What Is the "Greater Sin"?

I’ve often heard preachers and teachers say that there is no such thing as a “big” sin or a “little” sin but affirm instead that “sin is sin” and that all sins are of equal weight in the sight of God. This common teaching seems to present a problem when compared with something Jesus said on the eve of His crucifixion. While standing before Pilate, Jesus said, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). What does Jesus mean when He speaks of “the greater sin”? Is this statement in contradiction with how sin is commonly taught?

First, let’s add a little context to what is commonly taught. When a preacher or teacher says, "sin is sin," he is probably doing so to emphasize the fact that even one unrepented action that is contrary to God's law is capable of causing a soul to be lost. When one sees a list such as the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21), the actions of those facing the second death (Revelation 21:8), or the descriptions of the unrighteous who shall not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10), one notices that the outcome of each unrepented sin is the same. It does not matter if one has told a lie (something most deem to be relatively insignificant) or if one has committed a murder (something most deem to be incredibly significant); if one does not repent of sin, it will cause one to be lost. Even a failure to do good when given the opportunity could see us separated from Jesus for eternity (e.g. Matthew 25:41-46).

Does this mean that all sins are the same in the sense that all sins have the same ramifications in life? The Bible’s answer is no. For example, Jesus said that if a man lusts after a woman he has committed adultery in his heart (Matthew 5:28), and Peter said that if husbands do not dwell with their wives according to knowledge their prayers will be hindered (1 Peter 3:7). Both actions are obviously sins against a wife, but do they have the same impact as sexual immorality? In other words, could a wife suffering such things divorce her husband with God’s approval? No, the only thing that Christ gave as grounds for a divorce is sexual immorality, i.e., the action of fornication (Matthew 19:9).

Motivation and knowledge also have something to do with how God views an individual's sin. In the Old Testament, there were provisions made for sins committed in ignorance (cf. Leviticus 4). These provisions were different than provisions made for sins that had other motivations and/or knowledge behind them. If God viewed sins differently in the Old Testament as to the works of repentance required to overcome them, does this mean that there will be varying degrees of punishment given in the hereafter to those who do not repent?

Some turn to a statement Jesus made to answer this question:

And that servant who knew his master's will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:47, 48).

As this statement was made in a parable, it is difficult to say with any certainty that there will be degrees of punishment in the hereafter. Hell will be a lake of fire (Revelation 21:8) that prompts weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30) for all involved; it seems to be saying more than the Bible says to say that some parts of hell will be hotter than others. However, the mental agony would obviously be greater for someone with knowledge than for someone without it, and this could be the truth to which Christ is making reference in stating “many stripes.” For example, to see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God while being cast out would mean a lot more to a Jew than to a Gentile (Luke 13:28).

This introduces something else worth mentioning. Is the mental anguish even after repentance the same for one who has committed many sins or sins with many consequences the same as the anguish facing one who has committed few sins or sins with relatively few consequences? Jesus asked Simon, “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:41, 42). The answer was correctly given: “I suppose the one whom he forgave more” (v. 43). While one will have more love if he is forgiven of more sins, he will also naturally have more regrets.

Jesus statement about the “greater sin” to Pilate most likely meant one of four things (or a combination of some or all of them): 1) the Jews’ sin was greater as to its real world consequences (Pilate’s sins alone of apathy, ignorance, and inaction alone would not have crucified Jesus); 2) the unrepented Jews would suffer more for their sin in the hereafter if in no other way than by having a greater mental anguish; 3) the Jews would face greater regret than Pilate if either party ever saw their action as wrong and repented; 4) the number of sins involved in the Jews actions was greater than the number of sins involved in Pilate’s actions. While reflecting on these possibilities, it is helpful also to note that the meaning of the Greek word “sin” is “to miss the mark.” In archery, it is possible to widely miss the target or narrowly miss it; it is also possible to widely miss the commandments of God or narrowly miss them.

Teaching that “sin is sin” is not wrong. It emphasizes that the wages of any unrepented sin is death and that the best course of action for any person to take is to avoid sin in the future and repent of all sin in the past (Romans 3:23, 1 John 2:1). However, the reality that some sins have greater consequences shouldn’t be ignored.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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