Mortal & Venial Sin
Scripture teaches that there are some sins that will separate us from God for all eternity and some that will not; the Church refers to these as mortal and venial sin. While venial sin may weaken a person’s relationship with God, mortal sin is a gravely sinful act, which can severely damage one’s relationship with God. After Adam’s fall, humanity was weakened, becoming more prone to sin’s effects. With the new Adam, Jesus, we have found new life and a new relationship with God. Sin, however, can still affect this relationship to a greater or lesser extent, depending upon the severity of the sin. In Matthew 5:19, Christ teaches that there are “lesser commandments” that a person can break and still remain “in the kingdom of heaven.” But in Matthew 5:28-29, Jesus teaches that there are some sins that will separate us from God for all eternity; “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Our Lord goes on to imply in Matthew 12:32 that there are some sins that can be forgiven in the next life and some that cannot; “And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
Furthermore, 1 John 5:16-18 clearly distinguishes between sin that is deadly and sin that is not; “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that is not a deadly sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not deadly. There is sin which is deadly; I do not say one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not deadly. We know that anyone born of God does not sin, but He who is born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.” Scripture gives several lists of these “deadly sins”; Matthew 15:18-20, Revelation 21:8 and 22:15, Ephesians 5:3-7, Colossians 3:5-6, Galatians 5:19-21, and I Corinthians 6:9-11. If one has entered into a covenantal relationship with God through Baptism and commits one of these grave sins and does not repent of them, the result is to be cut off again from God’s kindness; “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:22). Christ tells the Apostles that those who do not remain in His love by keeping His commandments shall be “cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6)
Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Pentecostals all acknowledge the possibility of mortal sin and a growing number of denominations are adopting the theology considering that putting sins such as murder, rape, or child abuse on an equal footing with cursing or losing your temper seems to betray common sense. Only Presbyterians, Baptists, and those who have been influenced by these two sects still reject the reality of mortal sin. This is in sharp contrast to the early Church, which plainly held this belief (see Church Father quotes below). It was not until John Calvin that anyone would claim that it was impossible for a Christian to lose his salvation due to unrepented grave sin. This teaching was not even shared by Martin Luther and was considered a theological novelty in the mid-sixteenth century. It should, however, be considered a dangerous heresy as it could lead Christians to despair, believing that, because they had committed grave sins, then they had never been true Christians. Or to possibly thinking that their grave sins were never really grave at all, for a true Christian could never have committed grave sins. Or even to thinking that Christians could commit grave sins and remain saved because their sin did not injure their relationship with God at all. If followed through to their natural conclusions, these misconceptions could possibly put one’s salvation in serious jeopardy.
The Historical Understanding of the Doctrine:
“Whoever then relaxes (breaks) one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”
“And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come ”
1 John 5:16-18
“If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that is not a deadly sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not deadly. There is sin which is deadly; I do not say one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not deadly. We know that anyone born of God does not sin, but He who is born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.”
I Corinthians 6:9-11.
Church Father Quotes:
“Watch for your life’s sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord comes. But you shall assemble together often, seeking the things which are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you be not made complete in the last time” (Didache 16 [A.D. 70]).
The Shepherd of Hermas
“And as many of them . . . as have repented, shall have their dwelling in the tower [i.e., the Church]. And those of them who have been slower in repenting shall dwell within the walls. And as many as do not repent at all, but abide in their deeds, shall utterly perish. . . . But if any one relapse into strife, he will be cast out of the tower, and will lose his life. Life is the possession of all who keep the commandments of the Lord” (The Shepherd 3:8:7 [A.D. 80]).
Ignatius of Antioch
“And pray without ceasing in behalf of other men; for there is hope of the repentance, that they may attain to God. For cannot he that falls arise again, and he may attain to God?” (Letter to the Ephesians 10 [A.D. 110]).
“[E]ternal fire was prepared for him who voluntarily departed from God and for all who, without repentance, persevere in apostasy” (fragment in Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:26 [A.D. 156]).
Irenaeus of Lyons
“[T]he ungodly and unrighteous and wicked and profane among men [shall go] into everlasting fire; but [God] may, in the exercise of his grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept his commandments, and have persevered in his love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their penance, and may surround them with everlasting glory” (Against Heresies 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).
Tertullian of Carthage
“[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness” (Repentance 10:1 [A.D. 203]).
“Discipline governs a man, power sets a seal upon him; apart from the fact that power is the Spirit, but the Spirit is God. What, moreover, used [the Spirit] to teach? That there must be no communicating with the works of darkness. Observe what he bids. Who, moreover, was able to forgive sins? This is his alone prerogative: for ‘who remits sins but God alone?’ and, of course, [who but he can remit] mortal sins, such as have been committed against himself and against his temple?” (Modesty 21 [A.D. 220]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord” (The Lapsed 28 [A.D. 251]).
Pacian of Barcelona
“Stinginess is remedied by generosity, insult by apology, perversity by honesty, and for whatever else, amends can be made by practice of the opposite. But what can he do who is contemptuous of God? What shall the murderer do? What remedy shall the fornicator find? . . . These are capital sins, brethren, these are mortal. Someone may say: ‘Are we then about to perish? . . . Are we to die in our sins?’ . . . I appeal first to you brethren who refuse penance for your acknowledged crimes. You, I say, who are timid after your impudence, who are bashful after your sins, who are not ashamed to sin but now are ashamed to confess” (Sermon Exhorting to Penance 4 [A.D. 385]).
“There are venial sins and there are mortal sins. It is one thing to owe ten thousand talents, another to owe but a farthing. We shall have to give an accounting for an idle word no less than for adultery. But to be made to blush and to be tortured are not the same thing; not the same thing to grow red in the face and to be in agony for a long time. . . . If we entreat for lesser sins we are granted pardon, but for greater sins, it is difficult to obtain our request. There is a great difference between one sin and another” (Against Jovinian 2:30 [A.D. 393]).
Augustine of Hippo
“[N]othing could have been devised more likely to instruct and benefit the pious reader of sacred Scripture than that, besides describing praiseworthy characters as examples, and blameworthy characters as warnings, it should also narrate cases where good men have gone back and fallen into evil, whether they are restored to the right path or continue irreclaimable; and also where bad men have changed, and have attained to goodness, whether they persevere in it or relapse into evil; in order that the righteous may be not lifted up in the pride of security, nor the wicked hardened in despair of cure” (Against Faustus 22:96 [A.D. 400]).
“[A]lthough they were living well, [they] have not persevered therein; because they have of their own will been changed from a good to an evil life, and on that account are worthy of rebuke; and if rebuke should be of no avail to them, and they should persevere in their ruined life until death, they are also worthy of divine condemnation forever. Neither shall they excuse themselves, saying—as now they say, ‘Why are we rebuked?’—so then, ‘Why are we condemned, since indeed, that we might return from good to evil, we did not receive that perseverance by which we should abide in good?’ They shall by no means deliver themselves by this excuse from righteous condemnation” (Admonition and Grace 11 [A.D. 426]).
“But those who do not belong to the number of the predestined . . . are judged most justly according to their deserts. For either they lie under sin which they contracted originally by their generation and go forth [from this life] with that hereditary debt which was not forgiven by regeneration [baptism], or [if it was forgiven by regeneration] they have added others besides through free choice: choice, I say, free; but not freed. . . . Or they receive God’s grace, but they are temporal and do not persevere; they abandon it and are abandoned. For by free will, since they have not received the gift of perseverance, they are sent away in God’s just and hidden judgment” (ibid., 13).
For as, on the one hand, there are certain venial sins which do not hinder the righteous man from the attainment of eternal life, and which are unavoidable in this life, so, on the other hand, there are some good works which are of no avail to an ungodly man towards the attainment of everlasting life, although it would be very difficult to find the life of any very bad man whatever entirely without them. (On the Spirit and the Letter, 48)
He is worse who steals through coveting, than he who steals through pity: but if all theft be sin, from all theft we must abstain. For who can say that people may sin, even though one sin be damnable, another venial? (Against Lying, VIII.19.
He, however, is not unreasonably said to walk blamelessly, not who has already reached the end of his journey, but who is pressing on towards the end in a blameless manner, free from damnable sins, and at the same time not neglecting to cleanse by almsgiving such sins as are venial. For the way in which we walk, that is, the road by which we reach perfection, is cleansed by clean prayer. That, however, is a clean prayer in which we say in truth, “Forgive us, as we ourselves forgive.” (Concerning Man’s Perfection in Righteousness, IX.
Accordingly, if any Christian man loves a harlot, and, attaching himself to her, becomes one body, he has not now Christ for a foundation. But if any one loves his own wife, and loves her as Christ would have him love her, who can doubt that he has Christ for a foundation? But if he loves her in the world’s fashion, carnally, as the disease of lust prompts him, and as the Gentiles love who know not God, even this the apostle, or rather Christ by the apostle, allows as a venial fault. And therefore even such a man may have Christ for a foundation. For so long as he does not prefer such an affection or pleasure to Christ, Christ is his foundation, though on it he builds wood, hay, stubble; and therefore he shall be saved as by fire. For the fire of affliction shall burn such luxurious pleasures and earthly loves, though they be not damnable, because enjoyed in lawful wedlock. And of this fire the fuel is bereavement, and all those calamities which consume these joys. Consequently the superstructure will be loss to him who has built it, for he shall not retain it, but shall be agonized by the loss of those things in the enjoyment of which he found pleasure. But by this fire he shall be saved through virtue of the foundation, because even if a persecutor demanded whether he would retain Christ or these things, he would prefer Christ. (City of God, XI.26.
While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call “light”: if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession. (In ep. Jo. 1,6.
I do not tell you that you will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of light sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What has the Prayer? “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which you must needs be separated from Christ’s body: which be far from you! For those whom you have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice. In three ways then are sins remitted in the Church; by Baptism, by prayer, by the greater humility of penance; yet God does not remit sins but to the baptized. The very sins which He remits first, He remits not but to the baptized. When? When they are baptized. The sins which are after remitted upon prayer, upon penance, to whom He remits, it is to the baptized that He remits. (Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed)
Caesarius of Arles
“Although the apostle [Paul] has mentioned many grievous sins, we, nevertheless, lest we seem to promote despair, will state briefly what they are. Sacrilege, murder, adultery, false witness, theft, robbery, pride, envy, avarice, and, if it is of long standing, anger, drunkenness, if it is persistent, and slander are reckoned in their number. Or if anyone knows that these sins dominate him, if he does not do penance worthily and for a long time, if such time is given him . . . he cannot be purged in that transitory fire of which the apostle spoke [1 Cor. 3:11–15], but the eternal flames will torture him without any remedy. But since the lesser sins are, of course, known to all, and it would take too long to mention them all, it will be necessary for us only to name some of them. . . . There is no doubt that these and similar deeds belong to the lesser sins which, as I said before, can scarcely be counted, and from which not only all Christian people, but even all the saints could not and cannot always be free. We do not, of course, believe that the soul is killed by these sins, but still they make it ugly by covering it as if with some kind of pustules and, as it were, with horrible scabs” (Sermons 179:2 [A.D. 522]).