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Why does God treat some sin more seriously than other sin? The answer to that question depends upon at least two factors: the degree of light the sinner possesses, and the degree of intention involved in the sin. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
1. The degree of one’s guilt is relative to the degree of one’s knowledge of truth.
In Luke 12:47-48, Jesus teaches this principle by way of an illustration:
And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.
This is why Jesus warns his countrymen that it will be far more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment than for them if they reject His gospel message (Matt. 10:16; 11:21-24). I believe this is also the point Jesus underscores when He says to Pilate in John 19:11, “the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” Commentators debate whether Jesus is alluding to Caiaphas the High Priest or to Judas Iscariot.8 But in either case, Jesus is referring to someone who had much more gospel light than Pilate. Certainly, Pilate was wrong for putting Christ to death. But the sin of Caiaphas and even more the sin of Judas were far worse because they knew far more gospel. Thus the degree of one’s guilt is relative to the degree of one’s knowledge of truth.9
This is a warning to those of us who preach the gospel. God takes our sin more seriously than the man who has received little biblical truth. We have been entrusted with much gospel light. Furthermore, we have been entrusted with the stewardship of teaching the truth we have received to God’s people by life as well as lip. 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. This is why James says, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” Rather than hastily encouraging men to pursue the ministry, James exhorts them to “count the cost.” Stricter will be the standard of judgment for them than for others, because they had a higher degree of gospel knowledge.
2. The degree of one’s guilt is relative to the degree of one’s intention involved in the sin.
In other words, God views our sin not only in relation to head-knowledge but also in relation to heart-disposition. For example, in Numbers 15:27-30, God distinguishes between the person who sins “unintentionally” and the person who sins “presumptuously,” literally, who sins “with a high hand.” In the case of the former, the person is not acting with full knowledge and consent of the will. In the case of the latter, the person is acting in full knowledge and utter defiance of God’s command.10 The fact that atonement could not be made for this kind of sin underscores its serious nature. Once again God warns His people against the sin of defiance in Deuteronomy 28:19. There He describes the man who after hearing the warnings of Scripture “blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall have peace, even though I follow the dictates of my heart.’” Such a man, God goes on to say, will not be forgiven (v. 20).
In Jeremiah chapter 7, God expresses his extreme anger towards Israel because of their “stubborn hearts,” “turned backs,” and “stiff necks” (vv. 24, 26), which are all expressions of defiance. In fact, God is so angry with their sin that He tells Jeremiah to stop praying for them (v. 16). Once again this demonstrates the fact that God takes some sins more seriously than others. Louis Berkhof summarizes this point in his systematic theology:
Sins committed on purpose, with full consciousness of the evil involved, and with deliberation, are greater and more culpable than sins resulting from ignorance, from an erroneous conception of things, or from weakness of character. Nevertheless the latter are also real sins and make one guilty in the sight of God.11
This leads us to a discussion of what has often been called “the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” or “the unpardonable sin.”
8 Caiaphas the High Priest is said to have delivered Jesus to Pilate (John 11:47-54; 18:13-14). Judas is frequently referred to as the one who “betrayed” Jesus into the hands of men (Matt. 17:22; 26:34; Mark 3:19; John 18:2, 5). Most commentators believe Jesus is referring to Caiaphas. Some argue for Judas. And a few suggest he may simply be referring to the Jewish people as a whole.
9 There are many other passages that support this principle. For example, in Amos 3:2 God makes a rather surprising statement to the nation Israel: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” The two clauses at first appear incongruous. Why would God’s electing love for Israel become a basis for His judgment of Israel? The answer is that the greater the privilege the greater the responsibility. Matthew Henry explains it this way: “The distinguishing favours of God to us, if they do not serve to restrain us from sin, shall not serve to exempt us from punishment; nay, the nearer any are to God in profession, and the kinder notice he has taken of them, the more surely, the more quickly, and the more severely will he reckon with them.” Commentary on the Whole Bible, en loc.
10 I believe Moses may be speaking of two sides of the spectrum of sin. On the one hand, you have sins that are committed “unintentionally.” The Hebrew word refers to an act that was not committed with the full engagement of the mind and will. Involuntary manslaughter would be an example of an “unintentional” sin (Num. 35:22ff.; Deut. 19 4-10; Josh. 20:2-6, 9). On the other side of the spectrum, we have the “presumptuous” sin (v. 30). Literally, Moses speaks of the person who does anything with a “high-hand.” The NIV and ESV translate it “defiantly.” Since there is no atonement for this degree of sin, I have a difficult time viewing it simply as “willful” sin in the sense of the mind and will being engaged. In one sense, there are no sins that are absolutely done in ignorance (cf. Rom. 1:18-21; Rom. 2:12-15). Certainly, David’s sin against Bathsheba and Uriah involved some measure of knowledge and intent. Yet David experienced God’s forgiveness (Pss. 32; 51). Obviously, the unpardonable sin of defiance must involve an unusually high degree of knowledge and malice directed towards God. I am inclined to view this sin as identical to or at least of the same category as blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10).
11 Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1941), 252.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.