When preachers address sinfulness, it is easy for them to list the sins that are in the news. Abortion, deviant sexual practices, addictions, violence, mass murder, and political dishonesty are just a few symptoms of our growing sinfulness as a nation. Because of the social or political pressures to normalize sin, we assume that we will have no argument from the Christians in the crowd when we mention the proliferation of shameless acts and actors in the media coverage of fornicators, drunkards, molesters, and crooked businessmen. Yet it seems other sins condemned in Holy Writ which are equally soul-damning are barely mentioned.
Catholic tradition classifies sins as “mortal” and “venial” based on references to the “sin unto death.” Lies are classified as big fat lies and little white ones, harmful and harmless. Sins are minimized as character flaws, mistakes, and personality defects. Situational ethics diminishes sin, based on the situation.
In Proverbs 6, the hungry thief who steals seems less shameful than the man who commits adultery with a neighbor’s wife. Yet James 2 points out that, legally, the respecter of persons is equally an offender with the adulterer and the killer. So is there really a distinction of little sins and big ones? It seems that the same Bible that announces the wages of sin as being “death” has also defined some sins as worse than others. They are worse in regard to the harm done to others, but more importantly, the insult directed at the Almighty and Holy God.
First, consider the danger of the so-called little sins. Since they seem more harmless, they usually are repeated frequently. Gossip is just sharing the latest news or showing concern for someone else. Rude talk is just “shooting straight and telling it like it is.” Jokes with suggestive undertones are just good humor among mature friends, and after all, “A merry heart doeth good.” (sarcasm intentional) Taking a few inexpensive items home from work, or a “five-finger discount” from a store, is not really a crime because big businesses make excess profits. The reader can easily think of things that “other people” do!
When we take “little sins” for granted, we make it easier the next time. We sear our consciences, thereby losing our desire to live as lights in the world. We may diminish any good influence that we had in the past.
A “small sin” is like the young son who enters the narrow opening so he can open the locked door for his father, the burglar. The smaller the guilt, the more frequent is the sin. It is the little fox that spoils the vineyard. The little tongue is ignited by the fires of hell, and is unnamable, unruly, poisonous.
It has been rightly said that the holiest of men have the strongest fear of little sins. Job made a covenant with his eyes to avoid lust. Daniel feared God, to whom he prayed openly, more than the king who had banned his prayers. Paul disciplined his body to avoid being disqualified after preaching to others.
Those who do not respect God’s love of righteousness and his hatred of sin will minimize the danger of casual and careless sin. We are tempted when we are drawn away and enticed by our own lust, which conceives and brings forth sin (James 1:13-15). Little sins, unrecognized or ignored, grow into strong entanglements which enslave our souls for time and eternity. Yet if this is so, then what are the greater sins?
After extolling the glorious creation of God and the merits of God’s will for his life, David describes the great reward of keeping the precepts of God. More desirable than gold and sweeter than honey, the law of God was the source of His warnings and His great reward. Since we cannot discern our own errors, and need cleansing from our hidden faults, we need God’s help. David writes, “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression” (Ps. 19:13). What is the “great transgression”?
Until writing this article I never made a connection with David’s aversion to “the great transgression” and the man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath day. Moses had just announced the law about this sin: “But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he hath despised the word of the Lord, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him” (Num. 15:30-31). Immediately we read an account of presumptuousness.
“And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him” (vs. 32-34). The man should have had no need for sticks, since cooking was prohibited. In fact, no burden bearing or rigorous physical labor was allowed on the Sabbath. The Lord said (to Moses), “The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.” (35) The man was executed by the people outside the camp according to God’s command.
It seems to me that the great transgression that stands out in scripture is not a specific act of a single sin or a group of sins. It is more an attitude than an action. While heinous crimes and disgusting lifestyles are to be avoided and condemned for what they are, it is the high-handed attitude against God and the lifestyle he desires mankind to follow that is most repulsive to God. From the choice of the first humans to favor Satan’s urgings over God’s prohibition…or even more so the choice of Satan to lead the opposition to God as the accuser of man…willful sin is the summit of man’s sinfulness.
The call for the crucifixion of Jesus by a vicious mob was an awful sin, but Jesus said they did not know what they were doing. His plea for the Father to forgive them was fulfilled on Pentecost after they realized what they had done. Presumptuous? Maybe on the part of some, but ignorance and mob frenzy was the rule that day.
The persecution, imprisonment, and murder of Christians at the hands of Saul of Tarsus was done by a man with a clean conscience, convicted that he was doing service to God. Heinous for sure. Presumptuous sin? Not at all. He who later defined himself as chief of sinners said he obtained mercy because he did it ignorantly, in unbelief (1 Tim. 1:13-15).
Why, then, was David so concerned about the great transgression? Why the plea to God to keep him from presumptuous sin? And what about the request to not let them have dominion over him? As the prophet Nathan told David, he was “the man.”
The man David was highly qualified for presumptuous sin, the great transgression. He was the king. He was used to being followed and obeyed. Hardly anyone would have been feared by him. Even as a young man, he heard the adulation of the people. The slayer of Goliath, the one who surpassed King Saul in valor and accomplishment before wearing the crown, the king for whom valiant soldiers would cross enemy lines and risk death to get a drink of water for him – this is David.
One day he gazed from his roof to view a bathing beauty. He had perhaps noticed the woman before, but on a certain tragic day he decided he had to have her, the wife of a military man away on the battlefield. The arrangement was made despite the fact that her marital status was known. The tryst was consummated, and an unwanted pregnancy occurred. Now would have been the time to put an end to the relationship and acknowledge the sin. But the sinfulness had only begun. Crafting a plan of deception, David called Uriah home to take a break from the battle and to visit Bathsheba.
Uriah, a loyal soldier, reported how the battle was going. He was sent to “wash his feet” at home, and a royal meal followed him. But he slept at the door of David’s house with David’s servants. The next day David asked why he had not gone home, and he replied that he could not do such a thing while his comrades were in the open field and the people were in tents.
The plot to cover up his paternity had failed, so David again tried to get Uriah to go to his house by getting him drunk. However, a drunk Uriah was still more ethical than David. David sent a note back to the military lines with orders to Joab to put Uriah into the front lines of heated battle, and then withdraw support for him. Uriah had carried his own note for execution. David later sent words to encourage Joab to press the battle. His basic message to Joab was “O.K. . . . so people die in battle!”
After Bathsheba observed a time of mourning, she married David and their son was born. Yet God was highly displeased. Nathan the prophet was sent with a tale about injustice suffered by a poor man whose only lamb, a pet of his children, was taken by a rich man to feed a traveler. Suddenly David’s conscience returned, and he angrily called the atrocious injustice a crime worthy of death. Only after Nathan declared, “You are the man,” did David confess his sin (2 Sam. 11-12).
David took many liberties with his position, with adultery, deceit, and murder being committed in the sight of God deliberately and callously. It is as if he were willing to spit in the eye of God. One does not have to be a king to think too highly of himself, yet David is described as a man after God’s own heart. How can that be? If he had continued his hardened path, he would be seen as one of the most evil of men. But his humbling by God and the events of his life helped to shape our understanding of the grace of God. Had he received what he deserved according to the law, he would have been executed. But he received grace and forgiveness, even for his presumptuous sin.
For the Christian, the warnings are clear. Knowing what is right and refusing to do it creates an atmosphere of “great sin.” “For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them” (2 Pet. 2:20-21).
Willful sin, after we know the truth, puts us in the position of having no sacrifice for sins. We can only anticipate with fear the judgment and fierce indignation of God. “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:26- 29). God’s vengeance will determine the “payback.” Our God is alive, and it is fearful to consider what will happen to us if we rebel and defy our creator. He is God, and we are not!
Ken is the minister for the Leeville Church of Christ in Mt. Juliet, TN.