Based on what is coming across many pulpits today, it would seem that sin is not what it used to be. Under the banner of grace, the moral code of the Bible is being relaxed, allowing for active sin to go unchallenged in the Church. A favorite of grace libertines is the mantra that we are no longer under Old Testament Law, as though its moral code was rescinded. They often cite Jesus’ words of love and forgiveness, inferring He would not condemn their sin today. Their reasoning seems to be that He loves us too much to condemn us.
But is it true—because we are not under the Law, we are free to indulge sin?—Did Jesus relax the moral code of the Law? According to the superlative teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, the Constitution of the New Covenant, He not only did not relax it—He beefed it up!
Two commandments that cause particular harm to their victims are six and seven; both are death penalty offenses. The seventh commandment of the Law exacted the death penalty for adultery. Those caught in adultery were stoned to death. But Jesus went further: “You have heard that it was said by them of old time, You shall not commit adultery. But I say unto you, That whosoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). Do you agree that by this definition, pornography is adultery?
Job revealed the connection between the thought of the heart and the action: “I made a covenant with my eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?” (Job 31:1). In verse 11, he stated that “adultery is a heinous crime to be punished by the judges”—the only time this word is used in the Bible! Job lived before the Law of Moses, but he recognized the sin of adultery begins in the thought-life and may be triggered by visual stimuli. In our world of on-demand pornographic media, sexual attraction leads to addiction. Peter said: “Having eyes full of adultery that cannot cease from sin—this is addiction! “…a heart they have exercised with lustful practices” (2Peter 2:14).
Jesus also beefed up the sixth commandment: “You have heard that it was said by them of old time, You shall not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without cause, shall be in danger of the judgment” (vv.21-22).
In the civil courts of human government, a person cannot be prosecuted for his wrong thoughts, but in the courts of Heaven, his guilt is sealed while his sin is still a mental crime. Jesus said, “For out of the heart proceeds evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are things which defile a man” (Matt.15:18-20). I think He covered it all—and in no way did He ease the intent of the moral law.
Peter rebuked Simon the sorcerer who offered him money to purchase the power to impart the Holy Ghost by laying on of hands: “Repent of this your wickedness; and pray God, if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven” (Acts 8:18-22). Clearly, we are accountable for our thoughts—how much more our actions? But today, the demise of the Decalogue has brought on a deluge of decadence.
All Sin Carries the Death Penalty
Neither has God mitigated the consequences for breaking the commandments. The majority carried the death penalty, and God’s righteousness as Supreme Judge demands the penalty be carried out. In his letter to the Romans (1:29-32), Paul cataloged these sins, declaring, “They that commit such things are worthy of death.”
Simply put—What was sin under Law is sin under Grace, and what carried the death penalty under Law still carries it under Grace. In fact, in the New Covenant, all sin carries the death penalty: from murder to malice, from stealing a person’s identity to armed robbery: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). This statement, of course, will evoke strong cries of denouncement from the world. They claim liberty and love—but not justice. For a just God must regard His Word.
The wonder of God’s love is not that He would let the sinner off by overlooking his sins and sweeping them under the carpet of tolerance. The wonder of His love is that He found a way to uphold the just demands of His Law in fulfilling it—and still offer mercy to the guilty perpetrators—This meant someone had to die for every broken law committed by every lawbreaker.
The death penalty was set in motion in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve sinned, and was passed to all their posterity (Ref. Romans 5:12-21). Immediately, God killed innocent animals to cover their nakedness, and thereby instituted animal sacrifice—the shedding of blood upon the altar—as a temporary covering for sin. Under the Law of Moses, God codified the sacrificial system. Year after year, innocent animals died to make atonement for sin. “And without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin” (Lev.17:11, Heb. 9:22).
These were temporary and limited, because they could not cleanse the human conscience from its evil thoughts. Therefore, man lived in a continual struggle against sin, because of the motions of sin in his mind that were consummated in the body. Several generations later, in the time of Noah, “God saw the wickedness of man was so great, that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). This is the first mention of the heart in Scripture, and its thoughts were only evil—they had no wholesome thoughts! God destroyed that entire civilization, sparing only Noah and his family of eight people. And He told Noah that going forward, He would exact the death penalty for those who took human life: “Whoso sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made he man” (Gen. 9:6). (This is a sobering thought when I consider the millions of babies, created in the image of God, that have been murdered by human hands.)
It wasn’t long before humans had corrupted their way again, because of the wickedness that resides in the heart passed down from Adam. In order to keep sin at bay, God chose the nation of Israel to give the Law and reveal His commandments, but it did not transform the heart. It defined sin, but did not eradiate it. Paul said, “I would not have known sin but by the law; for I had not known lust except the law said, You shall not covet…. That sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (Romans 7:7, 13). In other words, the commandments—by stating what is sin—showed just how powerful the lusts of sin are in the human heart, worthy of the death penalty.
The Death Penalty Stands
With the initiation of the New Covenant, Jesus not only brought over the Commandments, He strengthened them, tightening their purpose and intent. Nor did He rescind the penalty of death. As we have shown—and scores of Scripture confirm—“the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).To satisfy the righteous demands of the commandments, but still save the sinners, God sent His Son Jesus to be the final sacrifice—the Lamb whose innocent blood was holy and sinless—and not only made atonement in forgiving sin, but freed the sinner’s mind from its relentless seduction. “How much more shall the blood of Christ…. without spot…. purge your conscience from works of death?” That is, works that result in the death penalty being executed. (Heb. 9:14).
God devised a way to both honor His law, yet save the law-breakers: Jesus took the penalty and died in our place! Because of grace, we can have eternal life! But the death penalty still stands for those who refuse this free gift of salvation through His Son Jesus. And all the grace in the universe cannot absolve this fatal choice. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you shall abide in my love” (John 15:10).
Paul understood the Law more than any New Testament writer. He also knew the abundance of God’s grace more than any other, having dubbed himself “the chief of sinners” (1Tim.1:15). He concluded: “Moreover, the law entered that the offense (sin) might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20).
This Grace is not sloppy, slippery, greasy, or capricious. It raised the bar.