I once knew a man who over the course of twenty-five years of married life had more affairs than I could count on both hands. He claimed to be a Christian and based his eternal destiny on having repeated a sinner’s prayer after his mother at age seven. It was always his wife’s fault: she had gained weight and let herself go; she was a nag; she didn’t put out in the bedroom. He would pop into church for a few weeks and sit near the exit. Then, when he was playing the field with his latest girlfriend he would disappear for awhile, only to re-appear when the relationship went south, as it always did. He would not genuinely repent or try to change, but he was always coming to me wanting me to reassure him that should he die heaven would be his home. He would even go to his mother for support, and of course he never told her of his adultery.
Whenever I brought up the seriousness of his sin he would go into this routine about all sins being equal. He would point to Matthew 5:28 as evidence that he was no more guilty of adultery than any other man who had looked lustfully on a woman. He also mentioned the verse in 1 John 3:15 which equates hatred of one’s brother with murder. From here he would conclude that in God’s eyes his sexual sin was no worse than breaking the speed limit.
Now there is a certain sense in which he was right. All sin falls short of God’s righteous standard. In Matthew 5 Jesus is speaking to the external righteousness of the pharisees. They judged others for their sinful behaviors with the assumption that thoughts and desires were exempt from God’s scrutiny. But when it comes to righteousness all have sinned repeatedly in word, deed, and thought. God does not evaluate the sinfulness of thoughts by a different standard than any other sin.
Having said this it is clear that God does make distinctions between certain kinds of sins in terms of the effects they produce and the consequences they merit. In 1 Kings 16:30 and 2 Kings 21:11 we read that certain kings of Israel were more wicked than those who went before them. But how could this be possible if God considered all sins to be the same? If all sins are the same in God’s eyes then how could Jesus say that all other sins except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would be forgiven (Matthew 12:32)? How could he say in another place that it would be more tolerable for Sodom than for Israel on the day of judgment? Why does Scripture distinguish between sins that lead to death and those that don’t (1 John 5:16)?
The fact is that some sins are worse in their effect. The man mentioned earlier had a beautiful daughter. I wonder if he would think worse of a man for raping her than merely lusting after her. Why, if all sins are the same? Hating a brother is in one sense just a sinful as murdering him. But if the brother has his choice between the two, which do you suppose he would prefer? And why does most civil law, after Scripture (Genesis 9:6), see murder as a capital offense? If all sin is equal should we not execute those who openly profess or demonstrate their hatred of others?
The case of the Corinthian church is most instructive. This church numbered at least in the hundreds and possibly thousands. Corinth was rife with sexual immorality. There is no doubt that sexual lust was a battle waged by many men and perhaps even women in that fellowship. Paul tells them it is better to marry than burn with lust (7:1), so we know lust was an issue. And yet there was only one man in the Corinthian church of whom Paul said, “Put him out of the church,” and that was the one engaged in the open onngoing flagrant adulterous affair (ch. 5). If all sins are the same then why did not Paul command that every member of the Corinthian church engaging in known sin be excommunicated? The answer is that Paul drew a distinction between fornication and all other sins (6:18). All other sins are outside the body, but the fornicator sins against the temple of the Holy Spirit–a result often erroneously attributed to practices like smoking.
Eventually I broke fellowship with the man mentioned above. I do not know if he is a believer or not. I cannot determine this, and it is not my job to do so. But because he continued to live like an unbeliever I had to treat him like one. If I saw him today I would be cordial and friendly. But I would make no pretense of spiritual fellowship with him.
So the answer to the question: Are all sins the same is–yes and no.