Mortal and Venial Sins?

Roman Catholicism distinguishes between mortal sins, which lead to hell, and venial sins, which lead to “temporal punishment.” Is this distinction scriptural?

Note: This post is the result of thinking about a recent discussion with “Jon.” He mentioned once that his questions had inspired 2 blog posts in response. I’m pretty sure this will make 5 over the last 3 or 4 years.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us—that is, charity—necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation. (Par. 1856)

This means that a mortal sin is a sin so egregious that unless a person is restored to the church by this “sacrament of reconciliation,” they will have lost their salvation (“baptismal grace” and “justification”). A link at the end of Paragraph 1856 sent me to Paragraph 1446 for clarification:

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.

Venial sin, then, is:

One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent. (Par. 1862)

Venial sin only merits “temporal punishment” (par. 1863), which means discipline in this world or in Purgatory.

That is what the Roman Catholic Catechism says, but …

What Do the Scriptures Say?

Those of you who read this blog regularly are surely expecting me to disagree.


In some sense, the distinction between mortal and venial sins is Scriptural. No matter how we interpret the passage, the apostle John mentions and distinguishes between “sin toward death” and “sin not toward death”:

If anyone sees his brother sin a sin not toward death, he will ask, and he will give him life for those that are not sinning toward death. There is a sin toward death. I am not saying he should pray for it. (1 Jn. 5:16)

Note: Sorry for the awkward wording. John is very careful with his verb tenses, so I made sure to differentiate between continuous and one-time action. Also, John refers to sin toward (προσ) death, not into (εισ) death. (I am not a Greek expert, but this is simple and noncontroversial.)

John does not explain the distinction between these two types of sin. He just gives the fearful advice not to bother praying for a sin toward death.

Here’s my interpretation: If someone commits a sin that is not likely to get them condemned at the eternal judgment, then it’s okay to just pray for them, both to be forgiven and to be strengthened in the faith. If they are committing sin that does lead to death—say, adultery—you have to do more than pray. You have to go to the brother or sister, you have to tell them what you saw/know, and you have to get them help.

Whether my interpretation is accurate or not, neither I nor the Roman Catholics are the first to distinguish between sins based on 1 John 5. Clement, teacher of seekers and new converts in Alexandria in the late 2nd century, references not only 1 John, but Psalm 32 (quoted in Romans 4:7) as well:

Mistake is a sin contrary to calculation; and voluntary sin is unrighteousness; and unrighteousness is voluntary wickedness. Sin, then, is on my part voluntary. … These differences in sin are alluded to by the Psalmist, when he calls those blessed whose iniquities God has blotted out, and whose sins are he has covered. Others he does not impute, and the rest he forgives. … John, too, clearly teaches the differences of sin, in his larger epistle … (Miscellanies. II:15)

Clement then goes on to quote 1 John 5:16.

Jesus himself distinguishes between sins, saying the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is unforgiveable in this age and the next (Matt. 12:31, which is possibly what 1 Jn. 5:16 is referring to as well).

Jesus also distinguishes between sins committed in ignorance and willful sins, saying, “And that servant, who knew his Lord’s will and did not prepare nor do his will, shall be beaten with many stripes, but the one that did not know and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few” (Luke 12:46-47, emphasis added).

That one word, “prepare,” brings us to the point of this post.

Preparing for Judgment Day

Jesus did not only complain that the servant, the one who will be beaten with many stripes, did not do his Lord’s will, he also complains that this servant did not prepare.

That’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? That there is preparation involved in doing our Lord’s will?

Clement, in the same chapter I quoted earlier says:

Sinning arises from being unable to determine what ought to be done, or being unable to do it. Doubtless, one falls into a ditch either through not knowing [it is there], or through inability to to leap across through feebleness of body. But application of training ourselves and subjection to the commandments is in our own power. If we will have nothing to do with this, instead abandoning ourselves wholly to lust, we shall sin—no, rather, wrong our own soul.

I would argue from the Scriptures that Clement is obviously correct. In fact, training ourselves for godliness is a Biblical command (1 Tim. 4:7-8). Peter tells us to consider the judgment “throughout the time of our sojourning here” (1 Pet. 1:17).

I have to pause here. I am continually amazed, in conversations with evangelicals, how they simply reject Peter’s teaching in 1 Peter 1:17. They tell me, “Well, if we’re going to be judged by works, then we would live in fear all the time.”

I never know what to say to this. Isn’t that what the verse says to do: “conduct ourselves throughout the time of our sojourning hear in fear”?

So far, I have a 100% fail rate in getting evangelicals to agree 1 Peter 1:17 is true. I’m at a loss to know what to say about that.

Fear vs. Fear

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We all know that saying, which is in Scripture several times.

Peter applies that to considering, throughout our life, that we will be judged at the end of it. Paul applies that to disciplining his body and bringing it under subjection so that he is not disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). In fact, he forgets everything in the past, and he presses on toward the finish line. Why? “If by any means I may attain to the resurrection of the dead,” which he immediately says he has not attained (Php. 3:10-11).

I am writing this post hoping to mitigate any hopelessness we might feel, believing that if the great apostle Paul had to discipline his body, reach forth, and press toward the finish line, then what hope is there for us?

Or, as Peter puts it, “If the righteous are scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinner?” (1 Pet. 4:18).

I want to relieve hopelessness, but thinking my audience is mostly evangelical, I do not want to relieve a non-existent fear, nor assure anyone who rejects the direct teaching of the apostles that they are somehow safe.

Mortal and Venial Sins and the Judgment

No one but the Roman Catholics accept the idea of mortal and venial sins.

Everyone accepts the idea of mortal and venial sins.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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9 Responses to Mortal and Venial Sins?

  1. paulfpavao says:

    I saw it. It was good. I will go fix my reference now.

  2. Restless Pilgrim says:

    I have a (much shorter) post coming out this week on the same topic 🙂

    BTW, I think you meant to quote Luke 12:46-47.

  3. Anna says:

    The last couple lines of your post seem a little odd… was there an unfinished thought there?

    • paulfpavao says:

      No. Just kind of wrapping up. I was trying to indicate that though only the Roman Catholics have an official doctrine of mortal and venial sins, we all have an unofficial acceptance of the doctrine, even if it doesn’t quite match the Roman version.

  4. Jon says:

    Funnily enough, I was actually thinking about this the other day and I reckon it makes a lot of sense. I’ve often thought when reading scripture that the word ‘sin’ does not always mean the same thing every time it is mentioned.

    This seems to be in line with the fathers as well – Since commenting on your last-but-one post I came across this quote from Tertullian. If anyone was very strict about sin it was him, but he still makes the following concession:

    “Sins of daily committal, to which we are all subject; to whom indeed does it not occur to be angry without cause and after the sun has set, or to give a blow, or easily to curse, or to swear rashly, or break a contract, or lie through shame or necessity? How much we are tempted in business, in duties, in trade, in food, in sight, in hearing! So that, if there were no forgiveness for such things, none could be saved. Therefore there will be forgiveness for these sins by the prayer of Christ to the Father” (De Pud., xix)

    I also remember somewhere that the Lutherans still had these categories.

    Thank you, Paul. I have found your last two posts very encouraging and they have given me cause to have hope.

    • paulfpavao says:

      I’m glad to hear it. I have to admit that while I enjoyed the idea–mortal and venial sins–when it came to me, once I got to writing I had you in mind a lot. Thus, I’m especially glad if it helped you.

  5. Jody says:

    Love this post Paul. While reading this it came to mind that this may explain why some people accused Apostle Paul of preaching an ‘anything goes’ type message. People today seem to think they can do whatever they want, speak whatever/whichever way they want. Believing in a ‘secured’ liberty as well as in a ‘secured’ salvation in Christ without wondering how G-d would have come to such a drastic change of mind, let alone heart. He is the same today as He was yesterday and will be tomorrow! He will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy. When it says one ought to ‘fear’ this G-d who is a ‘jealous’ G-d it means what? To be in awe, yes – definitely- but it also ought to bring to mind that this is the same G-d, Creator G-d, who has power/authority over every creature and created thing. In His hand is judgement. He declares Life or Death. What’s that saying played off Tolkien’s book Lord of the Rings? “Do not tempt the dragon for thou art crunchy and good with ketchup!’ (I know there’s another version which is the original, ‘Meddle not in the affairs of dragons for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup’, but I’ve heard several. The actual line from the book is, ‘Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger’.) Hopefully no one takes this as ‘blasphemy’ as it wasn’t intended to misquote the Lord, but the speech of men ;).
    Anyway, thank you for the post. I have several people who just might get it with this.

    • paulfpavao says:

      Thx, Jody. Great comment.

      As an aside, you mentioned accusations against Paul. I’m going to use that comment to create another post. Thanks. It put something in my mind. I’ll make it Friday morning’s blog.

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