Written by Sam Logan
Thursday, 16 May 2013 00:00
Well, the answer to this question is like the answers to so many similar questions – no, there is no hierarchy of sins and yes, there certainly is a hierarchy of sins.
My previous blog explored briefly the “no” answer while this blog and the next one will explore the “yes” answer.
We must admit that there is no direct and specific Scriptural evidence in support of answering “yes” to this question. But that, of course, is true of many doctrines which we regard as clear Scriptural teaching. One example of this would be the doctrine of the Trinity. That doctrine is, correctly in my judgment, deduced from numerous Scriptural passages such as Genesis 1:26 [“Let US make man in OUR image, after OUR likeness”], where the “us” and the “our” are grounds for deducing, at the very least, plurality in God.
Further, many of the historic orthodox statements of faith specifically provide warrant for using deduction in the formation of doctrine. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture “ (emphasis added). Of course, all churches, including (perhaps especially) those for which the Westminster Confession is regarded as authoritative, provide numerous examples of in-fighting over just what is and what is not “good and necessary consequence,” but my point is that all churches do, at some point, utilize deduction in reaching doctrinal conclusions.
So we must “deduce” a “yes” answer from Scripture. But can we? If so, which specific Scripture passages?
1. The Book of Leviticus
The Book of Leviticus is full of God’s commandments to His people. Chapter and chapter after chapter provides direct and infallible instruction with regard to what God’s people are to do, what they are not to do, and what happens if they disobey. And over and over again, God Himself makes distinctions among the sins in terms of what is needed to “pay for” each of the sins. Chapter Five is particularly specific in indicating that different sins warrant different sacrifices. There seems to be a clear hierarchy here.
2. Acts 15
The entirety of this chapter seems to deal specifically with the question of what ceremonial laws are SO IMPORTANT that even the Gentiles must keep them. And the conclusion is equally clear: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” Whatever the reason for this particular distinction, there can be no question that a very specific distinction is being made. There seems to be a clear hierarchy here.
3. I Timothy 3
The same is true on the “positive” side. As Paul outlines the qualifications of “overseers,” he mentions numerous spiritual characteristics that are required of such persons. He could simply have told Timothy that overseers must conform to all the commands mentioned in Scripture; instead, he identifies certain qualities which must be present in those who would lead Christ’s church. Of course, overseers should obey the whole law of Christ but they must have these specific qualities. There seems to be a clear hierarchy here.
So there does seem to be Scriptural grounds on which to deduce that there is a hierarchy of sins.
But one final point needs to be made before moving, as I will do in my next blog, to discuss what sins seem to be “worst.”
That final point picks up on my argument in the previous blog that ANY sin renders an individual personally disqualified for eternal life in the presence of the Triune God. If that is the case, what difference does it make if some sins are more “serious” than others. All three of the above-cited passages help us to answer this question.
Eternal punishment for sin is not the only punishment about which the Bible speaks. Some sins, whether committed by the regenerate or by the unregenerate, bring temporal judgment on the sinner. Take, for example, the story of Ananias and Sapphirain Acts 5 (which I will discuss more fully in my next blog). They sinned by lying to God’s representative and, by inference, to God Himself. And they received temporal punishment for that sin – they both were killed. Scripture does not comment on their eternal destiny and we should not either. But it is clear that this particular sin produced particular immediate temporal judgment.
Similarly, as in the I Timothy passage quoted above, certain forms of obedient behavior are regarded as essential for temporal offices and/or activities. Paul is not telling Timothy in I Timothy 3 that only those possessing the qualities he names will go to heaven. He is simply saying that those qualities are necessary for the office of an overseer. Therefore, we should, I believe, regard those specific forms of obedience as related to temporal, not eternal, realities.
So arguing that there is, in one sense, a hierarchy of sins does not involve us in any form of “salvation by works” theology. It simply reflects accurately Scriptural teaching.
But what are the “worst” sins? I will try to address this question in my next blog.
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