Bible: Some Sins More Serious Than Others

Bible: Some Sins More Serious Than Others March 11, 2016


“The man with the burden”, illustration from John Bunyan’s dream story (based on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress); abridged by James Baldwin (1841-1925). Illustrator: Rachael Robinson Elmer (d. 12 February 1919) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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From my book, Bible Proofs for Catholic Truths (except that the passages are RSV rather than KJV, as in the book; also there are a few minor textual differences from the book).

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1 John 5:16-17 If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin which is not mortal.

Some non-Catholic Christians think that all sins are exactly alike in the eyes of God: everything from a white lie or a child stealing a cookie to mass murder. They believe this not out of common sense, but because they erroneously think that the Bible teaches it. But this mistaken notion is decisively refuted by the above passage. Scripture provides several indications of this difference in seriousness of sin, and in subjective guiltiness for it:

Matthew 5:22 But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire.

Luke 12:47-48 And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.

Luke 23:34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” . . .

John 9:41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

John 19:11 . . . he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.

Acts 17:30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent,

Romans 3:25 . . . This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins;

1 Timothy 1:13 though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.

Hebrews 10:26: For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,

James 3:1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.

The Bible also refers to (mortal) sins which — if not repented of — will exclude one from heaven (e.g., 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 1:8; 5:19-21; Eph 5:3-6; Heb 12:16; Rev 21:8; 22:15).

Some objectors to these notions bring up James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” Does this prove that all sins are the same; equally destructive and worthy of judgment? No; the passage is dealing with man’s inability to keep the entire Law of God: a common theme in Scripture. James accepts differences in degrees of sin and righteousness elsewhere in the same letter, such as 3:1 (above). In James 1:12, the man who endures trial will receive a “crown of life.”

James also teaches that the “prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (5:16), which implies that there are relatively more righteous people, whom God honors more, by making their prayers more effective (he used the prophet Elijah as an example). If there is a lesser and greater righteousness, then there are lesser and greater sins also, because to be less righteous is to be more sinful, and vice versa.

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