« Learn to Be Still | Main | Slaves of Righteousness »

Greater Sin

People have long had the tendency to grade sins on a sliding scale, often with murder and a few other heinousbehaviors at the sinister end of the continuum, and a litany of transgressions randomly placed along the way. Perceptions of heinousness tend to vary from person to person, from culture to culture, and era to era. There is nothing standard or particularly objective about them. To some degree, the Law of Moses, as a combined moral and civil code contributed to this understanding by making certain offenses capital ones and rendering others subject only to fines or chastening. Do we, under the New Testament, labor under the same kind of sliding scale?



I. Mortal or Venial?

A. Fire and Brimstone

1. the Old Testament contains many accounts of swift and utter destruction, wrought by God and fulfilling prophetic warnings of impending doom

a. the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably the most famous, attributed to God raining fire and brimstone upon the cities of the plain that could neither cease their sexual profligacy or produce ten righteous souls to make them worth preserving

b. Moses, however, was also severely punished for a moment’s rebellion, and was not permitted to walk into the Promised Land he had sought for forty years, all because he stole a bit of God’s glory

c. King David was punished for his adultery and murderous cover-up plot by the death of the child his affair produced

d. both Israel and Judah fell in terrific battles because of expanding idolatry and declining morality

2. the key to these examples, however, is not so much the perceived severity of the sins, but the rejection of God’s longsuffering and invitation to reformation and salvation

3. indeed, under the Law of Moses, some sins were punishable by stoning while others merited only a monetary or material fine, but that only speaks to the civil aspect of the crime

a. some sins were mitigated slightly because they were committed through ignorance or accident (see Leviticus 4)

b. the fact is the spiritual cost of every sin, whether punishable by death or fine, was still a matter of guilt: “If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the LORD's commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity” (Leviticus 5:17).

c. the blood of Christ was necessary to grant forgiveness even for those transgressions of the Law of Moses; “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15).

4. so, although the physical punishment differed by violation, the spiritual cost was the same


B. This Great Wickedness

1. that does not change the fact that we humans tend to recognize certain sins as common and others as notorious

2. even Joseph, when cornered by the lusty wife of his employer, resisted by saying, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9 ESV).

3. which would be worse – stealing a morsel of bread from his master’s larder or stealing a kiss with his wife?

a. civilly and socially, one is clearly worse than the other, but morally, both are transgressions of God’s law (James 2:10-11)

b. God’s law is considered to be a holistic entity, and any violation of any part of it, is a rebellion against the whole in principle; any violation suggests disrespect and a willingness to transgress and disappoint the savior

4. so, while we might be prone to grade sins on a sliding scale of social and civil acceptance, where it matters, in the divine court where laws are made and enforced for our good, any willingness to violate any of them indicates rebellion


C. Mortal or Venial?

1. much of this ultimately unhelpful comparing and contrasting is a function of Thomism, the school of thought named for Thomas Aquinas

a. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 and called to Rome by the Pope in 1259, where he spent the rest of his life lecturing and preaching in his service

b. Aquinas was both an old fashioned philosopher and theologian, mixing secular thought with Catholic doctrine and was so revered by the popes that opposing his teachings was condemned by the church

c. Aquinas taught the Roman church the doctrine of degrees of sin and two broad categories

1. mortal sin is “a sin (as murder) that is deliberately committed and is of such serious consequence according to Thomist theology that it deprives the soul of sanctifying grace”


2. venial sin is “a sin that is relatively slight or that is committed without full reflection or consent and so according to Thomist theology does not deprive the soul of sanctifying grace”


2. while that sounds logical and has clearly influenced human perceptions of sin, it is without New Testament precedent and tends to produce the expansion of the venial category and more frequent indulgence of sins short of murder

a. only the apostle John seems to broach the subject of moral sin (First John 5:16-17)

b. John, however, does not distinguish between bad sins and acceptable ones, but between sins that are repented and those that are not

c. surely, the apostle offers no authoritative categorization of sins according to heinousness, because such a list would simply lead to more instances of the sins deemed to be venial


II. Greater Sin

A. Utter Sin

1. when it comes to greater sin, the real question tends to surround the subject of accountability, and while all are accountable for their sins, some, because they have been blessed with more advanced knowledge or opportunity, commit far worse rebellion when they reject the truth

a. even in Christ’s day, people tended to attribute great tragedies to a divine judgment of heinous sin (Luke 13:1-5)

b. little had changed since the time of Job, for even the man born blind whom Jesus healed was considered to be evidence of divine punishment for serious sins he or his parents committed (see John 9:1-2); after he tried to explain how Jesus healed him, the Pharisees threw him out, saying, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” (John 9:34).

2. Jesus showed that victims of tragedy were not worse sinners than anyone else and that what superstitious man considered evidence of divine disfavor did not signify at all that one was born in utter sin

3. but that is where the subject of accountability arises, and the Pharisees, with their background in the Law and Prophets, should have known better (John 9:35-41)


B. Great Commands and Weightier Principles

1. Jesus was once asked which was the greatest command of the Law of Moses, and, unwilling to choose one, he described two, which were really whole categories (Mark 12:28-34)

a. in the process, he avoided defining any single law as more important than another, but showed that our first duty is always to obey God and our second duty is to serve our fellow man

b. these categories draw in every law of God and make them fundamental to living according to his will, removing any self-justifying motivation we have for minimizing our transgressions

2. even when discussing the weightier principles of the law, he was not grading them on a sliding scale (Matthew 23:23-24)

a. they are weightier principles not because the other commands are ones a person can willfully break, but because they are the fundamental principles upon which God’s will is founded, and they reach into every facet of our lives

b. we are responsible for all of them, whether weighty, ritual, elementary, or advanced (see Hebrews 6:1)

3. Paul’s catalog of transgressions in the Roman letter ranges from mortal to venial on a human scale, but God’s scale does not slide (Romans 1:28-32)


C. Accountability

1. we learn from the New Testament that sin is simply missing the mark, the bullseye, whether we are aiming for it or firing recklessly into the wind

a. “All unrighteousness is sin” (First John 5:17, KJV).

b. “Sin is the transgression of the law” (First John 3:4, KJV).

c. “Where no law is, there is no transgression” (Romans 4:15, KJV).

2. accountability is universal among those who reach sufficient maturity to submit or rebel personally, but more is expected of those who have had greater opportunity; “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).

3. the question of whose sin is greater, then, has little to do with valuing one type of transgression against another, but something else (John 19:1-11)

a. Caiaphas’s sin was greater than Pilate’s – one was a Jew with a background in the Law and the Prophets, who should have been able to identify the Messiah and find the humility to submit to him; the other was a Roman, an idolater, whose path to belief should have been much longer

b. Caiaphas, the high priest, who turned Jesus over to Pilate, was more accountable due to his greater knowledge and opportunity, even if both were liable for the sin of Christ’s murder

4. it is this question of accountability that follows the apostate Christian into Hell where the lifelong unbeliever is not bothered with the same sense of missed opportunity (Second Peter 2:20-22)



Let us never be caught devaluing sin in an effort to make our transgressions seem acceptable. Any unrepented sin is sufficient to cause eternal loss and no sin is slight enough to be excusable.


Questions for Review

  1. What was the sin that got Sodom destroyed?
  2. Discuss why Joseph thought adultery was “great” wickedness.
  3. Contrast mortal and venial sins under Thomism.
  4. What is sin unto death (First John 5)?
  5. Which current sins are the worst?
  6. Why was Caiaphas’s sin greater than Pilate’s?
  7. What makes the apostate’s punishment harsher?

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend