Are all sins equal? The answer is yes and no. In one sense, all sins are equal in the fact that they separate one from God and make someone blame-worthy before his majestic presence. I’m going to refer to this sense as the judicial category. James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” In a very real way, the wages of every sin is death (Rom. 6:23; Gal. 3:13-14). Because God is infinitely holy and perfect, he does not grade on a curve when it comes to sin (Matt. 5:48). The sin of the homosexual man is equal to the sin of the heterosexual man if both are committing adultery because both actions are damning. God, as the fountainhead and standard of all beauty and excellence in the universe, pursues with infinite passion and power that which is most glorious in the universe. He also punishes a failure to delight and reflect such a pursuit in his creatures. His holiness and righteousness requires he punish that which dishonors what is supremely lovely and worthy of total fidelity. All sin brings about this just response from God.
Yet, there’s another sense in which all sins are not equal. If all sin were equal, all the effects would be the same. This is not the case in Scripture. I’ll call this class the punitive category because the punishment for some sins for the agent committing them is different. Some sins are greater in severity than others (2 Pet. 2:20-21; Jas. 4:17). The Bible constantly uses language of “abomination” (Lev. 18:22; Deut. 7:25; 22:5; Prov. 6:16-19). An abomination is a specific sin that brings a deeper sense of recoil and revulsion to the divine heart. But not everything is an abomination. This means that not all sins are equal in this respect. Stealing an apple though wrong is not the same thing as having sex with an animal. Furthermore, that all sins are not equal is highlighted by the specific punishments doled out on the Old Testament. There are punishments that are worse than others depending on the offense: fines (Deut. 22:18-19), beatings (Deut. 25:1-3), and death for adultery, murder, bestiality, etc. This ultimately leads to the largest punitive difference—there are degrees of punishment in Hell. Though neglected by some, this shouldn’t be surprising because our actions really do echo into eternity. What we do with our words and deeds matters. Despite both rejecting Jesus Christ, the eternal abode for Hitler will be a different lot than the eternal abode for Christopher Hitchens. No one should want to go there regardless. Jesus told the Jewish cities that rejected him that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you. (Matt. 11:24 c.f. Luke 12:46-48; Rom. 2:5). If all the sins are equal in a punitive sense, Jesus would be mistaken. Twice Jesus even recognizes there are greater and lesser sins elsewhere in the Gospels (John 19:11; Matt. 23:23). Sinning is wrong because it harms other people, falls short of God’s righteous standards, and also because it diminishes the person sinning. Some sins diminish a human being greater than others. The punishment highlights the level of creaturely diminishment.
The last sense in which all sins are not equal is what I will call the effective sense. Sin is not equal on the person being sinned against. Take adultery and anger for instance. Jesus did condemn people who lust in their hearts (Matt. 5:27-30) and are angry with their brothers (Matt. 5:21-26). He is affirming the judicial sense that all sin is equal because it damns. Yet Jesus is not an idiot. Lusting after another woman in your heart is different than actually going and committing physical adultery with her. The effects on your wife are vastly dissimilar. The same thing applies to murder. If you’re angry with someone, you’ve sinned in your heart and Jesus says it is not different than if you’ve committed the damning sin of murder. But think about if one actually killed someone instead of just being angry with them. Say there’s a deacon you tend to get upset with during business meetings. You may be disciplined by the Church if you yell and lash out in anger against the man during the session. You however will be disciplined by the state if you kill that man. The effects are different on him, his family, his friends, his church and everyone else in his life. Sin is not equal in that sense.
What are the takeaways from this discussion? One, Christ’s sacrifice is of infinite worth and value because each and every sinner has committed a gross grievance against an utterly holy Sovereign. God has forgiven your million-dollar sin debt. Whether you’re a guy who struggles with pride or a raging alcoholic who use to beat his wife, God forgives a debt you could not repay. Second, we ought not to say things like “every sin is the same” without some sort of meaningful dialogue how this is so. That my future child will one day back talk is not equal to the sin of Auschwitz. Think deeply about what we are communicating to the world and the church around us when we speak. Third, though some sins are worse than others, big sinning begins with the little sins. No one begins their life of sin as a Jeffrey Dahmer. It is a slow fade built upon daily actions that fall short of God’s glory. We should take great caution not to sin period regardless if it is a big one or a light one. Sinning is like stabbing someone. Though he will likely live, the fact that you stabbed someone in the foot does not mean it is alright because you did not stab him in his brain. Sinning is bad period and should be wholeheartedly and joyfully abhorred. As John Piper once said, “the only thing worse than getting caught in your secret sin is not getting caught at all.” Avoid it like the plague.