Are There Different Degrees of Sin? The Greater Sin of John 19:11
Do you think there are varying degrees of sin? Isn't all sin equal in God's eyes? Lying is the same as stealing, it's all sin to God, right? I was always under the assumption that all sin was created equal, having this drilled into my thought process for almost 40 years until I came to John 19:11. I have even argued that point in previous blog posts (see "Prop 8" article for one), but if that's the case, what do we do with John 19:11?
Jesus answered him, "You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin." John 19:11 (ESV)
On Wednesday and Friday I try to dive deeper into scripture, and it is amazing what is revealed to you from God's Word when you read for knowledge and understanding. Today, after reading over John 19:11 it was revealed to me that clearly the answer to this question is yes, there are greater and lesser sins. But that led of course to the most natural question, why does it matter? Perhaps there are varying degrees of sin for those within Christ, and for those without Christ? If we are saved by grace, our sins are forgiven, and if we aren't, well, they aren't, so what difference does it make at all then?
The Greater Sin: Are There Degrees of Sin?
I would argue it matters simply because Jesus himself made the distinction, possibly as a warning to both parties. His words in John 19:11 clearly indicate if the sin of Caiaphas, the High Priest at the time (or possibly Judas Iscariot), was greater than Pilate's sin, there must be lesser sins. The best essay I found on making the various distinctions between levels of sin came from the Reformed Theological Seminary blog titled "'The Greater Sin': Are There Degrees of Sin?" and it is well worth reading. It covers this topic far more in depth than I ever could here and to keep from just repeating all the text from that article I would ask the question here, why does this matter to us?
After an extensive search I found almost no sermons preached on John 19:11, so maybe it doesn't matter, so I would not want to add emphasis to scripture where there is none. Simply put, if our salvation rests in Jesus Christ and he has called us to himself (John 15:16), our sins have been forgiven and the distinction in degree of sin makes no difference to the salvation of our souls. If we are living outside the grace and forgiveness of our sins, we are condemned already (John 3:17-18).
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (emphasis mine)
Is it For Eternal Reward in Heaven or Punishment in Hell?
So, if we know it doesn't make a difference to our salvation, does it make a difference to our judgement or call to bear fruit? If we examine John 3:17-18 above, we are either condemned (without eternal salvation) or not (with eternal salvation), so the difference in level or degree of sin could be associated with our eternal reward, punishment, or judgement.
This topic is sprinkled throughout scripture, and while both sides (the condemned and the saved) don't really want to discuss it much, scripture says we are to be judged according the fruit we bear in this life. If we look at John 19:11, Jesus is referring to the punishment or judgement of Caiaphas (or Judas Iscariot) being greater than that of Pilate, because both Caiaphas and/or Judas both knew far more of the Gospel message (or light) than Pilate, but all men here were likely "condemned already".
Scripture of course never specifically says what a greater or lesser reward looks like in heaven (and honestly, will we really care at that point), but it does specifically say there are those called greater (Matthew 5:19 and Luke 9:46) and points back to the fact that we are to live a life that produces fruit. [For other references to degree of reward or punishment see also Leviticus 4:2, 13; 5:17; Numbers 15:30; Ezekiel 8:6, 13; and Matthew 23:34.]
19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:19
For Believers, this is more a matter of bearing fruit, but it's also a warning that God takes our sin much more seriously than those who have not received as much of the Gospel light as we have. The article by RBS puts it like this:
This is a warning to those of us who preach the gospel. Brothers, God takes our sin more seriously than the man who has received little biblical truth. We have been entrusted with much gospel light... And it is a sobering thought to know that the Lord views all of our sins in relation to the degree of light with which He has entrusted to us.
A Relavant Conclusion to Why it Matters
Studying this particular verse has actually left me with more questions than answers. Does the revelation that sin has differing levels or degrees matter? I think ultimately it does because, one, it leads to larger discussions throughout all of scripture about sin, judgement, and bearing fruit. Two, it reinforces many truths of Scripture about sin, and three, it puts more personal responsibility on those who have been given the knowledge of the Gospel message (not necessarily those who have received salvation), which should be important to all of us. Some other concluding points that come to mind are:
- It shows that God takes the sin of the condemned and saved very seriously
- John 19:11 is just one piece of an overall greater picture of grace and judgement
- It shows that God has entrusted some with more revelation than others
- There are differences of sin and judgement
- A lesser sin does not exonerate the guilty, they are still guilty
- Authority, even from the condemned comes from God alone
These are just some conclusions I came to, each could be expanded upon in greater detail. What does the truth of John 19:11 reveal to you?