All sins are equal. That was a common refrain that echoed through the rural churches of my childhood. This phrase is and will always be an axiom of my upbringing: Never did I doubt this statement’s veracity until I was in high school. As is so often the case with doubts, this problem, which now seems simple, seemed at the time quite perplexing. Thus, it wasn’t until I had two years of seminary under my belt that I nailed the coffin shut on my questions.
During the time of my doubt, what plagued me was the fact that I knew that we were all guilty of sin and that my sins were just as serious as any other person’s sins. I read the words of James who claimed that “whoever keeps the entire law, and yet stumbles at just one point, is guilty of breaking it all.” According to this and the following verses, what matters isn’t so much the details of the sin: What matters is the fact of the sin. Whether I deceive or defraud, lust or lie, the fact is that I’ve become a lawbreaker. Thus, all sins seem to be equal because all sins are equally damning.
Not only did the Bible teach that all sins are equal, I saw numerous benefits for retaining this belief. For one, the position that all sins are equal served as a guard against the local church’s propensity towards judgment. If we believe that all sins are equal, it’s quite difficult for me to judge the person on the other end of the pew for his alcohol abuse since my tendency to lie for personal gain makes me just guilty. Though outwardly I may appear cleaner, I know that inwardly I’m as much a wretch as my neighbor, if not more.
Not only did the equality of sin rage against my own sanctimonious judgments, I believed the equality of all sins to be a powerful motivator for the local church’s mission. Instead of looking at a person and thinking that their sins put them too far from Christ, the local church member is told to see someone that is only as bad as the person in the mirror. By making all men equally bad, this belief gave all men equal potential: For if all sins are equal and God conquered my selfishness, then God can certainly conquer the sins of a woman and her girlfriend. If all sins are equal, no one is a lost cause.
Thus, I had great reason to retain my belief that all sins were equal: There were adequate biblical and pragmatic bases for this idea.
However, when I looked at the world, I never could quiet the voice in my head whispering that some sins are clearly worse than others. I, for one, would much rather someone lie to me than assault me because assault carries some quality that lying does not: This quality, I feared, is that assault is in some way worse than lying. Indeed, our entire legal system is predicated upon the assumption that not all sins—or crimes—are equal: When we agree that the man who rapes deserves a stricter punishment than the man who stole a Gatorade from a local gas station, we are tacitly assuming that rape is a worse sin than petty theft. Thus, while I wanted to believe that all sins were equal, different sins certainly seemed to carry a different level of immorality.
Not only did my experience say that not all sins are equal, I saw examples within scripture of God rewarding people for committing one sin in the name of avoiding a different sin. Take, for example, Exodus 1.15-21: In this passage, Pharaoh commands the Hebrew midwives to kill all boys born to Hebrew mothers. When the midwives don’t follow orders, they are called before Pharaoh to explain themselves. The midwives then reproduce a premeditated, rehearsed, and practiced lie. Instead of being angry, God rewards the midwives for the lie. The reason, I assumed, is that killing infants is a worse sin than lying to a despot.
Thus, while scripture seemed to teach that all sins are equal, God seemed to act like some sins are worse than others; while my reason said that belief in the equality of sin was beneficial, my reason also said that this belief was not practical.
Finally, I resolved the conflict: The truth is that all sins are both equal and unequal at the same time but not in the same sense.
The level of seriousness of a given sin is revealed by the level of punishment the sin brings. Now, all sins carry two types of penalties: eternal penalties and temporal penalties. The eternal punishment is the ultimate punishment that a person may have to pay upon leaving the earth. The temporal penalty, however, is the penalty that must be paid while still on earth.
Eternally, all sins are equal because all sins bring the same penalty. From God’s perspective, what matters about sin is the guilt incurred through the sin. I am lazy, you set your neighbor’s house on fire, and John Doe divorces his wife because she burned his toast this morning: God’s declares that we are all guilty and deserving of punishment for our actions. From God’s perspective, then, all sin is equally bad and results in equal separation from himself. However we may draw the lines, regardless of the things we tell ourselves to quiet our inflamed consciences, from God’s perspective, we are each guilty and deserving of eternal punishment for our sins. I am as bad as my neighbor, and my neighbor has as much potential as me.
The eternal penalty for sin is approximately the same for all who pay it. Though there can be differences in the details, the root of sin’s eternal punishment is eternal separation from God in hell. No matter what we’ve done, every single sin leads to the same eternal penalty. The heartbeat of Christianity, however, is that Jesus died on the cross to remove the eternal penalty for the sins we’ve committed.
While all sins are equal from an eternal perspective, from a temporal perspective, some sins are much worse than others. We intuitively recognize that assault with a deadly weapon is worse than mere assault; similarly, stealing 100 million dollars is a more serious offense than stealing 100 dollars. Likewise, I would rather a person lie to me than assault me because assaulting a person is almost always worse than lying to a person. From our perspective, then, sins are rarely equal.
While Christ died and rose to forgive the eternal penalty for sins, we still bear the temporal penalty for sins. If Jones robs a bank and goes to jail, he can cry out to Christ for forgiveness from his prison cell and be forgiven for his wrongdoings—including the bank robbery; however, though Christ has negated the eternal consequences, Jones will remain in jail because his prison sentence is the temporal consequence of his sins. Similarly, though I know Christ, if I make a habit of not returning things I borrow from others, Christ can forgive me of my theft, but my neighbor may not allow me to borrow their crockpot.
So, in a sense, all sins are equal: Because of our sins, we’re all separated from God no matter what we have done. However, in a different sense, not all sins are equal: Some are heinous while others are hardly worth mentioning.
 James 2.10, CSB.