[Dec 05]—Sin is Sin is Sin?

            Today I’m going to directly counter one  very common saying I grew up with, and which I in fact once held. If you were raised in an Evangelical background, then you might've heard it: “Sin is sin is sin.” Let’s try to determine what people mean when they say that and if it holds up to biblical scrutiny.
            What we normally mean by it is a belief (supposedly based on Scripture) that God sees all sin as equally bad. It’s usually used in conjunction with evangelistic efforts, trying to share the Good News with someone who’s lost. Of course, as should be clear by now, people won’t understand the good news until they absorb the bad news. They have to understand they’re a sinner with an appointment with Judgment Day before they grasp why 1) They need salvation in the first place, and 2) Why Jesus had to die in order for them to receive it.
            The problem is that almost no one sees themselves as a sinner in need of salvation unless/until someone explains it to them. They think “Well, I’ve never murdered anybody, I’ve never cheated on my wife, and I pay my taxes. People like Hitler and Stalin are on their way to Hell, but not nice people like me.” So we try to get across to them the seriousness of sin by saying something like “To God, looking at porn is the same as adultery, and hating someone is the same as murdering them.” With the absolutely best of intentions, this line of thought is trying to impress upon them the fact that all of us fall very short of his standard (which is perfection), and thus we all need Christ. That intention I applaud wholeheartedly. 
            And I’ve heard it used among believers as well. Most of us have never physically murdered someone or physically cheated on our spouse. But all of us are guilty of unjustified anger if not hatred, and I’ve never met a guy who could claim 100% conformity to Jesus’ standard of not looking at a woman inappropriately. So therefore this concept is used as a means of keeping a humble perspective on our own spiritual state. Yes, I've never done the "really bad" things like physical adultery or murder, but I'm still in need of his grace and forgiveness and would be under his just wrath if it weren't for Christ. 
            There’s some truth to this. This is exactly what Jesus said: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell." and “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
            But does this mean that if I hate or lust, that God counts it just as bad as if I physically committed what I was thinking or fantasizing about?
            Based on what we know from the rest of Scripture, I’d have to say the short answer is no. But before you write me off as being soft on hatred and lust, please hear me out.
            Just on the face of it, the rest of Scripture doesn’t seem to teach that God treats all sin equally. The Torah obviously had very different punishments for different types of offenses. And Jesus makes it clear that on Judgment Day people will experience different levels of punishment based on mitigating factors such as ignorance vs. knowledge: “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
            Also there’s the issue of whether someone is directly harmed by my actions. Jesus expressed severe anger towards people who commit certain types of sin: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” These malefactors caused spiritual harm to “little ones” (we can debate who these are) and apparently their punishment will be much more severe than other sins which don't.
            So does that mean that lust and hatred are OK, that they really aren’t a big deal? Um, no. That would completely contrary to the point of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount! Our heart attitudes have eternal consequences. If I hold hatred in my heart, that’s a poison. If I lust after other women, then that’s extremely disrespectful of my wife and needs to be radically addressed, as the rest of Jesus’ words on this subject make clear.
            And as I've tried to point out repeatedly (for example, here), in a very real sense there's no such thing as "private" sin. My lust, your pride, my laziness, your neglect of prayer, etc. affect each of us. When one member of the Body falls short, that negatively affects all of the Body, and when one of us has a spiritual victory in their life, it positively affects us as well. It's just like in marriage: My sin or spiritual victories affect my wife's spiritual condition and vice-versa. 
            But to claim that God sees all sin as equally heinous is a misunderstanding of what the Bible actually teaches. We might have the best of motivations (treating sin seriously and making clear to people their need for salvation), but we do no favors to the interests of the Kingdom when we promote misunderstandings of what the Scriptures actually say.
            And here’s something else that the Bible does make abundantly clear: God hates sin and takes it a lot more seriously than we ever do or will. In fact, I’d submit that as understatement of the year. We tend to take a wink wink, nudge nudge attitude towards sin, especially our own. Jerry Bridges has a book I intend to read soon called Respectable Sins: Confronting The Sins We Tolerate. The point he’s making is that we tend to make light of certain sins while judgmentally condemning other people who happen to be committing the particular sins which we haven’t done. Furthermore, because God and I tend to take different respective attitudes towards sin, my attitude needs to change. I must must must take sin (particularly my own) a lot more seriously than I do.
            That brings us to today’s passage. If it’s not teaching that all sin is equally bad in God’s eyes, then what does it mean? Well, as always, MacArthur puts it so much better than I can: “The law of God is not a series of detached injunctions but a basic unity that requires perfect love of Him and our neighbors (Mt 22:36-40). Although all sins are not equally damaging or heinous, they all shatter that unity and render men transgressors, much like hitting a window with a hammer at only one point will shatter and destroy the whole window. [“Guilty of breaking all of it” is not meant in] the sense of having violated every command, but in the sense of having violated the law's unity. One transgression makes fulfilling the law's most basic commands—to love God perfectly and to love one's neighbor as oneself—impossible.”
            I've thought this through some, and my interpretation of it (which I think is perfectly in accord with MacArthur's) is that when you sin, it's not just an issue of you breaking a law like going over the speed limit. As C.S. Lewis put it, when we sin, no matter whom else we hurt, there's One whose love was wounded in every transgression. We didn't just break a law: We broke our Father's heart, no matter how we've disobeyed him. 
            Now that we’ve got some understanding of vss. 10-11, what’s the point of vss. 12-13? You need to take your sin seriously so that you don’t have a judgmental attitude towards someone who’s guilty of different sins than yours. What’s the “law that gives freedom” that we’re going to be judged by? My guess is that he’s referring to the “Law of Christ” which tells us to bear one another’s burdens and to be compassionate with each other. I’ve been forgiven much, so a condemnatory attitude has no place in my heart. If I persist in this, I might be indicating that I really don’t know him as Savior, in which case I’m in for a very rude awakening when I stand before him some day.
            Don’t you love the last sentence? Of course, it’s not my mercy which will triumph over judgment, as if my being merciful somehow makes up for the times I've rebelled against him. When I contemplate how much his mercy has triumphed over judgment, how can a Pharisaical spirit take a toehold, much less a foothold within me?
            I really apologize for going longer than normal today. I just needed to correct a common misunderstanding which a lot of well-meaning Christians have (which I once held). In summary, I desperately need to 1) Take my sin a lot more seriously than I currently do, and 2) Treat a judgmental attitude like the spiritual poison it is.
            How about you?

Father God, I tend to treat myself way too lightly and others too harshly when it comes to this. There’s only one Judge, and it’s not me. Please help me to remember that. 

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