Many years ago I attended a church service that devoted a few minutes at the end of each sermon for the children. The pastor would call them to the front of the church and sit on the steps of the pulpit as he communicated the message of the sermon in a way children could easily understand.
In one instance, he used an illustration to teach about the equality of sin before God. To do so, he held up a fist fill of straws and explained that each straw was representative of a different type of sin. “This is murder and this one is stealing,” he explained, as he pointed to individual straws. He added that the length of the straws (which were concealed by his fist) would symbolize the type of punishment each one deserved; the longer the straw the worse the punishment. Finally, he asked all the kids to guess which straw was the longest; in other words, what was the worst sin before God? Murder was the consensus.
After some slight suspense, he opened his hand to reveal that all the straws were the same length. His point was made that all sin is equal before God. But is it? Is someone who doesn’t love the Lord will all their heart, soul, strength and mind due the same punishment as someone who kills another?
The verse used by the pastor was James 2:10-11, which reads, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty for all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder you have become a transgressor of the law.”
The logic of this position centers around a seemingly well-intentioned idea that every sin is a crime against an infinitely Holy God and therefore worthy of the same punishment, eternal hell. However, if we study other places in scripture we learn that Jesus didn’t seem to teach that all guilt is the same because all sins, regardless of how heinous, are equal.
Consider the parable in Luke 12:47-48, “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” Here we see a clear instance where the punishment differs from person to person, although you could argue the crime itself was the same. Implicit to the parable is that certain people are held to a different standard.
Another text we can use for this brief study is found in Matthew. “Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feed, Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgement that for that city” (Matthew 10:14). Clearly Jesus is teaching us that there will different degrees of guilt and punishment on the day of judgement.
Notice that James doesn’t really comment on how one sin is worse than another, but speaks to the fact that one transgression makes you guilty of all. He speaks not to severity but to summation. Just one offense breaks the law and is enough to show us our sin and deep need for a savior. More specifically though, I think James is trying to speak against self-righteousness and self-justifying thinking.
There are few things humanity is better at than deflecting and painting ourselves in a better light than we are. It started in The Garden of Eden and I find myself guilty of it on a regular basis.
We are prone to an outlook that says, “Maybe I failed and sinned in this one area, but look at these other things I did really well!” Or worse yet, is a Pharisee mentality that says, “I am in a better place before God than so-and-so because I go to church, pray, read my bible, listen to music that’s safe for the whole family, etc. Look at how good I am!”
James also wants us to understand that while a single offense against a holy God is worthy of an eternal punishment, the punishments may not always be same. Justice will roll down, as the great hymn declares. Suffering at the hand of oppression will be made right. A fitting punishment will be had for gross evils in our world. The horrible atrocities we have read about and hear about on the news will be dealt with.
There is not a single sin in all of history that will go unnoticed and not look up at the face of justice. All sin will be accounted for appropriately and punished. Either the punishment will fall on Jesus or it will fall on the offender.
As Christians we must remind ourselves daily that God desires living sacrifices who are delighted to do God’s will in ALL areas of their life. We will fail and we will sin, but for those who are in Christ there is an endless river of grace, forgiveness, and hope.