The Greater Sin

articles      discussion      blog

Abstract

All sins are not the same to God; He calls us to respond to sin in different ways depending on the kind of sin involved. God measures sin by the motive rather than by its effect on others. Therefore, in participating with God in edifying His people, believers are not to receive into the local church anyone who evidently and knowingly disdains God or any of His ways as a manner of life: true believers cannot do this. Rather, believers are to acknowledge that such people are living like children of the enemy and pray for them accordingly.

————————————————————

All Sins Are Not the Same

In the Bible it is written, “Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” (John 19:11) Here Jesus Christ describes a certain sin, evidently Israel rejecting Him and asking Pilate to crucify Him, as greater than another sin, Pilate’s evident willingness to compromise justice so as to avoid a tumult. This observation establishes a fact: in the mind of God all sins are not the same; some sins are worse than others. How do we determine which sins are more grievous than others? How do we rank sins in relation to each other, and why is this important?

Many today seem to think all sins are equivalent, and there is perhaps a sense in which this is true. There is at least one context in which any gradation of sin is more or less irrelevant: a single sin can send anyone to Hell forever (Ro 6:23); God demands absolute perfection of anyone who enters His kingdom. (Ma 5:20, 48) In such a context all sins are essentially the same since they have an equivalent eternal consequence; one must be forgiven of all sin in order to be eternally safe; there are no sins for which one can afford to remain unforgiven.

That said, in most any other context, such as we have just noted in Christ’s betrayal, the severity or wickedness of a particular sin is indeed relevant; some types or degrees of sin evidently incur a heavier penalty in this life, or a more severe earthly consequence than others. This concept is clearly present in any rational legal system and in common social expectation: no sane person treats all offenses equivalently. It should therefore come as no surprise that God’s economy is similar. How then do we make these moral evaluations, and why do we do it?

How We Evaluate Sin Matters

Most all of us have instinctively developed a sense of the severity of a sin through common life experience, and most of us tend to measure sin by the degree of human displeasure or suffering involved, particularly our own; the more suffering the offense causes the more intensely we tend to react to it. In other words, we have each essentially made up our own moral standard, our own system of measuring sin, based on how it makes us feel.

This pattern of thinking perhaps surfaces most clearly when there is no apparent harm to others, as in LGBT behavior, where we commonly find the passionately indignant rebuke of any opposition with the likes of, “Who are you to tell me what is right or wrong for me? I’m not hurting anyone!” The blatantly perverse accuse those who claim they are being immoral of being immoral themselves for daring to make the moral evaluation; which is openly self-contradictory and senseless (charging others with moral violation on the basis that no one else has the right to make a moral evaluation). Such groundless indignation is only intimidating because in our culture we have long lost any solid basis upon which to make such evaluations.

So perhaps it is wise for us to stop right here and openly acknowledge what should be an obvious truth to all: ultimately, morality cannot be a matter of personal opinion. Once we claim that some human action is wrong, we are claiming the existence of a moral standard by which behavior may be evaluated, a standard which is independent of human opinion. By definition, this must be God’s standard. Yet by imposing our own moral standard as we evaluate sin, rather than seeking to understand God’s mind about it, we are effectively declaring that we ourselves are God — that the moral universe bows at our own feet instead of His. This is arrogant rebellion in every sense of the word: if anything at all is a sin it is this, and a very grievous one indeed.

Therefore, before we take one more step … arrogantly comparing and evaluating sins in isolation from God based merely upon how it makes us or anyone else feel … we must come to understand that the only One who has the right to define these kinds of moral evaluations is God Himself. If we are not evaluating human activity in the same way God is then we are wrong, not God.

This is in fact a significant problem for each of us, and there is only one way to resolve it: we have a moral obligation to understand God’s mind about sin and to orient ourselves in and with Him regarding it. By definition, a correct moral response must be aligned with God’s moral standard, a standard which He has defined and revealed for us in Torah, God’s Law, so that we might align our minds and hearts with His, cleanse our consciences so that we respond to sin the way we should, and equip ourselves to serve Him acceptably as we respond to human behavior. This is the goal of Torah. (1Tim 1:5, 2Tim 3:16-17)

How God Evaluates Sin

As a first step then, to help us get started as we seek to understand how and why God treats sin the way He does, it is helpful to consider God’s overall purpose in human affairs as He responds to sin, which purpose He describes in terms of marriage: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” (Eph 5:25-27) God is about preparing a people for Himself, the Church; He is calling and equipping those whom He has redeemed to be “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” (1Pe 2:9-10) Knowing God’s goal in Creation helps us see His instructions regarding sin in their proper context, and this is important because God calls us to work together with Him in achieving this goal. (2Cor 6:1)

Next, in grasping the biblical concept of sin we may note that there are certain kinds of sins which God says distinguish those who are His children from those who are not. He says His children cannot continually and habitually commit themselves to certain kinds or degrees of sin as a manner of life: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (1Cor 6:9-10) This principle applies in both behavior and doctrine, including the Gospel (Gal 1:8-9) and the nature of Christ. (2Jn 7-11) Though all believers struggle with sin (Rom 7:24), there are certain types of sins which no believer will walk in as a manner of life … brazenly, freely, untroubled, un-convicted. When we come across souls who are hardened in such behavior, who are commending and practicing such things without conscience, we may be sure they are not in the kingdom of God, even if they profess to believe the gospel. (Rom 2:7-11)

God Commands Us to Separate

So as we participate with God in preparing a people for Himself, it should come as no surprise that God tells believers not to receive such blatant sinners into Christian fellowship in the church, the assembly of the saints, regardless what they say or claim to believe. We are to openly acknowledge this kind of sin when we observe it in others, and we are to make a distinction between those whom we consider to be within the Faith and those who are not based upon their actions: “But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” (1Co 5:11-13) In other words, people may say they are Christians and wish to be in the regular company of God’s people, but believers are only to accept others into believing community who evidence a basic respect for God’s message, His nature and His ways. Though all believers still sin (1 John 1:8), all of God’s true children are characterized by some level of understanding (Gal 1:8-9, Tit 3:10-11, 2Jn 7-11) and also of practical holiness. (Heb 12:14, see also Poor In Spirit, Things That Accompany)

Those who give evidence of being outside the Faith by living in some (any) kind of blatant, unrepentant willful sin (or ignorance of the fundamentals of the faith), should therefore be considered by the saints to be outside the Faith until they repent and show evidence of God’s grace in their life; and any blatant sinner wishing to associate with believers in the assembly of the saints should be understood and known by the believing community to be outside the Faith and treated accordingly. This is the only way in which believers can participate with God in maintaining a safe place to disciple people in following after Christ. (Mat 18:15-17)

Perhaps now it is more apparent why we should seek to understand, at least in some basic way, how God evaluates sin: He requires us to respond differently when others around us are sinning in different ways, and to separate those who persist in living in sin from the local expression of His Bride. As He foreshadows in Torah, God evidently wants us to learn to make a distinction between clean and unclean (Lev 10:10) so that we might participate with Him in preparing, equipping and sanctifying His people.

God Commands Us To Love

Yet acknowledging that a person is outside the Faith does not imply that any believer treats another unkindly or causes them any distress or harm. If we are to love even our enemies, praying for them, blessing them and seeking their welfare (Matt 5:44), the same applies to any blatant sinner. God’s directive implies that saints seek to agree together in openly praying for the souls of unrepentant sinners in their midst and letting each of them know the danger they are in without Christ. (2Cor 5:11, Heb 4:1) This requires believers in community to know each other well enough to become aware of this kind of sin in each other, which involves developing and nurturing a trusting, loving, personal basis for confronting each other about sin. This is one of the primary ways in which we love others, both inside and outside of the Faith (1Cor 5:11, Jude 1:23, Jas 5:19-20), and it fits perfectly with God’s call to maintain holiness in His Church. (Matt 18:15-17)

Apart from the more severe kinds of blatant, willful, purposeful sin, such as in cases which are out of character, intermittent, or otherwise in accord with the general weakness of the fallen human condition, we are to bear with one another’s sins and burdens as believers in a spirit of gentleness and loving concern whenever a spirit of repentance is present. (Gal 6:1-2, 1Pet 4:8) In cases of more offensive or harmful sins we are to seek reconciliation with others and involve the church as needed. Those who openly refuse to submit to God’s ways in matters of open offenses and blatant sins are to be identified and marked out by the saints as outside the Faith. (Matt 18:15-18)

Biblical Precedents

We have many examples in Scripture which confirm this general kind of thinking, where people sinned under duress or in ignorance and God seemed to overlook it, and where others who sinned willfully were removed. For example, the mid-wives in Egypt who lied about why they were not killing the Hebrew male infants were commended and rewarded by God (Ex 1:16-21), yet without warning God promptly killed Ananias and his wife Sapphira, committed members of the early Jerusalem church, for lying about the price of some land they had sold so they could donate the proceeds to the church. (Acts 5:1-11) In the latter case lying was severely punished, and in the former was entirely overlooked. Evidently circumstances play an important role in the way God responds to sin; this implies that one’s heart and motivation in any particular sin is key.

Another set of confirming examples involves a man being stoned to death for gathering sticks on Sabbath (Num 15:32-36), yet Christ seems to take for granted that on Sabbath any spiritual person ought to help those in distress, even when this requires much more exertion (work) than picking up some sticks. (Mat 12:11-12) In this same context Christ points out that when David was in distress he ate holy food reserved only for the priests, and that those in public service are often required to work on the Sabbath. (Matt 12:3-5) Evidently, God takes circumstances into account, considering one’s motivation when one is technically violating some of His commandments while trying to follow the general spirit of the more important command of loving your neighbor as yourself.

As final confirmation, Torah commands the death penalty for anyone who openly despises God’s commands and violates any one of them arrogantly and willfully, regardless which command has been violated. (Num 15:30-31, Heb 10:26-28) In this sense, “every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished.” (Pro 16:5, 6:16-19) There is no mercy in God’s economy for those who continue in arrogant defiance of God, regardless which of His instructions are being disdained. This disposition identifies a soul as a child of the enemy rather than a child of God. (John 8:44, Eph 2:2, 5:5-6) In Torah-observant cultures the death penalty may be applied, but in other cultures believers simply recognize the person as wicked and treat them accordingly. However, sins of ignorance are treated much differently (Num 15:27-28), and this same principle seems to apply when one is under persecution or duress, where extenuating circumstances call for leniency due to harm that will come to one’s self or others when obeying certain kinds of commands. (Mk 2:24-27, Acts 15, see No Greater Burden)

Discernment in Application

Ultimately, apart from the kinds of outward blatant sins which characterize the children of the devil (John 8:44), we are unable to judge another’s heart and see their motivation (Mat 7:1-5, Rom 14:10-12) so in most cases we cannot actually measure the severity of another’s sin. Further, we will all have our differences when it comes to the particulars of how to understand, apply and obey some of God’s commands; we may not all agree about what is sinful all the time. It is only when we observe someone willfully trampling the law of God underfoot, openly committing sins against themselves and/or others which they ought to know better than to commit, based either upon the plain instruction of Torah or on commonly accepted Moral Law and common sense (Rom 2:15), when they brazenly and continually express their disregard for others and for God and His ways in a manner and to a degree that makes their despising of God’s laws an inescapable fact, we may presume they are not to be in close fellowship with believers in the church and we must treat them accordingly. We are to be close enough to each other in community to discern and identify these types of people in our midst and lovingly challenge them and call them to account for their behavior. (Heb 12:15-16)

For those we have identified as being outside the Church, we must leave it to God to require obedience from them and/or to decide their fate. (1Cor 5:12) While we are to speak the truth in love to all, including teaching others outside the Faith the nature of God’s commands and gently acknowledging their sin and warning them when appropriate (John 4:15-18, Mat 14:3-4, 2Cor 5:11), we are not to require or expect obedience to God from those outside the Faith. In other words, we are to acknowledge that those outside the Faith are openly violating God’s Laws, but we are not to apply pressure on them in order to cause them to conform; we ought not in any way to oppress, coerce or inconvenience them apart from what the civil laws of our culture permit and enforce. (Acts 16:37)

When to Reject and Put Away

If those outside the Faith wish to company with us while they persist in sin, hearing our teachings, prayers, and testimonies as believers in community (1Cor 14:23), we must both receive them and yet humbly and lovingly acknowledge their condition in public and be open about praying for their salvation in order to clearly distinguish them from the saints as best we can. (1 Tim 2:1, Matt 18:15-17) When sinners remain in the midst of the assembly who appear to be a spiritual danger to others, we are to deliver them over to Satan to destroy their bodies so that they either die (Acts 5:1-11), they choose to leave us, or they are finally converted. (1Cor 5:5) We are not to tolerate people in the midst of the body of Christ who are there to thwart and undermine God’s purpose in His Church. (1 Cor 5:13)

Keeping Our Balance

In the end, it is not for us to manage the spirituality or behavior of others and we must certainly be very careful to avoid an inappropriate meddling in the private affairs of others (Pr 20:3, 1 Tim 5:13, 1Pet 4:15); we must be established with grace: humbly aware that only God enables anyone to live in holiness. In the power of God we are to keep ourselves clean (1Ti 5:22), pursue God and His holiness as a manner of life, and maintain communities where believers can effectively assist each other in this journey after God. This type of godly community is intrinsic to fulfilling Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations. (Matt 28:18-20) In order to achieve this, brothers in the faith are to make a public distinction in the Church between those who give evidence of salvation and those who do not. These kinds of distinctions must be based upon clear and continuing disregard for God’s truth, or His nature or His ways as revealed both in the Moral Law and in Torah, and agreed upon, recognized and respected by the saints in community together. We must then leave those whom we recognize to be outside the Faith in the hands of God and pray for and warn them in the power of the Spirit as seems fitting in each case.

articles      discussion      blog