Written by Sam Logan
Friday, 17 May 2013 00:00
Well, the answer to this question is like the answers to so many similar questions – no, there is absolutely no hierarchy of sins and yes, there certainly is a hierarchy of sins.
My first blog on this subject explored briefly the “no” answer and my second blog examined biblical evidence for the reality of just such a hierarchy. The point of this blog will be to make a few very tentative suggestions about the specific nature of this hierarchy.
I emphasize “very tentative.” My previous blog was based on general “deductions” from Scripture but those deductions seem to me to be good and necessary (to use the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith). I believe that the deductions contained is this blog are, indeed, “good,” but I would hesitant to say that they are “necessary.”However, since this is precisely the area where “the rubber hits the road” in terms of the actions and attitudes of individual Christians and of the Church of Jesus Christ, I will nevertheless suggest some possible “good” deductions.
Before I do, however, I would like to be open and frank about one thing I will NOT be doing. I will NOT be basing my deductions on the frequency with which a certain sin is mentioned in the Bible. Rightly or wrongly, I interpret the frequency (or infrequency) with which some sins are mentioned as being one of those matters which are directly related to the specific cultures within which God gave His word to His people. Many doctrines which the church (and I) regard as crucial (the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, etc.) are not mentioned frequently but this does not mean that they are less important because of their infrequency. Similarly, some actions that can be taken today (for example, genetic and gender manipulation) were unknown to the cultures of the Bible but this does not mean that those actions are therefore biblically “neutral.”
1. The consequence of Acts 5
I mentioned this passage in my previous blog. It is both evidence of a hierarchy and a suggestion about what the “worst” sins may entail. Here is the relevant section of that passage:
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property,2 and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. [Emphases added.]
This passage makes no comment about the eternal destiny of Ananias and Sapphira but it does seem to indicate that lying to God and testing the Spirit of the Lord are, in at least some ways, especially heinous and, on that basis, warrant the specific temporal judgment of physical death.
2. The consequence of Joshua 7
The story of Acts 5 is foreshadowed in Joshua 7. There, the Israelites are repulsed by the army of Ai and Joshua falls down before the Lord and asks why He was not with His people. Here is the Lord’s response to Joshua:
10 The Lord said to Joshua, “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face?11 Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. 12 Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you. [Emphasis added]
Again, temporal punishment is directly related to “lying to God.” Here, of course, the Lord offers a “way out” but that way is no more available to those who had been killed by the forces of Ai than way any “way out” available to Ananias and Sapphira. So again, “lying to God” seems to be especially heinous and, on that basis, warrants a specific temporal judgment.
3. The consequence of Isaiah 58
Finally, there is a very different emphasis throughout Scripture, one found in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It finds especially clear expression in Isaiah 58, where, in the context of threatening temporal judgment on the Northern Kingdom, God says this to and through His prophet:
Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
The Lord tells Isaiah that His people will protest like this:
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
And the Lord responds to this protest with these words:
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
Clearly (I think!), the Lord is basing His temporal judgment of the Northern Kingdom at least in part on how His people treated the weak, the oppressed, the hungry.
And the importance of this issue is reflected in the following words of Jesus from Matthew 25 which, though probably relating to eternal judgment rather than to temporal, makes it unmistakably clear how the Lord sees these matters:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
In these passages and in many others as well, the kind of active obedience that Scripture requires focuses specifically on care for those who are weak . . . exactly as Jesus cared for us when we were mired in our own weakness and sin.
My conclusions from all of this? There are two:
First, in terms of temporal realities, which is where we all live now, any affirmation regarding the things of the Lord that we know to be false is especially heinous and is grounds for severe temporal judgment, both by God Himself and by God’s people. We are not talking about mistakes or errors of judgment or even faulty doctrine here. We are talking about conscious lying in the specific context of the faith. One example – consciously and intentionally exaggerating the effectiveness of one’s ministry. Sharing encouraging facts is one thing; intentionally overstating ministry success is something else entirely.
Second, in terms of temporal realities, which is where we all live now, ignoring or failing to minister adequately to the weak, the poor, the hungry, the sick – such delinquencies are especially heinous and are grounds for severe temporal judgment, both by God Himself and by God’s people.
Thank God (and I mean that literally) that the judgments mentioned in the previous two paragraphs are temporal, not eternal. Thank Jesus that He has borne the eternal judgment for ALL the sins of ALL of His people (see my first blog in this series). But temporal judgment is real and, even more important, temporal judgment reflects the fact that the behavior being judged is an offense, a “slap in the Face,” to the very God who has redeemed us by the blood of His only begotten Son. And it just doesn’t get much worse than that!
As I said, these are truths that I deduce from Scripture. I think they are good, though perhaps not necessary, deductions. But I am really eager to hear back from readers of this blog. What do YOU think Scripture teaches? Are there “temporal” judgments in the post-New Testament era? If there is enough interest in this topic, I may continue exploring such issues as the possibility that God has temporal judgment in store for the United States because of things that we, as a nation, have done or are doing.
Sam Logan is Special Counsel to the President and Professor of Church History at Biblical. He also serves as the International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship (www.wrfnet.org). He is an ordained minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is President Emeritus of Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia).. He is married to Susan and they have two sons and two grandsons. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/samuel-logan