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The Nature of Sin

“Does sin have sizes or degrees?” This question was posed to me during our missionary church planting context in Tenerife. Maybe you have asked the same or similar question. Why would we ask this question? Maybe we have wanted to win a theological debate, justify ourselves for committing a lesser sin, validate a penance requiring sin, or because we confuse consequences of sin with the nature of sin.

For instance, we might consider the consequences of a bank robbery to be more severe than a candy bar robbery at the local grocery. A drug addiction might be considered more serious than the gluttony of a chocolate addiction. However, this reasoning is erroneous for at least two reasons: (1) Sin tends to be habitual, such that the candy bar theft that is not corrected can lead to the bank theft. The “size” is not the issue, but rather the “trajectory” of sin, to such an extent that if we never repent, we will remain under the eternal judgement of God. (2) Sin separates us from God, not because of its “size” but because of its “nature”.

The Bible defines sin as the infraction of the law (1 John 3:4), unrighteous activity (1 John 5:17), and falling short of God’s moral standard (Romans 3:23). None of these are predicated upon the size or the degree of the wrong doing. Jay walking and speeding are equally infractions of the law. Cheating on an exam and cheating on tax filing are equally unrighteous activities. Murdering the reputation of someone with your mouth and taking the life of someone in a homicide are equally falling short of God’s moral standard. All unrighteousness is sin, all unrighteousness is wrong, all unrighteousness merits judgement.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) make no distinction between respect for your parents and respect for your neighbor’s property. Lists in the Bible of sin (Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:5-8; Revelation 22:15) do not differentiate between sizes and degrees. The Apostle Paul writes that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). He includes in his list attitudes like greed and envy as well as actions like slander and disobedience to parents, and concludes with the indictment that “those who practice such things are worthy of death” (Romans 1:32).

We as humans might try to categorize sin by sizes and degrees, but not so with God. All sin separates us eternally from God. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). Jesus described hell as the physical location where unbelieving sinners are sent to be separated eternally from God, not just because of heinous sin like malice and murder, but also seemingly tame sin like greed and gossip. God’s just and merciful solution was to send His righteous Son, Jesus Christ, as the sacrificial payment for us an unbelievers that we might be delivered from the wrath of God and gifted with eternal life (Ephesians 1:7; 2:4-5; Colossians 2:13; Titus 3:3-5; 1 Peter 3:18).

However, sin not only separates the unbeliever eternally from God. Sin also separates the believer relationally from Christ. The Apostle John wrote his first epistle to show us the way of genuine fellowship with Christ, and consequently fellowship with one another. “If we say we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). “Walk in darkness” means to walk in sin, with no reference to size or degree. All unrighteous attitudes like bitterness, lust, and worry, together with all unrighteous actions like not forgiving, not controlling our eyes, and hoarding for self-needs equate to walking in darkness, and thus not enjoying fellowship with God nor with one another.

Sin separates us relationally from the Lord Jesus and from one another. The result is resentment toward one another, accusations, distrust, conflict, touchiness, moodiness, and self-defense. But… when “we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). That is, when we admit to and acknowledge any and all sin, regardless of size, we enjoy closeness with Christ, and consequently closeness with one another.

Roy Hession, in his book The Calvary Road (easy to read because it is short, but hard to read because it cuts to the soul) describes this as the process of ongoing revival in which we as believers are filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit. He writes, “All we have to do is to present our empty, broken self and let Him fill and keep filled… He looks into our cup and if it is clean, He fills to overflowing with the Water of Life… Only one thing prevents Jesus filling our cups as He passes by, and that is sin in one of its thousand forms. The Lord Jesus does not fill dirty cups. Anything that springs from self, however small it may be, is sin. Self-energy or self-complacency in service is sin. Self-pity in trials or difficulties, self-seeking in business or Christian work, self-indulgence in one’s spare time, sensitiveness, touchiness, resentment and self-defense when we are hurt or injured by others, self-consciousness, reserve, worry, fear, all spring from self and all are sin and make our cups unclean… if we will allow Him to show us what is in our cups and then give it to Him, He will cleanse them in the precious Blood that still flows for sin… And as He cleanses our cups, so He fills them to overflowing with His Holy Spirit.”

So we return to the question, “Does sin have sizes or degrees?” Some would argue “yes”, but I do not have time to offer rebuttal here. I would argue “no”. All our sin, regardless of size, has required the sacrificial death of Jesus to provide for our eternal forgiveness and efficacious cleansing. Let’s walk in the light!