by Rev. Dr. Jerald C. Joersz
Q: How do you respond to people who maintain that all sin is the same, thereby saying the sins of Hitler were no worse than a child taking a cookie from the cookie jar when he or she is not supposed to do so?
A: The answer to your question requires some care because it can be so easily misunderstood. But on the basis of the Scriptures, let’s look at what we do know.
The Bible, on occasion, does speak of some sins as “worse” or greater than others. Some sins are regarded as more grievous before God. The offenses of some are so grave that they “cry out” for punishment from God. The blood of Abel murdered by his brother Cain “cries” out to God from the ground (Gen. 4:10). Of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose wickedness had become well-known and led to their destruction, God said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave” (Gen. 18:20). To Pontius Pilate (who certainly was not without guilt even as he exercised authority granted to him by God), Jesus said, “He who delivered Me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). This reference to an individual may be to the high priest Caiaphas or to Judas.
Some sins may be viewed as worse because of their effect on the lives of others. They may cause great human suffering, pain and anguish. They may even lead many others to sin or to participate in the sins of others. A child secretly stealing a package of gum from a supermarket, for instance, has less harmful effects than sins against marriage and family, which can spread or linger or even intensify in generations following (Ex. 20:5; also see Luther’s Large Catechism, IV 124).
But to speak of one sin as greater or worse than another should not be misunderstood. No human sin, however “small,” is less deserving of God’s judgment than another. The Bible teaches that even one sin makes us guilty before God: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal. 3:10). The apostle James writes, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). According to Jesus, even something as seemingly small as a careless word spoken comes under God’s judgment: “On the day of judgment people will give account of every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36; Luke 12:2).
Therefore, before God all sins, whether small or great, are equally grievous and, therefore, equally serious. In fact, as one LCMS theologian has cautioned, “Small sins become great when they are regarded as small.”
Christians find enormous comfort in the good news that the worstand the smallestof the world’s sins, including their own, is covered by the best of God’s grace, the gift of His Son. One of my favorite passages in the New Testament says,
“The free gift is not like the result of one man’s [Adam’s] sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification” (Rom. 5:16).
To use an illustration, it would take a great miracle to raise a long row of fallen dominoes with one touch, dominoes that have so easily collapsed with one touch. But so it is with God’s grace in Christ. By His death and resurrection, God has lifted from us the curse of sin (Gal. 3:12)!
Repentance, Luther once wrote, “does not debate over what is a sin and what is not a sin. Instead, it simply lumps everything together and says, ‘Everything is pure sin with us'” (SA III 3, 36). And we believe that with God in Christ “everything is pure grace with us.”
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> Go to www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=1116 to learn about the parts of the Divine Service where sins are confessed and absolved.
About the Author: The Rev. Dr. Jerald C. Joersz was formerly an associate executive director of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations.