One of the most insidious things about idolatry is the syncretism. Those who know the Lord but still try and keep a side-piece will always integrate their idol into their religion. This is no less true when it comes to America’s premier idol: equality.
We are, of course, used to false teachers claiming that various forms of inequality are sin: racism, sexism, etc. But syncretism isn’t always so obvious. I have often heard otherwise faithful men promote false teachings like “All sins are equal” or “all sinners are equal.” A commenter asked about this falsehood on my last post, so I thought they would be worth addressing at length.
Like most persistent false teachings, these depend on misusing God’s Word to shoehorn our idol of equality into our doctrine. For example, Scripture repeatedly tells us that all of us are sinners. Paul particularly drives home the point while quoting Isaiah in Romans 3. Since we all share that same status, doesn’t that universality also imply that we’re all equal? Not at all. That’s like saying that because we all have mass, everyone’s weight is equal. Shared characteristics are not always the same thing as equality.
But the equality interpretation isn’t simply unasserted; it’s actually precluded by the clear testimony of Scripture elsewhere. Despite the assertion of some kind of broad equality of sins and of sinners, the Bible explicitly denies most senses in which they could legitimately be called equal. Let’s look at a few:
Sinners are not equal at the Final Judgment.
Let’s begin at the end. When all is said, all is done, and the books are opened, not all sinners will be treated the same way. And I don’t mean the believer/unbeliever distinction, but inequality between unbelievers (believers too, but that’s a different blog post). Consider how Jesus instructs his Apostles when he sends them out to preach the Gospel to Israel:
If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.
He reiterates the same point only a chapter later:
Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you. (Matthew 11:20-24)
Jesus words here are very clear. Not every unbelieving sinner is going to be treated equally on the day of judgment. They will all be barred from Paradise, but some will nevertheless be worse off than others. I’m not privy to the details of this arrangement, but the inequality is explicitly taught by Scripture.
It’s worth noting that if it weren’t for our sad devotion to equality, this point would be clear even from the simple doctrine that apart from Christ, we would each be judged according to his works and given what he deserves (Romans 2). This teaching would be nonsensical if all sinners were equal, for neither individual works nor requital for them would enter into the equation.
Sinners are not equal in the Church
It is not only in God’s omniscient judgment that sinners are unequal, but according to proper human judgement as well. Some contend that because all have sinned, none can legitimately comment on the sins of others. However, this is once again poor logic. To be sure, as a sinner, it would be comically meaningless to hold anyone accountable to the Matt Cochran Standard of Righteousness. But we have all been given another standard: the eternal law of God, revealed by Scripture and by natural law.
This, we are not only allowed, but commanded to use; not against our brothers and sisters but for them. Christ himself tells us that when a brother sins against us, we are to go and tell him so that he would have a chance to repent and we a chance to forgive. This command is expanded for certain vocations within the Church. In his pastoral epistles, Paul instructs both Timothy and Titus to rebuke those in their care. (1 Timothy 5:20, 2 Timothy 4:2, Titus 2:15). But such rebuke is to be carried out using God’s Word as the standard. As he writes of elders, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
But although such rebuke is routine, it is by no means evenly distributed, for it is both error and sin that are to be rebuked. And as we can tell from Paul’s own rebukes, these things are not equal from person to person. Every last Christian at Corinth was a sinner, but there was only one man of whom Paul wrote, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” He likewise instructs Timothy to treat some sinners differently than others when he writes, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
These testimonies, of course, establish our final point as well:
Sins are not equal.
They are not equal coram deo, and they are not equal coram mundo. “What? How can you say this? Doesn’t the Bible say that he who keeps the law except for one point is guilty of all?” It does, but you must remember that James writes these words when he’s addressing one specific sin in distinction from others–partiality. The Church must serve all who belong to her apart from worldly distinctions like rich & poor because all are guilty and all need grace.
But James is not contradicting Paul who, as we’ve already seen, repeatedly instructed the Church to treat certain sins as worse than others. In fact, even as Paul instructs the Church of Corinth to judge sexual immorality among fellow Christians, he also provides a rationale for why that kind of sin is unequal: “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”
But then, God has always treated some sins as worse than others. He did not rain fire and brimstone on every ancient city, but only Sodom, and only after verifying the extreme gravity of their sins. Christ condemned the Pharisees for obsessing over the minutia of tithing (tithing that God commanded them to do) while neglecting “the weightier matters of the law.” And although many parties were involved in unjustly condemning Christ to death, Jesus told Pilate that the ones who handed him over were guilty of a greater sin than Pilate himself.
What’s more, sins are not only unequal in their gravity, but also in the circumstances in which they were committed. On one hand, James writes that teachers will be held to a stricter standard than other Christians (and this, a mere chapter after he writes about partiality, proving the fact that partiality is not identical with inequality.) On the other hand, Paul says of his former persecution of the Church that, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” That does not stop Paul from counting himself the chief of sinners one sentence later, for Paul is not offering his ignorance as an excuse or as something that makes him worthy of grace. But like any just judge, the Lord does not ignore the circumstances in which we sin and their influence over us.
So whichever measurement one chooses to use, sins are not to be deemed equal–not in God’s judgment, and not in our own. Not every application of this fact is appropriate, of course. If you’re ranking sins in order to justify yourself, for example, you’re barking up the wrong tree, for apart from faith in Christ, God will damn both you and the neighbor you measure yourself against.
Neither are we to distinguish sins by worldly priorities–elevating fake sins like racism, sexism, or insensitivity as the most heinous, or perhaps pretending that Sodom’s inhospitality was worse than the sin named after the city. But so long as you read Scripture without letting the idol of equality whisper false doctrine in your ear, God will provide you with ample wisdom for making just and practical distinctions.
And we will need every bit of that wisdom, for our vocations require us to know which sins are worse than others. The ruler must decide how severely to punish different evils and when to tolerate wrongdoing lest his enforcement create graver wrongs. The father must decide how to discipline his children. The local church must decide when to rebuke gently and when to rebuke severely. The one who thinks all sins are equal is incompetent to carry out such essential vocations.
So do not fall into the false pride of superiority because you think your sins are milder than your neighbors. But as you avoid false pride, do not plunge yourself into a false humility that scares you away from proclaiming what is right to those who are doing wrong.
The weight analogy is excellent. This is what I’ve always been missing on this topic. Never used an analogy.
And, of course, moral duties are likewise unequal.
The fact that Jesus describes some matters of the Law as weightier than others directly asserts a hierarchy of moral duties. And, as Wintery Knight and Michael Horner explain, the fact that moral duties exist in a hierarchy allows us to resolve moral dilemmas.
I tried posting this earlier, but it seems not to have gone through.
We also know there is a hierarchy of sins because Jesus tells us there is a hierarchy of commandments in Matthew 23:23-24.
The fact that some parts of the Law are more important than others implies that some sins are worse than others. On the topic of a hierarchy of commandments, I recommend the following from Wintery Knight and Michael Horner:
Thanks, Matthew. Your comments were getting caught in the spam filter for some reason; I’ll see if I can get that sorted out.
Isn’t the fact that the book of Leviticus prescribes differing punishments for different sins also evidence that in God’s view, not all sins are the same (“equal”)?