Are All Sins Really “Equal”?

by Alex Kato
for Dr. Pendleton’s Pastoral Counseling 511
Summer 2014

By Scan made by Kogo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Note: The terms “victim” and “perpetrator” in this paper are not meant to suggest that people are one or the other, or to endorse these as all-encompasing labels, but to distinguish between the possibilities of different counseling situations.

Some Christian teachings are hard to accept. In particular, my years as a youth pastor were filled with both teenagers and adults who bristled against the saying “all sins are equal.” This sentiment grates against our grief–both personal and global–and often becomes a barrier to trusting, loving, and following God. Thus, pastors should ask: Must we contend for this Evangelical adage? Is it even true? This paper considers what the Bible actually says, the problems that arise from accepting this falsehood, consequent possibilities for counseling victims, and possibilities for counseling perpetrators. 

What Does the Bible Say?

Many people believe that “all sins are equal” because of James 2:10: “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”[1] While this word from God is true, the simplistic interpretation—“all sin is equal”—fails to consider the broader message of Scripture. The Bible does teach that all people are sinners (Ps 14; 53; Ro 3), that “death spread to all men because all sinned” (Ro 5:12). It does teach that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Ro 5:20), that all Christians “have obtained a faith of equal standing with [the apostles’] by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pe 1:1). Thus, from one angle—that which shows we all sin enough to deserve death, but not enough to exhaust God’s grace—all sinners are equal. However, this does not warrant the blanket statement “all sins are equal,” since Scripture also addresses sin from other angles.

In fact, the Bible explicitly teaches that all sin will not be equal on judgment day. Second Corinthians proclaims the coming of the Lord, “who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (2 Co 4:5). Romans teaches that God will “render to each one according to his works” (Ro 2:6) and in God’s revelation to John, “[the dead] were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” (Re 20:13). Jesus said, “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Ma 12:36). The Bible affirms distinctions among those dead in their sins—Jesus says to Chorazin and Bethsaida, “it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you” (Mt 11:20)—and among those alive in Christ—James says, “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Ja 3:1).

Furthermore, the Bible cautions against the kind of sin desensitization that comes with declaring all sins equal. Though God offers grace, Paul says that we should “by no means” “continue in sin that grace may abound” (Ro 6:1). In Ephesians, the Apostle exhorts his readers to stop specific sins, pleading, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Ep 4:30). Christians must not allow our gratefulness for grace to declaw our responsibility to “abhor what is evil” (Ro12:9). So what does James mean when he says, “whoever…fails in one point [of the law] has become accountable for all of it.” Pastor John Piper explains, “what he is drawing attention to is, if I say to God, ‘I’m going to do this [small sin] against you’ and ‘I’m going to do this big sin against you,’ in both cases you’ve defied God…And in that sense every sin is infinitely heinous.” In that sense this is exegetically and existentially true. But in other senses—of particular importance for pastors: the victim’s pain and the community’s destruction—different sins are experientially very different, and the differences should be acknowledged in pastoral counseling.

Problems for Counseling

For victims, the “all sin is equal” adage can discourage their attempts to trust God and attempt forgiveness, a doubly tragic hurdle if it is false and unnecessary. In a recent personal conversation about forgiveness, one victim of injustice duly criticized a quote from a pastoral counseling textbook:

 

I think that author was trying to say that before God, the person who wrongs us is no more guilty than we are, and we are to view that person as a fellow being in need of grace, whose guilty status we share.  But I’m pretty sure if a counselor started with that statement of “identify with the one who has wronged you” most people won’t naturally want to, or won’t understand the basis of that statement.

 

To her, this oft-repeated notion was a hindrance to healing—and an unnecessary one.

“All sins are equal” also undermines proper ministry to perpetrators. As Pastor Mark Driscoll points out, “When we believe that all sins are equal, it often causes us to not take the problem of sin seriously,” adding, “All sin is deadly, but there are some types of sin that are so serious that they warrant extra-impassioned warning, a sterner rebuke, a more drastic plan to avoid temptation.” [4] The notion that “all sin is equal” inhibits urgent action in urgent situations. Pastoral counselors who thoughtfully reject this adage can minister more fruitfully to victims and perpetrators alike.

Possibilities for Counseling Victims

For many victims in counseling—especially those who have grown up around the church and the “all sins are equal” sentiment—pastors who testify that all sins are not equal can remove a hindrance to their healing. Rather than spending their emotional energy on accepting this falsehood, victims can focus on two rare, excruciating, and necessary tasks: Recovering from devastating pain and forgiving those whose sins outweigh their own. Furthermore, by acknowledging that all sins aren’t equal, pastoral counselors can duly praise God and encourage victims for their disproportionally merciful and mighty acts. As one victim of domestic atrocity wrote in her article for Christianity Today, “We may begin the journey of forgiveness to ease our own burdens. But along the way we discover a chance to live out the fullness of the gospel: loving the unlovely, forgiving seventy times seven. In doing so, we reflect the kingdom of God among us.”[5] By rejecting the “all sins are equal” adage, pastoral counselors can both aid and acknowledge this restoration.

In the above conversation about counseling textbooks and forgiveness, I suggested that not all sins are equal. Nearly one month later, my conversation partner replied,

 

I found your thoughts about equal guilt before God to be helpful, and refreshing…In fact, I felt a huge sense of relief, and so much so that I kept reading it over, and thinking about it for a few days, and looking up the scriptures you referenced, just because I was wondering if I was perhaps too eager to believe that we are not, in fact, all equally guilty…Everything in me, at times, would insist that we cannot possibly be equally guilty before God.

 

The exchange reminded me that this is a necessary and vital conversation in the church. Pastors must actively unseat this Evangelical myth for victims’ sake.

Possibilities for Counseling Perpetrators

Furthermore, debunking the “all sin is equal” sentiment is also vital for perpetrators in and around our churches. In his article, “Questions at the Crossroads,” psychologist David Powlison declares, “human beings are radically sin sick…Care for the soul must address this ailment or else it is prescribing painkillers for cancer; it is whistling in the dark while a deadly, unseen corruption festers and an imminent, unrecognized destruction approaches.”[6] The same could be said for pastoral counselors who fail to meaningfully distinguish between angry thoughts and child abuse. As Stanton L. Jones asserts, “The fact that God may infuse grace into the darkest moment should not form a basis for indifference toward our counsel’s plan to move steadily into darkness.”[7] Rather, pastors must treat some sins are particularly grievous, and some treatment as particularly urgent.

Evangelical pastors are especially wont to emphasize grace over judgment. Yet, in doing so, we often short-circuit the responsibility Jesus gave us: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Lu 17:3). Oftentimes, we never see the latter because we neglect the former.

Conclusion

 

Pastors, of all people, must bear witness to humanity’s impending judgment before God. Contrary to the common concern that his justice won’t match up to our enlightened, 21st century realizations, God is the perfect and eternal Judge. Our every longing for vindication will be more than satisfied in the end, whether by God’s righteous wrath, or by the blood of the Lamb. In this life, we have no obligation to accept the adage, “all sin is equal.” Rather, we have a right and responsibility to grieve over sin in proportion to its obvious atrocity, and to seize hope in God’s redemptive power.


[1] All Scripture references from the ESV.

[2] Everett L. Worthingon Jr., Coming to Peace with Psychology (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2010), 62-63.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mark Driscoll. “‘All Sin is Equal.’ Is That True?” Mars Hill Church. 6 January 2013.

[5] Leslie Leyland Fields, “What We Forgot About Forgiveness.” Christianity Today, May 2014, 35.

 

[6] David Powlison, “Questions at the Crossroads” in Care for the Soul (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 47.

[7] Stanton L. Jones, “An Apologetic Apologia for the Integration of Psychology & Theology” in Care for the Soul (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 76.

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