A middle-aged man languishes in self-conscious shame and isolation as he sits in church week after week. For over 20 years, he has struggled with sexual sin. Never has he asked for help or confessed to another person. He is convinced, not only by his own shame but also by the heated rhetoric in his church against his type of sin, that this is the worst sin to which he could confess. He must never let anyone know.
Are some sins worse than others? No, and yes. A famous instance of this qualified answer is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. On the no side, “every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse;” on the yes side, “some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (Q.s 83, 84).
The Larger Catechism expands on this to give a list of examples of these “aggravations” (Q. 151). Many people automatically place sexual sins in a “worse than other sins” category. Is this a proper and helpful application of this idea of aggravations of sins?
My goal here is only to give some preliminary considerations. I start with the observation that there is a sense that “not all sins are equally heinous” is common sense and obvious. Sampling a grape from the produce aisle is not as heinous as stealing a Mercedes from the parking lot. It is common sense that some sins are worse than others, but we need to be very careful how we use this idea. Here are four perspectives that bear on how we should approach this issue.
Our Natural Spiritual Blindness
When Jesus says in Luke 6:41, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” he is calling attention to a tendency that is common to us in our fallen condition, our tendency to think less of our own sin and more of others’.
This tendency flows from our basic sinful instinct towards self-justification. Placing attention on another’s sin distracts attention from our own. Also, we find it easier to recognize and condemn any sin that we see in someone else of which we consider ourselves innocent. This extends to the question of discerning “worseness” of sins. We tend to think the worst sins are the ones with which we don’t struggle.
We tend to think the worst sins are the ones with which we don’t struggle.
What does Jesus give us as a corrective to this tendency? We should assume the opposite is true. Our own sin is worse. My brother’s sin is a speck; mine is a log. If we are alert to our own spiritual tendency to self-justify, and to the grave danger that poses, we will be wise to magnify our own sin. Indeed, “the saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).
The Nature of Our Concern
If our concern is to pass judgment, rather than to love and shepherd, we are immediately on the wrong track. This is not unrelated to the first point above, for it is our desire to confirm the relative sinfulness of others while minimizing our own that also motivates us to act as if we are a judge over them. A few verses earlier in Luke Jesus says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” James warns, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12).
Of course—as is usually pointed out in any discussion of judging—this isn’t to say there is no place for discerning the sinfulness of actions or even considering the relative gravity of sins. But it does speak to our purpose in doing so. For what purpose is it helpful to discern the relative gravity of a sin?
I have already stated it above; to love and shepherd. Pastors and elders, especially, are called to give guidance and discipline to help those under their care to progress in their faith and Christian life. In doing this, they cannot treat all sins exactly alike; they must wisely discern the course of interaction with each person and situation. This includes carefully discerning, among other things, the relative gravity of any sin involved.
Let me illustrate the difference between a judgmental concern and a shepherding concern. Imagine two different scenarios. In the first, a roomful of people conducting a campaign rally for one of the presidential candidates sees a man enter the room wearing paraphernalia of the opposite party. In the second scenario, a roomful of doctors at an oncology conference sees a man enter with a prominent cancerous mole on his face. In both of these scenarios, the situation is perceived with special gravity, and the reaction is strong. But the nature of the concern is completely different.
The Complexity of the Factors
Often, when this topic is discussed, sin is compared in general categories, in the abstract. But in real life, sin doesn’t exist in the abstract. We deal with unique individuals with complicated histories and contexts. This is what the long list of possible “aggravations” in the Larger Catechism is encouraging shepherds to consider.
The context of a particular sin can be considered in multiple categories. If we isolate one category from all others, the issue may seem fairly simple. For example, if the category is “how fully acted out is the sin,” we would say it is worse to actually steal a grape than to fantasize about stealing one; or, if the category is “extent of harm,” we would say it is worse to steal a car than to steal a grape. But what if we ask if it is worse to fantasize about stealing a car or to actually steal a grape? Suddenly it is not so clear. In real life, each instance of sin is even much more complicated. Broad, generalized judgments are often not helpful.
The Common Root of All Sin
In the end, any one of the sins humanity produces is more like every other sin than it is different. This is because every sin grows from a common root. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder’” (James 2:10, 11). In other words, our rebellion against God is our root sin, and every other way we sin is another expression of that treason.
In the end, any one of the sins humanity produces is more like every other sin than it is different.
This helps us understand the other half of the Catechism’s answer: “Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse.” It is this perspective that encourages us, rather than dwelling on the sins we think are “worse,” to give more attention to the sins we think are small and inconsequential. For behind their respectability and unremarkableness, these sins conceal a heart committed to the darkest evil.
These four points do not answer all the questions about this issue. But they give necessary perspective on the whole discussion.