Degrees of Sin
by Thomas Watson
Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?
Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.
'He that delivered me unto thee, has the greater sin.' John 19: 11. The Stoic philosophers held that all sins were equal; but this Scripture clearly holds forth that there is a gradual difference in sin; some are greater than others; some are 'mighty sins,' and crying sins.' Amos 5: 12; Gen 18: 21. Every sin has a voice to speak, but some sins cry. As some diseases are worse than others, and some poisons more venomous, so some sins are more heinous. 'Ye have done worse than your fathers, your sins have exceeded theirs.' Jer 16: 12; Ezek 16: 47. Some sins have a blacker aspect than others; to clip the king's coin is treason; but to strike his person is a higher degree of treason. A vain thought is a sin, but a blasphemous word is a greater sin. That some sins are greater than others appears,
(1) Because there was difference in the offerings under the law; the sin offering was greater than the trespass offering.
(2) Because some sins are not capable of pardon as others are, therefore they must needs be more heinous, as the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. Matt 12: 31.
(3) Because some sins have a greater degree of punishment than others. 'Ye shall receive the greater damnation.' Matt 23: 14. 'Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?' God would not punish one more than another if his sin was not greater. It is true, 'all sins are equally heinous in respect of the object,' or the infinite God, against whom sin is committed, but, in another sense, all sins are not alike heinous; some sins have more bloody circumstances in them, which are like the dye to the wool, to give it a deeper colour.
 Such sins are more heinous as are committed without any occasion offered; as when a man swears or is angry, and has no provocation. The less the occasion of sin, the greater is the sin itself.
 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. Conscience, like the cherubim, stands with a flaming sword in its hand to deter the sinner; and yet he will sin. Did not Pilate sin against conviction, and with a high hand, in condemning Christ? He knew that for envy the Jews had delivered him. Matt 27: 18. He confessed he 'found no fault in him.' Luke 23: 14. His own wife sent to him saying, 'Have nothing to do with that just man.' Matt 27: 19. Yet for all this, he gave the sentence of death against Christ. He sinned presumptuously, against an enlightened conscience. 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. These sins make deep wounds in the soul; other sins fetch blood; they are a stab at the heart.
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 us of. He is convinced that it is a duty to pray in his family, yet he can go days and months, and God never hears of him; he calls God Father, but never asks his blessing. Neglect of family-prayer, as it were, uncovers the roof of men's houses, and makes way for a curse to be rained down upon their table.
(2) When a man lives in the same sins he condemns in others. 'Thou that judges, does the same things.' Rom 2: 1. As Augustine says of Seneca, 'He wrote against superstition, yet he worshipped those images which he reproved.' One man condemns another for rash censuring, yet lives in the same sin himself; a master reproves his apprentice for swearing, yet he himself swears. The snuffers of the tabernacle were of pure gold: they who reprove and snuff the vices of others, had need themselves be free from those sins. The snuffers must be of gold.
(3) When a man sins after vows. 'Thy vows are upon me, O God.' Psa 56: 12. A vow is a religious promise made to God, to dedicate ourselves to him. A vow is not only a purpose, but a promise. Every votary makes himself a debtor; he binds himself to God in a solemn manner. Now, to sin after a vow, to vow himself to God, and give his soul to the devil, must needs be against the highest convictions.
(4) When a man sins after counsels, admonitions, warnings, he cannot plead ignorance. The trumpet of the gospel has been blown in his ears, and sounded a retreat to call him off from his sins, he has been told of his injustice, living in malice, keeping bad company, yet he would venture upon sin. This is to sin against conviction; it aggravates the sin, and is like a weight put into the scale, to make his sin weigh the heavier. If a sea-mark be set up to give warning that there are shelves and rocks in that place, yet if the mariner will sail there, and split his ship, it is presumption; and if he be cast away, who will pity him?
(5) When a man sins against express combinations and threatening. God has thundered out threatenings against such sins. 'God shall would the hairy scalp of such an one as goes on still in his trespasses.' Psa 68: 21. 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. Like the leviathan, 'he laugheth at the shaking of a spear.' Job 41: 29. Nay, he derides God's threatenings. 'Let him make speed, and hasten his work, that we may see it:' we have heard much what God intends to do, and of judgement approaching, we would fain see it. Isa 5: 19. For men to see the flaming sword of God's threatening brandished, yet to strengthen themselves in sin, is in an aggravated manner to sin against illumination and conviction.
(6) When a man sins under affliction. God not only thunders by threatening, but lets his thunderbolt fall. He inflicts judgements on a person so that he may read his sins in his punishment, and yet he sins. His sin was uncleanness, by which he wasted his strength, as well as his estate. He has had a fit of apoplexy; and yet while feeling the smart of sin, he retains the love of sin. This is to sin against conviction. 'In his distress did he trespass yet more; this is that king Ahab' 2 Chron 28: 22. It makes the sin greater to sin against an enlightened conscience. It is full of obstinacy. Men give no reason, make no defence for their sins, and yet are resolved to hold fast iniquity. Voluntas est regula et mensura actionis [An action can be measured and judged by the will involved], the more of the will in a sin, the greater the sin. 'We will walk after our own devices.' Jer 18: 12. Though there be death and hell at every step, we will march on under Satan's colours. What made the sin of apostate angels so great was that it was wilful; they had no ignorance in their mind, no passion to stir them up; there was no tempter to deceive them, but they sinned obstinately and from choice. To sin against convictions and illuminations, is joined with rejection and contempt of God. It is bad for a sinner to forget God, but it is worse to condemn him. 'Wherefore does the wicked condemn God?' Psa 10: 13. An enlightened sinner knows that by his sin he disobliges and angers God; but he cares not whether God be pleased or not, he will have his sin; therefore such a one is said to reproach God. 'The soul that does ought presumptuously, the same reproacheth the Lord.' Numb 15: 30. Every sin displeases God, but sins against an enlightened conscience reproach the Lord. To condemn the authority of a prince, is a reproach done to him. It is accompanied with impudence. Fear and shame are banished, the veil of modesty is laid aside. 'The unjust knoweth no shame.' Zeph 3: 5. Judas knew Christ was the Messiah; he was convinced of it by an oracle from heaven, and by the miracles he wrought, and yet he impudently went on in his treason, even when Christ said, 'He that dips his hand with me in the dish, he shall betray me:' and he knew Christ meant him. When he 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.
 Such sins are more heinous than others, which are sins of continuance. The continuing of sin is the enhancing of sin. He who plots treason, makes himself a greater offender. Some men's heads are the devil's minthouse, they are a mint of mischief. 'Inventors of evil things.' Rom 1: 30. Some invent new oaths, others new snares. Such were those presidents that invented a decree against Daniel, and got the king to sign it. Dan 6: 9.
 Those sins are greater which proceed from a spirit of malignity. To malign holiness is diabolical. It is a sin to want grace, it is worse to hate it. In nature there are antipathies, as between the vine and laurel. Some have an antipathy against God because of his purity. 'Cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.' Isa 30: 11. Sinners, if it lay in their power, would not only enthrone God, but annihilate him; if they could help it, God should no longer be God. Thus sin is boiled up to a greater height.
 Those sins are of greater magnitude, which are mixed with ingratitude. Of all things God cannot endure to have his kindness slighted. His mercy is seen in reprieving men so long, in wooing them by his Spirit and ministers to be reconciled, in crowning them with so many temporal blessings: and to abuse all this love - when God has been filling up the measure of his mercy, for men to fill up the measure of their sins - is high ingratitude, and makes their sins of a deeper crimson. Some are worse for mercy. 'The vulture,' says Aelian, 'draws sickness from perfumes.' So the sinner contracts evil from the sweet perfumes of God's mercy. 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.' Isa 1: 2. The Athenians, in lieu of the good service Themistocles had done them, banished him their city. The snake, in the fable, being frozen, stung him that gave it warmth. Certainly sins against mercy are more heinous.
 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. 'They set their heart on their iniquity,' as a man follows his gain with delight. Hos 4: 8. 'Without are dogs, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.' Rev 22: 15. To tell a lie is a sin; but to love to tell a lie is a greater sin.
 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. To be unchaste is a sin; but to put on a mask of religion to play the whore makes the sin greater. 'I have peace offerings with me; this day have I paid my vows; come let us take our fill of love.' Prov 7: 14, 15. She speaks as if she had been at church, and had been saying her prayers: who would ever have suspected her of dishonesty? But, behold her hypocrisy; she makes her devotion a preface to adultery. 'Which devour widows' houses, and for a show make long prayers.' Luke XX 47. The sin was not in making long prayers; for Christ was a whole night in prayer; but to make long prayers that they might do unrighteous actions, made their sin more horrid.
 Sins of apostasy are more heinous than others. Demas forsook the truth and afterwards became a priest in an idol temple, says Dorotheus. 2 Tim 4: 10. To fall is a sin; but to fall away is a greater sin. Apostates cast a disgrace upon religion. '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.
 To persecute religion makes sin greater. Acts 7: 52. To have no religion is a sin, but to endeavour to destroy religion is a greater. Antiochus Epiphanes took more tedious journeys and ran more hazards, to vex and oppose the Jews, than all his predecessors had done to obtain victories. Herod 'added this above all, that he shut up John in prison.' Luke 3: 20. He sinned before by incest; but by imprisoning the prophet he added to his sin and made it greater. Persecution fills up the measure of sin. 'Fill ye up the measure of your fathers.' Matt 23: 32. If you pour a porringer of water into a cistern it adds something to it, but if you pour in a bucketful or two it fills up the measure of the cistern; so persecution fills up the measure of sin, and makes it greater.
 To sin maliciously makes sin greater. Aquinas, and other of the schoolmen, place the sin against the Holy Ghost in malice. The sinner does all he can to vex God, and despite the Spirit of grace. Heb 10: 29. Thus Julia threw up his dagger in the air, as if he would have been revenged upon God. This swells sin to its full size, it cannot be greater. When a man is once come to this, blasphemously to despite the Spirit, there is but one step lower he can fall, and that is to hell.
 It aggravates sin, and makes it greater, when a man not only sins himself, but endeavours to make others sin. (1) Such as teach errors to the people, who decry Christ's deity, or deny his virtue, making him only a political head, not a head of influence: who preach against the morality of the Sabbath, or the immortality of the soul; these men's sins are greater than others. If the breakers of God's law sin, what do they that teach men to break them? Matt 5: 19. (2) Such as destroy others by their bad example. The swearing father teaches his son to swear, and damns him by his example. Such men's sins are greater than others, and they shall have a hotter place in hell.
Use. 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.' Psa 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.
Chapter XVII (The Wrath of God)