More on the nonsensical distinction between “Mortal Sins” and “Venial Sins”

There is still a bit of a discussion going on, in a thread that’s several months old, between a Protestant writer Curt Russell, and Bryan Cross, on the topic of sin. More specifically, it involves the nonsensical distinction between “mortal sins” and “venial sins”.

I know, I know, the interlocutor is “Curt” Russell”, not “Kurt” Russell, but it’s still a cool photo, and it kind of represents what’s going on there between our hero, Curt and the bad guy, Bryan:

Curt: Under OT law, every infraction of the law was a sin. Some were obviously worse than others. But Jesus makes this statement in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5):

21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

This statement is in keeping with your concept of agape infusion, but seems at odds with the concept of mortal and venial sins. By this I mean, Jesus seems to be saying that all sin large and small is an affront to agape, and is therefore punishable by condemnation to hell. Even the slightest imperfection means eternal death.

Bryan: In this passage, Jesus is revealing more fully the agape to which the letter of the law only pointed but did not fully capture or communicate. The command not to murder is not merely about avoiding murdering. That would be merely following the letter. The spirit of the law is love, to which the law as letter only points. Avoiding murdering someone, while at the same time hating him in one’s heart, would be following the letter but violating the spirit of the law, which is love. What Jesus is doing in this passage is teaching the distinction between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and showing that what matters ultimately, is the spirit of the law, i.e. agape.

All of that is fully compatible with the mortal/venial distinction. I have explained and defended the mortal/venial distinction in some detail in “Why John Calvin did not Recognize the Distinction Between Mortal and Venial Sin,” and it would be redundant and tedious to lay it all out again here in this comment.

Roman Catholic teaching about sin begins at paragraph 1846 in the CCC. While some Scriptural warrant is noted for the difference between “mortal sin” and “venial sin” (such as I John 5:16-17), it is not this distinction that John has in mind. Later, some mention was made by Tertullian (“On Modesty”, “Against Marcion”), the real distinctions between these two came from Augustine. Here is an area, too, where Augustine created some genuine havoc.

Bavinck notes, “The Reformers … rejected the distinction as incompatible with the Word of God. They did not deny that there are degrees of sin, … but the Reformed wanted nothing to do with the whole distinction [of mortal and venial sins]”. The distinction between sins, for example, those which do and do not “lead to death” (1 John 5:16–17) singles out “the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit”. All other sin can be forgiven to believers, but all are “inherently deserving of death”. He says, “The Scripture text on which Roman Catholic scholars base their distinction, accordingly, are all without any value as evidence.” Citing Basil the Great, Bavinck says “No sin is to be despised as small, since in truth no act is little when Paul states with respect to every sin in general that sin is ‘the sting of death’” (Vol 3. pgs 153–154).

Turretin singles out this distinction in more detail: “But the question is whether [all sins are mortal] per se and in their own nature [deserving of death]”. While acknowledging that many sins of believers are pardoned by God, this pardoning is “wholly gratuitous”. Therefore, he says “the very lightest sins cannot be remitted” without the grace of God, “therefore they can be eternally punished justly (which could not be said if they were not worthy of eternal punishment) (Vol 1 pgs 596–601).

Curt: Ok, I read the article and am unconvinced by Augustine in light of Scripture. The Matthew 5 verse I quoted in #392 clearly states that even the slightest sin is mortal. This is supported by many other passages… like Romans 3:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There is no distinction made here between classes of sin. Or from James 2:10 we read, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”

I agree with your notion that agape embodies the spirit of the law. But the law is not abolished under the new covenant. It is fulfilled through agape… the spirit of the law. We are all condemned to eternal death under the law and are delivered from death unto life only through Christ. From this we understand I Peter 3:18 “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,” and Romans 8:1 “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” and John 3:18 “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” These are done deeds, not dependent on you and me.

Bryan: Actually, it does not state that at all. Your saying this is an example of just how easy it is to read our own theology/interpretation into verses, to make them say what we want them to say.

That you think internal sins are “slightest” is part of the very problem Jesus was addressing. The problem of the *heart* is precisely the problem Jesus is addressing. The man who does not physically murder, but murders in his heart, has committed a grave sin. The man who does not physically commit adultery, but does so in his heart, has committed a grave sin. And so on. These are not “slight” sins. That’s precisely Jesus’s point.

This is supported by many other passages… like Romans 3:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The sin referred to there is mortal sin.

There is no distinction made here between classes of sin.

Right. But that’s an argument from silence, which is a fallacy. Just because St. Paul does not add “I’m referring here to mortal sins, not venial sins” does not mean that he must be speaking here of both mortal and venial sins. If you’re going to adopt a theological methodology according to which everything must be spelled out explicitly in Scripture, then you’ve already presupposed the Protestant paradigm regarding sola scriptura and the relation of Scripture and Tradition. Adopting that methodology presupposes Protestantism, and thus begs the question. In other words, if in your methodology you presuppose Protestantism, then your conclusion is already predetermined, and appealing to the results of such methodology as evidence against Catholicism is a pretense, because it fails to compare the paradigms as paradigms, but instead uses one paradigm in the argument intended to establish one over the other.

Or from James 2:10 we read, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”

Here too St. James is referring to mortal sin. I explained why in comment #98….

What’s puzzling to me is why you think that somehow these verses are at odds with what I’ve been saying. Surely you know that I and all Catholics affirm them. In what way do you think they are incompatible with Catholic doctrine? Of course what Jesus has already accomplished does not depend on you or me. Nothing I’ve said was meant to imply otherwise.

Bryan [following “Roman Catholic Tradition”] has got things precisely backward – attributing the mortal/venial distinction to Paul and James precisely on the notion that third and fourth century writers had made the distinction; that to deny the “mortal/venial distinction is merely “an argument from silence.”

Bryan’s suggestion here aligns perfectly with the logical fallacy that Paul Helm pointed out, as noted in my previous article – on the insistence that “everything must be spelled out explicitly in Scripture”. Bryan is following Newman’s faulty rule:

The mere fact that Rome “teaches” something that does not “actually contradict” something in Scripture, means that we Protestants, to their way of thinking, cannot “peremptorily assert” that it is not in Scripture.

To be sure, the Reformers did not peremptorily-ily reject this distinction; they analyzed it at great detail before rejecting it.

Continuing with Curt Russell:

Curt: When you point to my interpretation and say: “Your saying this is an example of just how easy it is to read our own theology/interpretation into verses, to make them say what we want them to say”, I could easily make the same point about your perspective. While I agree that Jesus is making a point about the heart, He nonetheless says, “whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”… I haven’t checked, but I’m betting that “You fool” is not on the official RC list of mortal sins. Thus Jesus is saying that any sin… or specific to your point, any sin committed overtly, and yes, any sin of the heart is a mortal sin.

When you say Romans 3:23 and James 2:10 refer to mortal sin, I would agree with the stipulation that all sin is mortal. You insistence that there are non-mortal sins is neither conspicuous nor inconspicuous by the absence of verbiage to that effect in these verses. Your comment in 98 addresses the agape concept, but did not clarify the mortal/venial concept in my humble opinion. I agree with your paradigm that sin of the heart is as bad as sinful activity. This does not in my humble view add credence to the mortal/venial argument.

Regarding the 1 John 5 Scripture, often used to support the mortal/venial argument… the Scripture is clear to me. There is one sin that leads to death… that is, it is unforgivable. That sin is identified in the last verse, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” The entire preamble to this verse tells us that all sins of the believer are forgiven as stated verses 11-12, “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” The one who denies Christ does not have life. Thus the closing statement… “guard yourself against idols”.

Regarding your “What’s puzzling to me” paragraph… Let’s take Romans 8:1 for starters, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This statement is in the present tense. As Jesus said, “It is finished.” On the other hand, the Catholic Church teaches that there is in fact condemnation that remains for those who are in Christ Jesus… and that this condemnation can only be removed by: participation in the sacraments, acts of good works, penance and the fire of purgatory, etc. The Scripture I read says we were chosen for salvation before the beginning of time, and nothing can snatch us from the hand of the Father. Our sins past, present and future are already forgiven. This contrasts with teaching of the Catholic Catechism. A few examples…

1129 The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation.

2036 The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation.

And regarding the Eucharist…

1364 In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present.183 “As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.

This implies that the work of Christ is not finished… that there is an ongoing sacrifice at each celebration of the Eucharist. What happened to “once for all”?

Thus, the RC Church teaches that there IS still condemnation for those who are in Christ. Our salvation is “turning on and off” each time we sin and then follow up with forgiveness through Eucharist. So, to answer your question, while I believe John 3:18 “Whoever believes in him is not condemned…”, the Catholic Church teaches otherwise.

I’ve fixed some spelling errors, and I’ve also supplied bold where it may not have existed in the original.