Is It Reasonable to Say All Sin Is Sin?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/26/2013

Greg gives an answer to this question that is both biblical and rational.

A “pastorism” is a slogan that is meant to communicate a spiritual truth, but it does so in an imbalanced way, because it also communicates something that’s false. There are lots of these. “God loves the sinner, but He hates the sin,” is an example of one. “God turned his back on Jesus on the cross,” is another. In each, there’s something that is true, but there’s also something that’s misleading.

A student heard her Christian professor say, “All sin is sin,” as a response to a statement that suggested that some sins were worse than others. It is true that sin is sin. It’s hard to argue. It’s a tautology: A equals A. Every sin, even the most minor sin, is egregious in God’s sight, and enough to disqualify somebody from salvation. That’s why James says in James 2:10, that if you break one of the points of the Law, you’re guilty of the whole thing.

But James is not saying that all sins are equally egregious, which was the application the professor was making. I know that James couldn’t be making that point because if he did, he’d be contradicting his half-brother, who was Jesus of Nazareth, because Jesus said the opposite.

Jesus said in a very straightforward way in John 19:11, before Pilate, “The person who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin.”

This citation alone should be enough to end the debate from Scripture that no sin is greater than another sin. Jesus says quite the contrary. There are greater sins. It’s the word He uses.

In Matthew 23, Jesus is excoriating the Jewish leadership for their displays of piety before people, yet down inside they are like a dead man’s rotting bones. Here He delivers a series of woes, one of which identifies the habit of tithing “mint, dill, and cumin.” In their observance of the Law they even divided up their seasonings. So they kept the Law to the extreme in giving one-tenth of that, but then they ignore “the weightier provisions of the Law.” So you have lesser provisions and greater provisions of the Law, and you’re obliged to keep both of them. But if you disregard the greater provisions, it seems straightforward that you’re guilty of a greater sin. Scripture clearly states there are greater sins than other sins.

You can also argue the statement by saying, “All crime is crime.” Is it just for somebody to get the same punishment for petty larceny as murder? People would say it is unjust. If I insinuated that no matter what the crime, the punishment should be the same, people would look at me like I was an idiot.

In any other circumstances where issues of justice are at stake, it would be easy for people to discern the difference between crimes, and understand that different punishments are appropriate for different crimes. The legal concept is called “lex talionis,” or the “law of the claw,” from the Latin. It’s referring here to an Old Testament principle, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus’ comments about this in the Sermon on the Mount are often misunderstood and contribute to the abuse of this notion. This is actually a principle of justice that the punishment should fit the crime.

There’s a commonsense notion, when you reflect about our moral intuitions, that what is appropriate and just in one circumstance isn’t appropriate and just in another. So why would anybody be inclined to think that somehow, in God’s assessment of things, it’s going to be any different?

Why can’t we as Christians admit that it doesn’t make sense to say, “All sin is sin”? Who would believe such a thing? We wouldn’t accept it in our own criminal system because it wouldn’t be just—the same principle of justice used in the Old Testament. Why should we accept it from God? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

The impulse is that some people have this idea that we can’t simply ask ourselves the question, “Does that make sense,” because we’re people who believe things that don’t make sense. We’re people who believe things that are weird, stupid, foolish, or silly. We believe them because we are fools for Christ.

Incidentally, Paul’s tone in the phrase “fools for Christ,” in 1 Corinthians is sarcasm. The Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. It isn’t foolish; it’s foolish to the perishing. They can’t figure it out. It doesn’t make sense to them, but it doesn’t mean it’s foolish.

I’m not diminishing the possibility of odd or unusual things in faith, like the Trinity, or other moral quandaries. We don’t understand God’s perspective entirely, but in this particular case, there is no revelation that supports the idea that “sin is sin,” and indeed there is revelation to the contrary.

A lot of Christians think that faith and reason are at opposite ends of the spectrum; that reason is used to get knowledge on one side, and on the other side are the things that you don’t have good reasons for like faith. There is a sense that Christians in faith are leaping in the dark and believing ridiculous things because this is all that we have available to us. If we use reason and are thoughtful about our faith, somehow we are not doing what God wants.

Many Christians would nod their head to that statement. These are the kind of people who say, “If you’ve got all this evidence for it, then where is room for faith?” They see faith and reason as opposites, and the relationship might be considered the relationship of divorce. These are two entities divorced from each other, one on either side.

David Horner uses a metaphor in his wonderful book, Mind Your Faith. He says it’s not divorce; it should be marriage. Faith and reason are partners working together.

Horner states that one of the biggest objections that the New Atheists have brought against religion is that religious people have blind faith. They believe in things for which there is no evidence; ergo, the conflict between faith and reason. But Christians are people of reason and faith, but not people of blind faith.

It’s curious, as David Horner points out in his book Mind Your Faith, that when New Atheists make this charge, they never define reason or faith so that we can compare what we mean by reason and faith. In his book, he does both.

Horner states that reason is: “Assessing reasons for a point of view and logical relationships to see if there’s adequate justification for a belief. But faith has four components.” I’ll say three, because I think the last two are very similar. “First, there is an object. When you have faith, you have something or someone you have faith in. Secondly, there is content, which are details about what it means to put your faith in that thing, like a chair.” That’s the object of your faith. The belief, or the content, is that the chair will hold your body weight. And the third thing is an act of trust or commitment when you go over and sit in the chair. So those are three elements of faith: object, content, and trust or commitment. I thought that was a pretty good characterization.

When you think about the definition of rationality and the definition of faith, where is the conflict? The answer is there is none. If you define what reason is, and you define what faith is, you realize that there’s no conflict.

Reason assesses, faith trusts. Reason assesses whether or not something or someone is trustworthy, and then faith believes that certain things are true in light of the reasons. Not blind faith, but a reasonable step of trust.

It’s a great distinction I’m going tout as a great way of characterizing the relationship of faith and reason: not divorce, but marriage.

Reason assesses, faith trusts. No conflict. The opposite of faith is not reason; the opposite of faith is unbelief, or lack of trust. The opposite of reason is not faith; the opposite of reason is irrationality. So it certainly is possible to have reasonable faith, and it is also possible to have unreasonable unbelief. From a biblical and a logical point of view, it is therefore unreasonable to say all sin is sin.