There is a misnomer in Christian circles that all sin is equal in the eyes of God. This is perhaps based on a misunderstanding of texts like James 2:10, which reads, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” James’s point is not that all sins are equal in God’s sight, but that all sins are damning in God’s sight. In other words, all sin—no matter how big or small—warrants death. The wages of any sin is death—eternal death. However, the Bible very clearly recognises that some sins are more serious than others.
The most obvious way in which the Bible affirms this idea sin is by the sanctions that are listed in the Bible for various sins. A thief, for example, was required to make restitution (with interest) for what he had stolen. A murderer, on the other hand, faced but one penalty: death. The murderer’s punishment was clearly far severer than the thief’s punishment—precisely because the murderer’s sin was more serious than the thief’s. Ultimately, both sins were (and are) punishable by the second death, but in the human court of justice, murder carried a severer penalty than theft.
In fact, the degrees of severity of sins can even be seen in those for which the Bible calls for capital punishment. While there are almost twenty capital crimes listed in the Old Testament, murder is the one sin for which a substitute punishment could not be implemented (Numbers 35:31). While other sins warranted the death penalty, it was acceptable—presumably at the request of the wronged party—for a lesser penalty to be implemented. But not for murder.
Capital crimes in the Old Testament included adultery, bestiality, rape, homosexual activity, idolatry, witchcraft and kidnapping. One other sin that called for capital punishment was blasphemy: “Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:16). God takes his name seriously enough that those who profane it are worthy—both temporally and eternally—of death.
In the Bible, God’s name could be profaned in numerous ways. The modern concept of profaning God’s name is to use it as an expletive. In the Old Testament, however, even an act as heinous as child sacrifice was considered to be an act of profaning God’s name (Leviticus 18:21).
One interesting (and convicting) example of profaning God’s name is found in the narrative of Jeremiah. The account is in Jeremiah 34:8–22.
During the reign of King Zedekiah, the Jews made a covenant with God to set their Jewish slaves free. This covenant was based in Mosaic law, which required Jews to release Jewish slaves every seven years. The covenant having been made, the people “obeyed, all the officials and all the people who had entered into the covenant that everyone would set free his slave, male or female, so that they would not be enslaved again. They obeyed and set them free.” Obedience is a rare occurrence in the account of Jeremiah, so this is something of a bright spot in the book.
However, the obedience did not last very long, for “afterward they turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them into subjection as slaves.” Significantly, this breach of covenant was considered by God to be an act of blasphemy: “You turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back his male and female slaves, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your slaves.” The people had covenanted before God to do something, and when they did not keep their covenant, God considered it to be blasphemy—a profaning of his name. As we have seen, this was a most serious sin, warranting capital punishment (Leviticus 24:16).
One problem with God’s people in Jeremiah’s day, particularly as evidenced in this text, is that they were far too quick to make rash vows and far too slow to keep those vows. But the Bible makes it clear that God takes vows very seriously. Solomon said it this way: “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” He continued with this warning:
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.
Sadly, the trend of speaking rashly before God continues to our day, and many who do so fail to realise just how serious a matter God considers it to be. Take, for example, a church covenant. As a church members, you agree to abide by your covenant, but how seriously do you take it? Our church covenant states, “We will work and pray for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” and, “We will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, eager to make productive use of the means of grace.” When church members, who have covenanted together on those terms, regularly (and without good reason) miss church services and refuse to gather for prayer, how seriously are they taking their covenant? The choice is ours: Will we obey, or will we profane God’s name?
Or consider the matter of parent (or baby) dedications. When parents stand before the congregation and ask for the church’s assistance in raising a godly seed, but then do not bring their children to Sunday school or other children’s ministries, are they not guilty of speaking rashly? Are they not guilty of profaning God’s name?
As another example, consider your wedding vows. Husbands, do you love and cherish your wife as you vowed, or do you profane God’s name? Wives, do you honour and respect your husband as you vowed, or do you profane God’s name?
The Jews who did not honour their vow to release slaves were guilty of profaning God’s name, a sin that carried a most severe penalty. How often are we guilty of doing the same thing? And do we think we will escape the chastening of God for profaning his name? Hear what God said through Jeremiah:
You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbour; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the LORD. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts— the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf. And I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives. Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.
How seriously do you take your covenants? How seriously do you take your word? Are you guilty of profaning the name of the Lord by making vows that you do not keep? If so, repent, and then experience the blessing of the Rechabites in Jeremiah 35, who were true to their vows, and on whom the Lord pronounced profound blessing: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Because you have obeyed the command of Jonadab your father and kept all his precepts and done all that he commanded you, therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Jonadab the son of Rechab shall never lack a man to stand before me” (vv. 18–19).