Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Sermon Notes for 03182012 – Matthew 11 vs15-24

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers?

Why does Jesus speak this way? How can it be that Jesus’ audience would come under greater judgment than Tyre and Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah? We’re not as familiar with Tyre and Sidon, so how about a little background information. In Ezekiel 26-28 and Isaiah 23 we read prophecies against Tyre and Sidon. These cities gentile nations had given support to Israel, including providing materials and resources for building the palaces and the temple. Yet they were to come under judgment because they became arrogant and oppressed their neighbors and the poor among them. So they also were conquered by Nebuchadnezzar.

And what about Sodom and Gomorrah? Their story is a proverb and a byword, it stands for all sin and the judgment that comes upon it. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we hear Sodom used as a comparison, a benchmark for the worst sin and greatest judgment imaginable. Listen to what is written in Ezekiel 16:46-63

So, now we may have a little more appreciation for what Jesus’ own audience might have heard when he referenced Sodom, Tyre and Sidon. And it even sounds as though he is in large part paraphrasing and quoting this text from Ezekiel 16. But that still doesn’t really tell us what is going on. What is he saying theologically? How are we to understand this word?

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers?

What’s going on here?

Let’s ask a preceding question – are all sins equal? Popular Christian theology tells us that yes, all sins are equal. That God does not judge us differently. We say this, I think, as a way to extend grace to those who have sinned greatly, and as a way to warn those who think they are ok because their sins do not seem as grave.

In Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking to the Pharisees: 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Mt 23) Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount he says, “3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Mt 7)

Those two passages sound to me like Jesus is saying that all sins are not the same, that some are worse than others. I think the Levitical code supports this idea, since more severe punishments are assigned to some violations of the covenant.

1 John 5 says this: 16 If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that.

It certainly sounds as though our theology should be that all sins are not the same, that some sins are in fact worse than others. We’ll need to find a different way to extend mercy and grace on those with more guilt while not absolving those with less.

So is that what’s going on? Is it that the sins of believers are worse than those of unbelievers? Did the Jews of Jesus’ day sin more gravely than the residents of Sodom? Well, in a manner of speaking, yes.

Hear two more passages from the New Testament.

Luke 12:
47 That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

Clearly there is much more to say on this topic. We could explore the teachings of Jesus and Paul regarding how our words and actions might cause others to stumble. We could discuss ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ as the one unforgivable sin. We could wonder about how Noah, Abraham, David and Job were considered righteous even though they were not without sin. We could study Jonah’s visit to Nineveh and think about calling unbelievers to repentance without conversion.

For now, let us remember:

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world? – not necessarily.

But yes, some sins are worse than others,

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers? – apparently yes.

The greater judgment comes because we have greater knowledge. Those who know and do not are more guilty than those who do not know what to do.

So, what does this say then about our understanding of being saved by grace through faith, if in fact our faith and belief put us in a position of being under stricter judgment from God?

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