The Hierarchy of Sin

Very few people are likely to read this essay because ASND is not a Web site devoted to essays (at least not my own essays; ASND is, however, devoted to publishing excerpts from and links to tens of thousands of other people’s essays).  On this particular topic, though, the quality of essays I examined to feature on  this page  (where this essay is cited) regarding the biblical hierarchy of sin were substandard… not so much in what they included but rather in what they omitted.  Very little attention in those essays was paid to the subject of how Christians are called to consider the biblical hierarchy of sin when voting.  My point in this essay, then, is to a) validate the existence of a biblical hierarchy of sin so that we can then b) discern and define the structure of that hierarchy, i.e. which sins occupy regions of lesser and which sins occupy regions of greater egregiousness against God’s standard of holiness.  With that hierarchical structure in mind, then, Christians can be informed about (as they are already  without excuse  for ignoring) how they  should live  — including how they  should vote  — as followers of Christ.

Regarding the existence of a biblical hierarchy of sin, a citation from what I consider to be the most succinctly enunciated systematic theology ever written — The Westminster Shorter Catechism — is ideally suited as an introduction:

Q. 83. Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?

A. Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others

https://www.apuritansmind.com/westminster-standards/shorter-catechism/

The WSC then cites  Ezek 8:6 , 8:13 , &  8:15 ,  Mat 11:20-14 , and  John 19:11  as proof texts for that answer.  Not surprisingly, another source quoted often on theologically-devoted pages of ASND expounded on that last verse when acknowledging and defending the existence of a biblical hierarchy of sin.

Many evangelical Protestants have rejected the idea of degrees of sin because they know that the Protestant Reformation rejected the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins.  As a result, [those evangelicals have] jumped to the conclusion that there are no distinctions between sins in Protestantism…  [But we] should return to the views of the Reformers themselves…  [John] Calvin and every one of the Reformers strenuously maintained that there is a difference between lesser sins and what they called gross and heinous sins…  [For example,] Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, “He who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11).  Jesus measures and evaluates guilt, and with the greater guilt and greater responsibility comes the greater judgment.  It’s a motif that permeates the New Testament…  [It leads to correct conclusions such as…] The judgment of actual adultery will be much more severe than the judgment upon  lust .

https://www.ligonier.org/blog/are-there-degrees-sin/

Other credentialed and gifted biblical scholars have likewise cited and explicated various biblical acknowledgments of God’s hierarchy of sin.

[T]he Bible differentiates between sins.  Some sins are more severe in terms of impact ( 1 Cor 6:18 ), in terms of culpability ( Rom 1:21-32 ), and in terms of the judgment warranted ( 2 Pet 2:17Mark 9:42James 3:1 ).

https://www.michaeljkruger.com/taking-back-christianese-6-all-sins-are-equal-in-gods-sight/

As the WSC citation references above confirm, Jesus was far from the first person to reveal His (i.e. God’s) hierarchy of sin.  The Old Testament citations from the prophet Ezekiel would have been well known to Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries.  Another OT example of the hierarchy of sin with which the Jews of Jesus’ day would have been immanently familiar was the account in  1Samuel 15  of God’s rejection of Israel’s first king (Saul) where the prophet Samuel berates Saul for his sin by  saying ,

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
    as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
    and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has also rejected you from being king.

This is another of several OT examples where God’s people willfully ignored the forest because of all the trees.  God had indeed designated animal sacrifices as a symbolic part of His law (which sacrifices pointed to the ultimate sacrifice that  only Messiah  — Christ — could, and eventually would, be able to fulfill).  But God had also made abundantly clear that obedience to His commands (including, and especially, the commands given in the  decalogue , more commonly called the Ten Commandments) was hierarchically preeminent to symbolic acts of contrition in presumptive expectation of God’s blessing (which is exactly what Saul had done).  Saul had cherry picked from the Mosaic law and obeyed only the commands that were convenient and expedient for him to obey at the time (i.e. offering sacrifices in a choreographed, theatrical farce to convince his Jewish subjects that he was on God’s side and would therefore receive God’s blessing in future conquests).  Saul did this rather than do the hard work of following the explicit command of God to destroy those animals (and other spoils of war) whenever and wherever they were encountered.  Saul ignored God’s hierarchy of obedience and became another deserving recipient of the consequences of God’s hierarchy of sin.

Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, many contemporary Christians will also recognize the so-called list of “seven deadly sins” elucidated in the Old Testament book of  Proverbs 6:16-19 .   That list of sins includes (in order of appearance) pride, dishonesty, violence (against innocents), malice aforethought, acting on that malice (which often includes violence against innocents), slander (which includes dishonesty), and well-poisoning (i.e. attempting to divide godly fellowship for personal gain).  This particular list of sins (which sins, btw, are not called “deadly” anywhere in the Bible) is included among those which God “hates” because they are “abonimations” to Him.  God does not use those terms for every sin He cites, however.  He uses those terms only when sins are so egregious that they appear very high on His hierarchy of sin.  The word “abomination“, btw, is used several times in the New Testament (dozens of times in the Old Testament) to describe God’s view of sexual immorality, which includes His view on  homosexualityprostitution , and  extra-marital  sex (which includes  pre-marital  sex).  Notice, though, that neither the sins of adultery or  lust  (from the article quoted near the top of this essay) are included on the Proverbial list of sins.  Adultery certainly is listed, though, on  another list  in the New Testament.  Notice, also, that this particular sin list (like  other  lists ) does not appear to be presented in hierarchical order since the much greater sin of murder falls behind the much lesser sins of pride and dishonesty.  While several biblical sin lists are indeed non-hierarchical in format, we will show below that there is one preeminent sin list — the  decalogue  — that most certainly is hierarchical.

Moving forward to the New Testament, Jesus provided several examples of the biblical hierarchy of sin.  I will not attempt to be exhaustive of those examples in this survey but I will provide a couple of clear, unmistakable citations.  In  Mat 23:23 , for instance, Jesus derides the Pharisees (i.e. the Bible-thumping fundamentalists of His day) for “neglect[ing] the weightier matters of the law” while they obsessed over ancillary, symbolic elements of God’s law.  Clearly Christ was reviling His contemporary religious conservatives for not understanding the obvious hierarchy of moral emphases (introduced and abbreviated centuries earlier in the  decalogue ) over ceremonial observances in the Mosaic law —  to which their own Bibles (our Old Testaments) repeatedly and unequivocally attested.

Not surprisingly, Christ did not leave Christians without a definition of what lies at the very apex of the hierarchy of sin; the  “unforgivable sin”  of blasphemy,  Mark 3:28-29  (nor, btw, did Christ leave Christians without a definition of what lies at the apex of the hierarchy of obedience; the “greatest commandment,”  Mat 22:36-40  , which commandment, with its immediate second, are hierarchically presented in exactly the same thematic order — i.e. God first, humanity second — as the decalogue, which I will demonstrate below).  Persistent, unrepentant  blasphemy  against almighty God occupies the apex of abominations against Him (while acts — as opposed to  mere feelings — of loving God  perfectly  occupy the apex of faithfulness towards Him, followed immediately by acts of loving our “neighbors” as much as we love ourselves).  We know the sin of  persistent, unrepentant blasphemy  (see #54 in that resource) defines the pinnacle of the hierarchy of sin because it is the only sin in the entire Bible that God (in the  Person of Jesus ) says cannot and will not be forgiven.

Finally (though not exhaustively), near the end of the New Testament, the Apostle John mentions sins that “lead to death” and sins that “do not lead to death” (1 John 5:16-17).  Clearly John’s point — while not specifying which sins do and which sins do not lead to death — was to identify a dichotomy between, or hierarchy of, greater and lesser degrees of sin.

So there is, in fact, a biblical hierarchy of sin and God reveals it throughout His word.  Some sins therefore are much more heinous and egregious than others.  That comes as no intuitive surprise since we all feel greater and lesser degrees of guilt when we commit various sins and we all feel greater and lesser degrees of offense when others commit various sins against us.  Since the biblical hierarchy of sin is actual, it is incumbent upon Christians to  rightly understand  that hierarchy and  rightly apply  that hierarchy, not only to how we live our lives but also to the choices we make which affect other people’s lives.  Since choices made while voting affect both the individuals who vote and everyone else in the community/society governed by those for whom votes are cast (and, via foreign policy formulated by presidents, affects people all over the world), every vote cast — whether for winning or losing candidates and issues — has consequences for everyone else in that society.  This, then, is why ASND has devoted an  extensive page  to the considerations and consequences of voting and why I am providing biblical and philosophical support for those considerations in this essay.

Several biblical sin lists which are not presented in hierarchical order are cited above.  One sin list, though, — mentioned three times above — most certainly is presented in hierarchical order: yes, the  decalogue .  The decalogue, of course, was God’s introduction to and highly abbreviated summary of His moral law (based, of course, on His own inherent righteousness), revealed to His chosen people of Israel, the descendants of His chosen servant Abraham.  (Very soon after revealing His moral law in the decalogue, God revealed extensive additions to His law, later categorized by theologians as  civil and ceremonial  laws, but this essay deals only with His moral law.)  We immediately see that God’s hierarchy of sin is evident in the decalogue because it is revealed to us in two main parts or groups of commands; the first four commandments dealing with how we are expected to relate to God and the last six commandments dealing with how we are expected to relate to God’s  crowning achievement  in creation: humanity (actually, as I will explain in a moment, the 5th commandment is intentionally dualistic in nature, functioning as a bridge between the first four and last six, and applying to both God and humanity).  Since God is infinitely more righteous, knowledgeable, and capable than we are, it is no surprise that God’s infinite value and import are reflected in that main division of the commandments.  Being  omniscient , God well knows His own infinite value and import (as well as His own infinite righteousness, knowledge, and capabilities) so it makes perfect sense that He placed commands about our relating to Him at the sequential head of the decalogue, thereby making it hierarchical.  Violations of God’s moral law regarding how we are to relate to Him are therefore preeminent in God’s hierarchy of sin.

The hierarchy of sin is also evident in the individual sequencing of the decalogue’s ten commandments (which, trained theologians will recognize, is redundant since “decalogue” is an anglicized compound Greek word meaning “ten laws”).

[T]he first commandment to worship no other gods but the Lord is the foundation for all true piety.

https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/first-commandment/

and…

The Commandments are listed in descending order of importance.

https://www.reference.com/world-view/order-ten-commandments-505235f59219a99b

Regarding the final six commandments, we are inferentially informed by way of hierarchical order that  murder  is a more heinous crime  against God  than  greed .  While one might argue that the placement of the  5th commandment  (to honor parents) ahead of the 6th commandment (not to murder) appears out of order in the hierarchy of sin, when we remember that God refers to Himself dozens of times in His word as our “father“, it should become clear that He is simply reiterating His holy command to  respect authority  as He has rightly, justly, and perfectly  ordained  it.  The authority which God has given to earthly parents is an extension of His own authority, which is infinite and absolute.  It is really no surprise, therefore, that He codifies parental authority immediately after codifying His own intrinsic authority because respecting that authority — which is really respecting God’s authority — is, in fact, ultimately more important than respecting the lives of other people since God is the creator of all people.

But that hardly makes respecting the lives of other people unimportant.  On the contrary, the very first commandment in the group of commandments regarding how we are to relate to other people is the commandment  not to murder  any of them.  Given the  biblical hierarchy of sin, this location of the 6th commandment is obviously neither incidental or accidental.  This is, instead, the almighty creator God revealing to His creatures that the lives which he gave those creatures — created  in His image  —  are sacred above all other matters which we will ever encounter on this Earth (God the Father being eternally in heaven, both long before and forever after there was and/or is an Earth).

How do we begin to evaluate the complex social and political issues of our day from a biblical perspective?  How do we keep from being carried away by the latest cultural trend that is blowing in the wind?…  [The primary] biblical principle… applies to the area of bioethics [and] is the sanctity of human life.

https://www.equip.org/article/applying-biblical-principles-to-social-issues/

This divinely ordained right to and sanctity of life is no mere moral afterthought to which we are to give only occasional or secondary attention.  The sanctity of and right to life  is the most important human-focused moral law God has revealed in His word and therefore violations of it are the most heinous sins humans can commit against other humans (we are, of course — because God is — , talking only about the killing of innocent humans since the Hebrew word which God chose to use in the 6th commandment exclusively meant  murder  rather than  other  forms  of killing, some of which God not only  approves  but occasionally  commands ; see, also, my comment in orange text at the end of  this page ).

So murder is unequivocally the most heinous sin humans can commit against other humans.  The second most heinous sin humans can commit against other humans comes as a suprise to many.  It is the sin of  adultery .  That’s right.  God says adultery is worse than  theftlying  (especially about other people),  and  greed  (i.e. desire for property which other people already possess, not the desire for property which we can and should  earn for ourselves ).

Scripture views the transgressions of sexual boundaries as especially heinous, worse in their effects and deserving of more severe punishment than most other sins [excepting murder] (see, for example,  Lev. 18 ;  20:10–21 ;  Rom. 1:26–27 ).

https://tabletalkmagazine.com/daily-study/2021/03/bought-with-a-price-2/

and…

God’s Word regards sexual sins as particularly heinous, and persistent engagement in sexual sin evidences a heart that is hardened against the Lord ( Lev. 18Rom. 1:26–27 ).  Of course, the Lord will forgive all those who truly repent of sexual sin ( 1 John 1:8–9 )… [wherein ‘true repentance‘ consists of] sorrow not for the consequences of our sin but for offending our holy God.

https://tabletalkmagazine.com/daily-study/2020/08/esaus-negative-example/

What is important for Christians to understand, though, is that adultery, according to God, includes  any sex   outside  the  divinely-ordained  covenant of heterosexual marriage between  one man and one woman .  “Any sex”, btw, also includes sex with oneself, a.k.a.  masturbation , which we know because the Greek word God chose to use in the above-cited  passage  from 1Thessalonians  is “porneia“, from which we derive our modern English word “pornography“, which — whether actual, virtual, or merely  mental  (i.e. imaginary) — is part of and parcel to most  masturbation  (yes, that last hyperlink cites a different article than the previous hyperlink under the same word).  Therefore, because God says that adultery is the second most heinous sin humans can commit against other humans, and because the sin of adultery includes any sex outside of heterosexual marriage, the use of some form of pornography (which usually, eventually includes masturbation) is part of the second most heinous sin humans can commit against humans (for those who are married, this sin is committed  first against God  and then against one’s spouse and for those who are  single , this sin is committed  first against God  and then against oneself).  The point here is not to claim that Christians who view pornography (or masturbate) are all damned to hell but rather to help Christians understand that the  holiness of God  is not measured with a human yardstick.  As Jesus ( God the Sonrepeatedly revealed , the moral law of God extends vastly (infinitely, really) beyond our capacity to either comprehend or accomplish.  We all, therefore, cross the threshold of sexual sin long before we usually even imagine doing so because it is crossed even by  our thoughts .

So God has revealed His hierarchy of sin (and its obverse, a hierarchy of righteousness) and that hierarchy rightly places sins against Himself at the top of the list, followed immediately by the sins of murder and adultery (I have just condensed the previous three thousand-plus words into one sentence).  Faithful Christians have known most of this intuitively (though not necessarily intellectually, in detail) for more than two millennia and some thoughtful Christians have probably even connected the same dots which I have connected above (though as I said at the top of this page, I have been unable to find where they have recorded those connections online in the detail I wanted to present here).  What remains is now to apply what we have discerned from what God has revealed to how He expects us to live our lives and to how He expects us to make choices affecting both ourselves and others around us — all of whom He created in His own image.

While God has called preachers (which I am not, btw) to teach believers in  the one, true God  how to live their lives in obedience to Him, very,  very  few of those preachers are willing to teach believers how to make moral choices that will affect how others will be  required  — by law — to live their lives — for their  own  good  (see ‘ground rule‘ 3 in that second essay) — as well as for the good of everyone else (God, after all, never makes mistakes).  Those choices, in modern democracies, are called votes and, as stated earlier, ASND has an  extensive page  devoted to how God expects us to make those choices (i.e. how to vote, according to God’s moral law).  I will not duplicate material from that page here but I will, before ending this essay, connect the final two dots between these two pages.

Every vote anyone makes is an expression of his/her  personal morality  in the arena of public policy.  That’s what voting always has been and that’s what voting always will be.  The  choice  Christians are faced with making on every single line of every single ballot (whether it is for a candidate or for an issue) is whether he/she will vote to  express  God’s morality in public policy or vote to  express  God’s enemy’s (i.e. Satan’s) immorality in public policy.  While countless distractions and complications often occlude clarity on which choices to make on each issue and/or candidate, if Christians will simply apply their knowledge of God’s hierarchy of sin — that the right to and sanctity of life  supersedes  all other issues, and that sexual morality is  right behind  the right to life in the eyes of almighty God — then the most important things Christians have to know about politics are simply these: How will individual candidates legislate and otherwise govern regarding, and how will individual issues connect to, those two issues.  If the candidates and/or issues in any election support Satan over Jesus by way of supporting a right to murder innocents or a right to marry and/or have sex with anyone other than one’s opposite-gender spouse then, for Christians, God has made the choice of how to vote as clear and as obvious as it can be.

When determining [how to vote, Christians] must consider [the hierarchy of sin].  A great example is  abortion  [True] Christians focus on the  abortion  issue [above all others] because… abortion [murders] over a million [innocent] lives every year.

https://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2010/01/13/are-all-sins-equal-part-2/

and…

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the [ liberals ] who do not know God… because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.  For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.  Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to [those who truly believe].”

1Thessalonians 4:3-8

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