All sin is not the same
One of the church’s teachings that is most easily shown to be (at least partially) wrong is the teaching that all sin is the same. All sin, quite clearly, is NOT the same. This teaching is based mostly on the passage where Jesus says,
Matthew 5:27-28 (NIV) 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
The standard teaching, based on this passage, is that lust and actual adultery are equivalent in the eyes of God. In a way this is nice because it has an equalizing effect. I shouldn’t be able to look down on the murderer because I have sinned too. Maybe my sins seem smaller to me, but to God they are the same. That’s the idea. The problem is that it’s not true, and cannot be true.
Question: If thinking of a woman lustfully is actually “the same” as committing adultery with her, why not just go ahead and commit adultery? That would be ludicrous, of course, and everybody knows this. And we know it precisely because we know deep down that all sin is not the same. It’s not “just as bad” to think of someone lustfully as to commit adultery with her, and Jesus isn’t saying it’s the same thing in this passage. He’s saying that desire precedes action, and desire has a moral quality of its own. In the sense that act springs from desire, they are one and the same (that’s qualitative). But they are not at all the same in the sense of quantity (that is, enormity). Peterson makes this clear in his The Message translation:
Matthew 5:27-28 (MSG) 27 “You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ 28 But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.
That’s the point — that lust happens not just in the body but in the mind. And it happens in the mind first. But adultery is much “sinnier” than lust. It has evil consequences that reach further, is more damaging to the one who commits it and the victims of it, and reaches further down into one’s self-image than a mere thought or even pattern of thoughts. Only people who have not worked with adulterers (or been cheated on) could ever make with a straight face the claim that the act and the thought actually are the same.
It may be easier to think of it in terms of some other quality. Let’s say I am growing two oak trees, a huge one, and a brand new baby one. Are they both equally oaky? In one sense, yes. The small oak tree carries within itself all of the qualities that the larger oak contains. Leaves, branches, chlorophyll, bark, potential for making acorns, pulp — everything. But it certainly cannot be said that they are equally oaky in the sense of quantity. The larger oaktree is clearly just that — larger. There’s more to it, and that matters in practical ways. It reaches higher and deeper and wider. It requires more water. Since it is more deeply rooted it is harder to remove. All of that matters.
Bringing it back home, does all sin create a sense of distance between human beings and God? Yes. That’s a quality issue. Sin, in its nature, has a separating, dividing quality. But does all sin do this equally? Definitely, firmly, positively, conclusively NO. Some sins, in fact, do this a great deal more than others. If I commit murder, it will leave me far more alienated from God than if I steal a box of paper clips from my office. The evil of murder is far more pervasive. It affects the victim, his/her family, my own family, my friends, and society.
If all sin is sin, and if we were really able to believe this, why hasn’t that pervasive teaching led to a sense of profound humility in the church? Because everybody knows it’s crap. And yet my sin being “smaller” than someone else’s is no reason for even the slightest arrogance. Sin still separates and divides us from God, from others, and from ourselves. How much cancer do you want in your body? The answer, of course, is none. Is is better to have just a little cancer than a lot of it? Of course. But cancer kills. That is what it does in its nature. While a woman might be glad to keep her breast and have “just” a lumpectomy, she takes the decision very seriously — because she has cancer. That’s never a good thing.
Sin, in its nature, divides and separates. Sin, in a spiritual sense, kills. Some sins are definitely “sinnier” but only in the sense that a large oak tree is “oakier” than a small one. Still, the difference is real, and it matters.