God Looks at All Sin the Same:
Sound Biblical Teaching or Sloppy Bumper Sticker Theology?
By W.E. Nunnally
“All sin is sin.” “God treats all sin the same.” “No sin is any worse than other sins.” “All sin is the same in God’s eyes.” Most people have heard some version of this popular view that God is so forgiving, evenhanded, and merciful that He views no sin as being worse than any other sin. In church circles, these statements were once restricted to the conclusion of evangelistic meetings to encourage those who were not right with God to come forward. The intent was to proclaim that God will accept all who come in true repentance, regardless of the heinousness of their sins. Unfortunately, this assurance once offered to unbelievers was repeated so often it became a part of the language of Christians as well. It is heard in private conversations between Christians and in discussions in Bible studies. It is recited in the pulpit and in Sunday School classes as though it were a memory verse or a fundamental Christian doctrine. Sadly, it is often used to excuse unbiblical behavior and probe the reaches of God’s mercy. Is this current emphasis healthy for the individual Christian or for the body of Christ? Does it reflect the will of God for His people?
From time to time, we must remind ourselves that absolute truth is determined not by what is popular or frequently repeated. Instead, in matters of faith and practice, the Scriptures determine absolute truth.1 What we must learn to yearn for is what the Word of God tells us about whatever issue is under discussion. It is only there can we be assured that we are hearing His mind on the matter. Therefore, leaving the mantras, the personal opinions, the words of the gurus, and the political correctness of tolerance and acceptance behind, we turn our attention to Scripture to discover whether from God’s perspective if all sin is the same.
In the Old Testament
Law of Moses
The first piece of relevant evidence that the reader of Scripture encounters is a series of events in which God brings irreversible judgment on groups of people. Some examples to consider are the Flood (Genesis 6–9), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16 through 19:29), the Exodus (Exodus 7:14 through 12:41), the conquests of Joshua (Joshua 2:1 through 21:45), the Assyrian captivity (2 Kings 17:1–41), and the Babylonian exile (2 Kings 24:1 through 25:21). The point is that God bore with the sin, rebellion, oppression, violence, and mutiny of these peoples to a point. When a line was crossed, however — whether in degree, number, or frequency — God’s love, mercy, patience, and forgiveness were exhausted (compare Genesis 6:5–7; 15:14,16; 18:20; Exodus 3:7,9; 2 Kings 17:7–20,23; 2 Chronicles 36:16). Prior to this point, God had extended His grace to those involved, but after His self-determined threshold had been reached, He treated these same people in a vastly different manner.
Furthermore, in the Old Testament, when individuals sinned there were different sacrifices available to deal with the specifics of each situation (Leviticus 1:2 through 6:7; 16:1 through 17:16). Evidently, different people and categories of sin required different sacrifices. When it comes to punishments for certain sins, Scripture is even more specific. For example, for the most heinous sins, such as premeditated murder and adultery, the death penalty was required (Exodus 21:12–14; Leviticus 20:10). For less grievous offenses, however, fines or corporal punishment were imposed (Exodus 22:3–7; Deuteronomy 25:1–3). In extreme cases, excommunication was decreed (Numbers 15:30; Leviticus 17:14). In all these examples, it should be observed that there existed a clear stratification of offenses and penalties (similar to the principle of American jurisprudence, that the punishment fit the crime). For those who take the Bible seriously, it must be concluded that God was the source of all biblical legislation. Therefore, it is an accurate reflection of His will and His own stratification of human infractions as sometimes more and sometimes less grievous.
Before leaving this brief survey of the Law of Moses, one final passage must be considered. Numbers 15 describes two different kinds of sin. The unwitting (accidental, unintentional) sin is forgivable and there is an offering prescribed for it (verses 22–29). The defiant (premeditated, intentional, haughty) sin, however, cannot be forgiven and therefore has no prescribed sacrifice attached to it. Such behavior, by its nature, is persistent, deliberate mutiny. Blasphemous activity casts a permanent shadow over the entire covenant community and the reputation of God. This is no mere isolated infraction. It goes beyond the breaking of a [specific] commandment to the point of total rejection or despising the Word of the Lord (verses 30,31). Evidently, in the Law of Moses, not all sin is the same.
According to the prophets, God makes a distinction between those sins that can be forgiven and those for which forgiveness can no longer be offered. For example, God told Amos that the sins of Israel and Judah had reached their full measure, and He would no longer spare them (1:4–16; 8:2). On three occasions God told Jeremiah to cease his intercession for the forgiveness of His people because He was no longer willing to listen (7:16; 11:14; 14:11). They had evidently crossed the line established by God, and their fate was sealed. No amount of sacrifices, acts of contrition, or even prayers of the prophet could divert judgment at that point. According to Ezekiel, not even the intercession or righteousness of Noah, Daniel, or Job would have had any effect at that point in their spiritual decline (14:14,20). Evidently to these Old Testaments saints, not all sin is the same.
At this point in our study, some might think: That was then; this is now. God was like that in the Old Testament. Now because we have the example of the patient and forgiving Jesus, His once-for-all death, and a new and better covenant, we can be assured that God always stands ready to forgive any and all sin. Although this approach at first glance has the appearance of deep spirituality and appears to cast God in a favorable light, it is fraught with practical and theological dangers.
First, it is essentially the same as the heresy of Marcion, who in the early second century, taught that the God of the Old Testament was fundamentally different from the God of the New Testament. For this teaching the Early Church honored him with excommunication.
Second, this view of God is no different than that of liberal process theology and postmodernism — that God is ever evolving to a more enlightened, kinder, gentler God.
Third, such an approach abandons the clear teaching of both Testaments — that an important aspect of the nature of God is His immutability (Psalm 55:19; 102:27; Isaiah 46:4; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 1:12; 13:8; James 1:17).
Fourth, such an argument repudiates the many claims of Scripture that it is consistent with respect to how it depicts God (Psalm 18:30; 117:2; 119:89,152,160; 138:2; Isaiah 40:8; 2 Timothy 3:16).
Fifth, if we allow ourselves to go in the direction of an evolving God and Word of God, there is no reason to assume that He will not eventually change things that we do hold dear, such as the way of salvation or the promise of baptism in the Holy Spirit to all who seek it.
Finally, by dismissing passages we find uncomfortable or outmoded, we become guilty of the same error committed by many Christian groups we have criticized in the past who pick and choose, and in so doing, create their own cafeteria-style religion.
In the New Testament
If, God and His Word are consistent, we should expect to find the same dynamics in the New Testament that are in the Old Testament. Thankfully, that is true of every section of the New Testament. Jesus picked up where the Old Testament left off by teaching that certain situations render it impossible for a sinner to receive forgiveness from God. For example, those who commit the sin of unforgiveness are unable to receive forgiveness from God for their own sins (Matthew 6:14,15; 18:23–35). Similarly, according to Jesus, anyone who commits blasphemy of the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven (Matthew 12:31,32). Much has been written and said about the exact nature of what constitutes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and I also have my opinion (compare this language to that of Numbers 15:30). The current discussion, however, requires only that we note that Jesus’ teaching is perfectly in line with that of the Old Testament: some sins can be forgiven and some cannot. Evidently in the mind of the Master, not all sin is the same.
In the Book of Acts, God also punishes those who sin differently. Some He rebukes (7:51–53; 8:18–24); some He strikes blind (9:7,8; 13:8–11); some He strikes dead (5:1–10; 12:20–23). Those who would hasten to question the evenhandedness of the Lord in these matters must remember that God is all-knowing (Jeremiah 17:9–11; Acts 1:24), just (Deuteronomy 32:4; Acts 17:31), and not a respecter of persons (Deuteronomy 10:17; Acts 10:34). The first-century Pentecostal church that witnessed these events knew the Old Testament, and they recognized that God’s work among them was consistent with Scripture that had already so accurately revealed His character. At no point did it feel compelled to offer the rationale: That was then; this is now.
The Epistles also attest to God’s ability and willingness to view and treat sins differently. For example, Paul told of some who persisted in their rebellious ways to the point that God “turned them over to a reprobate/depraved mind” (Romans 1:24–32, especially verse 28). In addition, John described two distinct categories of sin: one that is “not unto death” and the other that is “unto death” (quite possibly with the same two categories that appear in Numbers 15 in mind). He encouraged Christians to pray for those caught in a sin of the first category, but (reminiscent of God’s prohibitions of further prayer by Jeremiah) proscribed prayer for the last category (1 John 5:16,17). The later church eventually generated detailed lists of specific sins for these two categories that came to be called venial and mortal sins. Whether every line item of those lists matches the revelation of Scripture is irrelevant to the current discussion. The fact remains, like the Old Testament, the New Testament teaches that God distinguishes between some sins and others. Evidently the apostles, the authors of the New Testament, and the Early Church did not believe that all sin is the same.
To deny the legitimacy of such distinctions only muddies the waters and trivializes the discussion. When the clear teaching of Scripture is rejected in favor of bumper-sticker, feel-good theology, the playing field is arbitrarily leveled. Child molestation can then be trivialized and sanitized as being no more destructive or nefarious than embezzlement. Consequently, it is not helpful to compare a private verbal indiscretion to the lifestyle sin of Ted Haggard that not only hurt him, but also his wife, children, church, fellow ministers, the body of Christ at large, and the reputation of God. It only lowers the bar to offer, “Well, I’m not perfect either. If I can curse privately, I suppose I am capable of committing the same sin as Haggard or worse.”
Capacity and commission are not synonymous. Temptation to sin and commission of sin are not the same. Surely we would not be so quick to admit that we could just as easily have committed the same sins as Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Rev. John Geoghan (the pedophile priest), or Mohammed Atta.
Conversely, the sin of Haggard is eclipsed by the sin of Adolf Hitler. The little whopper my 23-month-old granddaughter told me about how she harvested a trophy deer with her little (also apocryphal) bow and arrow that is (really not) in my garage pales in comparison to the genocide wreaked by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The same two teenagers can both break curfew and engage in premarital sex, but the potential fallout (seriousness of effects, number of people impacted, damage to Christian witness) of these two rebellious acts bears no comparison. Evidently, not all sin is the same.
In this inexhaustive study, it has been demonstrated that both Testaments instruct us contrary to much popular theology and preaching. Therefore, our responsibility is to declare the full counsel of God in season and out of season, whether popular or unpopular. It is not our responsibility to make every jot and tittle palatable to modern man.
Furthermore, the unified message of Scripture challenges us to avoid providing our hearers with any false sense of security. As leaders, we must know how to “have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some, have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 22,23, NASB).2 We must recapture the willingness to speak “the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15, NASB), and to rebuke “those who continue in sin … in the presence of all, so that the rest also may be fearful of sinning” (1 Timothy 5:20, NASB). The spiritual health and eternal destination of people, the purity and effectiveness of the witness of the church, and the reputation of the holy God we serve will need to be our motivation, not our own popularity, the numerical growth or financial stability of our church, or the comfort of the person in sin.
Those of us in positions of leadership must also remain true to our historically and biblically based position on free will and the possibility of voluntary forfeiture of right relationship with God.3 It is not enough to merely give intellectual assent to this important tenet of our faith. We must be willing to go against current trends and make this position a regular emphasis of our preaching and teaching. Most adults and youth in our Movement with whom I have discussed this issue are not even aware that the Assemblies of God has an official position. Even more important than disseminating information, however, is our pastoral responsibility to warn backsliders of their spiritually dangerous position and challenge people to live holy lives that will please God and win unbelievers. On this matter, the official Web site of the Assemblies of God says:
“In our Fellowship we believe carelessness can lead to apathy, apathy to neglect, and neglect to a conscious decision to sin. We often refer to this spiritual decline as backsliding. We believe one who backslides is in danger of losing his salvation if the individual persists in rejecting the Spirit’s call to repentance and restoration.”4
If this is what we believe, we need to begin to address the seriousness of continuous, conscious mutiny against the mastery of the Lord Jesus over various aspects of our own lives and the lives of our parishioners. This includes (but not limited to) gossip, manipulation, self-indulgence, gluttony, hedonism, pornography, and sexual immorality. Let’s recommit to proclaiming God’s perspective as found in Scripture on the issues we are addressing. No matter how lofty our goals, no motivation to alter the message of Scripture can ever be justified. His Word convicts, renews, transforms, and sets free, not our new and improved version of it. Let’s discipline ourselves and help our listeners learn to process issues and build faith systems on the Word of God rather than personal opinion/feelings or pop theology/psychology. Perhaps then God will trust us with the power and numerical growth for which we have been yearning and praying for so long.
1. Statement of Fundamental Truths, art. 1. Assemblies of God Fundamental Truths can be downloaded at http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Statement_of_Fundamental_Truths/sft_full.cfm#1
2. Scripture quotations marked NASB are taken from the New American Standard BibleÂ®, Copyright Â© 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)
3. General Council of the Assemblies of God Bylaws, art. 9b, sec. 1.
4. “Security of the Believer (Backsliding),” available from http://www.ag.org/top/Beliefs/gendoct_09_security.cfm; accessed 19 April 2007.