Friday, May 13, 2011

Mortal Sin, Venial Sin and Scripture

In a recent discussion between Ken T. and myself, the subject of mortal v. venial sins came up.  The original post/response was on a different topic so rather than continue to diverge that topic, I have started a new article to deal directly with what he’s asserted.

Ken wrote: all sin leads to death. all sins are mortal sins.
Romans 6:23

Most may already know that verse, but let’s quote it for clarity:
For the wages of sin is death. But the grace of God, life everlasting, in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 6:23 DRB)
This does not specify - whereas 1 John 5:15-17 does:
15 And we know that he heareth us whatsoever we ask: we know that we have the petitions which we request of him.
16 He that knoweth his brother to sin a sin which is not to death, let him ask, and life shall be given to him, who sinneth not to death. There is a sin unto death: for that I say not that any man ask.
17 All iniquity is sin. And there is a sin unto death.
Clearly there are at least TWO TYPES OF SIN HERE!  One which is “unto death” and another which is “not to death.”  Just because Scripture is not specific about types of sin in one place, that does not mean where it IS specific in another place that the latter is wrong.  No, Ken is wrong here - not all sins are mortal sins, as verse 17 makes clear, “all iniquity is sin.  AND there is a sin unto death (mortal).”  

I would also add, Romans 6 is more about sin in general and along with the concept that we ALL have sin due to our First Parents (Original Sin) and the wages of that Original Sin is death, we ALL die (though there has been at least a couple exceptions to that rule in Enoch and Elijah).  So what Ken has done is take a general statement and attempted to contrast that with the more specific example I have provided him with.

Ken continues:  James 1:13-14 – when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

Let’s look at the text itself again, and we’ll use the NASB:
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.
14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.
Well, Ken appears to be off a verse here, as 15 says what he said:
15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
There’s no delineation here - but where there IS delineation, we cannot ignore it!  Plus what is being described here would also fit the definition of a mortal sin!  The conception of lust itself is not sin, but it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death - for a sin to be a mortal sin it must be a grave matter, one must know ahead of time it is a sin and then go forward or accomplish it with that full knowledge.  THAT IS a “sin which is unto death!”

True believers, when they sin, will repent and confess sooner or later.

“True believers” fall into sin all the time.  Those who do commit a “sin which is unto death” (mortal), and do NOT repent prior to death (say an untimely accident or heart attack) will likely perish in everlasting torment (I cannot say what God in His Mercy might do, and/or if at the moment of death that person was contrite and given a chance to repent, etc., only God can make that final judgment on a soul).  

I believe this “True believers” statement is along the lines of “once saved, always saved” (OSAS), which is also a false teaching, but is not the topic of this article, so I will refrain from further comment at this time.

so I John 5:15-17 has to mean "commiting a sin that does not lead to physical death"
Like I Corinthians 11 – those that were judged and God killed.

Well, 1 Corinthians 11 is talking about those who are “among you” and yet are in “schism” and/or “heresy.”  It is among THOSE who are “infirm” or “weak” and/or “sleep,” for they are dead to Christ, even though (being among you) testify that they are “true believers,” but they have followed a lie and believe in a lie and thus will face the Judgment.

I Cor. 5 – Paul says he delivered him over for the destruction of his flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of Christ Jesus.
(God's judgment in killing the person - as in His judgment on Saul in I Samuel. It is not clear to me whether or not Saul was a true believer.
Those are good examples of what John means, “a sin unto death”.

Well, 1 Cor. 5 deals with St. Paul warning them against intermingling with those who claim to be fellow Christians, yet they are participating in sexual immorality (specifically mentioning one whose sin is worse than even the pagans would endure - one who sleeps with his father’s wife), that we are to shun them, we are not to associate with them - not even eat with them.  

As for Saul, in 1 Samuel - he most certainly was a “true believer” - but he lacked faith.  He did not trust in God’s Divine Providence in regard to his kingdom.  

So, whereas in the case of the one who sleeps with his father’s wife, that’s definitely a mortal sin.  Saul visiting a medium - well, that was expressly forbidden by God’s Law - so that too would be a mortal sin.  Yes, these are good examples of sins which are unto death, though in either case - the sinner could repent and be forgiven of their sin.

Christ saves completely. Hebrews 10:10-14
Let us look at this passage too:
10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
Yes, the Sacrifice of Christ was once for all!  Catholics do not dispute this at all!  Catholics also see God as not limited by our linear sense of time for God just is, period.  God sees ALL time in the present.  He sees the past, the present and the future all at once because He is outside our man-made concept of time.  This is why we see each act of God as an act which exists in eternity.  The Mass, therefore, is not a new and/or repeated sacrifice - but “taps into” that eternal Sacrifice of the Cross, which redeems the world.  This passage is also referring to the Old Testament sacrifices, not the once-for-all-time Sacrifice of Christ.

the believer who sins, confesses and repents constantly; walking in the light.

This statement appears to come from out of nowhere, but we would agree here!  And since ALL believers sin - ALL believers should make use of the means by which Jesus provided His Church for the forgiveness of sins - namely through His bishops (or those whom they have so empowered/given faculties).  Jesus, speaking to His First Bishops - the Apostles, and to them only (they were alone with Him at the time) told them that whatsoever sins THEY forgive are forgiven - and sins they do NOT forgive are NOT forgiven (John 20:23).  By-passing this authority is contrary to Scripture - and thus Protestantism is fundamentally devoid of forgiveness of sins.  Now certainly God could, and I mean COULD as in POSSIBLY, not hold those who in their ignorance, which is through no fault of their own, culpable for this avoidance of this Sacrament.  Those who are reading this and/or articles like this one, in my humble opinion, would no longer be able to claim such ignorance.

there is no venial and mortal sin distinction in Scripture. (in the RCC sense) That was a later historical development was wrong and unbiblical.

We have already proven this statement to be false, so I won’t repeat myself here.

some sins are worse in their consequence and affects, of course. Real murder is worse than hatred and anger, but hatred and anger are the roots of murder, and make us guilty, but the consequences are not as bad.

What consequences could you possibly be referring to?  If you are consistent in your belief, there are NO consequences for the believer who repents!  For one who does NOT repent, the consequence is eternal damnation!

Back to the point...  Scripture tells us there are two types of sin, one which is unto death and the other is not, therefore the concept of mortal and venial sins is not a later historical development nor is it not biblical.  Since the Catholic concept is scripturally based the only way it could be “wrong” is if Scripture is wrong.  I posit that it is Ken who is wrong, not Scripture and not the Catholic Church on this matter.

In the spirit of the Holy Family (JMJ),

PS- I was able to repost this article because I had it in Google Docs - but the comments got zapped when Blogger reset back to a time prior to the original posting of the article.


  1. Exactly. Saying that the 'sin that is unto death' is refering to physical death and not mortal sin doesn't even make sense in the context. Rarely does someone commit a mortal sin (or a sin that is unto death) ever drop dead after doing the deed. John cannot be referring to physical death. Original sin lead all man to an eventual physical death. Our own actions on earth are what lead to spiritual life or death after this physical death.

    The concepts of mortal and venial sin are certainly not an erroneous doctrinal "development". These concepts can be see in the writings of the Early Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church as well. I can cite sources but must leave now.

  2. The old equivocation between a "sin that leads unto death" for which there is no forgiveness, and Catholic "mortal sin" for which there is. Why is it that no Catholic apologist ever comments on the (referring to the sin that leads to death) "and I do not say you should pray about that" part? John is making a distinction between sins that cannot be forgiven, and sins that can be. See Matthew 12:31-32. The sin unto death which John speaks of is one of such a serious character that he cannot even ask his hearers to pray for one who is guilty of it.

  3. James 2:10 sure doesn't read like there are degrees of sin: For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.

  4. Anon: The old equivocation between a "sin that leads unto death" for which there is no forgiveness, and Catholic "mortal sin" for which there is.

    sw: You are mixing contexts here. A "sin that leads unto death" comes from 1 John 5:16-17 (mortal sin). The "unforgivable sin" is found in Matthew 12:31, also referenced in Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10, which is also a mortal sin, but one for which there is no forgiveness. There is no equivocation here on the part of Catholics.

    Anon: Why is it that no Catholic apologist ever comments on the (referring to the sin that leads to death) "and I do not say you should pray about that" part? John is making a distinction between sins that cannot be forgiven, and sins that can be.

    sw: I do not believe I have been silent about this, but so that it cannot be honestly stated again... John is stating that those who have died in mortal sin, do not pray for them - it does no good, but someone who may have died in venial sin - pray for them, it does do them good.

    Anon: See Matthew 12:31-32. The sin unto death which John speaks of is one of such a serious character that he cannot even ask his hearers to pray for one who is guilty of it.

    sw: We cannot pray for someone who has died in mortal sin. Even one who lives in unrepentent mortal sin. Now we could pray that such a living person repents of their sin before they die, but beyond that, God will not help those who do not help themselves (which is not directly in Scripture, though many think it is). Helping ones self means to seek forgiveness. God will not forgive the unrepentent.

    Anon: James 2:10 sure doesn't read like there are degrees of sin: For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.

    sw: Guilty of breaking the law does not equivocate to inability of forgiveness nor does this passage negate 1 John 5:16-17.

    1. It's equivocation. Catholics everywhere take the distinction made in John's epistle to be the same as between mortal and venial sins, when it is nothing like it. This may interest you, and other readers. It's the note on 1 John 5:16 from the Douay-Rheims Challoner Revision (The Whole Revised and Diligently Compared with the Latin Vulgate by Bishop Richard Challoner A.D. 1749-1752):

      "A sin which is not to death, etc... It is hard to determine what St. John here calls a sin which is not to death, and a sin which is unto death. The difference can not be the same as betwixt sins that are called venial and mortal: for he says, that if a man pray for his brother, who commits a sin that is not to death, life shall be given him: therefore such a one had before lost the life of grace, and been guilty of what is commonly called a mortal sin. And when he speaks of a sin that is unto death, and adds these words, for that I say not that any man ask, it cannot be supposed that St. John would say this of every mortal sin, but only of some heinous sins, which are very seldom remitted, because such sinners very seldom repent. By a sin therefore which is unto death, interpreters commonly understand a willful apostasy from the faith, and from the known truth, when a sinner, hardened by his own ingratitude, becomes deaf to all admonitions, will do nothing for himself, but runs on to a final impenitence. Nor yet does St. John say, that such a sin is never remitted, or cannot be remitted, but only has these words, for that I say not that any man ask the remission: that is, though we must pray for all sinners whatsoever, yet men can not pray for such sinners with such a confidence of obtaining always their petitions, as St. John said before, ver. 14. Whatever exposition we follow on this verse, our faith teacheth us from the holy scriptures, that God desires not the death of any sinner, but that he be converted and live, Ezech. 33.11. Though men's sins be as red as scarlet, they shall become as white as snow, Isa. 3.18. It is the will of God that every one come to the knowledge of the truth, and be saved. There is no sin so great but which God is willing to forgive, and has left a power in his church to remit the most enormous sins: so that no sinner need despair of pardon, nor will any sinner persist, but by his own fault.
      A sin unto death... Some understand this of final impenitence, or of dying in mortal sin; which is the only sin that never can be remitted. But, it is probable, he may also comprise under this name, the sin of apostasy from the faith, and some other such heinous sins as are seldom and hardly remitted: and therefore he gives little encouragement, to such as pray for these sinners, to expect what they ask."

      All that remains is to question Catholic authority. Unless Rome has infallibly interpreted these verses, which I highly doubt (some deny Rome has interpreted any verse infallibly), then this note in a Catholic Bible which flatly rejects mortal and venial sin in 1 John 5:16-17 is as authoritative and valid as anything you offer. Bishop Challoner (who certainly had no axe to grind on behalf of Protestants) even makes an excellent case for the sin "not to death" being what is commonly called a "mortal sin". Whom should I believe? For the sake of consistency, Catholics are much better off saying they believe in venial sin "because Rome says so". Obsequium religiosum. Looking for it in the Bible necessarily comes down to a Catholic's private interpretation of the text. It's a little uncomfortable that the Catholic definition of something as fundamental as sin cannot definitively be pointed to in Scripture.

      In Christ,

    2. Hi Stephen,
      I have saved your response to my Google Drive and I think rather than continue in this article's combox, I'll post a new article and refer back to this one. The reason for doing so is this article was posted nearly 2 years ago and any comments made to an article more than 28 days old automatically go into moderation for us to approve before they are posted. A new article will permit your (and others) responses to post immediately. Anyway, please be patient and check back soon. I'll post a "reply" here as well when the new article posts so that it will be referenced both ways.



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