Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Mortal and Venial Sin: The Garden-Variety Objection Answered, + Strong Biblical Support

By Dave Armstrong (4-1-06)

A Protestant asked me this question in an e-mail:

A faithful Catholic very suddenly dies while committing a mortal sin (say lying). Assume every other time he has committed a mortal sin he would faithfully go to confession and receive forgiveness. However in this case his death is quite ill-timed. Does he go to heaven or hell? The consensus is he goes directly to hell . . . do not pass go . . . do not receive $200.

No one knows where he would go, first of all, because that is God's determination, not ours. The Catholic Church has not (to my knowledge) even stated that Judas is in hell (or anyone else, except the devil and other fallen angels who are there - or will be - by definition). All we say is that those committing a mortal sin place themselves in danger of hellfire, if it is unrepented-of. That's nothing more than what the Apostle Paul does, in a number of passages (see below).

But you should understand exactly what a mortal sin is, too. It requires three things: 1) grave or serious matter; 2) sufficient reflection; and 3) full consent of the will. In the scenario above one or more of these things may not be present (it may have been a relatively minor "white Lie," etc.), in which case the person would definitely not be damned because of this one thing. There may not have been time enough for the person to be responsible for all these. God knows what the person would have done if he had had more time, and takes that into consideration, I believe (because He knows all things, which includes hypotheticals and all possible future scenarios).

Moreover, we believe that because God is sovereign and ultimately rules over all things in His Providence (Catholics believe this, too) - and above all, merciful -, that He would "arrange" things so that this person was not unjustly judged for a momentary lapse, so to speak. Therefore, it is not as simple as this classic, garden-variety objection to Catholicism would have it.

Here is my section on this topic, from my book, The One-Minute Apologist (Sophia Institute Press, 2007):



There is no such thing as mortal and venial sins

Whoever fails in one sin is guilty of breaking all of the Law (Jas. 2:10)

Initial reply

The Bible plainly teaches that there is such a thing as a mortal sin (1 John 5:16-17), and often refers to lesser and greater sins, thus supporting Catholic theology.

Extensive reply

Some non-Catholic Christians think that all sins are exactly alike in the eyes of God: everything from a white lie or a child stealing a cookie to mass murder. They believe this not out of common sense, but because they erroneously think that the Bible teaches it. This mistaken notion is decisively refuted by the following biblical passage:

1 John 5:16-17 (RSV): "If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin which is not mortal."
People are not always completely aware that certain acts or thoughts are sinful. In Catholic theology, in order to commit a grave, or mortal sin, where one ceases to be in a state of grace and is literally in potential, but real danger of hellfire, three requirements are necessary: 1) it must be a very serious matter, 2) the sinner has to have sufficiently reflected on, or had adequate knowledge of the sin, and 3) he must have fully consented in his will. Scripture provides many indications of this difference in seriousness of sin, and in subjective guiltiness for it:

Luke 12:47-48: "And that servant who knew his master's will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more." (cf. Lev. 5:17, Lk. 23:34)

John 19:11: "'. . . he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.'"

Acts 17:30: "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent," (cf. Rom. 3:25)

1 Timothy 1:13: "though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief."

Hebrews 10:26: "For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,"
The Bible also refers to (mortal) sins which - if not repented of - will exclude one from heaven (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 1:8; Eph. 5:5; Heb. 12:16; Rev. 22:15).


But what about James 2:10?: "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it." Doesn't that prove that all sins are the same; equally destructive and worthy of judgment?

Reply to Objection

This passage deals with man's inability to keep the entire Law of God: a common theme in Scripture. James accepts differences in degrees of sin and righteousness elsewhere in the same letter: "we who teach shall be judged with a greater strictness" (3:1). In 1:12, the man who endures trial will receive a "crown of life." James also teaches that the "prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects" (5:16), which implies that there are relatively more righteous people, whom God honors more, by making their prayers more effective (he used the prophet Elijah as an example). If there is a lesser and greater righteousness, then there are lesser and greater sins also, because to be less righteous is to be more sinful, and vice versa.

John Henry Newman

This distinction in the character of sins, viz. that some argue absence of faith and involve the loss of God's favour, and that others do not, is a very important one to insist upon, even though we cannot in all cases draw the line and say what sins imply the want of faith, and what do not; because, if we know that there are sins which do throw us out of grace, though we do not know which they are, this knowledge, limited as it is, will, through God's mercy, put us on our guard against acts of sin of any kind; both from the dread we shall feel lest these in particular, whatever they are, may be of that fearful nature, and next, from knowing that at least they tend that way. The common mode of reasoning adopted by the religion of the day is this: some sins are compatible with true faith, viz. sins of infirmity; therefore, wilful transgression, or what the text calls "departing" from God, is compatible with it also. Men do not, and say they cannot, draw the line; and thus, from putting up with small sins, they go on to a sufferance of greater sins. Well, I would take the reverse way, and begin at the other end. I would force upon men's notice that there are sins which do forfeit grace; and then if, as is objected, that we cannot draw the line between one kind of sin and another, this very circumstance will make us shrink not only from transgressions, but also from infirmities. From hatred and abhorrence of large sins, we shall, please God, go on to hate and abhor the small.

(Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. 5, Sermon 14: "Transgressions and Infirmities" - from Newman's Anglican period: 1840)


Brittany said...

For the record, the verses you quoted to support that the Bible differentiates sin are taken out of context and misinterpreted. Most of them involve a state of constant sin in which people are unrepentantly living in sin. They are not condemned because of the sin they are committing but rather because of their individual hearts toward God and His will. They are willfully disobeying God continuously and have no desire to change.

Also, I concede that the Bible does mention different people being guilty of more grievous sin. Again, the statement is not against the sin itself, but the condition of the heart. Those individuals were not surrendering their hearts to the will of God. The Bible says, "19Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Romans 3:19-23. The seven deadly sins in question are only mentioned as a list in the Old Testament in Proverbs. This makes them part of the Law that is referenced in the New Testament that is redefined by the sacrifice of Jesus. Our righteousness is achieved "apart from the Law" and therefore apart from our actions. We are saved by grace alone through faith regardless of what specific sin we commit.

danznsing1387 said...

In addition is 1 Timothy 2:13, "If we are faithless, He will remain faithful, for He cannot deny himself." This is further proof that nothing we ever do can remove us from God's love. If we seek Him earnestly it doesn't matter what we've done in the past. I welcome any feedback you have regarding my comments.

Dave Armstrong said...

If works have absolutely nothing to do with salvation (in terms of being the proof of authentic faith, as Luther and Calvin would say), why is it that works, not faith alone, are central in every passage in the Bible that discusses judgment?:

Final Judgment in Scripture is Always Associated With Works And Never With Faith Alone (50 Passages)


Dave Armstrong said...

If we seek Him earnestly it doesn't matter what we've done in the past.

That's absolutely correct. But it matters what we do in the future, because we can fall away by falling into mortal sin and putting ourselves outside of God's grace by our lack of repentance:

Assurance of Salvation


"Certainty" of Eternal Life? (1 John 5:13 and John 5:24)


Catholic Exegesis of Biblical Passages Allegedly Suggesting Absolute Assurance of Salvation


Dialogue With a Calvinist on Whether it is Possible to Fall Away from Grace or Salvation


Faith and works are intertwined: They cannot be separated:

St. Paul's Teaching on the Organic Relationship of Grace / Faith and Works / Action / Obedience (Collection of 50 Pauline Passages)


Maroun said...

Brittany said...Those individuals were not surrendering their hearts to the will of God.

Hi Brittany . Are you telling us that the reformers taught that every true believer will surrender his or her heart to the will of God?
Could you plz tell us , which reformer taught that?Martin Luther or John Calvin?And where and when did they quote that?Because , the catholic church teaches that faith alone does not save and not the reformers,in fact they teach exactly the contrary,and that is faith alone saves ( sola fides ) and works and changing of hearts is nonexistent for them.In fact they taught that the sinner which believes will always remain the same as before,with the difference that God will overlook and will not impute his sins anymore...
So as Dave quoted and explained to you,why all the warnings in the new testament , that those who will live in a certain way will not inherit God`s kingdom if as you said,all you have to do is to have faith?????
Faith alone does not save , if it does not manifest itself thrue love , i mean faith is actualy also obedience,it`s not enough and useless to say i believe you Lord when you say , do not steal,but i wont stop stealing,i believe you Lord when you tell me,do not commit adultery but i wont stop commiting adultery...And so on.And that is why st James specificaly said that faith alone without works doe not save...
Plz go and check your scripture.

danznsing1387 said...

I apologize for being unclear before. I in no way mean that faith alone saves without its accompanying action. Maroun you are absolutely right. With faith and loving God comes obedience to God. James 2 addresses this quite strongly. I'm merely asserting a)that there is no specific sin that if repented of still leads to condemnation, and b)that God judges the condition of our hearts. If our hearts are not pure, we will in turn go on sinning. However if we make a mistake and ask God for forgiveness, I believe He grants it regardless of the sin we have committed. It seems to me that the "seven deadly sins" are viewed as sins that if committed, permanently condemn a person unless they are absolved through a priest via Catholic processes. I am just trying to say that I believe God forgives us of any and all sin if we are truly remorseful and desire to turn away from the mistakes we've made, living a better life for Him.

Maroun said...

Amen and GBU

Z said...

You forgot to also include Apocalypse 21:8 which gives a list of who will be sent to hell [the pool of fire that is the second death].
The article is really great though. The refernces you do have are numerous and powerful.

Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks. I did mention the similar passage: Rev 22;15.

Bridgetta said...

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 1446 that, "Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as "the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.""

According to Pope John Paul II the Catechism of the Catholic Church "is given as a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine."

A confession bible verse John 20:23

Luke Young said...

I never understood how there could be a doubt about the existence of mortal and venial sin.

If in the Bible - even despite context and interpretation - there is reference to greater or lesser sins, there must be at least two levels of sin.

I find it ironic that some Christian denominations will state that "we are saved by grace alone through faith regardless of what specific sin we commit" as Brittany stated. But what about those who do sin, but do not have faith in God? Even if we accept the Protestant view that faith alone saves (which I do not accept for very logical reasons), is there not then a gap between those who accept Christ in their hearts? Is this not an example of mortal and venial sin? For although we are all sinners, some commit the sin of not accepting the mercy of God. One sinner goes to heaven, another goes to hell...

It seems that the majority of non-Catholic viewpoints on this only disagree with what constitutes a mortal sin. For clearly it would be a contradiction to say that all sin is mortal, but those who have faith in God will go to heaven. This is absurd, for the sin would no longer be mortal... one is either dead, or alive. Alive in Christ or dead in hell. Surely, if someone goes to hell, his/her sin is deadly. It makes no sense to say that those in heaven, though sinners, are dead in sin. What good is heaven then, if one is dead in sin? On the contrary, Christ clearly says some are not saved, for he will separate the goats from the sheep.

If we are all sinners - which Protestants believe as well as Catholics - then clearly some, though in sin will obtain heaven. Then their sin cannot be deadly...

The only theological way - it seems - is to deny that anyone goes to hell, or anyone goes to heaven. Both are absurd, and would present many theological problems.

Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks for your interesting comment!