Not all sins are equal because not all laws are equal

good-samaritan-came-to-himSomehow, it took me all these years to realize that sin is not sin is not sin because the law is not the law, and that this is not a new concept.

Christians have long divided the Old Testament Law into parts that carry forward and those we were relieved of at the time of and because of Jesus.

The reason this has remained unclear to me is that the list of things we do not have to pay attention to has changed over time (at least to most Christians in America).

The primary thing I have in mind is keeping the Sabbath Day Holy. I remember blue laws, when all stores in many states were closed on Sunday and that if you were travelling on Sunday in certain areas, you had to have bought gas for the car the night before, when no one went to a restaurant on Sunday, first of all, because most were closed, but also because it was a sin.  I even remember preachers saying not to watch the NFL because that was not keeping the Sabbath Holy.

Now, we are a secular nation—the first ever—and it is a good thing that those laws have faded from the civil law books, but there are many things not illegal in the law of the state that many Christians think to be wrong: prostitution (in parts of Nevada), gambling, drinking, dancing, and the list goes on.

Most American Christians today violate the heck out of the law demanding the Sabbath be set apart without even a causal though about it. And many of these say that the Bible is the absolute Word of God and without error or contradiction, which seems, at the very least, inconsistent.

If this law—one of the BIG 10—could be basically ignored and passed over, what does it say about the rest? It always seemed so arbitrary to me. But now, I see more, and maybe this was always obvious to others or maybe it just didn’t matter to others, but I like consistency.

Jesus violated the prohibitions of working on the Sabbath: he gleaned and he healed and when questioned about his actions said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, which seemed a little brazen, since he was, in fact, breaking Talmudic law.

The key was opened to me this week when looking again at the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Ruler who was looking for advice on how to achieve the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said to him: You know the commandments,

Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother (Mark 10:19)

And Paul, talking about the Law:

Galatians 5:14—For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Romans 13:9—The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

James 2:8 —If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.

I had always been told there were two sets of laws: ethical laws and ritual laws, but this never seemed to fit. Now I see the division as this:

  • Laws affecting other people (or harming them)—murder, lying, rape, theft, etc.
  • Laws dealing with our relationship with God—the ritual cleanliness and food laws, the first four of the 10 Commandments.

It seems that it is this understanding that ties together James and Paul and Jesus and even begins to make sense out of the confusion that is Romans 1:18-3:20, where, on one hand, Paul says that “only the doers of the law will be vindicated by God,” and , on the other hand, that “by the works of the law no one will be vindicated. The first is the commandment to love our neighbor, the second is keeping all the other laws. (This is speculation and I will need to research this more).

This is consistent with the view Jesus had of the Pharisees, who would rather not break the Sabbath than to provide healing to a sick man. Examples:

Matthew 23:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (vs 2 – 3)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.(vs 13 – 14)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.(vs 23 – 24)

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (vs 27 – 28)

That is more than enough.

So, what laws matter anymore and which don’t? Ask if it violates the command to love your neighbor.  If it does, then it still matters.

Some are easy: murder, stealing, rape, and so on—most of our civil code covers these.

Others, well, it depends. Is consuming alcohol a sin? Having a drink, nope.  Driving drunk, yes.  Alcoholism, yes.

Watching a movie on Sunday? Nope. Working on Sunday? Nope.

Is going to church required? No.

Spanking a child for disciple and within tight controls? Probably not. Beating a child? Absolute violation. Emotionally abusing children—by now, this should be an obvious yes.

Now some tricky ones:

Having other gods or graven images or taking the name of the Lord in vain?

Prostitution/use of prostitutes?

Passing by a broken down car on the road with people asking for help?


Homosexuality? Between consenting adults? Where is the violation of the command to love our neighbors? Yes, I know what Paul said, but I also know that the word “homosexuality” was not in the language until the late 1800’s (I do know that the concept existed before the word),and I also know that there is much to be learned by studying the Greek in use at the time of Paul. So, without regard to my previously and strongly stated positions regarding LGBT in other posts, I will get into Paul and Homosexuality soon.

How we treat each other is how we treat God (the sheep and goats).  Love of neighbor is love of God; lack of love of neighbor is lack of love of God no matter how many rituals we keep.  If we praise God on Sunday and cheat the general public all week long, we are not in God’s will, no matter what prayers we say. Now, I am not saying we can always do what is expected of us, nor am I saying we cannot be saved if we stumble, but, as James said, we show our faith through our works for the good of other (ok, a paraphrase).

picture of the Good Samaratin is from here

5 thoughts on “Not all sins are equal because not all laws are equal

  1. Puritan Roger Williams (1600’s Massachusetts Bay) proposed that there is a difference between sin and crime. For example adultery and not keeping the Sabbath are sins in that thinking model (orthodox Puritanism)but not crimes. Murder is a sin and a crime. He felt sins should not be codified into civil law as such are matters between a person and God not involving the person and the civil state. He is credited with the idea of separation of church and state but that is false as he supported the idea of clergy led theocracy. but the division of secular law from Christian sin is a step in that direction. He was unsuccessful in converting his peers to this separation of sin and crime proposal.

  2. Arsenokoitai: the word translated homosexual
    Leviticus18:22and 20:13 forbid a man lying with another man as one would with a woman. Leviticus was originally written in Hebrew, but Paul was a Greek-educated Jew writing to Gentiles in Greek, the common language of the day, and probably was using the Greek translation of the Old Testament available in that day, the Septuagint, or LXX, for his Scripture quotations.
    The Greek translation of these Leviticus passages condemns a man (arseno) lying with (koitai) another man (arseno); these words (excuse the pun) lie side-by-side in these passages in Leviticus. Paul joins these two words together into a neologism, a new word (as we do in saying database or software), and thus he condemns in 1Corinthians and 1Timothy what was condemned in Leviticus.

    The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) of Leviticus 20:13 reads, “Whoever lies with a man as with a woman [meta arsenos koiten gynaikos], they have both done an abomination.” This is almost certainly the idiom from which the noun arsenokoitai was coined. Thus, Paul’s use of the term presupposes and reaffirms the holiness code’s condemnation of homosexual acts. This is not a controversial point in Paul’s argument; the letter gives no evidence that anyone at Corinth was arguing for the acceptance of same-sex erotic activity. Paul simply assumes that his readers will share his conviction that those who indulge in homosexual activity are “wrongdoers” (adikoi, literally “unrighteous”), along with other sorts of offenders in his list.

    Even without the use of homosexual in 1Corinthians and 1Timothy, it’s pretty hard to spin,
    “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Romans 1:26-27 (ESV)

    1. somehow, this ended up in my spam…..sorry.

      to pick a nit: “homosexual” was not in the english lexicon until the 19th century.

      But now: in both Levitics verses you cite, the word used is “abomination,” not sin. It is the same word used when Joseph told his brothers not to tell the Egyptians they were shepherd because shepherding was considered an abomination to egyptians. I studied this and have decided that it means more uncomfortable in the current set of mores.

    2. one other thing, I think, that it was the holiness code that was done away with by Jesus. WHy we can eat shellfish and it is not a sin for women to wear men’s clothing (actually, the word used was abomination, which is not a sine, but something that is uncomfortable is a time or place) So if homosexuality was part of the holiness code that was abolished. . .. what was Paul talking about? I think I have a good idea, but still am not finished looking up words.

      The forming of a new word by mashing together two others is neologism (not to be confused with Sarah Palin’s creation of new words by being obtuse or ignorant.) and is a time honored practice by people who knew what they were doing.

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