To be clear, this post is about theology, not politics.
In a recent interview on CNN, Dr. Jerry Fallwell Jr. said, “Jesus said ‘if you lust…in your heart, it’s the same as committing adultery.”
We need to be really clear…that is not what Jesus said.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching that the Law not only addresses external sins, but also sins of the heart.
What He actually says is, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28
What Jesus was saying is that lust condemns you, just as adultery does.
Lust and adultery are the same family of sins. But they are different degrees of maturity. Lust is the seed, adultery the weed. Lust is the root, adultery the fruit.
But they have differing degrees of severity. It might be helpful to think of them in this way:
Lust and adultery are qualitatively the same—they are the same sort of sin.
Lust and adultery are quantitatively different—their degree of severity is exceedingly different.
These sins are similar, but Jesus did not say they are the same.
Degrees of Sin
While all sins are severe, they are not equally severe. When James 2:10 says “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” we learn that failing to keep one part of the law breaks the whole thing. Concerning our text, lusting breaks the law in the same way adultery does. But that doesn’t mean that these sins are the same to God.
When speaking to Pilate, Jesus clearly indicated there were differing degrees of sin,“he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11; cf. Luke 7:41-43). He also teaches there are differing degrees of judgment “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matthew 10:15; Luke 12:47-48). Elsewhere, God warns Cain to not allow his sinful anger to progress and become the greater sin of murder (Genesis 4:6-7).
As we apply the degrees of sin teaching to our case, we see without doubt that committing adultery is a far worse sin than imagining it in your heart.
1. The act of adultery grieves God far worse.
2. The act of adultery affects a spouse far more.
3. The act of adultery affects the person committing it far more.
To put it in the context of current events, the sexual assault Dr. Nassar committed against many young women is far more serious than someone who once looked at a pornographic image, was grieved, and then quickly turned it off.
Understanding this distinction is important for two reasons:
1. Flattening sins and making them all the same does not encourage us to treat sins appropriately. The way we should respond to the sin of lust in the heart is far different than the way we should respond to adultery. If you don’t believe me, just ask any spouse who has known the pain of adultery’s intimate betrayal.
2. Rendering judgment on people for a lesser sin heaps undue guilt on them. A young man or woman who lusts in their hearts should not be loaded down with the condemnation as an adulterer. People who lust are guilty, but not like the adulterer.
Jesus’ words were intended to expose the heart of self-righteous people who felt satisfied because they had not crossed a certain moral line. We should never feel comfortable with any sin against a holy God. At the same time, the moral relativism that is presented in the opening line of this article unhelpfully blurs lines that dull the sword of God’s Word.
I hope this sheds a little light on what Jesus actually said.
May the Lord help us to honor Him in our hearts, and our actions.
Come, Lord Jesus come.