, we can say a bold “Yes, and Amen!”
Soli Deo Gloria