There's Sin...And Then There Are "Sins"?
I was recently introduced to the phrase, "going-to-hell sin." This intrigued me because, from my own studies of Scripture when I was a young Christian, I always thought it was clear that all sins were "going-to-hell sins." But apparently not. Hollywood certainly has us thinking that they are not. You can hardly watch a movie in which hell is mentioned without reference to a character who has done some particularly terrible things--as over against other characters who are doing smaller, less "hell-deserving," evils. So, obviously, some sins send you to hell, and others...well, don't?
Consider for a moment the dynamics of this way of thinking--even within the church. Many say, "We all know that sin is deserving of hell." Almost all biblically knowledgeable Christians would agree with the truth that the "wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23)--eternal death in Hell being the fullest expression of that outcome. Why then would we (in thought perhaps more than in word) suggest that some sins are more hell-worthy than others? There are several reasons.
First, because some sins are worse (i.e. more heinous) than others in nature. After all, this is what the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us:
"Q 83: Are all transgression of the law equally heinous?
A: Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others."
Note the qualification - some are more heinous than others. The qualification regards the degree of sin, not whether something counts as a transgression. Transgression is transgression. However, we rightly acknowledge that because of the various degree and circumstances related to the offense, a sin committed by one man may rightly be said to be worse than the same sin committed by another in different circumstance. The Westminster Larger Catechism breaks this down in a very careful way when the Puritans wrote:
Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
A. Sins receive their aggravations,
1. From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
2. From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many.
3. From the nature and quality of the offense: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.
4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord's day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.
Take theft for example. The poor beggar who steals food in order for he and his family to survive (Prov. 6:30) is stealing, but his theft is not of the degree of offense as that of Judas Iscariot's theft and greed (John 12:6; Matt. 26:15). Judas was a disciple of Christ, part of the inner circle and party to immeasurable blessing. While both men committed the sin of theft, Judas's sin is worse by virtue of his office and circumstance. So we can insist that some sins are worse than others. Does that, however, allow us to speak in terms of someone as having committed "hell-deserving sins." The same is true of the man who commits adultery in his mind and heart (Matt. 5:28) and committing adultery with an individual. Adultery is adultery, but one has more serious consequences (i.e. tearing apart a family, wounding another's conscience, etc.) and is heightened in the nature of the degree of the sin's heinousness.
The second reason why some speak of certain sins as being "hell-deserving" is of a completely different order, and is, frankly, very dangerous for the believer. Why would a believer categorize some sin as hell-worthy and not other sins? Consider the following two reasons:
First it is a failure to see all sin as appalling heinous in the sight of God. All sin is sin and is deserving of hell. To categorize some sins as hell-deserving is to fail to the see every sin as what it is in truth. The Puritan, Ralph Venning, records the words of one of his contemporaries who described sin as, "the dare of God's justice, the rape of his mercy, the slight of his power, the contempt of his love". Venning adds, "it is the upbraiding of his providence, the scoff of his promise and the reproach of his wisdom" (The Sinfulness of Sin, Banner of Truth. p 32). Yes, this is the nature of all sin. The slightest lustful glance at a member of the opposite sex, the whitest of what someone might call a white lie, the very best of our good works--they are all worthy of hell. To say otherwise is to deny the plain teaching of Scripture. As Anselm explained to his assistant Boso in Cur Deus Homo, every sin against an eternal being deserves eternal punishment. The punishment fits the crime. In fact, the Scriptures teach that all men deserve hell--not simply for every personal sin that they commit, but by the imputation of the guilt of Adam's first transgression.
Second, while we are not able to know the hearts of others, we can know our own hearts; and, if your hearts are anything like mine, I suggest we are able to identify a condition common to all of us. It is the pride of thinking that I am better than others, and that my sins, though I may acknowledge them to be sin, are really not quite as bad as everyone else's. In short, this condition stems from a self-justifying spirit. When we see other's sins as hell deserving, we are just like the Pharisee in the temple thanking God for our own supposed holiness and righteousness. It was not the Pharisee that went home justified.The great danger in identifying other's sins as hell-deserving is that we fail to identify our own sins in like manner. We excuse ourselves, graduate sin and give ourselves a clean bill of spiritual health while we stand ready to censure others for their sins. The excuse of our own sin and the willingness to criticize and judge others go hand in hand. Take heed in such times. Be careful not to break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering flax on those in the church who may fall into a series sin, or who may be struggling with a particular sin which you may not have committed or with which you may not struggle. To do so against those for whom Christ has died is a grievous sin in itself.
Finally, we must consider what this line of thinking says about the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Apart from apostasy, there is no unpardonable sin. To label a certain kind of sin as "a going-to-hell sin" is to deny the power of Christ's atoning death. If some sins - murder, rape, child abuse, abortion etc. - are unpardonable, then we exclude the likes of King David and the Apostle Paul from the kingdom. We readily acknowledge that there are more severe consequences, in this life, for such heinous offenses; however, when he put them in a category different from what all our sin deserves eternally we deny the power of the blood of Christ, we inadvertently suggest it is insufficient to save. We deny that "the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment through Jesus a pardon receives." Furthermore we deny the power of the Holy Spirit of God. The unbeliever who commits a "going-to-hell" sin is, apparently, incapable of being regenerated. He is able, apparently, to resist the sovereign and almighty work of the Spirit in salvation. Grace becomes resistible. Such thoughts are blasphemous. Additionally, We pervert the doctrine of evangelical repentance (i.e. godly sorrow - see 2 Cor. 7:10) for the believer. When we are speaking of a professing believer who has committed a grave sin as having committed a "go-to-hell" sin, we functionally decide what repentance is and who has done well enough to merit it.
We must take heed to ourselves in this matter. The problem lies deep within each of us We must see all of our sins as hell-deserving. Perhaps then we would think twice before we sin, be more gracious to others caught in sin and remember that all sins--save that which our Lord called the unpardonable one--can be forgiven by God, in Christ.
Matthew Holst is the pastor of Geneva OPC in Woodstock, GA. He has written several articles for Reformation 21. You can listen to his recent GPTS Spring Conference lecture on the issue of death before the fall here. You can listen to many of his sermons here.