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.