Degrees of Sin

Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given to you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin’” (Jn. 19:11).

- John 19:1-16

James 2:10 tells us that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” In other words, if through our own efforts we expect to be accounted righteous in God’s sight apart from Christ, then we must be perfectly obedient. To fail in one point is to fail utterly and completely, for our Creator’s perfect holiness demands justice for even the slightest transgression. We need the righteousness of another to be put on our record because none of us has ever kept the standards of the Lord flawlessly. When we trust Christ alone, His record of perfection is imputed to us, and so we can enter into eternal life as those who have a record of obedience to the Father (2 Cor. 5:21). This is wholly by grace since Jesus credited our account with His obedience and we have done nothing to deserve it.

That one sin is enough to condemn us to hell, however, does not mean that all sins are evil to the same degree and that the consequences for our errors are all the same. God may condemn even the smallest sin, but the punishment of the “virtuous pagan” will be less severe in hell than the one who puts every immoral thought and desire into practice, because the scope of the former person’s sins is not as large as the latter one’s. To be sure, hell will be awful for both, but as one theologian has noted, all the sinners in hell would move heaven and earth if they could remove but one transgression from their record and have their punishment even barely alleviated.

Many portions of Scripture, including today’s passage, tell us there are degrees of sin, guilt, and punishment. The Jewish authorities who turned Jesus over to Rome were guilty of a greater evil than Pilate was because they had greater access to God’s revelation and had less reason for refusing to acknowledge Christ’s identity (John 19:1–16). Punishments under the old covenant civil law were meted out according to the circumstances of the crime (for instance, see Ex. 21:28–32). Those who are ignorant of the Master’s will receive fewer lashes in the end than those who know the Master’s will and are disobedient (Luke 12:35–48). Note, however, that even though ignorance may alleviate the consequences for sin, it cannot excuse sin entirely. Our representative, Adam chose his path — apart from the knowledge of God — and we all follow suit. Thus, we are culpable for our ignorance (Rom. 1:18–32; 5:12–21).

Coram Deo

That there are degrees of punishment in hell according to the extent of one’s sin means that there are also degrees of reward in heaven according to how we obey. Our obedience, to be sure, cannot earn eternal life, but once we are admitted into the kingdom by grace alone through faith alone, what we do in service to Christ earns for us, by His grace, rewards in heaven. Let us serve Him that our rewards might be even greater (1 Cor. 3:1–15).

Passages for Further Study

Exodus 21:12–14
Matthew 25:14–30

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