Sin Metrics: The Sins that Christians Condemn & Excuse

“Christians get very angry toward other Christians who sin differently than they do.” 

~ Philip Yancey

I grew up in a denomination that made homosexuality the gravest of all sins, trumping every other transgression (except murder, maybe).

Many of the people in that church were dutifully self-righteous when it came to certain sins. Those who didn’t commit the sins they deemed the worse (externally, that is) saw themselves as more “pure” than their fellow brethren who may have stumbled in those areas.

I regret to say that in my early years as a Christian, I adopted this same attitude. Ironically, these same people winked at the sins of gossip, slander, outbursts of rage, judging the motives of others, and lying. Excuses were routinely made in an attempt to justify these “lesser” sins (so the thinking went). In addition, most of us were monumentally disinterested and unmoved by things like poverty, racism, sexism, genocide, and homelessness.

Later in my journey, I started to give attention to these other problems. And I became friends with a group of Christians who viewed the worst kinds of sins as being societal. These people regarded failure to try and alleviate poverty, stop genocide, and curb homelessness to be the worst kinds of sins, while (unfortunately) sexual sins were almost winked at. Their view on sin was the exact opposite of the first group I mentioned.

In this regard, James makes an eye-opening statement: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). In the same vein, Jesus turns the conversation on its head when He says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment . . . and anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).

And again: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

Then there’s Paul, who places sexual sins in the same list as “fits of rage,” “discord,” “dissensions,” “selfish ambition,” and “slander” – all of which bar one from inheriting the kingdom of God if not repented of (Galatians 5:19-21; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). In these texts, James, Jesus, and Paul level the playing field on sin, showing that every believer is guilty of so-called “dirt” (1 John 1:8).

For Jesus, lust and adultery are on the same par. The same with rage and murder. For Paul, slander and outbursts of rage are no less serious than fornication.

One of my favorite stories underscores this point with clever wit. Allegedly, Charles Spurgeon invited D.L. Moody to speak at an event he hosted. Moody accepted and preached the entire time about the evils of tobacco, and why the Lord doesn’t want Christians to smoke.

Spurgeon, a cigar smoker, was surprised at what seemed to be a cheap shot leveled by Moody, using the pulpit to condemn a fellow minister.

When Moody finished preaching, Spurgeon walked up to the podium and said, “Mr. Moody, I’ll put down my cigars when you put down your fork.”

Moody was overweight.

This story makes the point brilliantly.

George MacDonald famously said, “I understand God’s patience with the wicked, but I do wonder how He can be so patient with the pious.”

Let me close by saying that if we’re going to play the “your sins are worse than mine” game, we shouldn’t be remiss in looking at what made Jesus’ blood boil when He walked this earth. Who was He the angriest at? The answer is a lead-pipe cinch for any student of Scripture. It was the self-righteous, pious, condemning, judgmental Pharisees. The self-appointed monitors of other people’s righteousness.

Who was Jesus the most patient with? The very people whom my first denomination looked down their noses at as being the worst “sinners.” In Jesus, the pyramid is inverted yet again. The person who is adept at calling “dirt” in others, but fails to see the dirt in himself/herself, is in a very dangerous place. Such is the nature of a Pharisee. Those sins which blind a person from seeing the weight of their own transgressions against that of others are treated as more serious by God.

In short, every sin comes off the same tree. All sin is serious. All sin put Jesus on the cross. Therefore, we are deluded whenever we lessen the sins we’ve committed and magnify the sin of others … whatever they might be.

Thank God that Jesus has paid the price for all our sins and given us the power to walk free from their dominion. Let us, therefore, be harsh with ourselves in the matter of sin and compassionate to everyone else.

When it comes to the issue of sin, the New Testament puts the emphasis on a person’s present walk. Is a person continuing in a certain sin? This is where the issue of repentance comes in. (To repent means to stop doing it. It means to “Go and sin no more,” as Jesus put it.)  So if we know a brother or sister who has been “overtaken in a fault” presently, let us seek to restore them in Christ.

But it is paramount that as we do, we treat them the same way we would want to be treated if we were standing in their shoes, knowing that we are just as sinful as they are, “taking heed, therefore, lest we fall into the same thing or worse.”

This feature is an excerpt from Beyond Evangelical.

If you’re interested in the book, you can order it in the following formats:

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See alsoThe Most Ignored Sin

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  • http://frankviola.com/ Frank Viola

    I believe you’re picking and choosing texts here without realizing it. According to the NT, slander is just as serious a sin as homosexuality. Paul made this plain his lists of sins barring one from the kingdom of God. Yet in the evangelical community, one is leveled way above the other. Slander has serious consequences such as destroying a person’s life.

    That’s just one example. But that’s my point. It’s interesting that the sins that some people condemn are NOT the sins they engage in themselves. Consider that thought.

    In “Jesus: A Theography”, Len Sweet and I show what sins made Jesus visibly angry. It wasn’t the sins that most evangelicals bulbously condemn. It was self righteousness. This was a pattern in the Lord’s life from the beginning of His ministry.

    I agree with you that believers shouldn’t wince at certain sins. You are right, that’s not compassion. But the opposite error is also just as misguided. To pit serious sin like gossip and slander and railing, for example, as being less serious than others.

    So in short, I stand by my point in the article. I believe it’s a mistake to try to play the sin metrics game. The NT can’t sustain it. Philip Yancey’s remark holds true for many.

    Evangelicals will continue to lose credibility with those open to the gospel and others Christians if they don’t come to terms with these facts. I say this as an evangelical myself.

    Thx. for your thoughtful comments.

  • Chris Corbett

    I respect your viewpoint, but just can’t agree on a couple of levels. Well, maybe three. First, the Bible is clear that while all sin is a horrible offense to God worthy of eternal separation save for the blood of Christ, there are degrees of severity of sin. Jesus spoke of those who were more guilty than others, and who were thus on the hook for greater punishment (Luke 12:47-48, John 19:11). In that vein, Romans 1 identifies idolatry and sexual sin, making special mention of homosexual sin, as especially damaging to individuals and a culture, near the “upstream” part of the “gave them over” cascade. So in one sense, all sin is sin (that is what James means by saying one transgression of the law means
    you are guilty of all, because one sin renders a soul unholy). Yet in another sense, all sin is not the same. You’re right: to arbitrarily pick and choose the “worse” sin is not scriptural, but neither is it scriptural to argue that there is no hierarchy of sin, and that in that hierarchy homosexual behavior is not prominent.

    Second, while Jesus never spoke directly about homosexual behavior, He did strongly endorse the entire OT Law which was in force until the cross, and he gave blanket preapproval of the coming message of the NT, which strongly condemns homosexuality (see above). And we know what the OT said about homosexual sin.

    Third, I think the argument that taking a position such as mine is somehow “unloving” or “judgmental” or “uncaring” or “Pharisaical” is self-refuting, because that perspective is itself judgmental. Some of the most sanctimonious venom I’ve read recently has been from those trying to convince Christians to just stop talking about homosexuality, and shaming those who hold what I and others consider to be the balanced biblical position. Yeah, a lot of the church has been cruel in its attitude toward homosexuals, but ironically the cruelty of legalistic self-righteousness by those who railed against homosexual behavior is now being met by the cruelty (to homosexuals, in my view) by those in the church who downplay it, and who obfuscate the scriptures, thus thwarting efforts to help those struggling with same-sex attraction and allow God’s grace to lead them to repentance and healing and restoration, as you eloquently put it at the end of your article. With that, I heartily agree. But with your flattening out the biblical hierarchy of sin, I do not.

    Downplaying any sin–whether homosexual behavior or disregard of the poor or legalism–is not compassion. Finally, as someone who has researched and published on this (back in the 1990s), the rate of health devastation among gay people–per capita–should be enough to cause alarm to Christians with compassion. According to peer-reviewed sociological, psychological, and medical journals, the rates of relational break-up, severe health consequences, and other problems far outpace even the terrible state of heterosexuals, and it is worse in the geographic areas where the gay lifestyle is most affirmed, leading me to believe that going “soft” on this particular sin is not compassionate to those practicing it.

    I camped out on homosexuality because you mentioned it specifically, and because it’s today’s hot button issue (due not to legalistic Christians, but to very aggressive and wealthy gay activists). But this goes for the entire spectrum of sin. It’s all bad, but biblically, some is worse.

    Thanks for the opportunity to respond.

  • Susan Gerard

    I am so late to this post, but I hope you will see my comment.

    This is a wonderful post! I love it! The witticisms remind me of a sermon I once heard on the same topic. The preacher said that if there were any women in his congregation contemplating divorce, just murder (your) husband instead, because it is much easier to embrace a repentant murderer than a divorcee!

  • Beverly

    At times I have found myself most judgmental of those who struggle in the same areas I do, and then at other times most judgmental of those who do things “I would NEVER do.” “Let him who THINKS he stands take heed lest he fall.” – I Cor. 10:12 (Nebraska, USA)

  • Joyce

    I love this blog and I love these comments. The blogs and provocative titles are really necessary to catch the attention of the internet society. I intent to do more sharing of particular posts, as that will, hopefully, entice folks to look further into your written and spoken ministry. It strikes me that we need to pray more about this outreach—it will take the Spirit to move folks to see what we post……He got me here somehow. GA, USA

  • Dafydd

    Paul talks of himself as the least of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:9). Before long he’s viewing himself as the least of all saints (Ephesians 3:8). Then he describes himself eventually as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) As we grow in Christ our own sin comes more into focus, which points us to that grace without which we would be completely lost.
    (Gwynedd, United Kingdom)

  • http://christianjourneyuk.wordpress.com/ Gavin

    The harder it is for us to imagine committing a sin, the easier it is to condemn that sin in others.

  • Fernando Villegas

    Texas, USA

  • Stephen Battye

    Like you, I came from a tradition that put homosexuality at the top of their sin hierarchy. I also agree with you regarding Jesus’ greatest ire being reserved for the self-righteous. However, I also find that many churches have a blind spot towards economic sins, an emphasis of Jesus that places him firmly within Israel’s prophetic tradition. I think many churches would benefit from a sermon series on Amos – i.e. worship being detestable to God when not accompanied by justice. (Northland, New Zealand)

  • Genoise

    This concept has taken me a long time to wrap my mind around. My family has always had ultra-conservative leanings so when I began to ponder those sins we deem as being “greater” than others I struggled with doubt. The more I thought about it the more I realize that ANY of us can struggle with those types of temptations. None of us is above another, able to withstand any and all sin by sheer will. Only the grace of God go I…
    Maine, USA

  • Kevin

    I love this. Jesus prayed that we would all be one, but we just keep looking for ways to be separate. I, too, have a long way to go in this regard. Thanks for the reminder.

  • David Schmidt

    Very true. This is a reality every follower of Jesus needs to hear.

  • Steve K.

    Hey Frank-
    Not only did I see it, but I copied, pasted, and printed it to a document and hung it next to my computer at work. Thanks a ton for all the work involved in compiling that reference!! If more Believers out there read through that list every morning before heading out for the day, imagine the impact on the world!
    I guess the problem with blogs is that space is limited and you are being topical and, as you point out, it is an excerpt. Sorry if I implied your thought ended where it did. Reading the beginning of my comment, I could have phrased it better. Having been raised in a legalistic and judemental Christian environment and being captive to that thinking for much of my adult life, I’m quick with the , “yes, but”. I am compelled to proclaim it, yet need to out of love lest I also be judgmental.
    God has blessed you with great wisdom and outlets for you to share your knowledge, faith, and understanding. I love the books, blogs, and podcasts – keep running the good race!

  • Fernando Villegas

    We know our own hearts, that’s why it’s easy to justify our own sins. It’s easy to explain to ourselves the mitigating circumstances. That’s also why it’s so easy to condemn the sins of those whose hearts we don’t know. Maybe that’s why we should leave ultimate judgment in the hands of Him who knows all hearts!

  • Frank Viola

    Steve: It’s a blog post that’s an excerpt from an entire book (“Beyond Evangelical”). The book goes into more detail and covers what you’re getting at. Did you not see this post from the other day on the Christian’s true identity? http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/whoareyou

  • Steve K.

    Great post – but don’t don’t leave us hanging without the completing the thought. The Finished Work of Christ. The reason Jesus turns the whole idea of Sin and Death upside down is because He already dealt with it on the cross. Do not live in a continual state of seeking forgiveness! Don’t keep asking for what you already possess and He gave freely when you first Believed! When you finally receive, accept, and can SEE the unbelievable Grace of God and the lengths He has taken so that none may be lost, being judgmental and pointing out the Sin in others becomes less of an issue. You begin to see yourself, and especially others, as the Holy and Blameless Children of the King that we ARE as believers! We are called Righteous! Able to stand in the very presence of God! A New Creation separated from the flesh where sin is quarantined. This by no means gives us permission to sin freely without consequence but by seeing ourselves as who we are, it separates us from that which brings death. The Law was given so that we could see God’s measuring stick and realize that we ourselves, nor anyone else – except God Himself, could live up to that standard. It was precisely why Jesus was angered only by those who felt themselves more holy than others. Because He knew their deeds were as filthy rags and it was their deeds by which they were judging. It it is by deed that all who do not believe in the Name of the Lord will be Judged. And none will be worthy – not one.

  • http://www.thecommunityhaus.com Jeff McLain

    P. I never heard that Moody story before. I chuckled and thought it so fitting, but so sad to see the pulpit used in those matters. I might have to use this story sometime.

  • http://www.thecommunityhaus.com Jeff McLain

    We seek to restore. That’s awesome way to explain it. Over the years, I too made a trip from the world were homosexuality was the worse infraction, besides abortion and then I landed in a circle of community where it seemed to be the opposite end of the spectrum, and societal justice crowned all other injustice or sin. Both of these worlds, lack balance and have allowed too many believers to walk in their brokenness, not knowing the healing or freedom in following Jesus. Thanks for this balanced and thoughtful post of love, in the face of judgment.

  • http://stevenmelvin.isagenix.com/us/en/home.dhtml Steve Melvin

    Hit the nail on the head bro! Great stuff!
    Steve
    Tacoma, WA USA

  • Andrew Harshman

    We should always look inwards first.

    Phoenix, AZ, USA

  • Jeff Jencks

    Amen brother. I’ve noticed this for decades and don’t like how Christians are so quick to condemn other people’s sins. I find it especially interesting when people engaging in heterosexual immorality condemn those engaging in homosexual immorality because as long as a woman is defiled, it’s okay. Seriously, people engage in all kinds of sin and excuse it but make a lot of noise about one minority of sinners. Boise, Idaho, U.S.A.

  • Tom

    When we get a true revelation of the Cross we all must come to the realization that we are the chief of sinners. Thankfully we don’t stop there, we come to know that when we were baptized into Christ, we were baptized into His death and by His power cannot sin. And so we all walked in the sinner’s shoes, BUT now, sin does not have dominion (as a master) over us. Let us put off all sin and walk in His righteousness.
    Thanks for the reminder. Doha, Qatar.

  • Alex

    Great post. Very true. Always love to hear your thoughts.

    Indiana, USA

  • Kristia

    oops…. :) Kentucky, USA

  • Kristia

    Truth spoken with love.
    We must all remember we are all as filthy rags. So thankful for Christ’s gift of mercy!!
    Excellent post…will be sharing!

  • http://www.mariuslombaard.net Marius Lombaard

    shared. and wholly agreed. Gauteng. South Africa.

  • Taco

    I think every sin is as bad as any sin. But Jesus died for them all.

    Rotterdam, The Netherlands

  • Sam M.

    Right on! I’ve been there, done that too!

  • Aaron

    It is good to be reminded of this periodically. We can tend to get wrapped up in our view (i.e. world’s, religious, etc) and forget that all sin separates from God – there are no varying degrees. This can be a difficult area when some trespasses are more visual or culturally/socially unacceptable. Always an area, for me, that requires self-check and a reminder of the truth

    Missouri, USA

  • Paul

    oops forgot … MISSOURI, USA

  • Paul

    A big lesson i learned this past year was that sin is really saying “forget you God. Im gonna meet my need my way and in my time frame!” that attitude leads us to do some pretty crazy things to try to get our selfish needs met. But if we just step back, stop maipulating our worlds so our needs are met how and when we think they should be GOD comes and does what HE does best…. meets our every need AND He usually does so in crazy unpredictable ways!.

  • Neal

    Judging others seems to be an inherent problem among mankind, especially as you have stated in your article. Jesus came to save us from this sin too.

  • http://lisanotes.blogspot.com/ Lisa notes

    “Every sin comes off the same tree.” Perhaps we should repeat that to ourselves three times a day, reminding ourselves that our sins are no better, no worse, than others–they’re all repugnant. And all forgiven in the blood of Christ through faith in him. Great post, Frank. Thanks.

  • Mat

    Thanks for this post! Sounds a bit like Tim Keller’s view that self-righteousness (about anything) is the worst sin of all because it blinds us to our own sin.
    Connecticut, USA

  • Mat

    Thanks for this post! Sounds a bit like Tim Keller’s view that self-righteousness (about anything) is the worst sin of all because it blinds us to our own sin.

  • ScottW

    Excellent post, and excruciatingly true!

  • http://www.twitter.com/julieisjoyful Julie

    Thank you for writing this.

    Michigan, USA

  • http://www.twitter.com/julieisjoyful Julie

    Great. Right on!

  • Larry Teasley

    Frank, these words penetrate deeply, rendering asunder the bone and marrow of self-ascribed piety. Without question, your observation points to everyone’s need for genuine reflection and earnest repentance. This word is timely and spot on! – Florida

  • https://www.facebook.com/deborah.clavette.jacobs Deborah

    After decades of Christian living, I have finally (I am a slow learner) come to believe that this is the correct way to view sin in ourselves & others…. (Maine, USA)


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