Written by Sam Logan
Wednesday, 15 May 2013 00:00
Well, the answer to this question is like the answers to so many similar questions – no, there is absolutely no hierarchy of sins and yes, there certainly is a hierarchy of sins.
This blog will explore briefly the “no” answer while my next two blogs will explore the “yes” answer.
So – in defense of answering “no,” to our question, here are a few points:
1. The nature of God
Here is where all discussions of subjects such as these must begin, with the character of the Lord God. He is not “largely good.” He is not even “mostly good.” He is, in His very nature, absolute perfection. Part of that perfection is His holiness, His purity, His righteousness. J. I. Packer’s Knowing God is the best book I know in terms of giving a clear picture both of who God is and what this means.
Isaiah gives a clear picture:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
In light of who God is, even the slightest sin is an abomination. Any sin is sufficient to separate us from God precisely because the Lord of hosts is holy, holy, holy. No hierarchy here!
2. The need for absolute and constant obedience
Jonathan Edwards, in his treatise on “Original Sin” provides two superb examples in response to theoretical claims that a “preponderance” of obedience is adequate.
Therefore how absurd must it be for Christians to object, against the depravity of man’s nature, a greater number of innocent and kind actions, than of crimes; and to talk of a prevailing innocence, good nature, industry, and cheerfulness of the greater part of mankind! Infinitely more absurd, than it would be to insist, that the domestic of a prince was not a bad servant, because though sometimes he contemned and affronted his master to a great degree, yet he did not spit in his master’s face so often as he performed acts of service. More absurd, than it would be to affirm, that his spouse was a good wife to him, because, although she committed adultery, and that with the slaves and scoundrels sometimes, yet she did not do this so often as she did the duties of a wife. These notions would be absurd, because the crimes are too heinous to be atoned for, by many honest actions of the servant or spouse of the prince; there being a vast disproportion between the merit of the one, and the ill desert of the other: but infinitely less, than that between the demerit of our offenses against God, and the value of our acts of obedience.
No hierarchy here!
3. The need for active internal as well as external obedience
Because of who God is, it is required that His creatures not only avoid those behaviors which He proscribes; it is equally required that they perform every single one of the duties which He commands. And even THAT is not all – it is further required that God’s creatures do all that He commands out of a heart’s disposition which “relishes” His glory most of all.
In his discussion of “Original Sin,” Jonathan Edwards makes this point:
The sum of our duty to God, required in his law, is LOVE; taking love in a large sense, for the true regard of our hearts to GOD, implying esteem, honor, benevolence, gratitude, complacence, etc. . . . But it is manifest, that obedience is nothing, any otherwise than as a testimony of the respect of our hearts to God: without the heart, man’s external acts are no more than the motions of the limbs of a wooden image; have no more of the nature of either sin or righteousness. It must therefore needs be that love to God, the respect of the heart, must be the sum of the duty required in his law. It therefore appears from the premises, that whosoever withholds more of that love or respect of heart from God, which his law requires, than he affords, has more sin than righteousness. [Emphasis added]
Whoever, therefore, does not love God as much as God should be loved is a living offense in the sight of God. The slightest “want” of love to God is, in itself, sin. No hierarchy here!
4. The necessity of Jesus
Because of items #1 and #2,
“None is righteous, no, not one;no one understands; no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3: 10 – 12)
And Paul’s argument through the rest of Romans 3, 4, and 5, is that precisely because ANY sin condemns the sinner, Jesus’s life and death and resurrection were all necessary if anyone was to be saved:
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. (Romans 5: 18)
Just as the very character of God demands perfect obedience and just as that demand includes positive action and motivation, so the redemptive work of Jesus Christ makes it clear that the price He paid is both essential and adequate for every single sinner who turns to Him. No hierarchy here!
Therefore, it seems completely clear that, in one sense, the answer to our question must be, “No, there is no hierarchy of sins.”
And yet, . . .
Check back tomorrow to see if there might be another way in which this question should be answered.
Sam Logan is Special Counsel to the President and Professor of Church History at Biblical. He also serves as the International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship (www.wrfnet.org). He is an ordained minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is President Emeritus of Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia).. He is married to Susan and they have two sons and two grandsons. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/samuel-logan