Are Some Sins “Greater” than Others?
“When Jesus was on trial before Pilate, he said: ‘He who delivers me unto you has the greater sin’ (John 19:11). Is one type of sin ‘greater’ than another? Explain, please.”
On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus, in company with his disciples (Judas excluded), left the city of Jerusalem and made his way eastward, across the brook Kidron, to the garden of Gethsemane. After the agonizing events in the garden, the Lord was accosted by a band of Jewish officials who bound him and took him first to Annas, a former high priest, and then to his infamous son-in-law, Caiaphas (John 18:12-14).
Since the Jews did not have the authority to administer capital punishment, Caiaphas dispatched the Lord to Pilate, the Roman governor, for his endorsement of the anticipated bloody deed (vv. 28ff; cf. 11:47-53). It thus was Caiaphas who “delivered” Christ to the Roman authorities.
Special interest should be given to the term “greater” in John 19:11. It is an adjective indicating a comparison. First, it implies “sin” on the part of Pilate. Though the ruler knew that Jesus was not guilty of any crime deserving death (18:38; 19:4,6), he nonetheless weakened (for self-serving reasons), and turned the Savior over to the Jewish mob (19:16).
Second, the text clearly suggests a greater degree of culpability on the part of Caiaphas. Why was this?
Caiaphas was a Jewish high priest and the son-in-law of a former high priest (Annas — John 18:13). He had been surrounded with the influence of the Hebrew Scriptures his entire life. He, of all people, should have known the testimony of Israel’s Bible, and thus have been familiar with many of the more than 300 Old Testament prophecies that detailed the identifying qualities of the Messiah. There was no excuse for his role in the death of the Son of God; his heart simply was encrusted with rebellion (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:14).
Without question Pilate sinned by weakly caving in to political pressure. He knew that the motive of the Jewish leaders was ungodly (Matthew 27:18) and likely that their “evidence” was jaded (cf. Matthew 26:59), but for fear of falling out of favor with Caesar (John 19:12), he dismissed Christ to the Jews for execution.
As bad as Pilate’s sin of weakness and self-motivated “political correctness” was, it was not depraved to the degree of calculated rebellion that saturated the soul of Caiaphas. Thus, the spiritual leader’s responsibility was greater, because of the high priest’s broader knowledge and his opportunity to believe and yield to what was right.
The Larger Picture
But this account is not the only case where accountability for sin is viewed in varying measures of guilt. Consider the following texts that are complementary in their characterization of the depths of sin.
- When the Israelites bowed before the golden calf at Mount Sinai, Moses charged them with committing a “great” sin (Exodus 32:30-31). A “great sin” appears to be more serious, in some sense, than just “sin.”
- Though Samaria (the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel) was wicked in her fornicating fraternization with the godless Assyrians, Jerusalem (the capital in the south), Samaria’s “sister city,” was even “more corrupt” in her associations with paganism — both Assyria and Babylon were paramours (Ezekiel 23:11). Clearly, Jerusalem’s greater level of evil was emphasized.
- In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he denounced any Christian man who neglected his family. “But if anyone does not provide for his people, and especially his own household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
- In passages that speak of greater degrees of punishment, it becomes obvious that there are varying levels of sinfulness. It is possible for evil people to become worse, and still worse yet (2 Timothy 3:13).
And so, according to biblical teaching, there will be more punishment for some than others (Matthew 11:20ff; Luke 12:47-48; Hebrews 10:28-29; James 3:1; 2 Peter 2:20-21).
Sharpening the Focus
It must be observed that all sin, any sin, is a serious matter, because “sin” is “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). In employing a metaphorical analogy involving conception, birth, maturation, and death, James declares that lust (desire), once conceived, gives birth to sin, and sin, allowed to grow, will result in death (i.e., eternal separation from God) (James 1:15).
Someone has called this the genealogy of sin. Of particular interest is the fact that “sin,” as set forth in this text, is preceded by the Greek article, i.e., “the sin.” Sin is not viewed merely as an abstraction; each sin is an act of rebellion on its own, and if left unchecked, will result in eternal death. Donald Burdick’s comment is insightful when he observes:
“James is not suggesting that only when sin has reached its full development does it result in death. The penalty of sin of any kind or extent is spiritual death” (1981, 172).
If any sin potentially is damning — even those transgressions that men consider minor (e.g., that “little white lie” — cf. Revelation 21:8) — how may it be said that one sin is “greater” than another?
The issue does not lie in the sin itself but in the circumstances that accompany it. Let us briefly illustrate this point, highlighting principles stated or implied in some of the passages cited earlier, reminding ourselves again, that any sin that remains unforgiven, according to the divinely prescribed manner, is deadly.
Presumption greater than ignorance
A sin of “presumption” is greater than a sin committed “unwittingly” because the former issues from an arrogant spirit, while the latter is done out of ignorance. Consider the following.
“And if one person sins unwittingly, then he shall offer a she-goat a year old for a sin-offering. And the priest shall make atonement for the soul that errs, when he sins unwittingly, before Jehovah, to make atonement for him; and he shall be forgiven. You shall have one law for him that does anything unwittingly, for him that is home-born among the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourns among them. But the soul that does anything with a high hand [presumptuously — KJV], whether he is home-born or a sojourner, the same blasphemes Jehovah; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of Jehovah, and has broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him” (Numbers 15:27-31).
It is no wonder that the psalmist prayed:
“Keep your servant from presumptuous sins. Let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be upright, and I shall be innocent from great transgression” (Psalm 19:13).
Notice that the “presumptuous” sin is a “great” transgression, and the practice of yielding to “presumptuous” sins soon makes the man the slave of his own weaknesses.
Teaching error which causes someone to be lost
To teach a dogma that jeopardizes the soul of another is a greater wrong than advocating a position that technically may be incorrect, yet has no eternal consequence.
For example, to contend that the dead presently are observing the affairs of this earth (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6) is without justification (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6), but likely it is not an error that would condemn the person who believes such. To suggest that the “signs” of Matthew 24:5ff relate to the Second Coming of Christ is an exegetical mistake that ignores the context of the Savior’s sermon (cf. v. 34), but this one error alone would not be a condemning matter.
On the other hand, to argue that there is no future resurrection of the body is a teaching connected with overthrowing the faith of some. It thus would seem to be an error of much “greater” gravity (2 Timothy 2:16-18; 1 Timothy 1:20; cf. James 3:1). A repudiation of the concept of the bodily resurrection has a direct correlation with the historical resurrection of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:12-19), which is the very foundation of Christianity.
Some sins are “greater” because of the consequences they bear. A man who hates his brother is, in principle, a murderer (1 John 3:15); and, should such a disposition be sustained, he will be lost. The hater may not, however, suffer any temporal penalty for the malicious attitude.
On the other hand, the person who commits an actual murder may be imprisoned for years or even executed. The latter sin is more serious in terms of the immediate price to be paid.
Some sins on the part of Christians warrant extreme discipline on behalf of the offender, e.g., the expulsion of congregational fellowship (see 1 Corinthians 5), while other offenses require patience and further instruction (see Romans 14).
The Christian who abandons the faith, goes back into the world, making no effort to restrain sinning, is committing a greater sin than the poor soul who does not know the gospel. This clearly is the implication of Hebrews 10:26-31; 2 Peter 2:20-21. The former text mentions the “sorer punishment” of the apostate, while the latter passage speaks of the “last state” as being “worse” than the “first” — possibly suggesting that he will be harder to reach with the truth, and certainly indicating a greater condemnation (Luke 12:47-48).
Some sins more destructive
One sin may be greater than another in terms of its destructiveness. It is one thing to sin privately and so forfeit the blessings provided by the Creator for one’s temporal and eternal welfare; it is quite another thing to live with such reckless abandon that others are spiritually wounded and arrive at last beyond the pale of redemption. Of such persons Jesus said:
“Whoever causes one of these little ones that believes on me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
It is not difficult to see the point of emphasis in this frightening warning.
Weakness versus rebellion
There appears to be an intensification of evil between the person who merely falls into sin through weakness, and that of the degenerate, calloused individual who shamelessly mocks things sacred. Many scholars have called attention to the progressiveness of evil depicted in Psalm 1. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful” (Psalm 1:1). A. F. Kirkpatrick observed:
“The three clauses of the verse with their threefold parallelism (walk, stand, sit: counsel, way, session [sitting with]: wicked, sinners, scornful) emphasize the godly man’s entire avoidance of association with evil and evil-doers in every form and degree. They denote successive steps in a career of evil, and form a climax” (1906, 3).
There is a similar escalation of wickedness suggested in Psalm 32:1-2. The Cambridge professor described the “scoffer” mob as “a class of defiant and cynical freethinkers” who exhibit a “spirit of proud self-sufficiency, [and] a contemptuous disregard for God and man (Proverbs 21:24)” (Ibid. 2). One cannot but be reminded of the “unjust judge” in one of the Lord’s parables. He had regard for neither God nor man (Luke 18:1ff). The latter disposition frequently follows the former.
Some of the most villainous renegades upon this earth are former “ministers” who have alienated themselves from the faith to become slanderous critics of the Creator, his holy law, and his people. Their lips drip anti-God venom with almost every syllable they utter. The “pricked/cut” heart, even in the sinner, is of a far different nature than the “seared/branded” one that has become “past feeling” (cf. Acts 2:38; 1 Timothy 4:2; Ephesians 1:18-19).
These examples certainly are far from exhaustive; they are, however, illustrative. The important thing to keep in mind is that every sin is damaging, and the conscientious Christian must strive to avoid it at all cost, living continuously in the mode of repentance and prayer. And one must remain mindful of the fact that even a child of God can drift into progressively dangerous currents (cf. Hebrews 2:1ff).
- Burdick, Donald. 1981. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 12. Edited by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Kirkpatrick, A. F. 1906. The Book of Psalms. Cambridge, England: University Press.