“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5:21-22).
“You have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28).
There is a basic question which Christians, and non-Christians, ask about sin.
Is the desire to kill the same as the act of murder?
Is a lustful look the same as the unlaw act of physical intimacy?
Are there degrees of sin?
What is without question is that there are degrees of emotional distress when a person feels guilty about something they believe is wrong in their life.
Some people become psychotic. A psychotic is a person who is extremely emotional, unsound in judgment, and unstable in deciding.
Some people become neurotic. A neurotic is a person who has a lesser distorted perception of reality than a psychosis, but is still emotional with anxieties.
Some people become suicidal. Nearly 50,000 Americans died by suicide in 2022.
Some people become depressed. They have feelings of severe despondency and dejection. An estimated twenty-one million adults are affected by symptoms of major depressive disorder characterized by sadness, feeling badly about oneself, trouble sleeping, reduced appetite, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, feeling emotionally numb, moving, or speaking slowly, and having suicidal thoughts
While psychologists can label the various results associated with guilt, they have trouble offering a cure, apart from religion.
Guilt can be denied. “I have done no wrong.”
Guilt can be minimized. “What I have done is not all that bad.”
Guilt can be rationalized. “I had to do wrong because of the situation I was in.”
Guilt can be projected. “You made me do what I did.”
Guilt can be relativized. “Compared to what Judas did to Jesus, what I have
done is not so bad.”
Our gracious God and Savior Jesus Christ, offers the true solution to the problem of guilt, and that is repentance, confession, and faith. There is no sin too great for the grace of God. “No pit is so deep that He is not deeper still; with Jesus even in our darkest moments, the best remains and the very best is yet to be.” ~Corrie ten Boom “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
While psychologists and medicine can offer some comfort for individuals who are hurting from guilt and shame, there is still another problem to be resolved, finding forgiveness. Psychology cannot forgive sin. Medication cannot forgive sin. Only God can forgive sin.
As the supreme ethical teacher, Jesus has much to say about sin. Some of the thoughts of Jesus are set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.
Concerning lust, Jesus taught that it is just as bad to lust after a woman, as it is to commit physical adultery.
Concerning hatred, Jesus also said to hate a person is as bad as murder.
People are surprised at such teaching because they believe that the act of adultery is worse than the lust of passion. People also believe that murder, the actual killing of a person is worse than harboring hatred in the heart. It does seem that Jesus is saying there is no degree to sin. But such a conclusion is wrong when the whole Word of God is considered.
When all that Jesus taught about sin is considered, it is discovered He did not teach the equivalency of one sin to another. Nor did the Law of Moses.
The Law of Moses recognized the difference between involuntary manslaughter and premediated murder. There were different penalties described for each because the motive and intent were taken into consideration. Murder was to be punished by the forfeiture of life. Study Exodus 21:12, 14; Leviticus 24:17, 21 A person who caused an accidental death was not to be punished by forfeiture of life. Such a person could flee to a sanctuary city. Study Exodus 21:13 Jesus, who came to keep the Law, understood these distinctives.
So where did the idea come from that Jesus saw no distinction among sins?
The answer is this: there is a common misreading of the Sermon on the Mount, and there is a failure to consider the whole counsel of God.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did tell his disciples that if they lusted after a woman, they had committed adultery in the heart.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did say if a neighbor is hated without a just cause, if a person is angry without a righteous reason, an act of murder has taken place.
By making these observations, Jesus was saying that lust, hatred, and anger violate the Law of Moses. But this is not the Lord’s final word on the matter because sin is complex.
Sin consists of many different but connected parts. On a spectrum, there is a continuum from good to evil. The act of adultery provides an example of the complicated nature of sin. Before the physical act of intimacy is consummated, there are shades of gray on the continuum leading up to the moment of illicit love. In the beginning, there might be friendship based on a righteous relationship. But then something begins to happen. The friendship permits a kiss, which is not adultery, but can move in that direction if the kiss is passionate in nature.
The mind begins to entertain notions when sensual emotions are not brought under control.
There is visualization.
There are flirtatious expressions.
By degrees, movement continues towards the unlawful relationship.
The process is from good to evil.
In the Sermon on the Mount, the vital point Jesus was making is that the Law against adultery is not so easily maintained simply because one restrains from the most abysmal act. There are broader implications to God’s law.
Not only should we not kill, we should not harm.
Not only should we not commit adultery; we must not set our thoughts in the direction leading to adultery.
Moreover, on the positive side, not only should we not kill, we should promote and protect life.
Not only should we not commit adultery; we should promote and honor marriage. “Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4).
So there is a positive and a negative dimension to the Law.
On another occasion, that is the point Jesus had to make with the Rich Young Ruler. Study Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31
While the Rich Young Ruler kept the outward form of the Law, he could not keep the Law in its broader amplification. Why? Because the Rich Young Ruler possessed a spirit of covetousness, which violated the tenth commandment. The young man left Jesus because he would not leave his wealth and follow the Lord of Glory. Jesus knew the heart of the young man, and exposed it.
What the young man did not understand that it was his unwillingness to forsake his wealth that was the problem; had he followed Jesus, he might not have had to give up the gifts of God in time for the Lord has many people of wealth in His service. However, every disciple of Christ must be able to say,
“I surrender all,
I surrender all.
all to Jesus, I surrender,
I surrender all.”
Throughout the history of the Church, the people of God have been taught, from Scripture, there are degrees of sin. In Catholic theology, a difference is seen between Mortal sin and Venial sin.
Mortal Sin (Cardinal Sin) is the gravest form of sin because it represents a deliberate turning from God and destroys love in the heart of the sinner.
A Mortal Sin is defined as a grave action that is committed in full knowledge of its gravity and with the full consent of the sinner’s will. Such a sin cuts the sinner off from God’s sanctifying grace until it is repented, usually in confession with a priest. A person who dies unrepentant of the commission of Mortal Sin is believed to descend immediately into hell, where they suffer the separation from God that they chose in life” (Britannica, “Mortal Sin”). Mortal Sin does not kill a person, but it does kill the grace of justification residing in the soul of the believer.
Venial Sin, while serious, does not wholly block the grace of God flowing into the life. An example of such sin might be gossip, impatience, or neglect prayer (Britannica, “Venial Sin”)
In Protestant theology, the idea of degrees of sin has been rejected by many in opposition to the Roman Catholic theology of the distinction between Mortal and Venial sin.
However, Protestants have understood there are degrees of sin. There are distinctions to be made with appropriate penalties for each.
However, this understanding is within the framework that “all sin is mortal in the sense that every sin deserves death” (John Calvin).
The Bible teaches that to sin against one point of the Law is to sin against the whole Law. “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).
Even the slightest transgression of the Law is the act of a lowly creature defying the Creator. The transgression might not have been vicious, or malicious, but the damage is done for God is holy, just, and perfect.
Is it any wonder the Puritans spoke about the exceeding sinfulness of sin? Sin is an act of cosmic treason, even if sin is not viewed that way.
Though every sin could be punished, in time and in eternity, thereby satisfying justice, God deals with us in grace, having found a way to justify the sinner by way of a Substitute paying the redemptive price of His people. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
While every sin is mortal, in that it should be punished, no sin is mortal because of saving grace. Justifying grace is not killed by our sin.
“To God be the glory, great things He hath done,
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,
And opened the life gate that all may go in.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the people rejoice!
Oh, come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,
And give Him the glory, great things He hath done.
Oh, perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”
~Fanny J. Crosby
In addition to not liking the Roman Catholic distinction between Mortal Sin and Venial sin, for it made the first without hope, and the latter too trivial, a distinction was made between by the Reformers between gross and heinous sin, and petty sins.
Such a distinction is important for this reason.
If we view all sin as worthy of the same punishment, then we as Christians can lose the capacity, and desire, to be kind, patient, and longsuffering with those who hurt and anger us.
The body of Christ can be torn apart by gross and heinous sin (adultery, murder, drunkenness, dope addiction, slander), but it can also be torn apart by venial, or petty sins such as gossip, needless criticism, impatience, and cruel comments.
From small transgressions great damage can come. James said, “the tongue is a small thing, but what enormous damage it can do. A great forest can be set on fire by one tiny spark. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is full of wickedness, and poisons every part of the body. And the tongue is set on fire by hell itself and can turn our whole lives into a blazing flame of destruction and disaster” (James 3:5-6, TLB).
As there are degrees of sin, so there are degrees of hell, heaven, and rewards. “There are at least 22 references in the NT to the degrees of rewards given to the saints in heaven.” ~R. C. Sproul There are different levels, different roles, different rewards in heaven.
Here is the conclusion of the matter. While there are degrees of sin, the Bible warns against adding to the severity of our judgment.
Speaking to the people in Roman, Paul noted, “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5).
Speaking to the Scribes and Pharisees Jesus declared, “But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you” (Matt. 11:22).
Speaking to Pilate, “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).
“The sinner in hell would give everything in his power to make his sin one less, so great is his punishment, and its severity.” ~An Unknown Professor to R. C. Sproul as a student
Justice demands that a person who commits twice as many sins as another gets twice as much punishment. God has eternity to make sure this happens.
In like manner, justice demands that a person who has done twice as many good works as someone else will receive twice the rewards.
While all believers get into heaven, the rewards, role, and status will be awarded according to justice. Those who have done an abundance of good works will receive an abundance of rewards. “His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matt. 25:23).
Every idle word, every thought, every impulse, every extenuating circumstance will be considered by God. And justice will be served to each man, woman, and child, in heaven, and in hell. Unless a person understands they can add to their judgment, or diminish the severity of their sin, the temptation will come to despair.
A person might abandon themselves to sin thinking they cannot be in any worse shape before God than they are now.
Oh yes, they can! And that is why it is good to stop doing wrong. God is going to deal with each person according to the persistency and severity of their crime.
The spiritual misdemeanor must not become a spiritual felony. Let us move, from faith to faith, from grace to grace, and from life to life, abounding in good works, adding to the treasure God is laying up for His people, while diminishing the treasure of wrath, and adding to the treasure of blessing. Seek to build a Christian conscience and a Christian character. ~R. C. Sproul