This is a short entry on levels of sin in the life of believers. I proceed from several preliminary presuppositions:
1. Before we come to Christ, all sin may as well be the same--"All have sinned and lack the glory God intended them" (Rom. 3:23). "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). "Both Jews and Greeks are all under sin" (Rom. 3:9).
2. After we are justified by grace through faith and have received the Holy Spirit, intentional sin is avoidable (1 Cor. 10:13). We never lose to temptation but that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we might have overcome it.
3. Related to the above, all intentional sin is unjustified. Even if we allow for levels of sin after faith, all intentional sin damages our relationship with Christ and endangers our ultimate salvation.
4. Sin in the life of a believer can break one's relationship with Christ, a teaching that permeates the New Testament (e.g., Mark 3:28-29; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 9:26-27; Heb. 10:26; 2 Pet. 1:10; etc.).
Now to address matters of sin's intensity. Ethicists talk in general of four ethical domains: acts themselves, motives behind actions, consequences of actions, and the character of the person doing the action. Let us briefly consider how these domains relate to the intensity of sin in the life of a believer.
Intention is the primary ethical domain of our day. The Wesleyan tradition in particular places such primacy on intention that we hardly even mention or account for the biblical category of unintentional sin. Our theologians believe, however, that unintentional sin must have atonement just as intentional sin must. But the general sense is that Christ's blood takes care of our unintentional sin as we maintain an attitude of repentance and alignment with God's will.
We might similarly mention the Old Testament category of corporate sin. There is a place within Christianity for corporate confession of sin in addition to our confession of any individual sin.
However, it seems common sense to us that intentional sin is more serious and more damaging to our relationship with Christ than unintentional sin. Of course inintentional patterns with which we do not deal can become matters of intention. We might also mention that intention can be matters of comission and omission. One might split hairs and argue that sins of omission are slightly less serious than sins of comission, but I will not argue it.
I believe the biblical way of dealing with sin indicates that, on the whole, intentional sin is more damaging than unintentional sin (although see below under "The Act Itself"). And while parts of the OT consider corporate sin just as damning as individual sin, the traditions that emerge after the Babylonian captivity move somewhat away from this idea (Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:2-4). I would argue that individual sin is thus more damaging to a person's relationship with Christ than corporate sin.
Without much substantiation, I would suggest that motive remains the most important factor when it comes to the relational damage caused by sin. The stronger one's motives are in contradiction to God, the more damaging the sin is to one's relationship with God.
A person might thus sin unintentionally despite good motives, for motive is not the only domain of sin.
Under this heading I want to consider the matter of trajectory. In what direction were you headed when you sinned? Did you sin while running toward Christ or while running away from him? I would again submit as a matter of common sense (and thus we'd better be careful) that sins committed while running toward Christ do less damage to your relationship with him than sins committed while running from him--even if they are the same exact act.
Here we consider the distinction between a single act of sin and a matter of habitual or a lifestyle of sin. This is of course my understanding of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. The types of people that Paul has in mind are repeat offenders, not those who sin once or twice and then repent. This is the "dog returning to his vomit" principle.
So I believe Paul would have considered a person with a lifestyle of a particular sin to be in greater danger of losing out on salvation than a person who sinned once and repented. Similarly, Hebrews does not threaten its audience because of one sin, but because of the fact that "the water has often given drink to the land" (Heb. 6:7) and the sin has been done not only willfully but it has continued (Heb. 10:26, present tense; cf. present tense of 1 John 3:9).
The Act Itself
It is in this category where we find unintentional sins. These are sins even if one's motives and intentions are not intentionally bad or harmful. There are, for example, duties I have toward my wife--largely because of the consequences of failing at them. I may not intend to miss our anniversary, but I have sinned against my wife if I miss it because I have failed at a duty. There are other things that are sins in themselves because of the consequences. I may not intend to hurt anyone if I were to drive drunk, but if I run over someone unintentionally, I have still sinned, despite my intentions.
The Bible also has a category for sins that are not sins because of consequences; they are just sins in themselves without clear rationale. This is the most difficult domain for the modern mind to fathom. How can an act be sinful regardless of intention or consequence? This domain seems the one dominated by matters of holiness, purity, and impurity. A person under the old covenant became unclean just by touching something that was unclean.
Uzzah is immediately struck dead despite the fact that he is only trying to steady the ark--a good intention. We immediately try to rationalize why God would do such a thing. But ultimately, he is an unclean person touching something that is holy. His intentions did not matter. The same was the fate of any animal that might touch Mt. Sinai while God's presence was on it.
Rightly or wrongly, the classic study of these matters is Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger. She has suggested in great detail how we might understand the purity codes of Leviticus in the light of these kinds of things. Her famous definition of uncleanness is aptly summarized in the saying "Dirt is matter out of place." She proceeds to suggest ways in which we can understand the various food laws and restrictions concerning blood in terms of "matter out of place."
Things in the sea should have fins and scales. Therefore eels are out of place in the sea and accordingly unclean. Things on the land should walk, not crawl. Therefore snakes are out of place and accordingly unclean. Birds should fly, so birds that cannot even lift off even a little bit are out of place and accordingly unclean. Pigs are the provenance of other peoples with their other gods and are thus out of place in Israel and accordingly unclean (cf. the Egyptians finding the Israelites unclean because they were shepherds; Gen. 46:34)
Given our cultural glasses, we try to come up with consequences that might explain these rules--trichinosis in pork, for example. But it seems rather that the acts themselves were considered defiling regardless of intent or consequence. The New Testament changes some of the purity rules with regard to food, but not with regard to sexuality. My hunch is that part of the reason for this retention is because sexual matters involve significant consequences beyond matters of clean and unclean.
Since "act alone" sins are difficult for us to get our heads around, we tend to consider such sins less damaging to our relationship with God than those that involve motive or consequence. This is the position I find myself wanting to take. Yet I must acknowledge that the OT sometimes treats such sins even more seriously than intentional ones. Sometimes such acts, regardless of motive, evoke the most devastating responses from God's Holiness. Such responses are often portrayed as impersonal and unstoppable forces (plagues of serpents and after censuses, the destroyer in Egypt). This is food for thought and for the examination of our cultural common sense.
I think our general common sense is that consequence does not determine the intensity of our sin actions. If I try to kill someone and fail, have I sinned less than if I try and succeed?
However, it makes sense to us to see consequence as one of the two greatest factors in why God commands or prohibits something in the first place (the other being matters of purity and impurity). Does this explain why 1 Corinthians 7 prohibits a divorced woman from remarrying (1 Cor. 7:11) while allowing a divorced man to remarry (1 Cor. 7:27--read something other than the NIV)? Was it because the consequences in the ancient social structure were greater when a woman remarried than when a man did?
I might add that, from a John Wesleyan perspective, the intensity of sin is different in relation to each other than in relation to God. If I cause the death of someone else because I chose to drive without having nearly enough sleep, it likely is a far greater sin against my neighbor than it is against my relationship with God. God looks on the heart; humans on the outward consequences (isn't that what Jesus said? :)
Again, briefly, some thoughts for your consideration, critique and correction...