Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Greater Sin

Let’s take it as read that all sins are bad by definition. Offensive to God. Destructive to human will, life, character, testimony and interaction. They contaminate the present, give the lie to the past and, even when repented of, may negatively impact the future.

(When considered against the backdrop of the cross of Jesus Christ they’re actually worse than that, but this is intended to be more practical than theological.)

The thing is, not all sins are equally bad.

The Equality of Sin

Sure, any sin separates us from God. All sins need to be recognized, forsaken and repented of. In that sense, the smallest sin endangers the unbeliever’s eternal prospects as much as the vilest offence.

Likewise, the most far-reaching and grievous acts of the will can be forgiven as easily as the smallest departures of the thought life. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”.

Or, to put it another way:
“The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”
Sometimes those old hymnwriters really nail it.

But the words “all unrighteousness” sound a little egalitarian, and might lead us to conclude that all sins are pretty much equal in some ways. And, sure, with respect to the issues of separation from God and the opportunity for repentance, they are. More or less.

The Inequality of Sin

Still, in another sense, all sins are not the least bit equal. I remember teaching Sunday School years ago and being asked a question along the lines of this: “If lust is a sin anyway, what does it matter if we act on it?”

Good question. From our personal perspective, perhaps it doesn’t. Much. But if you or I become agents through which temptation (and ultimately disobedience to God) is transmitted into the actions, words or thoughts of others, then surely we have added other sins to our original offence, have we not? My sin in such a situation is surely greater than it would have been had it remained in my head, solely between me and God.

There are “greater sins”, and scripture speaks of them:
“So Pilate said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.’ ”
Who would that be, I wonder. Caiaphas, perhaps? Judas? We are not told. The takeaway, though, is that some choices are worse than others.

The Greater Sin and Genesis 25

All of this is going through my head as I read Genesis 25, in which older brother Esau is cheated out of his birthright by Jacob, his younger brother. The last line in the chapter sums it up this way:
“Thus Esau despised his birthright.”
Interesting. That would not be my take. If I had been asked to summarize that chapter, I would have said something like, “Thus Jacob stole his brother’s birthright”. The major moral lesson I would be inclined to draw is that stealing from your family is pretty wicked and that Jacob was not, in his natural state, a nice person. Any sin on Esau’s part might easily have escaped my notice.

But the narrative of Genesis 25 emphasizes not Jacob’s sneakiness and calculated theft of his brother’s rightful possession, but rather Esau’s failure to value the calling and promises of God. The “greater sin” here, it seems, is not Jacob’s moral turpitude but Esau’s lack of interest in what God might have had in store for him.

Tentative conclusion: Being consistently moral is a great thing. Being conscious of what God values and valuing it as he does is even better.

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