My high school classes are learning the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and this week we covered this question:

Question 83: Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?

Answer: Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

Puritan pastor Thomas Watson (1620-1686) wrote a helpful description of the degrees of sin, excerpted below. It’s a sobering study and well worth the read:

2.Such sins are more heinous that are committed presumptuously. Under the law there was no sacrifice for presumptuous sins. (Num. 15: 30) What is the sin of presumption, which heightens and aggravates sin, and makes it more heinous?

To sin presumptuously, is to sin against convictions and illuminations, or an enlightened conscience. ‘They are of those that rebel against the light.’ (Job 24: 13) … To sin ignorantly does something to extenuate and pare off the guilt. ‘If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin,’ that is, their sin had been less. (John 15: 22) But to sin against illuminations and convictions enhances men’s sins…

How many ways may a man sin against illuminations and convictions?

(1) When he lives in the total neglect of duty. He is not ignorant that it is a duty to read the Word, yet he lets the Bible lie by as rusty armour, seldom made use of…

(2) When a man lives in the same sins he condemns in others. ‘Thou that judges, does the same things.’ (Rom. 2: 1)

(3) When a man sins after vows.

(4) When a man sins after counsels, admonitions, warnings, he cannot plead ignorance.

(5) When a man sins against express combinations and threatening. …Though God set the point of his sword to the breast of a sinner, he will still commit sin. The pleasure of sin delights him more than the threatenings affright him.

(6) When a man sins under affliction. … ‘In his distress did he trespass yet more; this is that king Ahab’ (2 Chron 28: 22). … When [Judas] was going about his treason, and Christ pronounced a woe to him, yet, for all that, he proceeded in his treason. (Luke 22: 22) Thus to sin presumptuously, against an enlightened conscience, dyes the sin of a crimson colour, and makes it greater than other sins.

5. Those sins are of greater magnitude, which are mixed with ingratitude. … The English chronicle reports of one Parry, who being condemned to die, Queen Elizabeth sent him her pardon; and after he was pardoned, he conspired and plotted the queen’s death. Just so some deal with God, he bestows mercy, and they plot treason against him. ‘I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.’ (Isaiah 1: 2)

6.Those sins are more heinous than others which are committed with delectation. A child of God may sin through a surprisal, or against his will. ‘The evil which I would not, that I do.’ (Rom. 7: 19) He is like one that is carried down the stream involuntarily. But to sin with delight heightens and greatens the sin. It is a sign the heart is in the sin…

7.Those sins are more heinous than others which are committed under a pretence of religion. To cheat and defraud is a sin, but to do it with a Bible in one’s hand, is a double sin…

8.Sins of apostasy are more heinous than others. …’The apostate,’ says Tertullian, ‘seems to put God and Satan in the balance; and having weighed both their services, prefers the devil’s, and proclaims him to be the best master.’ In which respect the apostate is said to put Christ to ‘open shame.’ (Heb. 6: 6) This dyes a sin in grain, and makes it greater. It is a sin not to profess Christ, but it is a greater to deny him. Not to wear Christ’s colours is a sin, but to run from his colours is a greater sin. A pagan sins less than a baptised renegade.

11.It aggravates sin, and makes it greater, when a man not only sins himself, but endeavours to make others sin.

Use (application). You see all sins are not equal; some are more grievous than others, and bring greater wrath; therefore especially take heed of these sins. ‘Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.’ (Psalm 19: 13) The least sin is bad enough; you need not aggravate your sins, and make them more heinous. He that has a little wound will not make it deeper. Oh, beware of those circumstances which increase your sin and make it more heinous! The higher a man is in sinning, the lower he shall lie in torment.

Read the whole article here.

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About Ben Kwok

Ben is part of a church plant team establishing the Rouse Hill Church. He holds a Master of Divinity degree. Ben and his wife Diahanna live in Sydney, Australia with their four young children.


  1. Steve 4 November, 2010 at 8:49 pm - Reply

    Not sure I agree with this Ben. My understanding of this is that God sees all sin as equally bad, but the consequences may be different to us and others, by degrees.

    The verse in James 2 comes to mind, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.”

    It seems that the question and answer in the Westminster catechism is flawed to me.

  2. Robert Apps 4 November, 2010 at 9:34 pm - Reply

    penetrating and convicting Ben,

    I am not sure whether to thank you though:)

  3. Ben 4 November, 2010 at 9:53 pm - Reply

    hi Steve, if the consequences for sin can vary, wouldn’t that indicate that the offences themselves also vary in wickedness? e.g. a person who sins presumptuously is more wicked in the sight of God than a person who sins in ignorance, and will receive the greater judgment. Watson’s article gives more explanation about “greater” sins and it’s worth a look.

    Certainly every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse (which is the point of the next catechism question), but God also judges sinners by degrees (Matt. 11:20ff).

    I think Watson has a good understanding of the psychology of sin and it’s not hard to see one’s self in his description. I’m glad God’s grace is greater!

  4. Steve 4 November, 2010 at 10:46 pm - Reply

    By consequences I meant physical consequences, not spiritually, and I am referring to believers, not the unsaved.
    Jesus’ teaching that “looking on a woman to lust” is as bad as commiting adultery (Matthew 5) is a good example of sin having different consequences but being equally wicked in the eyes of God.

    Watson’s teaching seems to be aimed at unbelievers, since a born again Christian does not go through “torment” (I take this word to mean hell).
    There does seem to be an indication in Scripture that unbelievers will be judged according to their works at the Great White Throne judgment. Of course, Christians will not be present there.
    Perhaps this is what he means in his teaching?

  5. Jason Harris 5 November, 2010 at 9:31 am - Reply

    I very much share Steve’s reservations about this idea. It has certainly gotten me thinking… For instance, in point five he says:

    “The English chronicle reports of one Parry, who being condemned to die, Queen Elizabeth sent him her pardon; and after he was pardoned, he conspired and plotted the queen’s death. Just so some deal with God, he bestows mercy, and they plot treason against him.”

    Is this not all of us every day and in every way?

    On the other hand, John Vaughn uses the illustration of smashing into someone’s car… if it’s a bomber, it’s not a big deal. If it’s a Rolls Royce, it is a very big deal. He applies the illustration to argue that the seriousness of our sin is not determined by the sin itself, but by who it is committed against.

    Thanks for challenging my thinking and I hope this thread will bring out some helpful insights. Now that SI has linked to the post, I suspect it will. =P

  6. Ben Kwok 5 November, 2010 at 9:59 am - Reply

    While lust in the heart is committing adultery in the heart, I think the acting out of adultery (or other sins) is a greater offence in itself because of the greater rebellion expressed in action, not just because of the consequences.

    Yes, I think this does speak to unbelievers, yet we also should pray “Keep back Thy servant from presumptuous sins.” (Ps. 19:13) :)

  7. Robert Apps 5 November, 2010 at 11:27 am - Reply

    this discussion has to take place in the context of the subject of the degrees of punishment (that I believe Scripture teaches).

    so do the degrees of punishment depend on the kind or frequency of transgression/s? probably both….

  8. we'll call me Bob 5 November, 2010 at 1:21 pm - Reply

    Lets use a real life example.

    I’m talking to someone about a marriage (E and A) which is in serious trouble. (A) refuses to fulfill her marital obligations with regard to sexual relations.

    This person (D) has a very deep burden against the sin of lust caused by the use of pornography. A valid concern with a Scriptural basis.

    So I hear from (D) that thankfully (E) has not been using pornography to help satisfy his sexual desires.

    (E) did admit to having slept with at least two women who were not his wife, but he wasn’t looking at pornography.

    My response was something along the lines of, are you insane?

    (D) response was that all sins are equal, after all Jesus said to look with lust was adultery, so there’s no difference between looking at porno and sleeping with a woman who is not your wife.

    So are all sins equal?

  9. PJ 5 November, 2010 at 7:29 pm - Reply

    @ we’ll call me Bob: Jesus didn’t say that “lust was adultery”, He said the man who lusts after a woman “hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” I don’t think Jesus necessarily meant to equate the two – rather to say that both actions are sinful.

    The whole point of Jesus’ teaching in that passage was to restore the original spirit of the Law that had been perverted by the Jews. When God prohibited adultery He wasn’t allowing lust. When God prohibited murder he wasn’t allowing unrighteous anger etc etc.

    @Rob: Agree that the frame of reference for this discussion has to be degrees of punishment (Matthew 11:21-24). If there are greater degrees of punishment it is only logical that some sins must be worse than others.

    Sin by its very nature works the processes of death – and that goes for Believers as well. I think there are certain sins that work that processes more than others – particularly those sins we might call life-dominating sins. Its interesting how the Bible gives more warnings about some sins than others – think of the whole chapters on the “strange woman” in Proverbs and the frequent warning against drunkenness and the pursuit of riches. These sins seem to be particularly bad for us.

  10. Steve 5 November, 2010 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    Good discussion everyone, and thanks Ben for the thought provoking post.

    I guess I don’t see the practical implications of believing that there are degrees to sin. For the unbeliever, to whom we have the responsibility of presenting the gospel, it doesn’t matter how much they have sinned or what sins they have committed, they can still be saved. They still need to admit that they are sinners (“All have sinned…”) and believe the gospel.

    For the believer, we simply go to 1 John 1:9, and confess our sins, no matter how bad we think they are, they can still be forgiven. Fellowship with God is regained and we can continue in the Christian life, as per Hebrews 12:1,2.

    For both the sinner who is saved and the Christian who confesses, the consequences of sin may still be there to remind us how wicked sin is, but before God those sins are gone, removed as far as the east is from the west.

    I think grading sin can be tricky, and may lead to legalism, in that a Christian can be judgmental about others who fall into sin, and may even think that there are some who are beyond redemption or recovery.

    @PJ, any sin can be life-dominating, from perfectionism to drug addiction. Our standards don’t really matter, only God’s standard is absolute.

  11. we'll call me Bob 5 November, 2010 at 10:03 pm - Reply

    Just for the record, all three people in my little story, claim to be believers.

  12. Steve 6 November, 2010 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    I’m not sure that I understand you correctly Bob. Could you please restate your position more clearly?

  13. PJ 7 November, 2010 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    @ we’ll call me Bob: Totally unnecessary and totally inappropriate for this forum. I hope your post will be taken down as soon as the moderator is made aware of them.

    You could have answered Steve’s question with just your last paragraph and without the vulgarity.

    I’d like to see you square off your language with Ephesians 4:29.

  14. we'll call me Bob 7 November, 2010 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    Interesting that PJ is upset with the manner in which I made my argument, but in no way even attempts to refute it.

    Here’s another one, I’ll not use the sexual relationship this time since that is obviously icky, and it caused brain freeze for some of you.

    Jesus said in Matthew 5,

    21Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:

    22But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

    Clearly it is sin to hate your brother. It is even sin to call him a fool.

    But, I can’t believe that any of you are willing to argue that hating your brother is equal as a sin to taking a .357 Magnum and sticking it in your brothers ear and capping off six rounds. Yes, hating our brother is sinful. But, I’m quit certain that the death penalty is not required for hateful thoughts or speech. On the other hand, you murder your brother in cold blood, and God has a very, very high standard of punishment for that particular sin.

    Hating your brother and murdering your brother are not equal sins.

  15. Jason Harris 7 November, 2010 at 3:31 pm - Reply

    Hey guys,

    Sorry, I was away from the computer for some of this discussion.

    I’ve removed the comment from “we’ll call me Bob.” I think the first statement of the argument makes the point sufficiently.

    Carry on.

  16. Steve 7 November, 2010 at 9:14 pm - Reply

    @we’ll call me Bob, thank you for the clarification of your position on this topic. I will try to defend my position reasonably, I hope you do not take my argument offensively but in the spirit of Chrisitian love for truth.
    Your first comment contains a straw man argument which makes it invalid. All of the characters seem to have an unorthodox view of sin, actually from your argument it seems that both D and E think that looking with lust is worse than commiting the act of physical adultery. That is why I asked you to clarify your position on this.

    Apart from this, the original issue I had was with question 83 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the answer of which makes it clear that there are sins more heinous in the sight of God than other sins.

    Clearly, our personal opinion carries no weight here, we must look to the word of God. Matthew 5:28 states that looking at a woman with lust is the same as committing the physical act of adultery. Jesus also equated anger without cause to murder. He taught this in response to the Pharisaical notion that murder was a sin but anger without cause was not so bad. Both, in fact are sins in God’s eyes, regardless of our standards.
    Another verse that supports sins being equal to God is 1 Samuel 15:23a “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry”.

    All these sins have different consequences in the physical realm, some may result in a gaol term, others in marital breakdown, but before God the result is the same. As Christians, our fellowship with God is broken if we commit any sin, be it lust, murder, rebellion or anger without cause. Confession is the remedy as Christians, and we are not commanded to confess more, or in a greater degree for particular sins.

    The Roman Catholic teaching of Venial and Mortal sins is very similar to Thomas Watson’s teaching in Ben’s post. In fact, the definition of the degrees of sin is remarkably similar to the Catholic doctrine as well. I wonder if Watson was influenced by this teaching.

    Anyway, I would like to continue this discussion as long as it is Biblical and dispassionate.

  17. Jason Harris 7 November, 2010 at 10:13 pm - Reply


    “Dispassionate.” Hm… I’m not sure we do that around here… =P Seriously though, I know what you mean.

    Regarding the Matthew 5:28 passage (and as someone mentioned earlier I think), the “in his heart” seems to set the two sins apart. One sin is physically committed. The other is the same, except that it is “in his heart.” I’m not sure we can really argue for actual equivalence on that, can we?

    As far as 1 Samuel 15:23, I’ve always viewed this passage as elevating the seriousness of rebellion, not as equating rebellion with witchcraft per se. I’m trying to think through whether I can make a case for the latter…

    Ironically, I still have some difficulty with the idea of the post so I do appreciate your points to the contrary.

    I wonder if some common ground in this discussion would be to say that in terms of redemption and damnation, any variance in “badness” of sin is incidental. Or to put it in terms of Vaughn’s illustration, the size of the dent is incidental when the value of the “car” is taken into consideration.

  18. we'll call me Bob 10 November, 2010 at 1:25 pm - Reply


    I’m confused? Since when are Biblical issues something to be dispassionate about?

    Several more questions come to mind as well.

    First, do those of you who are so adamant that there are no degrees of sin understand that the story I described above is a direct result of your teaching? These people all go to an evangelical type church. They claim the name of Jesus Christ, yet they have a deeply confused understanding of the Christian life and it is based on a belief that all sins are equal.

    You dislike my descriptions of their actions, yet you do not acknowledge that, “all sins are equal”, is the very basis for their argument that what (E) did is just a simple sin in the sight of God, no different or worse that telling a little white lie or shooting 30 people on a military base.

    Jason’s comment about “in his heart” reminds me of something else as well.

    Pop quiz. How is the last of the Ten Commandments different from the previous 5?

    Isn’t covetousness a sin of the heart? Didn’t the covetousness occur before the stealing, before the adultery, before the bearing false witness?

    Is it possible that in Matthew 5:27-28 that Jesus was pointing out that adultery was a heart problem, and it occurred long before the physical act.

    After all, we condemn the ruler in Luke 18 who had kept all the commandments save that one which involved the heart, right?

    I understand that God hates sin, and I’m not suggesting that sin is a good thing, clearly it is not and Jesus condemned that ruler for his heart issue. But telling people that all sins are equal will lead them to the same conclusion that Luther once reached, “Be a sinner and sin boldly,”? And the question is, why not, if all sins are equal, why not go for the really outrageous ones if there is no difference? Why not commit adultery instead of just doing it in your heart, if there is no difference?

  19. Jason Harris 10 November, 2010 at 2:41 pm - Reply

    I suppose what we’re trying to do Bob, is develop a more nuanced understanding of the issue. Of course a person that sees no difference between an immoral act and an immoral desire has missed some pretty obvious nuances. But that doesn’t remove the possibility that there is a sense in which sin is sin is sin.

  20. Greg 15 November, 2010 at 7:44 am - Reply

    In terms of what it does in this life, sins are different, sure, but in terms of the next, they can not be, for in the next life there are but two consequences. Eternal Life or the Lake of Fire. And neither are based on our sins but what we have decided to do about them.

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