Are all sins the same?

And if not, are there any implications for us in a political economy blog?  Michael Kruger over at The Gospel Coalition asks the question of whether all sins are the same, and answers no.  He notes that both people who take sin serious and those that don’t can come to this conclusion.  For the person who takes sin serious,

some Christians use this phrase to uphold the seriousness of sin. It is viewed as a way to remind people not to be dismissive about their sin or regard it is a triviality.

One can certainly resonate with this concern.  If all sins separate us eternally from a holy God, there are no “little sins.” But Kruger notes that other Christians want to level out sins such that no sin is worse than another.

Needless to say, this usage of the phrase has featured largely in the recent cultural debates over issues like homosexuality.  Yes, homosexuality is a sin, some Christians reluctantly concede.  But, they argue, all sins are equal in God’s sight and therefore it is no different than anything else.  Therefore, Christians ought to stop talking about homosexuality unless they are also willing to talk about impatience, anger, gluttony, and so on.

You should read the whole post to see his effective refutation of this view,  but I’d like to turn this to political economy.  I’m always amazed at both political friends and enemies that will tell me that Republicans and Democrats are equally bad–there’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” between them.  Let’s leave aside the fact that they really must not believe this, since most of them pay quite a bit of attention to politics.* But in one sense I agree with this.  Peter Schweizer has pretty much nailed the personal corruption that affects both parties (see his very discouraging work Throw Them All Out).  Yet from a public policy perspective, there really is quite a bit of difference.  As conservatives might say, “fear Republicans when they abandon their principles, fear Democrats when they are true to their principles.” Progressives would likely flip the order of the prior statement, but most people think there is quite a bit of difference. Markets seem to think there will be an economic difference between the two parties, as the stock market has rallied significantly since the election.  Progressives are still in a deep down post-election funk; they believe that a Trump administration is going to take the country in a radically different direction than its current trajectory.  While I agree that the differences in rhetoric between the two parties is often a sharper contrast than the actual policies, I do think there is a huge difference in the policies and the impact to our lives.

So my argument is that just as all sins are not equally heinous, so also all policies are not equally bad or good.  Some policies lead more to human flourishing than others, and that necessarily means some politicians and political parties lead more to human flourishing than others.  So what do you say?

* If they were truly all the same, I can’t see the purpose of paying any attention to the political process (unless you are a true masochist).

8 thoughts on “Are all sins the same?”

  1. “So my argument is that just as all sins are not equally heinous, so also all policies are not equally bad or good.”

    Just to lock in the parallelism here, sin is equivalent to policy? I personally like the pragmatism of measuring every public policy according to its degree of implicit flawed-ness. But that doesn’t do much for the clear, sharp contrast you’re proposing. So I’m guessing your parallel with the Gospel Coalition article is more towards protecting the right to make firm declarations about which sins/policies (or sinners/politicians) are uniquely “heinous.”**

    That kind of logic always seems too convenient to me. Mostly because the folks wielding it rarely seem accountable to the advantageous position of their own sins within the hierarchies of sin they conceive. Or all that connected to the specific groups of humans who don’t tend to flourish under their preferred policies.

    So if the goal is comparing models of sin/policy, I would say we best include some honest conversation about who our models are implicitly best *for,* and take careful note of who’s missing. And then maybe we can start moving towards faithful comparison.

    **This seems a fair guess given the overall tone of this blog, but certainly chime in if I’m misreading you.

    1. Ben–
      thanks for your comment. Re your specific comments, no sin is not equivalent with policy. I think there is an analog in that levels of the “badness” of sin, and there are degrees of badness of policy. Not saying more or less.

      “I’m guessing your parallel with the Gospel Coalition article is more towards protecting the right to make firm declarations about which sins/policies (or sinners/politicians) are uniquely “heinous.”
      Not exactly. I would first object to the use of the word “right” as that brings in all sorts of loaded meanings (not sure if you intended to). Of course, we’re on a political economy blog–virtually everything we write (and hopefully your responses) will have normative implications. But I had a rather narrow goal here–simply to assert that there is a moral difference in policies (which deep down I think we all agree with), and that means to compare and contrast any policies we must weigh against the morality in the Bible. Policies that are more in alignment with Biblical values are less heinous, those that are less in alignment are more heinous. To me this logic seems quite obvious, but not to others.

      1. Might I suggest a way to think about this. Perhaps we can visualize a circle that establishes the boundaries beyond which any action is unethical–sinful, but within which we might find better and worse acts or policies, wiser or less wise ones, more and less prudential actions, but none of which are per se sinful as long as they are “inside” the circle. Now with a bit broader definition, we could argue that policies that do not advance human welfare are in some sense “bad” but since only individuals can commit sin, it would be a stretch to say those collective actions (state actions) were sin. Does that make sense? Now of course we also have to determine which ethical system to adopt–I argue for either Divine Command Theory, Modified Divine Command Theory or Classical (Christian) Natural Law theory.

      2. Thanks Jeff and Mark, for well-considered responses. Agree that the word “right” is probably too loaded in the context of this blog. :) And your response does a lot to clarify the intent of the original post for me. Clearly there are very real differences between policies/parties, many of which have moral implications.

        It’s the next bit where your logic runs aground for me, because of course the fine (and not-at-all-fine) points of the Bible’s morality and “biblical values” are hotly contested, even among quite conservative Christians. Reading the GC post, for example, what strikes me most is how incredibly *specific* it is. Already agreed upon a Reformed theology that elevates original sin/total depravity, it’s on to confidently locking down exactly how to categorize the relative heinousness of sin within that framework. A fair enough thing to debate, I suppose, but Jeff’s move from internecine theological wrangling to broad questions of political morality was quite jarring to me. But enough of that. :)

        The reason I bothered to bring this up in the first place is that it maps so readily onto my frustration as a recently arrived reader of this blog. As the source material and content make fairly clear, the contributors here are well established in a very specific space on the conservative flank of both American Christianity and American politics. And yet, there seems an odd determination never to acknowledge as much, in deference to something I can’t quite put my finger on. An appearance of moderation perhaps, a gesture towards some fledgling internal partisan diversity, a lingering Baptist concern for church/state separation? I’m left only to guess about the this and a great many other things.

        Whatever the reasoning behind it, I find the result to be an awkward voice and discourse that: a) casually assumes a unitary Christian/biblical perspective (for both authors and readers) that clearly doesn’t exist and b) loses all the force/perspective that might come from naming and claiming the author’s specific theological, denominational, intellectual, and political contexts. It also seems to keep this space devoid of much frank conversation about the embodied moral/ethical consciousness that it might take do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly as a distinctly Christian political actor in a pluralistic and thoroughly polarized democracy. [If I can’t agree with Marc’s casual pronouncement that “only individuals commit sin,” individual choice certainly seems like where moral differences in policy most readily play themselves out.]

        I’ve no doubt Cedarville’s own curious institutional politics play a role in how things get said/not said here. University politics are perilous; Christian university politics even more so. :/ I also understand that writing thoughtfully takes time. But as a CU alum who came here looking to better grasp the “distinctly Christian perspective” that allowed 80% of white evangelicals to vote for Trump, I find myself continually disappointed. I don’t need or expect you to think like me, but I’d love it if you could find ways to be more straightforward, self-reflective, and demonstrative about exactly why you think like you do. I won’t be storming any gates with you, but I’d still much prefer that they actually take notice when you get there.

  2. “Markets seem to think there will be an economic difference between the two parties, as the stock market has rallied significantly since the election.”

    The bond markets–the smart money–are acting that we are about to enter an age of massive federal deficits prompted by tax cuts for the wealthy (a tax increase for me, though) and by increased spending on defense and perhaps infrastructure.

    Your silence on this obvious trend for the next two years at least is deafening. I am tempted to reach for my soundproof earphones!

    GLD will be a buy at around 100. Good for a 30% or s pop.

    Stocks will retest the election night low by March 2017. Looking for a good place to load up on puts.

    10 year and 30 year paper should be shorted during rallies. The Obama age of deficit discipline and sequestration is about over.

  3. “Now of course we also have to determine which ethical system to adopt–I argue for either Divine Command Theory, Modified Divine Command Theory or Classical (Christian) Natural Law theory.”

    Of those three, one can easily reject the first two as being unworkable and as the most susceptible to abuse by fallible and arrogant humans. The natural law approach has potential.

  4. The basic question “are all sins the same” is very vague. Much of Krueger’s excellent post develops the phrase in a more specific context. He mentions two particular ways in which the phrase is used. The first usage: “… this phrase might be used to indicate that any sin is enough to separate us from God and warrant his wrath.” clearly illustrates the way I would use the phrase “are all sins the same”. Because God is perfectly holy any sin that I commit separates me from him. The smallest slip in my thought life or committing a sin most heinous in its effect on other people separates me from the holy God – equally. The most morally righteous person is as separate from God as the most degenerate person. This is the result of sin. In this way “are all sins the same”. All sins are clearly not the same in their effect on other human beings. Me thinking I’m doing harm to another person does not have the same effect on that person as actually carrying through with my thought.

    Similarly, your application to political economy also must take into account context. If I say that it doesn’t matter whether we elect a Republican or a Democrat president, the correctness of the usage of the phrase depends on context. For much of what a president does, party affiliation is irrelevant. When faced with a particular set of incentives “if I do A, B happens – if I do not do A, C happens” most people will make the same choice. When referring to president-elect Trump, president Obama said “he will be pragmatic”. If I say it doesn’t matter whether we elect a Republican or a Democrat president this is what I mean. I don’t mean that the respective parties policy platforms are unimportant. In context the political platforms are important if the specific President actually believes them. What is more relevant is the character all the particular individual President.

    1. Bert–
      I’m afraid we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I disagree with what seems to be your fundamental point:
      “For much of what a president does, party affiliation is irrelevant. When faced with a particular set of incentives “if I do A, B happens – if I do not do A, C happens” most people will make the same choice.”
      There are of course areas where party doesn’t matter; let me concede that fact that not everything is different. But in significant ways, an administration of one party rather than the other will lead to different results. Consider first (and perhaps most importantly) the cabinet secretaries that are being nominated. Progressives are rightly howling right now as they understand that there will be meaningful change to their agenda that they have been imposing for the last eight years. EPA is going to be decidedly different. The Justice Department is not going to be going off on extorting money from banks to give to left wing groups:
      http://www.wsj.com/articles/look-whos-getting-that-bank-settlement-cash-1472421204
      Will a Trump administration promote energy production rather than try to “kill coal.”? This is not pragmatism at work.
      And then we get to the specifics of what the president will decide. Will a President Trump veto the keystone pipeline deal? Will a President Trump veto the repeal of the ACA? Will a President Trump shut down the government to avoid cutting government spending? We could go on all day long. And I haven’t even touched on the social issues. Not just Supreme Court, but what will be the Trump Administration’s view on Title IX and accreditation and a whole host of issues affecting higher education?

      I think you are right when you suggest there are many things that aren’t going to be different. But in quite meaningful ways, there will be a big difference between a Republican and Democrat administration generally and a Clinton and Trump administration specifically. And a main reason why is the hyper-partisan world we live in. The reason “if I do A, B happens – if I do not do A, C happens” most people will make the same choice” is not true is that the two parties have differences in underlying values in their key constituencies. Both sides do cost/benefit analysis, but the costs and benefits can be quite different based on the constituency.

      At least this is the way I see things.

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