BIG AND LITTLE SINS?
T. PIERCE BROWN
We are totally opposed to the idea that we should separate sins into “mortal” and venial” ones, or should have a list of sins with what we call the worst ones at the top and the “little” ones close to the bottom which we can commit with relative impunity. The idea is unscriptural and dangerous.
However, it is equally unscriptural to teach that one sin is as bad as another. We have heard many persons say that, but we do not think any of them REALLY believed it! We are not thereby implying that they were liars or hypocrites. We think what they were trying to say was that with regard to the eternal consequences, any sin of which one does not repent would cause one to be lost eternally. That is true, but it does not therefore follow that any sin is as bad as another.
The reason I say that NO ONE really believes it is that the person who says that will admit that he is a sinner–that he has done things wrong–but he does not think he is as bad as Adolph Hitler or Fidel Castro. He had rather live next door to a man who lied about the size of the fish he caught than next door to a dope-peddling murderer.
We have several problems dealing with “degrees of sins.” One is an intellectual problem having to do with how to determine what is meant by “worse”. Worse in what respect? Then there is a communication problem. We fail to communicate what we mean if and when we say that one sin is or is not as bad as another. Third, there is a spiritual problem, as we tend to classify OUR sins as “little” and the other person’s as “big”.
Let us examine those three problems. A sin may be worse than another in terms of the effect it has on the one who does it, in terms of its effect on others, in terms of the motive or attitude with which it is done, or in terms of its eternal consequences.
Even those who say, “a sin is a sin, and any sin will send your soul to hell” often overlook the Bible truth that some sins are worse than others even in THAT respect! That there are degrees of reward and punishment seems too clearly taught in the Bible to admit of serious question. In Luke 12:47-48, Jesus said, “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.” Even if we admit that hell will be worse for some than for others, ANY degree of it will be so much worse than anything the human mind can comprehend here that there is little comfort in the idea that “if I go there, I will not be as bad off as Hitler.”
Paul’s sin of persecuting Christians was worse than some other sin he might have done in terms of the effect it had on those killed. They were dead! But it was NOT worse than some he might have done in the effect it had on HIM, for he had not thereby stultified and killed his conscience. His motive was pure.
The reason Jesus could say to Pilate, “He that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin” (John18:11) was partly because they sinned against greater light. So their sins were greater in this respect. There is really no room for argument that some sins are greater than others. Jesus said so!
Once we clarify our intellectual problems by realizing that some sins are worse than others with regard to different things, we can clarify our communication problems by stating clearly in what respect, what context, and what circumstance you speak of one sin being worse.
Then you may need to deal with the spiritual problem. It may also be intellectual, but I call it “spiritual” because it indicates a spiritual condition when we “behold the mote that is in our brother’s eye and consider not the beam that is in our own eye.” (Mt. 7:3) Surely one can not even make sense of the statement unless one realizes that Jesus is talking about some things being worse than others! And, furthermore, that we are often wrong about which ones are worse!
Most of us understand that the “elder brother,” with his self-righteous, ungrateful, hateful pomposity was surely worse in SOME RESPECTS than the wayward, worldly, wandering, wasteful, whoring brother who came home. Again, Jesus showed that some sins are worse than others are when he said, “The publicans and harlots go into thekingdomofGodbefore you.” (Mt. 21:31) Let us never assume that the publicans and harlots got into the kingdom without repentance! Nevertheless, they were not as “bad off” as the Pharisees.
Yes, there are bigger and smaller sins. But the first problem is that you and I do not know which is which, for we usually assume that ours is smaller! The second problem is: They do not stay in the same order! One could commit any sin we could name a dozen times, and each time it would move up or down the list of how bad it was in comparison to some others in terms of the attitude with which it was done, the circumstances surrounding it, the motive, the effect on the person doing it, the effect on others, etc.
This is almost universally recognized and admitted. An man may kill in war, in carelessness, in a sudden burst of passion brought on by righteous indignation, with premeditation, with love for the one killed in order to put them out of their misery, with hatred and malice in order to see the victim suffer, or with other motives. Scarcely anyone, even those who say “sin is sin, and there are no degrees,” would seriously claim that no one of the above is worse than another.
Let us be careful how we talk about sins. While we must know the truth that God reveals that they are not all alike, we must also strongly teach that none are insignificant. Remember that ANY sin unrepented of will cause you to be lost!