Are All Sins Equal?

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Are all sins equal? Do different sins carry differing consequences? These questions have long been discussed, and answers have been suggested, perhaps none more creatively than that of Dante Alighieri in his 14th Century classic, Inferno.

In a frightening description of Hell, Dante imagined that different sins merited different levels of punishment, with the worst reserved for three particular traitors. Dante pictured the devil as having three horrible faces, and in each of the devil’s mouths there is a sinner. In the left and right mouths hang Brutus and Cassius, who murdered Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate. Brutus and Cassius appear with their heads pointed out and their feet inside the devil’s mouth. In the center mouth, lodged headfirst, with his twitching legs protruding from the devil’s mouth, is the betrayer of Jesus Christ, Judas Iscariot. The devil chews on his victims, continually, and throughout eternity, tearing the traitors to pieces, but never killing them.

Dante certainly had a vivid imagination! And though there is no biblical support for the details of his description of hell, the issues of differing consequences for various sins does find support in the Bible. The Bible shows that God does consider some sins to be worse than others. Some sin brings greater guilt than others. And some sins do us more damage than others.

First, consider the sin that Jesus calls “unforgiveable.” In Matthew 12:31-32 Jesus said, “I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come.” Resistance to the witness of the Holy Spirit about the person and work of Jesus Christ rules out the possibility of faith and repentance. No sin is more tragic and lethal than this.

Second, consider the sin that brings death. In 1 John 5:16-17, John tells the church to pray for a brother whom you see committing a sin, but only if it is a sin that “does not bring death.” John says, “There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that.” Commentators have long debated the nature of the sin leading to death. Quite possibly it is the same sin that Jesus referenced as the unforgiveable sin. Whether this is so, clearly the text indicates that some sin is less consequential than others (or than one other).

Third, the Scriptures often indicate that different sins bring different consequences. Moses told the Israelites that their sin in worshipping the golden calf was a “great sin,” one of the consequences of which was a plague sent by God (Ex. 32:30-35). In 2 Samuel 12:7-23 we read of the terrible consequence that David suffered after his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. The consequence included the death of his son conceived in adultery. In Luke 12:41-48 Jesus speaks of varying levels of punishment based on the level of knowledge a steward has. Jesus also said that whoever causes the downfall of a child who believes in Him, “it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea” (Mt. 18:6).

Fourth, we see in Scripture that deliberate and willful rebellion against God can bring greater levels of consequence. Romans 1:18-32 indicates an increasing level of depravity in human beings as God gives them over to the consequences of sin. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus says that if a brother sins against another, and he refuses the increasing levels of accountability brought by the church, that he will ultimately be treated like an unbeliever. In 1 Cor. 5 Paul said to “turn over to Satan” a particular brother who was stubborn in his sin.

Because Jesus Christ forgives and cleanses us of all our sin when we place our faith in Him and experience salvation, we are tempted to disregard our continued sin and how God might deal with it. Moreover, because all have sinned against God, and because the “wages of sin is death,” (Rom. 6:23), we sometimes fail to consider that the consequences of our sin can vary, both in this life, and in the life to come. Without Jesus Christ, all sinners are spiritually dead and eternally lost. But there are different levels of severity, and consequence, between the sin of sloth and that of mass murder. If a hungry person steals a loaf of bread, he is a sinner and a lawbreaker. But we judge, and I would suggest that God weighs the sin of a sadistic killer, differently than that of the bread thief. Clearly, throughout Scripture, God prescribed more severe consequences for certain sins.

The church is often accused of focusing on certain sins, especially sexual sins. There is validity to this accusation, I’m sure. But there is good reason for the church to warn about sexual sins, and that is because they are frequently committed, and they carry damaging consequences. In 1 Cor. 6 Paul says, “Flee from sexual immorality! ‘Every sin a person can commit is outside the body, but the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body.’” He goes on to say, “Your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you” and “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6: 18-20). In this text the Scriptures describe sexual immorality as particularly damaging because of the relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere we read of how families, marriages, and children are damaged, even destroyed, through sexual immorality. Dwelling on an immoral thought is sinful, but acting on such thought carries greater consequence, at least in this life.

Again, every person without Jesus is spiritually lost and dead in sin. But this fact does not negate the varying levels of consequences that sins carry. Scripture shows that in God’s estimate some sins do us more damage and produce more weighty consequences. We must learn to think of sin biblically. We must hate sin wholeheartedly, especially where we see it in ourselves. And, we must not succumb to the temptation that many Christians have today, of not recognizing that some sins do more damage than others. Yes, it is true, that we are all sinners. But it is also true that some sin will destroy your relationships, damage your body, and harm your witness for Christ, more than will others. Because of this, all sins are not equal.

One final thought. The reality that some sins are more damaging than others must not produce a judgmental or prideful spirit in those who have refrained from certain sins. Paul’s said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” – and I am the worst of them” (1 Tim. 1:15). If I regard someone as “worse than me,” or “less than me,” how can I love them in unfeigned humility? I cannot. Therefore, the purpose of this essay is not to help us identify who is worse than whom. The purpose is to help us acknowledge and deal with the sin and guilt in our own lives lest it destroy us. And, a second purpose, is to keep believers from getting wobbly in the knees and winking at the kind of sin that is destroying people’s lives, even while our nation celebrates certain of these sins.

The Church, Abraham Lincoln, and the Great Issues of Our Day

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Someone has said that the message of the First Century Church was not, “What has become of the world?” but “Look Who has come into the world!” In reality, that is the message of the Church in each generation, in all circumstances, and all geographies – or it should be. The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is as true and transforming in the 21st Century as any previous era. Moreover, the message of Jesus preaches with equal truthfulness and power in Afghanistan and Albania as it does in the United States or Great Britain or Brazil. If it doesn’t preach as well, it’s not the true Gospel. The true Gospel promises spiritual liberation to Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS, and the true Gospel is the only hope a Wall Street banker will ever have.

That said, it is vital that pastors, preachers and Bible teachers apply the teaching of God’s Word to the great issues of the day and to the issues and needs of their community and congregation. Truth must be preached and lived in love, but we must apply God’s truth to the issues of the day. Failure to do so will produce reasonable questions of relevance in our hearer’s minds.  Is the gospel relevant to this issue or that, which everyone is talking about?  Does God have a word for us in this situation?  Or, even, is our pastor or teacher aware of, or interested in, the great issues of the day?

This summer, and this year, there are at least three major issues that demand the attention of those who teach God’s Word. There are others I’m sure, but certainly these are three: the persecution and eradication of Christians in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, same-sex marriage in the United States, and the recent revelations that Planned Parenthood is selling the bodies of aborted babies. Regarding abortion, approximately 3,500 babies in the United States have been aborted every day, 365 days a year, since 1973 (more than 58 million). Thirty percent of these have been African-American babies. And that’s just the United States. In China it is estimated that 30,000 babies are aborted daily. Thirty-seven million babies are aborted worldwide each year.

I don’t have space in this article to suggest how a preacher might speak to each of these issues specifically.  But I will say that they must be addressed. The children who grow up in our churches need to know where their pastor and church stands on the great moral issues of the day. We must train our people to think biblically, and apply the Scriptures accurately when thinking and making decisions in everyday life. What does it mean to carry our cross daily? What does it mean to be an ambassador of Jesus Christ? How do these truths affect and effect our life choices?

When I was a pastor there was an election in which one of the presidential candidates, and one of our state governor candidates, took public positions on matters that were contrary to the teachings of Scripture. The presidential candidate said that he would not support any limitations on abortion, including partial-birth abortion. You might remember that partial-birth abortion is a procedure used when an unborn baby is late-term, and could often survive if born. The procedure entails the delivery of the baby from the birth canal, with the exception of the child’s head, which is left in the birth canal. The baby is then killed before the head is delivered from the birth canal. The governor candidate ran on one major issue. He wanted the state to begin a gambling enterprise, a lottery, “for the sake of the children.” The lottery income was to be dedicated to school funding.

Without naming names, or political parties, I told our church that I would never, no not ever, would I vote for or support candidates who held such positions on the issues. I further called on parents and school officials to demand that politicians not “use children” every time they wanted to pass a law involving the expansion of alcohol sales or gambling. And then I answered the objection that some might have that I was “getting political.” I told them that politics and biblical morality and worldview intersect, and when they do the church must address it. I told them the primary message of the church is not “morality.” Our message centers on Jesus and His gospel. But the Bible also addresses matters of right, wrong, and how we should live (and this is a gospel issue), and “the children who grow up in this church need to know where their pastor stands.” I said, “I don’t want anyone to question my commitment to the right to life, or state-sponsored gambling, and all that that means.” By helping our church see how politics and our Christian worldview intersect, I was able to teach our people, including our children, that the Bible does address the matters they were hearing discussed in the news and across our nation.

Presently I am reading Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings. I have been struck by how well he wrote, thought, and spoke, even as a young man. He was courageous and he was clear. In a speech delivered while still in his twenties, reflecting on the danger that the United States faced, he said this:

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide” (Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Jan. 27, 1838).

Lincoln had it right. The destruction of a people, especially moral and spiritual destruction, always comes from within. That being true, God help us.

When we look back on leaders of 100 or 200 years ago, we are often greatly disappointed at where they stood on issues such slavery and race. Even great men, who did great things, could be horribly wrong on significant issues. Lincoln himself had some thoughts on race that we would find contemptible. He thought black people should be freed and sent back to Africa. He cited the story of Moses leading Israel out of 400 years of slavery, and back to Israel, as an example of the rightness of such a re-segregation. Sometimes we are tempted to judge our predecessors by their mistaken views. But I would urge that we be cautious about judging people who couldn’t quite break free from the prevailing thinking of their generation. Their ability to be wrong should humble us. No, I don’t want to judge them. My greater concern is what future generations will think of us. I fully expect that 10, 20 or 100 years from now, abortion will be eradicated from our nation. The day will come when our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will be appalled by what we did to the unborn. When that day comes, I hope they find that many of us did all we could to oppose the slaughter. More importantly, I pray that when we stand before the Lord, as we are now presently standing, that He will be able to commend us for what we have done as Christian leaders in our generation.

A Divine Appointment with a Same-Sex “Married” Man

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Kevin is a bright, friendly young man that my wife and I met by divine appointment on a long flight last week. Though I am cautious about ascribing activity to God, Paula and I both believe that He wanted us to meet this young man who is in a same-sex marriage with another man. Here’s how it happened.

About a month ago I bought a new book by retired Southern Baptist missionary William “Bud” Fray. Bud even signed the book for me. I love missionaries and Bud Fray served long and well in Africa. I took his book on a trip last week, reading it on the flight over. My wife wanted to read it on the return flight, and that’s how we met Kevin. When he saw the title of the book, Both Feet In, he said that his father told him he should read that book. Kevin’s father is a Roman Catholic who lives in Florida, but this Catholic man read a new book by a Southern Baptist missionary, published by a small publisher (New Hope), and told his homosexual son that he ought to read it! This opened a huge door for Paula and me.

It turns out that Kevin attends church each week, a Catholic church. His same-sex partner is a Methodist chaplain who “preaches” weekly. I asked Kevin what his faith meant to him and what it does for him. He spoke mostly of the importance of the rituals, which have long been a part of his life. He also said that he finds serenity in an hour spent away from technology and going through a religious routine that has been unchanged since his childhood.

Paula and I shared with Kevin what Jesus means to each of us, describing who Jesus is and what He did to bring forgiveness of sin and the hope of eternal life. At some point Kevin brought up the subject of homosexuality, basically saying that he had come to terms with “who he is.” He was not argumentative or militant in the least, but he did repeatedly referred to his partner as “my husband.” When he learned that I am a Baptist preacher, rather than get defensive or turned off, he seemed to think that God had brought us together so that I could “answer some questions that he has.”

At one point he did ask me what my view on the matter of homosexuality is. I told him, “Really, my opinion on the matter isn’t important.” I continued by saying, “I learned long ago that if I could talk someone into something, someone smarter than me could talk them out of it.” I then asked him if he had ever read the New Testament. With enthusiasm, and perhaps some embarrassment, he said, “No! I haven’t. I’ve read verses. When the priest speaks I read the verses he reads. But I’ve never read it.” So, rather than tell him my view of homosexuality, I encouraged him to read the New Testament. I said, “Kevin, read asking God to show you Jesus. Pay attention to who Jesus is and what He did for you and me. What I think isn’t important. But what the Bible says, and who Jesus is, is of the greatest importance.”

Kevin really liked that. We gave him Bud Fray’s book. We exchanged business cards. And he said that he will let us know when he has read Bud’s book and the New Testament. I pray that Kevin will be delivered from unbelief as the Holy Spirit guides him into truth through the Scriptures.

Repentance is never easy. It is not easy for me. Pride and selfishness can so easily rise up within me. The Cross of Christ challenges and confronts these things in me. The temptation to self-sufficiency, prayerlessness, and a host of other vile and ungodly filth are ever “crouching at the door” of my heart. Kevin will have to deal with his own sins and weaknesses. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful! He can penetrate and pierce the thickest and toughest of human hearts. He can enter the minds of human beings, minds dedicated to bane and stupid and disgusting things, and transform them for His noble purpose. Rescuing and purchasing sinners from the dark domain of this world’s prince, and bringing them into His bright kingdom, is what Jesus does daily. He can do for Kevin what He did for me.

This was my first such conversation since the U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. I must confess, I can get very angry when I think about many of our nation’s leaders and where they have taken us. When I read about, and listen to, those advocating for the normalization of sin, and demanding that we celebrate such sin, I want to punch someone. I’m just being honest. But when I visited with this same-sex married man, the first I have ever met, rather than feeling anger, I felt deep sadness for him. Here is guy who is very likeable, not militant, and I don’t say this lightly, but my heart broke for him. My wife felt the same way.

We are praying for Kevin. We will have some level of correspondence with him. He needs Jesus. He needs rescuing. He needs some Christian friends to love him and help him when Jesus reveals to him what repentance will mean. Come to think of it, those are things I needed too.

Friendship Matters: Loving Our Homosexual Neighbors

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I spent the early part of this week at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The highlights were the Tuesday evening prayer service in which thousands gathered to pray for spiritual awakening in our lives, our churches, and our nation; followed by a missionary commission service on Wednesday morning. Although these were the highlights, the matter that has captured national attention is the stand we took upholding traditional marriage as defined and described by the Bible. This subject was timely, and necessary, because of the imminent Supreme Court decision on whether same-sex marriage will be deemed a constitutional right. If it is deemed a “right,” there will be serious implications for all believers, churches and religious institutions. Indeed, we are already seeing this happen in the Northwest, where same-sex marriage has been made legal in Washington by popular vote.

The Northwest Baptist Convention of churches has already taken a step to address this matter by affirming the Baptist Faith and Message as our statement of faith. The BF&M describes God’s plan for marriage as a union between one man and one woman, for life. As an NWBC member church, your church is protected, in part, by this statement of faith. Ashley Seuell, attorney with the Northwest Baptist Foundation, has drafted a document that can provide further help in this matter.

The discussion of same-sex relationships that I found most helpful at the SBC was a panel discussion which included a university professor who had lived as a lesbian, but whom Christ saved, delivering her from her unbelief, and ultimately also delivered her from her homosexual lifestyle. Her name is Dr. Rosaria Butterfield and I want to briefly describe for you what she said.

First, she said that friendship matters. Her journey to Christ began through friendship with a pastor and his wife. They ate in each other’s homes. They welcomed her into their lives. When she decided to write a book about why Christians “hate” people like her, they encouraged her to read the Bible as part of her research. She took the challenge and read the entire Bible seven times in two years. The result of her time in God’s Word was that she wanted Jesus. She wanted the Jesus she came to know through the Scriptures. She was powerfully drawn to Him. In describing her salvation she said, “I wasn’t converted out of homosexuality. I was converted out of unbelief. Then God went to work on the rest.”

One of Dr. Butterfield’s primary lessons for the church is this: We need to be an accessible community where unbelievers are welcomed and friendship is real. Friendship matters. Friendship in which there are no conditions is vital to reaching people. Butterfield said that the homosexual world provided her with community, and it was critical to her conversion that the pastor and his wife provided community as well.

As I heard her speak about the need for Christians to truly befriend unbelievers, I thought of the late British missionary Leslie Newbigin, who spoke of two conversions. First, unbelievers are converted to the church, or some part of the church. Then they are converted to Christ. He meant by this that people first ask questions like, “Do I like those people? Do I want to spend time with them? Are their lives attractive?” Only when they receive satisfactory answers to these questions do they listen to the gospel message that we proclaim.

A matter related to friendship is the words we use to help deliver people from unbelief. Butterfield said, “Your words should be no stronger than your relationship.” That is a wise statement. As Christians, we are commanded not simply to speak the truth, but to speak the truth in love. Love is communicated through relationship. To say that we love all people is theoretical. It is philosophical. Love requires relationship, which brings us back to Dr. Butterfield’s point that the church must be accessible and friendship with unbelievers must be real. This is the context in which we become legitimate and our words will find consideration in the hearts and minds of unbelieving friends.

Same-sex marriage will remain an issue in the Northwest, regardless of what the Supreme Court does, because Washington residents have voted for it. Churches will have to deal with it, as will individual Christians because of how it affects the work-place, and even our own families. Already one of our churches lost their place of worship because the owner of the building objected to the church’s view on same-sex marriage. But these challenges do not remove Jesus’ command that we love our neighbors. Friendship provides the avenue for love, and, we pray, for transformed lives.