March 6, 2014 Broadcast

The Degrees of Sin

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Does Jesus teach us that lust in the heart is as sinful as actual physical adultery, and that anger is as sinful as actual physical murder? If so, then why not carry out those thoughts since the judgment will be the same? In this message entitled “The Degree of Sin,” Dr. Sproul reminds us of the exacting nature of God’s justice, and how He measures our sin against His perfect Law.

From the series: Building a Christian Conscience

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  1. article

    Daily Confession, Enduring Reform

  2. devotional

    Knowing Your Sin

  3. devotional

    Degrees of Sin

Daily Confession, Enduring Reform

Burk Parsons

I have a friend who is a Roman Catholic. Not too long ago he went to “confession,” after which he told me, with tears welling up in his eyes, he felt “clean like a new born baby.” Confession is an integral component of the Catholic sacrament of penance. After one confesses his sins to his priest, the priest absolves his sins and he is assigned particular righteous acts of penance and prayers in accordance with the nature of his sins.

Knowing my Protestant convictions, my friend thought I would be overjoyed to hear that he was confessing his sins and feeling clean. And although I was certainly thankful, I knew full well that such a natural emotional response would only last until his next sin. Although historically Rome has taught the necessity of both private and public confession of sin, many Catholics have been persuaded that only when they confess their sins to their priests, are absolved, and do penance that they really possess the forgiveness of God. But apart from faith alone in Christ alone, no one will ever possess the imputed righteousness of Christ for justification, which leads to a faith that is active in word and deed, and a life of both public and private confession of sins.

In the tenth century, in one small corner of the world, the Lord raised up a new theologian in the Eastern church. Simeon (949–1022) preached against nominal Christianity, which was expressed by a merely outward faith and public confession of sins. Simeon argued that if our Christian faith is genuine, we will be engaged not only in the periodic public confession of our sins, but in the daily private confession of our sins as well. From his Discourses, we read, “Let us endeavor to attain to purity of heart, which comes from paying heed to our ways and from constant confession of secret thoughts of the soul. For if we, moved by a penitent heart, constantly and daily confess these, it produces in us repentance for what we have done or even thought.” Through the centuries the Lord has continued to sustain and reform His church by raising up faithful men to proclaim His gospel and to call His people to live coram Deo, before His face, in genuine repentance, humble confession, and authentic faith leading to a life wholeheartedly devoted to God.

Knowing Your Sin

The greatest fall of one of the church’s most beloved saints brought forth one of the most cherished psalms in the Scriptures. David penned the penitential Psalm 51 following Nathan’s confrontation concerning David’s affair with Bathsheba. David’s prayer of repentance is captured in poignant refrains as he poured out his broken soul to God. David’s sorrow over his sin brings to life the lofty doctrines of original sin, total depravity, and reconciliation that grace this psalm.

David’s repentance stemmed from an awareness of sin’s magnitude. He first appealed to God’s mercy, love, and compassion for pardoning his iniquity. Then he confessed not only his particular sin with Bathsheba, but acknowledged all his sins. Too often our confession to God deals only with a particular sin instead of recognizing that all our sins are an affront to God. David didn’t rest with a simple confession of one or two sins but asked God to cleanse him of all his sins. Going further, David admitted that his entire nature was sinful. He realized that his wicked actions stemmed from a depraved heart—one he was born with. Here David touched on the great theme of original sin. Many people believe we are born innocent and are guilty only for the sins we actually commit, but David said, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). David acknowledged and took responsibility not only for the sins he had committed, but for his sinful nature as well.

Because David understood the depth of sin, he asked God to cleanse him and pardon him, making new even the inward parts of his soul. David would not have been satisfied with a simple brushing over of a particular sin, but he wanted his very nature changed that he might teach others of God’s grace and praise Him in the assembly. He also asked God to sustain him by His Spirit because David understood that he not only needed to rest on God’s mercy for reconciliation and pardon of sin but also preservation that he might not fall again. May this be the prayer of all God’s people as they confess their sinfulness before God and praise Him for His glorious grace in forgiveness and restoration.

Degrees of Sin

James 2:10 tells us that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” In other words, if through our own efforts we expect to be accounted righteous in God’s sight apart from Christ, then we must be perfectly obedient. To fail in one point is to fail utterly and completely, for our Creator’s perfect holiness demands justice for even the slightest transgression. We need the righteousness of another to be put on our record because none of us has ever kept the standards of the Lord flawlessly. When we trust Christ alone, His record of perfection is imputed to us, and so we can enter into eternal life as those who have a record of obedience to the Father (2 Cor. 5:21). This is wholly by grace since Jesus credited our account with His obedience and we have done nothing to deserve it.

That one sin is enough to condemn us to hell, however, does not mean that all sins are evil to the same degree and that the consequences for our errors are all the same. God may condemn even the smallest sin, but the punishment of the “virtuous pagan” will be less severe in hell than the one who puts every immoral thought and desire into practice, because the scope of the former person’s sins is not as large as the latter one’s. To be sure, hell will be awful for both, but as one theologian has noted, all the sinners in hell would move heaven and earth if they could remove but one transgression from their record and have their punishment even barely alleviated.

Many portions of Scripture, including today’s passage, tell us there are degrees of sin, guilt, and punishment. The Jewish authorities who turned Jesus over to Rome were guilty of a greater evil than Pilate was because they had greater access to God’s revelation and had less reason for refusing to acknowledge Christ’s identity (John 19:1–16). Punishments under the old covenant civil law were meted out according to the circumstances of the crime (for instance, see Ex. 21:28–32). Those who are ignorant of the Master’s will receive fewer lashes in the end than those who know the Master’s will and are disobedient (Luke 12:35–48). Note, however, that even though ignorance may alleviate the consequences for sin, it cannot excuse sin entirely. Our representative, Adam chose his path — apart from the knowledge of God — and we all follow suit. Thus, we are culpable for our ignorance (Rom. 1:18–32; 5:12–21).

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