Are there degrees of judgment?

Jesus once told a parable about servants getting beaten up and cut to pieces by their master. It sounds like a sadistic version of Downtown Abbey. And it’s a story that fills many Christians with terror:

That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47-48)

What are we to make of Jesus’ words? They seem so inconsistent with the grace and unconditional forgiveness that he demonstrated on the cross. I guess what we need is balance. We need to remember that Jesus frequently beat his lazy disciples, sometimes with many blows, and sometimes with a few. We also need to remember that God scourges his children and his whippings are a sign that he loves us.

Of course this is not true! Jesus did no such thing and your Father doesn’t scourge you!

Downtown Abbey

But according to the nose-punching preacher, he might, so you’d better get busy. You’d better pick up the pace, you lazy Christian, and starting producing his fruit. Because one day the master will return, line up his servants, and beat them according to their faithfulness.

I’m being facetious so that you might see how ridiculous this picture of Jesus is. Yet it is a picture that is regularly preached. We are told that God judges us and there are degrees to his judgment. Those who sin ignorantly get lesser punishment while those who sin willfully get a greater punishment:

If you lose your job it’s because you sinned. And if you lose your child then you must’ve sinned big. You need to repent!

This is a most wicked message yet I hear these sorts of stories all the time. When a natural disaster strikes or there is a shoot-up at the local school, and you can bet your house that some self-appointed prophet will say God is judging the church/city/nation for its sin.

Law = degrees of judgment

“But doesn’t the Bible indicate degrees of punishment?” Indeed, it does – in the law.

Under the law-keeping covenant, different penalties were applied for different sins (see Lev. 4-6). Unintentional sins required a sacrifice; intentional sins required a sacrifice plus restitution; and really big sins like murder demanded death. Seems fair, doesn’t it? Small sin = small punishment; big sin = big punishment.

But there’s a problem. In God’s eyes, sin is sin. Since any sin is enough to mar the sublime perfection of his holiness, the smallest sin is enough to disqualify you from his holy presence. As a friend of mine describes it, the law is like a plate-glass window that you can just as easily break with a piano as with a BB-gun pellet. Sin big or sin small and you’re a law-breaker either way.

Read the old covenant and you will find chapter after chapter prescribing different remedies for sin. But read the new and you will only find this:

He sacrificed himself once and for all, summing up all the other sacrifices in this sacrifice of himself, the final solution of sin. (Heb 9:26b, MSG)

Under law, there are many sacrifices for sin, but under grace there is only one: Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Christ’s sacrificial death is the once and final solution for all your sin – past, present, and future.

Grace = no degrees of judgment

I am not saying there are no consequences to sin. Sin is destructive. Sin hurts people. I am saying that under grace it is meaningless to talk about degrees of judgment. Either Jesus paid the penalty in full or he didn’t. There’s no in-between.

It’s important that you see the difference between law and grace. Under law, you have to work down your sin debt and the bigger the debt the more you must work. But under grace, Jesus has cancelled the debt and you don’t have to work because he already did.

So all this talk about degrees of judgment and greater condemnation for certain types of sin seems rather pointless.

No zombies in the House of Grace

“Paul, you have referred to the old covenant law. But what about that New Testament verse where James says teachers will be judged more strictly (Jas 3:1)?” Do you really think Jesus is going to line up all the teachers on Judgment Day and beat some of them? As I have explained elsewhere, that’s not what James was saying at all.

In the final analysis, there are no degrees of judgment. You’re either in or out, dead or alive, a sheep or a goat. There are no half-goats or half-sheep or zombies in the kingdom of God.

So what does Jesus mean when he says, “the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows”? Does he mean that some of the sheep are going to be taken aside and given a quick beating before being admitted into heaven? Does he mean some of the goats will be given fire extinguishers for their trip to hell?

Okay, I’m being facetious again. But I can’t help it because I have heard all sorts of silly sermons about proportional punishments and greater judgments. I’ve heard smart people say dumb things like, “God judges us according to our knowledge of sin.” No he doesn’t. That’s the old covenant. In the new God does not judge us according to sin at all, but according to Jesus.

The fact that we are even having this conversation shows us how sin-focused we have become. We need to renew our minds, stop dwelling on our badness and our remedial works, and focus on Christ’s goodness and his finished work.

Brennan Manning used to say:

I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day the Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question: “Did you believe that I loved you?”

The ultimate question we must ask ourselves is not Have I done good or bad? or Have I balanced my bad deeds with good deeds? The ultimate question we must ask is, What have I done with Jesus?

It’s how we answer this question that leads to the different responses Jesus describes in the story of the beaten servants.

I will look at those responses in my next article.

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29 Comments on Are there degrees of judgment?

  1. I am glad I am not a servant and have no master, I am a son and know my father.Those that serve the law will live by the law, even if they are ignorant of the law.Its purpose to drive them to grace, to find life through death.

  2. well put,this and other things you have written, almost need to be covered everyday,its amazing how we gravitate towards the law or the negative

  3. Amen. Love it! I think our deeply entrenched penal view of the atonement has something to do with it. As you’ve said so well, the Spirit becomes a heavenly cop; the Father, a cruel taskmaster. He’s more like Mr. Bumble in Oliver instead of a loving Father. As C.Baxter Kruger put it, “Legal justification is overemphasized to the point of replacing adoption as the heart of the gospel message.” It’s like God married us in the courthouse and we never left there.
    Btw, you’ve just got to love Maggie Smith’s character as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. She has so many classic lines in that series. She cracks me up!

  4. Torase Barnes // July 2, 2014 at 1:57 pm // Reply

    Good Evening Paul,
    How or where can I order your book in hardcover format…really not a fan of paperback books?   Thanks,

  5. Brian Midmore // July 2, 2014 at 7:52 pm // Reply

    In the post you state clearly what Luke 12 47-48 does not mean but you do not venture to say what it does mean. Perhaps Jesus is talking about the pending judgement on Jerusalem (see 13 34-35). The Jews are those who know God’s will and have rejected God’s Messiah from a place of knowledge so their judgement will be severe, i.e Jerusalem utterly destroyed. The judgement on Gentiles who reject God’s Messiah is less severe.

  6. Thank you Paul for you explanation on the verse… however after reading this whole sermon, i still don’t have a clue about what exactly Jesus meant when He said those words. Can you please explain? Then I also read where u said I am not saying sin does not have ‘consequences’; If sin does have ‘consequences’, what are those ‘consequences’ & how does that fit in with grace? Are the ‘consequences’ punishment, discipline, judgement or just inherent in the Law, i.e you break a law & suffer the ‘consequences’? I mean what is the SOURCE & the REASON for those ‘consequences’ of sin when under Grace? Is any one exempted?

    • I will explain the parable in the next post. The consequences of sin are the evil fruit we harvest when we sow to the flesh. I am referring to all the hurts we inflict on ourselves and others. Proverbs lists them.

  7. Hi Paul, this story ist so important that I`ve translate it in german language. It`s ok ?

  8. Gloria Christ- // July 3, 2014 at 7:48 am // Reply

    Hie Paul.Thank you for your blog.You are setting so many captives free through these revelations.I wasnt aware God is this much in love with me.I feel sudden joy welling up within me I feel like shouting that We are home at last with the Father.To think that He has been pursuing me with His love all this while!I cant thank you enough Paul.This is liberating indeed.

  9. i can so hear the dowager countess saying those very words after hearing a sermon on degrees of judgement….

    • I have a confession to make. I’ve never seen Downtown Abbey. Not even a minute! But I figure with a face like that, Maggie Smith’s character probably would say something like that. Glad to hear I was on target.

  10. Hey Paul, I love your blog! Subscribed/followed but I didn’t get my offer in the confirmation email for a free copy of your book.

    • Hi Briana,
      Just this month we have discovered that WordPress users, or people who are signed up to other WordPress blogs (in addition to E2R), don’t get the personalized confirmation email with the download link for the free book. (I have just emailed this link to the address you supplied above.) It’s a problem that the WordPress engineers are trying to fix.
      Thanks for letting me know.

  11. “For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its savior. Those who believe in the Son are not judged” -John 3:17-18a, Good News Bible

  12. I am very confused about 2 Corinthians 5:10 fits into the “Christians won’t be judged” idea. Can you explain further for me please…thanks!

    • That scripture is about Christ coming to reward us, not judge us. We have already been judged in Christ which is why Paul says there is now no condemnation for those in Christ.

  13. Jesus paid the penalty in full or he didn’t – there’s no in-between. I love that. Thank you Paul! Blessings.

  14. Anson Thomas // March 3, 2017 at 5:44 am // Reply

    You said “Unintentional sins required one kind of sacrifice while intentional sins required another kind of sacrifice”

    What is the sacrifice for intentional sin under law. I couldn’t find one. Please let me have the verses.

    • It’s been a while since I wrote about this, so this answer is off the top of my head. In Lev 4 and 5 you’ll find lots of instructions about sacrifices for unintentional sins. In Lev 6 you’ll find different instructions for people who lie, cheat and steal (verses 1-7). In hindsight, it was incorrect to say there were different sacrifices; it’s more accurate to say there were different penalties (I’ve made the change above). If you stole something, you had to bring a guilt offering and make restitution. If you murdered, raped, or committed sorcery you paid with your life. (See also Ex 22.) Different sins led to different degrees of punishment. Thanks for the comment.

  15. I believe it. I think you’re spot on in your description of grace being contrary to law. (As I type this, I am flabbergasted of how “contrary” grace is to law,….thankfully) Anyhow…indulge me a dip into scripture in light of the article that you have written, if you will:
    1. You briefly made a comment: “In God’s eyes, sin is sin.” How would you defend or reconcile may be the better word, in light of John 19:11 – “… Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me up to you has [the] greater sin.” My question is, if there is a greater sin, then there has to be a lesser sin. Greater cannot exist without lesser.
    2. As one studies and begins to understand the places of the dead, ie: Gehenna, Hades, The Abyss, The Lake of Fire, Tartarus, Abbadon, Appolyon, etc…, (I mention these, knowing that the unrighteous are understood to abide in these places after death, along with fallen angels). We learn through studying the Greek and Hebrew, compiling scripture upon scripture and precept upon precept, that these particular places carry different degrees of punishment based upon the sins committed. (2 Peter 2:4 – Tartarus for an example, or Jude verse 6 as another) I would be interested in hearing your take on this if you have time.
    3 I do not want this to be long, so I will just mention Hebrews 12:6-12.

    In no way is this, even remotely, intended to be contentious. I just wanted to ask a couple of questions to hear your take on them. Thanks in advance.

    • “Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin’” (John 19:11, NIV).

      The idea that there are lesser sins with lesser punishments and greater sins with greater punishments comes straight out of the old covenant. But as we have seen in the article above, there are no degrees of judgment. You’re either dead or alive, in the kingdom or out of it. You’re either saved or you need to be. God does not judge us according to our sin, but according to Jesus.

      In context, the greater sin of John 19 is analogous to the greater condemnation of Matthew 23 and the “beaten with many blows” of Luke 12. Pilate was a patsy who caved into the pressure of the religious Jews. In condemning an innocent man (Jesus), he made a horrendous mistake. But there’s still hope for Pilate. He could yet repent. “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free…” (John 19:12).

      The religious Jews, however, hardened their hearts again and again to the grace revealed in Jesus. Their sin and self-inflicted condemnation is greater because they are unlikely to repent. They’ve heard the good news again and again and have rejected it again and again. Unlike Pilate, they are well and truly lost.

  16. Rachel Greer // August 4, 2018 at 2:19 pm // Reply

    There is something very concerning about all this to me honestly. The Bible instructs us to shun unrepentant sinners. One reason sexual abuse is so widespread in churches is that apparently grace is more important than treating the victim and making sure the abuser doesn’t hurt them or anyone else…

    • That’s an interesting subject for discussion (another perspective is that sexual sin flourishes when law is preached because the law inflames sin), but it’s not what this article is about. Please note I don’t normally publish comments that are longer than 250 words.

      • Rachel Greer // August 4, 2018 at 3:03 pm //

        Thank you for replying anyway. And I sometimes get the “greater than” and “less than” signs confused.

    • Where the problem comes in is when we humans mix up what scripture says about God judging us and how we are to judge each other. While we should be as grace-full and godly in judging others as possible scriptures does tell us that there are some instances where we need to get strict with a sinning brother/sister. Yet none of that negates that God judges us through the blood of Jesus.

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