We Must Judge Fruits of Repentance
It is true that all sins are equally damning. Any sin of which a person will not repent becomes a mortal sin no matter how small or insignificant it may seem to the world. In this sense there is no degree of sin. In a similar way there is no sin that cannot be forgiven by Christ and for which Christ has not died. Barring the sin against the Holy Spirit, for which Christ also died, there is no sin that is so grievous that the repentant Christian is not fully and completely forgiven. In this sense, there is no degree of sin in that all is forgiven in Christ.
It does not follow, however, that all sins are therefore equal in regards to the damage that they do or the recompense that must be made for them. There are varying degrees of civil consequences for sins and there are necessary fruits of repentance fitting to each sin which follow contrition and faith. While the Church makes no laws about the exact fruits of repentance that are due in each instance it is, nonetheless, clear that fruits are due, that new obedience necessarily follows faith, and it is typically clear when the fruits are insufficient or lacking.
Here are a couple of examples. If I covet your wife secretly in my heart but never act on it in any way in word or deed. The proper fruit of repentance includes confession to God and maybe to my father confessor, but it would be wrong and harmful to confess it to her or to you since that would only enlarge the sin and bring attention to it. Such an action might be well-intended and driven by a desire to make something right but it would not be a proper fruit of repentance. If a person engage in such behavior pastors should instruct him as to why he should not and such action might then actually require a further apology. The point here is that while there is no exact law about what must be done, it is obvious that there are proper and improper ways of handling it and judgment must be made about this.
In the same way, if I steal your bicycle the proper fruit of repentant would be that I confess this to God, and maybe to my father confessor, and to you along with returning the bicycle or making recompense, as best I can, if I have destroyed the bicycle. It would not be right for me to ask forgiveness from God and from you but to keep the bicycle or to sell the bicycle and keep the money. While the Church makes no laws about these things, it does use the ceremonial and civil laws of the Old Testament as an ethical guide along with the many examples of penitent sinners who received forgiveness from Christ in the Gospels and the Lord’s parables. The Church seeks to train Christians also to always ask the question of what they would want done to them.
When sins are mainly in words or against one another’s feelings it becomes much more difficult to determine the best action. In these cases Christians move forward in love and place themselves into one another’s care trusting that love indeed covers a multitude of sins. Christians are often able to work things out in love with very little difficulty. They confess and forgive and move on. Frequently this expresses itself simply with words and no other outward action. A man says to his friend: “I am sorry. I was negligent and thought only of myself when I ate the last cookie. I will try to do better.” The friend replies: “I forgive and love you. Next time let’s split the cookie.” This is witnessed daily across the Church particularly in the bonds of Holy Matrimony.
It is possible, however, that someone will not be truly loving and actually filled with faith or that a person will be confused about his responsibilities to his brothers and sisters in Christ. The Antinomians who were repeatedly rebuked by orthodox Lutherans wrongly taught that since good works were not necessary for salvation that good works were not necessary. They believed, to varying degrees, that the Law only accused and therefore was only appropriate for unbelievers and that Christians learned everything from the Gospel alone. This is not so and needs to be taught against. If a Christian sinfully holds a grudge and to refuses actual forgiveness he must be rebuked and instructed. Jesus has harsh words about this in Mathew 5 and the parable of the unmerciful servant. If you will not forgive, you will not be forgiven. You cannot remain in the faith while you refuse to forgive and continue to go your own way. So also, it is possible for a bike thief to insist on forgiveness without actual repentance and to seek to shame the victim and force him to give up the bicycle out of love. Love cannot be forced. The seventh commandment is not a suggestion or only for the spiritually weak. Stealing is a sin. When and where it is possible Christians seek to make amends for the wrong they have done out of love for God and the one wronged. Christians seek not only forgiveness for themselves. They also to make as right as possible what can be made right.