Ted Grimsrud—January 27, 2012
In the Introduction to Theology class yesterday, I asked students to share questions they have about God. Some common themes came up: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? How could it be that a merciful God would send people to hell for eternal punishment? Are all sins the same before God?
For some reason, this third question got my attention. I have heard this kind of thing often, but some reason I was struck at that moment in class with the need to try to understand better why someone would think all sins might be the same.
So, we ended up with a pretty lively discussion. But I wasn’t really much more enlightened afterward than I had been before. It struck me as terribly counter-intuitive to imagine that “all sins are the same”—not to mention potentially pretty problematic in terms of human behavior and spirituality.
It turned out that several students spoke up indicating that they definitely believe this idea. The student who raised the question wasn’t sure she still believes it, but when I asked why she would ever have believed it, she kind of shrugged and said, “This is what I was taught.” Another student said that it was what she was taught, too, and that she still believed it—“It says something somewhere in the Bible that this is true.”
We talked about how in our lives we would tend to see some sins as different than others. We would all rather be lied to than murdered! So, I was puzzled what gives this idea of the equality of sins traction. Now, in this class most of the students are fairly new to college and new to theology as a subject for study. Just about all are Christians and churchgoers, but their beliefs tend to be mostly things they have inherited. I expect in a couple of years, they will be thinking with much more self-awareness about their Christian convictions.
Where does this idea about sin come from?
After some reflection after class, I formulated a theory that could explain at least part of the appeal this idea about sin has—and why thinking about issue is quite relevant to our doctrine of God (“Theology” proper)—and, of course, to how we think about salvation.
I perceive there is a strong connection between belief in God as a punisher, the assumption that God will only accept pure or holy or perfect people, the belief in Jesus’ death as a necessary sacrifice to God as the basis for our salvation, the belief that the crucial element of salvation is going to heaven when we die, the understanding that sin has mostly to do with violating God’s commands—and the belief that all sins are the same before God.
The basic idea is that all it takes for a human being to be condemned to hell is one blemish, one imperfection; that is, all it takes is one sin. And it doesn’t really matter what the sin is. To think that we want to kill someone marks us as a sinner just as surely as actually killing that person.
So we have a constellation of beliefs in relation to the all-sins-as-equal idea. Sin is seen as something that separates us from God and requires God’s punishment. When the Bible talks about sin, in this view, it is mainly to condemn it and to promise condemnation for sinners—providing we don’t trust in Jesus as Savior, the one who takes God’s righteous punishment on himself as a substitute for we who deserve the punishment.
Salvation is mainly about going to heaven when we die. Sin is a problem mainly because it will prevent us from going to heaven (more so, it will lead to our condemnation in the eternal torments of hell). Hence, for all practical purposes the criminal on the cross next to Jesus who trusts in him after a life, presumably, of terrible sin is just as saved as someone like Paul the Apostle, whose life was profoundly transformed long before his death leading to tremendously fruitful acts of faithfulness.
The essence of sin is the violation of God’s commands. When we do so, we are manifesting impurity—and a holy God simply cannot be in the presence of impurity. God’s character requires that God punish everyone who violates God’s commands. Hence, again, there is not really any difference in the scheme of things between a serial violator and one who just fails occasionally to follow the required perfect obedience.
We didn’t talk about these underlying beliefs in our discussion yesterday in class. Chances are we will, and chances are many of the students will more or less affirm this schema of belief—though chances are not that many of them would make all these points on their own.
I expect, though, were the students to be asked why they think these things, most would respond similarly to how the students responded to the questions I did ask: “This is just what I was taught.” “It says something somewhere in the Bible.”
Several classes ago, we talked about what I labeled “embedded theology”—the beliefs that we absorb in our early years of life from our environment (family, church, friends, wider culture, etc.) before we really think about them. With our embedded theology, we are not that likely to be able explain why we think the things we think. Those thoughts are just there.
So, it would appear that this belief that “all sins are the same before God” is likely a clear case of embedded theology. That this is true does not in itself invalidate the belief—for most of us as we grow older and begin to work at “deliberative theology,” we tend mostly to affirm our embedded theology, but with more reasons, more self-consciousness, more sense that these beliefs are our choice.
Part of the work of deliberative theology is to help us to test our embedded theology and see what parts of it we actually want to affirm. In relation to our question at hand about sin, maybe moving more into a deliberative mode will help us decide whether this idea really does withstand scrutiny—along with the accompanying ideas I mentioned above.
Deliberating about our beliefs about sin
Most Christians would agree that their theology should in some significant sense be based on the teachings of the Bible—both direct teaching and teaching through stories and historical accounts. How do the ideas about sin that I have mentioned actually withstand scrutiny in light of the Bible?
I won’t give evidence here, but simply suggest that the Bible can be read to point in quite different directions than the sin theology I have summarized above.
Quite often the Bible seems to view sin not so much as something that is important because of the inevitable punishment it brings but rather as something that is important because naming it can help the sinner find healing. That is, in the Bible sin is not a condition to evoke retributive nearly so much as a condition to evoke restorative justice. God’s response to sinful humanity is not so much, “get out of my sight before I destroy you,” as it is “how can I find a way to help you find wholeness and healing.”
The Bible, especially when we take seriously (as Jesus obviously did) the message of the Old Testament, portrays salvation much more in terms of the transformation of life beginning in the present than simply going to heaven after death. Salvation is linked with the commands not in the sense that the commands show us that we are hopeless sinners (since we can’t keep them perfectly) but in the sense that God offers healing out of mercy and as part of that healing gives the commands as gifts to guide trusting humanity toward transformation in the here and now.
The problem of sin is not mainly about breaking rules, violating commands. God in the Bible seems to recognize that humanity will not perfectly obey—there is always forgiveness when people turn to God in repentance, there are allowances made for restoring wholeness when it is diminished. The big problem is idolatry, trusting in gods other than the true God, letting “things made by human hands” replace God as the object of ultimate loyalty. That is, the problem is the breaking of the relationship (not the breaking of the rules). Even the idea of God as a “jealous God” is relational, not legalistic. God’s ire (grief, sorrow) is raised by violated relationships not simply broken rules (where each violation [“sin”] is considered equal to another). Hence, God wants the relationship restored—punishment is not the answer.
Starting with Jesus
I believe that the order we follow when we take up the main doctrines in Christian theology is quite important. And the first doctrine, it seems to me, needs to be the doctrine of Jesus. If we start with Jesus, we will look at everything else differently.
We see this clearly in relation to our doctrine of God—and more specifically in relation to the are-all-sins-equal question. If we start with our embedded theology’s notion of God as holy judge who cannot be around sin without destroying the sinner, God as retributive and requiring a perfect sacrifice to redirect God’s just and destructive anger from sinful humanity and puts it on our perfect substitute instead, then we will be led to see all sins as equal. [By the way, it is here that we also can see why beliefs in Jesus’ virgin birth and his sinlessness gain their importance—what matters is his being able to be a spotless sacrifice.]
However, if we start with Jesus, we are likely to have a different notion of God and, hence, a different response to this all-sins-are-equal question. Let’s just take one crucial image that Jesus gives us of God and one crucial example of how Jesus responded to sin.
The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is one of Jesus most famous parables. One standard interpretation is to read it as a statement about God’s mercy that seeks to restore rather than punish. The younger son couldn’t really have been more sinful (disrespecting his father, repudiating his own family and his Jewish faith, wasting his inheritance through sinful excess). He nearly starves to death and decides to return, having rehearsed a confessional speech that would conclude in a request to join his father’s servants. But before he can get word one out, his father runs to him, embraces him, and welcomes him back into the family.
Also in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus shows unconditional mercy toward a sinful “woman of the city” who washes his feet with her tears (7:36-50). Unlike the great story of mercy in response to the woman caught in adultery, here Jesus does not even state, “go and sin no more.” He simply offers forgiveness.
If we take as our starting point in thinking about God these two stories (and, of course, there are many others in the Gospels as well as more direct teaching—e.g., “be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful), we will have a much different understanding of sin than that linked with the “all-sins-are-equal” idea. And we will be freed to see the rest of the Bible in this light.
How then to think about sin
Certainly, “sin” is an important theme in the Bible—as it should be in our theology today. Paul’s teaching that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) should be an important part of our theology. But we must notice two things about Paul’s thought. One is that by “all” here he is talking about both Jews and Gentiles. This is part of his argument against the exclusiveness of people of Torah. So his point is that no effort at creating boundaries between the righteous and unrighteous that would ensure our own salvation can work. He’s not saying that each sin is equally bad; he’s saying we all need to be saved by God’s mercy. And the second point is that indeed this mercy is available—apart from any kind of righteousness/ retribution/punishment scheme. It is pure mercy—we simply need to trust in it.
That is, the point in thinking about sin is not to reveal how angry and punitive God is. It is to emphasize how merciful God is—for the purpose of bringing about transformation in our lives here and now. Paul especially details the shape of this transformation in Romans 12 where he talks about life in the here and now as the location where salvation is embodied.
One last point about sin in the Bible is that because it is a relational concept, violating the relationship with God perhaps most often leads to sins against other human beings—sin as harm-doing. Thus Jesus’ greatest command is to love God and neighbor. The fruit of experiencing salvation (as restored relationships with God) inevitably will be healing in human relationship. That is, a major reason to think about sin is in order to overcome the problems of brokenness among human beings.