Why John Calvin did not Recognize the Distinction Between Mortal and Venial Sin

Nov 10th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Catholics and Protestants agree on many points regarding sin, but the Catholic Church makes a distinction generally not found in Protestant theologies: the distinction between mortal and venial sin. John Calvin rejected the distinction between mortal and venial sin, and Protestantism has largely followed Calvin on this point. Calvin rejected it because he did not see it clearly laid out in Scripture, and also because he viewed sin primarily in legal terms. For Calvin, all sin is a rebellion against God’s law, and therefore deserving of eternal punishment. Therefore for Calvin all sin committed by those who have come to faith in Christ is mortal sin in what it deserves, but is venial in the sense that it is covered by the merits of Christ, so that those who have come to faith never lose their justification.

Calvin writes:

For in every little transgression of the divinely commanded law, God’s authority is set aside. … [S]ince God has explained his will in the Law, every thing contrary to the Law is displeasing to him. Will they feign that the wrath of God is so disarmed that the punishment of death will not forthwith follow upon it? He has declared … “The soul that sinneth it shall die,” (Ezek. 18:20). Again, in the passage lately quoted, “The wages of sin is death.” … [L]et the children of God remember that all sin is mortal, because it is rebellion against the will of God, and necessarily provokes his anger; and because it is a violation of the Law, against every violation of which, without exception, the judgment of God has been pronounced. The faults of the saints are indeed venial, not, however, in their own nature, but because, through the mercy of God, they obtain pardon. (Institutes II.8.59)

Later in the Institutes Calvin writes:

Here they take refuge in the absurd distinction that some sins are venial and others mortal; …. Thus they insult and trifle with God. And yet, though they have the terms venial and mortal sin continually in their mouth, they have not yet been able to distinguish the one from the other, except by making impiety and impurity of heart to be venial sin. We, on the contrary, taught by the Scripture standard of righteousness and unrighteousness, declare that “the wages of sin is death;” and that “the soul that sinneth, it shall die,” (Rom. 6:23; Ezek. 18:20). The sins of believers are venial, not because they do not merit death, but because by the mercy of God there is “now no condemnation to those which are in Christ Jesus” their sin being not imputed, but effaced by pardon. (Institutes, III.4.28)

The substance of Calvin’s argument is that all sin is a violation of God’s law, and is therefore a rebellion against the will of God. But the wages of any rebellion against God’s will is eternal death, and therefore all sin is mortal sin. The sins of the saints are all venial only in the sense that though each sin deserves eternal condemnation, yet on account of the righteousness of Christ having been imputed to the saints, none of their sins is in effect mortal.

And the Westminster Confession of Faith follows Calvin in this:

[T]here is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation. (WCF XV.4)

In this respect Calvin and the Westminster Confession departed from the longstanding teaching of the Church. For example, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote:

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)

Elsewhere he wrote:

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)

Again, he wrote:

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)

In another place he wrote:

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)

And elsewhere he writes:

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)

To the Catechumens being prepared to be received into the Church through baptism, St. Augustine preached the following:

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)

According to St. Augustine, our venial sins committed after baptism are remitted through prayer. If a person commits a mortal sin, then he must be reconciled to the Church through the sacrament of penance; prayer is not sufficient.

St. Augustine refers to venial sins in a number of other places as well. He refers to it so often, and in passing, that it is clear that he is not saying something controversial in his time, something novel or needing to be supported or defended. He writes about the distinction between mortal and venial sin as something taken for granted. But his conception of venial sin is not like that of Calvin’s. Calvin thought all sin deserved eternal punishment, but that the sins of the saints were venial only in the sense that they do not pay any penalty for committing them, not because they are light sins not deserving of eternal punishment, as St. Augustine thought.

Roughly two hundred years later, Pope St. Gregory the Great (AD 590-604) wrote:

Our Lord saith in the Gospel: Walk whiles you have the light: and by his Prophet he saith: In time accepted have I heard thee, and in the day of salvation have I holpen thee: which the Apostle St. Paul expounding, saith: Behold, now is the time acceptable; behold, now the day of salvation. Solomon, likewise, saith: Whatsoever thy hand is able to do, work it instantly: for neither work, nor reason, nor knowledge, nor wisdom shall be in hell, whither thou dost hasten. David also saith: Because his mercy is for ever. By which sayings it is plain, that in such state as a man departeth out of this life, in the same he is presented in judgment before God. But yet we must believe that before the day of judgment there is a Purgatory fire for certain small sins: because our Saviour saith, that he which speaketh blasphemy against the holy Ghost, that it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come. Out of which sentence we learn, that some sins are forgiven in this world, and some other may be pardoned in the next: for that which is denied concerning one sin, is consequently understood to be granted touching some other. But yet this, as I said, we have not to believe but only concerning little and very small sins, as, for example, daily idle talk, immoderate laughter, negligence in the care of our family (which kind of offences scarce can they avoid, that know in what sort sin is to be shunned), ignorant errors in matters of no great weight: all which sins be punished after death, if men procured not pardon and remission for them in their lifetime: for when St. Paul saith, that Christ is the foundation: and by and by addeth: And if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble: the work of every one, of what kind it is, the fire shall try. If any man’s work abide which he built thereupon, he shall receive reward; if any mans work burn, he shall suffer detriment, but himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire. For although these words may be understood of the fire of tribulation, which men suffer in this world: yet if any will interpret them of the fire of Purgatory, which shall be in the next life: then must he carefully consider, that the Apostle said not that he may be saved by fire, that buildeth upon this foundation iron, brass, or lead, that is, the greater sort of sins, and therefore more hard, and consequently not remissible in that place: but wood, hay, stubble, that is, little and very light sins, which the fire doth easily consume. Yet we have here further to consider, that none can be there purged, no, not for the least sins that be, unless in his lifetime he deserved by virtuous works to find such favour in that place. (Dialogues IV.39.)

In the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas explained the difference between mortal and venial sin, as follows:

Now the difference between venial and mortal sin is consequent to the diversity of that inordinateness which constitutes the notion [i.e. definition] of sin. For inordinateness is twofold, one that destroys the principle of order, and another which, without destroying the principle of order, implies inordinateness in the things which follow the principle: thus, in an animal’s body, the frame may be so out of order that the vital principle is destroyed; this is the inordinateness of death; while, on the other hand, saving the vital principle, there may be disorder in the bodily humors; and then there is sickness. Now the principle of the entire moral order is the last end, which stands in the same relation to matters of action, as the indemonstrable principle does to matters of speculation (Ethic. vii, 8). Therefore when the soul is so disordered by sin as to turn away from its last end, viz. God, to Whom it is united by charity, there is mortal sin; but when it is disordered without turning away from God, there is venial sin. For even as in the body, the disorder of death which results from the destruction of the principle of life, is irreparable according to nature, while the disorder of sickness can be repaired by reason of the vital principle being preserved, so it is in matters concerning the soul. Because, in speculative matters, it is impossible to convince one who errs in the principles, whereas one who errs, but retains the principles, can be brought back to the truth by means of the principles. Likewise in practical matters, he who, by sinning, turns away from his last end, if we consider the nature of his sin, falls irreparably, and therefore is said to sin mortally and to deserve eternal punishment: whereas when a man sins without turning away from God, by the very nature of his sin, his disorder can be repaired, because the principle of the order is not destroyed; wherefore he is said to sin venially, because, to wit, he does not sin so as to deserve to be punished eternally. (Summa Theologica I-II Q.72 a.5 co.)1

St. Thomas distinguishes between mortal and venial sin by explaining that mortal sin destroys the supernatural virtue of agape in the soul, and agape is the principle by which we are directed to heaven as our supernatural end. If agape is lost, the person is no longer ordered toward heaven, but instead toward some creature (e.g. himself) as his highest end. And he cannot be restored to friendship with God except by the power of God, since agape is supernatural, and we cannot give to ourselves what we do not have. Venial sins, by contrast, do not destroy agape from the soul, but are disordered in relation to the agape within the soul.2

Some articles later he explains why venial sins do no incur a debt of eternal punishment:

As stated above (Article 3), a sin incurs a debt of eternal punishment, in so far as it causes an irreparable disorder in the order of Divine justice, through being contrary to the very principle of that order, viz. the last end. Now it is evident that in some sins there is disorder indeed, but such as not to involve contrariety in respect of the last end, but only in respect of things referable to the end, in so far as one is too much or too little intent on them without prejudicing the order to the last end: as, for instance, when a man is too fond of some temporal thing, yet would not offend God for its sake, by breaking one of His commandments. Consequently such sins do not incur everlasting, but only temporal punishment. (Summa Theologica I-II Q.87 a.5.)

According to St. Thomas, those sins that destroy charity in the soul cause an irreparable disorder, and therefore incur eternal punishment if the person dies in that state. Some sins are not in themselves contrary to the last end (i.e. God) because the disorder in these sins is not contrary to the last end per se, but only to the perfection of those acts directed to that end. As an example, St. Thomas describes a man who is too fond of some temporal thing, but would not offend God for the sake of this temporal thing. Because these sins are not contrary to the last end per se, they do not incur everlasting punishment, but only temporal punishment.3 What makes a sin mortal, and another venial, is therefore whether the disorder in the will is incompatible with the virtue of agape or disordered yet still compatible with agape. St. Thomas writes:

When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery. . . . But when the sinner’s will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial. (Summa Theologica I-II Q.88 a.2.)4

And in continuity with the Tradition handed down from the Church Fathers, the Catholic Church teaches the same. The Church teaches that salvation is ultimately and irreducibly personal in this sense: salvation is a loving union of human persons with the Divine Persons, and thereby with all those other created persons, human and angelic, also in loving communion with God. So until we are perfectly united to God in the beatific vision, in this life our freedom is such that we can choose to turn away from loving God. This turning away from God can take place in a single free act. And that is what mortal sin is. It does not have to be an act of apostasy, i.e. abandoning of faith. A person can commit a mortal sin and still affirm the Creed. Mortal sin is in the will, when a person chooses with full knowledge and complete consent, to love some creature over God, whether or not he maintains belief in all the articles of faith. The Catechism teaches:

Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. (CCC 1861)

One act of mortal sin destroys charity (i.e. agape) in the heart:

Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it. (CCC 1855. )

According to the Catechism mortal sin destroys charity in the heart by a grave violation of God’s law. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” (CCC 1857) Mortal sin turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to Him.

To cease to adhere to God as our final end and to cease giving ourselves to Him for His own sake, is to commit mortal sin. That can be expressed in different kinds of mortal sins (e.g. murder, adultery, etc.) but this is what makes a mortal sin a mortal sin, namely, that in committing this act, with full knowledge and complete consent, we are choosing to make ourselves (or some other creature) our final end, and act not out of love for God as our final end, but love for some creature. And no man can serve two masters. Hence no man can love some creature (e.g. himself) as his highest end, and love God as his highest end. To choose to make oneself one’s own god, is to vanquish charity from the soul.

Venial sin, by contrast, is sin in which, though God remains our final end whom we love for His sake, our action deviates from the means by which to attain that end. In venial sin the believer retains love for God as his highest end, but falls short in the order by which he moves toward God as his highest end. Venial sin thus allows charity to subsist, even though it offends, wounds, and weakens charity. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. (CCC 1863) But venial sin does not in itself deprive us of charity, sanctifying grace, or eternal life. We experience this sort of distinction even in ordinary friendships, where we understand the difference between an act that hurts the friend but in which the offender still loves the other person, and an act making it clear that the person does not love the other person — and this sort of act destroys the friendship.

The Explanation of Calvin’s Error

So why did Calvin reject the distinction between mortal and venial sins? Calvin, having been trained as a lawyer, approached the question of righteousness under the concept of law, and therefore conceived of righteousness fundamentally in term in terms of law-keeping. From that point of view, there is no basis for a distinction between mortal sins and venial sins. Sin is a transgression of the law of God, and although one could acknowledge that not all sins are of equal gravity, nevertheless, it would (from that point of view) be entirely ad hoc to claim that some violations of God’s law deserve eternal punishment, while others do not. Violation of God’s law is violation of God’s law, opposing God and therefore deserving of eternal separation from God. End of discussion.

Calvin’s theology does not show a grasp of the relation of love to the fulfillment of the law. For St. Augustine, however, this is the very heart of the gospel, that by the sanctifying grace merited for us by the work of Christ, the agape of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and only by this agape is the law of God fulfilled in us. See “St. Augustine on Law and Grace.” Over and over St. Augustine repeats the Scriptural teaching that love fulfills the law (Rom. 13:8,10; Gal. 5:14).

According to St. Augustine, the infused grace given to us in baptism through the work of Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy that God would take away their stony hearts, and write the law on their hearts (Jer. 31:33; Ez. 36:26). He would do this by pouring out grace and agape into our hearts. (Rom. 5:5) This is the whole purpose of the gospel, to bring about the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) that fulfills the law through living faith [faith informed by agape], so that we might attain to union with God in the beatific vision; this “obedience of faith” is the faith that works through love. This love is the law-written-on-the-heart (Rom 2:15, 29), which is the “new life of the Spirit” in contrast to “the old written code.” (Rom 7:6) This living faith is itself a gift of grace, through Christ, (Rom 3:24); it makes us “doers of the law” who will be justified on that Day. (Rom 2:13) By writing the law on our hearts through the infusion of sanctifying grace and agape, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus sets us free from the law of sin and death, (Rom. 8:2) doing what the written code could not do. In this way, the requirement of the law is fulfilled in us in the way that we walk, walking not according to the flesh, but walking according to the agape infused into us by the indwelling Spirit. (Rom. 8:4)

Through Christ’s obedience unto death, we receive the infused grace and agape by which we are made righteous. (Rom. 5:17,19) St. Paul argues that our justification is by living faith, not by [dead] works (Rom. 3:28), precisely because what matters, and what has always mattered, is whether or not there is agape in the heart. Only the heart having living faith is the heart that has the “righteousness of faith.” (Rom. 4:13) By our union with Christ through baptism we have died to sin so that we might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:2,4) Romans 6:14 would be a non sequitur if St. Paul were not writing about sanctifying grace. By this infused sanctifying grace and indwelling of the Spirit we have become “obedient from the heart,” (Rom 6:17) set free from sin and become slaves of righteousness, putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom 8:13)

This is what the Pharisees had not understood. St. Paul explains that the Gentiles attained the righteousness that is by living faith, while Israel though pursuing the righteousness that is conceived as keeping the [external] written code, thereby failed to attain the true righteousness that comes only by infused living faith. Why did Israel fail? Because they did not pursue it through living faith, but as though it could be attained by mere external works. (Rom. 9:30-32)

Ironically, however, Calvin mistakenly conceives righteousness as did the Pharisees, namely, as perfect fulfillment of the written law, and not as infused agape by which the law is truly fulfilled. Therefore for Calvin every infraction of the law is worthy of eternal damnation, and there is no basis for the mortal/venial distinction.

The role of agape in fulfilling the law allows for a principled difference between violations of the law that are incompatible with agape and violations of the law that are compatible with agape. And that is precisely what differentiates mortal and venial sins, respectively. Because agape fulfills the law (Rom 13:8,10; Gal 5:14), there is a distinction between sins that go against agape, and sins that fall short of the perfect expression of agape but do not go against agape. In this way differences in the condition of the heart from which a disordered action comes, with respect to agape, allow for a principled difference between mortal and venial sins. But if one approaches the question of sin only from the point of view of the letter of the law, one cannot see the basis for any such distinction.

Calvin thinks that James 2:10 supports his position. “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” (James 2:10) He likewise takes “the soul that sins, it shall die” (Ez. 18:20) as supporting his position. But the Catholic understanding of these verses is that they are about mortal sin, and it would be question-begging to hang the justification for a schism on the assumption that there is no such thing as venial sin, and that St. Augustine et al were wrong about the existence of venial sin.

The passage in James would not make sense if it were not indirectly referring to some principle that underlies the law, namely, agape. How does a person who steals thereby violate all the other commands of the law? He does so by going against the agape that fulfills the whole law. And therefore the kind of violation of the law in view here in this verse is best understood as one that is contrary to agape. If we go ‘behind’ the law to see the role that agape is playing in the fulfillment of the law, then instead of making righteousness equivalent to fulfilling the letter, we can see righteousness as the fulfillment of the spirit, even when we fall short in the letter.

Other Scripture Evidence

The distinction between mortal and venial sin can be found in other passages as well. St. Peter says, “Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8) As long as agape remains in the soul, venial sins are not damning, because they do not remove the person from a state of grace.

St. John at the end of his first epistle makes a distinction between two essentially different types of sin: a sin that leads to death, and a sin that does not lead to death. Elsewhere in the epistle he says that no one who is born of God sins (1 John 3:9; 5:18), but in the same epistle he says that if we say we have no sin we are deceiving ourselves and making God a liar (1 John 1:8, 10). Those four verses are reconciled with each other by the mortal/venial distinction St. John makes at the end of his letter. (1 John 5:16-17) The meaning is that no one who is born of God commits mortal sins; to do so would be to drive out the life of God and agape and the indwelling Holy Spirit. But if any Christian were to say that he had no venial sins, he would be deceiving himself. St. John distinguishes mortal and venial sins at the end of his epistle:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and [God] shall give life to him, to those committing sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death. I am not saying he should ask for that kind. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin that does not lead to death. (1 John 5:16-17)

St. John is not writing here about unbelievers who have never been regenerated. He is writing about believers (“a brother”) who commit venial sins. In this passage he makes an explicit distinction between a sin that does not lead to death, and a sin that leads to death. But, he makes the distinction between mortal and venial sins, and implies that someone who has fallen into mortal sin is in a very different condition from that of someone who has fallen into venial sin.

Concerning this passage St. Jerome writes:

Some offenses are light, some heavy. It is one thing to owe ten thousand talents, another to owe a farthing. We shall have to give account of the idle word no less than of adultery; but it is not the same thing to be put to the blush, and to be put upon the rack, to grow red in the face and to ensure lasting torment. Do you think I am merely expressing my own views? Hear what the Apostle John says: 1 John 5:16 He who knows that his brother sins a sin not unto death, let him ask, and he shall give him life, even to him that sins not unto death. But he that has sinned unto death, who shall pray for him? You observe that if we entreat for smaller offenses, we obtain pardon: if for greater ones, it is difficult to obtain our request: and that there is a great difference between sins. (Against Jovinianus, II.30.)

Fellow Christians can through their prayers bring healing and restoration to the brother whom they see committing a venial sin. But while we can and should intercede for the repentance of the person in mortal sin, he cannot be restored except through the sacrament of penance administered through the clergy. The person who has fallen into mortal sin has fallen from grace, and so cannot be restored except by the Church (i.e. by the bishop or priest), through the sacrament of penance. The prayer of a brother is not sufficient to restore the one who has fallen into mortal sin — he must go to confession.

My point in citing this passage, however, is to show that in Scripture there is a clear reference to a sin that does not lead to death, alongside of a sin that does lead to death. And the existence of a sin that does not lead to death, which for St. John is not simply any sin that a believer happens to commit, is incompatible with the Calvinist notion that every sin is deserving of eternal punishment.

This distinction between mortal and venial sin makes possible the truth of many passages in the Old Testament, such as “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time.” (Gen 6:9) This is how Job was blameless and upright. (Job 1:1,8; 2:3) This is how Joseph was a “righteous man.” (Mt. 1:19) This is how Abraham could have a discussion with God about the “righteous” and the wicked in Sodom; that conversation would not have been possible if all people are unrighteous. Does that mean that Noah never sinned? No, as Ecclesiastes 7:20 says, “there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” So Noah was both righteous and blameless, and yet not without sin. That is because though he sinned venially, he did not sin mortally. And that is true of all the Old Testament saints who died in friendship with God. They fulfilled the law not necessarily in the letter, but in the spirit of the law, which is the essence of the law. And the spirit of the law is agape. Because they had agape, they fulfilled the law, for as St. Paul teaches, agape fulfills the law (Rom 13:8, 10; Gal 5:14, James 2:8).

The Greatest Commandment and Venial Sin

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)

Calvin refers to this verse in the Institutes, writing:

When the mind, under the influence of distrust, looks elsewhere or is seized with some sudden desire to transfer its blessedness to some other quarter, whence are these movements, however evanescent, but just because there is some empty corner in the soul to receive such temptations? And, not to lengthen out the discussion, there is a precept to love God with the whole heart, and mind, and soul; and, therefore, if all the powers of the soul are not directed to the love of God, there is a departure from the obedience of the Law; because those internal enemies which rise up against the dominion of God, and countermand his edicts prove that his throne is not well established in our consciences. It has been shown that the last commandment goes to this extent. Has some undue longing sprung up in our mind? Then we are chargeable with covetousness, and stand convicted as transgressors of the Law. (Institutes, II.8.58)

For Calvin, if a wayward or inordinate thought or desire springs into the mind, then one has violated the command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. One is therefore deserving of eternal damnation. This is in part because for Calvin concupiscence is sin. Disordered desires are themselves hateful in God’s sight, and thus sufficient (apart from extrinsic imputation of Christ’s righteousness) to damn a soul. I have addressed that in “Protestant Objections to the Catholic Doctrines of Original Justice and Original Sin.” See also “V. Errors Regarding the Removal of Sin Through Baptism” in “Aquinas and Trent: Part 7,” where I explain why concupiscence is not sin, according to the Council of Trent.

Nevertheless, when Protestants hear or read this verse, they tend to think of the command in terms of exclusive and absolutely maximal conative exertion. So the feeling is a bit like running a long race, and then, after completing it, asking yourself whether possibly you could have dug down deeper, and given some additional effort. And usually it is very difficult to believe that you could not have given some additional modicum of effort at some point in the race. You always think, I probably could have cut off at least another hundredth of a second. I could have done a little more, fought a little harder, pushed myself to go a little faster, endured a little more pain, etc.

That is the way many Protestants read this verse; it is the way Calvin understood the verse. In his Catechism of the Church of Geneva he wrote:

Q219 M. What do you understand by the whole heart, the whole soul, and the whole strength?

S. Such vehemence of zeal, that there be no place at all in us for any thoughts, desires, or pursuits, adverse to this love.

And so, of course, on that interpretation, it is impossible in this life to love God with all one’s heart, because no matter how much one loves God, one could always have dug down a little deeper, and loved Him a little more, done some other loving deed for Him, spent a little more time in prayer, given one more cup of cold water to another needy person in His Name, etc. The I-could-have-done-more way of interpreting the standard God calls us to in this verse suggests then (on this view) that God is calling us to recognize that we cannot actually fulfill this command, and that we therefore need someone (i.e. Christ) to do this in our place, and have that active obedience then imputed to our accounts.

But that is not how this verse is understood in the Catholic tradition. What Christ means by “all your heart” is not the degree of conative exertion, but that love of God is the highest end or purpose in the hierarchy of ends in our life. It is a teleological standard, not a conative standard. The Catholic encyclopedia article on “Love (as a theological virtue)” explains:

The qualifications, “with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength”, do not mean a maximum of intensity, for intensity of action never falls under a command; still less do they imply the necessity of feeling more sensible love for God than for creatures, for visible creatures, howsoever imperfect, appeal to our sensibility much more than the invisible God. Their true significance is that, both in our mental appreciation and in our voluntary resolve, God should stand above all the rest, not excepting father or mother, son or daughter (Matthew 10:37).

This is what agape is, a supernatural love for God above [i.e. more than] all other things, for His sake. This is why charity (the Latin term referring to agape) is defined as the virtue by which we adhere to God as our final end and give ourselves to Him for His own sake. That definition captures the meaning of the ‘all’ in the command to love God with all our hearts; God is highest (i.e. “final”) in the order of ends, and He is highest in that He is not pursued as means to some other end (hence “for His sake”.) So love of God, here, is not referring to a feeling or an emotion or affection. It is the supreme act of the will (and the will’s disposition to this supreme act) to order everything else in one’s life, including oneself, toward blessing and glorifying God, for His sake. When we order our lives to God as our highest end, even higher than ourselves, and do so for His sake, and not fundamentally in order to get something from Him, that is loving God with all our heart. Of course sometimes this requires self-sacrifice and exertion of the will, to say no to evil, and yes to God, much as a married man must sometimes say no to temptation and yes to fidelity to his spouse. But the degree of exertion of the will is not the meaning of the ‘all’ in the command to love God with all our heart. Rather, it is the place of God in the hierarchy of ends in our will.

The quotation from St. Augustine’s City of God above makes this clear. The man who loves his wife with selfish aspects, but nevertheless “if a persecutor demanded whether he would retain Christ or these things, he would prefer Christ” is loving God with all his heart, and is therefore saved. In Calvin’s theology, what St. Augustine says there makes no sense, but in Catholic theology it makes perfect sense.

Because Protestant theologies generally do not recognize the distinction between mortal sin and venial sin, their tendency is either to treat all sins as mortal (i.e. each in themselves making us deserving of eternal damnation), or all as venial (i.e. incapable of causing a loss of heaven). If all sin were mortal sin, then we would be losing our salvation every day. Protestant theologies seek to get around this problem only by construing salvation as fundamentally juridical. But then salvation is not fundamentally personal. If all sin were mortal, and believers sin every day in thought, word, and deed, then believers would still be dead in their sins, or there would be no fundamental difference between the regenerate and those dead in their sins.

If, on the other hand, all sins were venial, then again, our relationship with God would be quite independent of what we say and do, both to God and to others. And this too treats salvation as impersonal. So the distinction between mortal and venial sin has significant implications, as does overlooking this distinction. The Catholic doctrine avoids both errors, because it recognizes that love is at the center of our friendship with God, and sin must therefore be understood in relation to love.

Feast of St. Leo the Great

  1. See also Summa Theologica I-II Q.87 a.5. []
  2. See Summa Theologica I-II Q.88 a.1. []
  3. See “Indulgences, the Treasury of Merit and the Communion of Saints.” []
  4. See also Summa Theologica II-II Q.24 a.10. []
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  1. Bryan,

    Good article. In general (not that it matters) I have no objection to it. One objection I did have, however, is the following point:

    The prayer of a brother is not sufficient to restore the one who has fallen into mortal sin — he must go to confession.

    James 5:13-19 states the following in regards to forgiveness for sins:

    Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

    I see several notable points here. They are as follows:

    1) The relationship between physical sickness to soulish and spiritual sickness.
    2) The necessity of appealing to spiritual authority for prayer for healing.
    3) The necessity of confession to another person.
    4) The indistinct nature of who that person is (i.e. to each other)
    5) The distinction between the effectiveness of a “righteous mans” prayer (opposed to just anyone’s)
    6) The almost contradictory statement regarding Elijah being “a man just like us”

    Points #2 and #5 have bearing on the need for duly appointed spiritual authority to stand as Christ’s representative and administer forgiveness or healing.

    Points #3, #4, and #6 all have bearing on the possibility any of us can do the same. In fact in a recent post you acknowledged that, even though official recognition of sainthood doesn’t come about until after death and a long process has been carried out, that doesn’t mean that a living person isn’t actually a saint. So it is very likely and possible that some person “A” develops a reputation amongst the spiritual community as someone who gets prayers answered. If you go to person “A” and ask them to pray for you, you generally have a better rate of success than praying on your own. So even though not officially recognized, this person “A”‘ is a person “just like us” whose fervent prayer is effectual.

    The context of James is fairly clear that such prayer is effectual in regards to sins and saving somone from death. I don’t see how you or the Father’s can support the statement you made in such a way as to still be in harmony with what James is saying.

    Additionally, whatever the theological positions are on all this is, the various 12 step groups over this last century have a fairly undeniable track record of success in dealing with mortal sins. The beauty of the 12 steps, which are as follows:

    •Step 1 – We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable
    •Step 2 – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
    •Step 3 – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
    •Step 4 – Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
    •Step 5 – Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
    •Step 6 – Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
    •Step 7 – Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
    •Step 8 – Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
    •Step 9 – Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
    •Step 10 – Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
    •Step 11 – Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out
    •Step 12 – Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs

    is that they are simply a systematized approach to the process of confession, restitution, and restoration. They work, they work effectively, and they work without needing to confess to a priest. The confession that occurs regularly in the context of the 12 step groups is “one to another”.

    Finally, the doctrine of “perfect contrition” which you didn’t bring up in this article but is in others, I disagree with. I simply don’t see it anywhere in scripture. Forgiveness is always in the context of confession. I do see that GOD, in His eternal kindness, may make exception for someone who dies without the actual ability, for whatever reason, to get to confession. If that is what “perfect contrition” means, then ok.

    One last thing. Many of the Catholic brothers on this website talk as though confession were something you guys have a corner on the market on. As glad as I am for the freedom that it brings you, there are quite a lot of protestants who receive the same freedom from confession in our lives. Unfortunately it seems generally confined to those who live in the twelve step groups, but there are still a lot of us who confess regularly and find forgiveness and freedom.

  2. Jeremiah,

    An unspecified statement is not the same thing as an assertion of non-specificity. So when St. James in James 5:16 writes, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed,” this does not entail that confession of one’s sins should be made to just any other believer, or that laymen can use the keys [Christ gave to St. Peter — cf. Matt. 16:19] to pardon mortal sins on behalf of the Church, or that laymen can administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.

    You have to be careful not to read into an unspecified statement an assertion of unqualified non-specificity, because other doctrines (drawn from other places both in Scripture and Tradition) show that this verse in James is a general statement that applies in different ways in different cases. We all ought always to pray for one another, both for the remission of sins, our growth in sanctification, and for physical healing. Such prayers by laymen are effective by congruous merit, and are made more powerful by greater sanctity, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving on the part of the one praying.

    But, the reason St. James specifies that the sick person should call the elders, and not just call any believers who excel in holiness, is that Christ has established a sacrament for this purpose, and this sacrament is to be administered only by those with Holy Orders (i.e. in this case only the bishop or the presbyters; a deacon cannot administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick). And that is because the primary purpose of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick is the healing of the sickness of the soul (i.e. sin), not primarily the healing of the body. (See comment #26 in the “Sacramental Graces” thread. ) And the authority to forgive sin in the name of the Church is not given to laymen, but only to those entrusted with the keys.

    Likewise, the purpose of confession is not merely to get something off one’s chest, or to break a habit, but to receive absolution for one’s sins, and receive sanctifying grace. But laymen are not authorized to absolve anyone in the name of Christ, because they have not received Holy Orders. When Jesus said “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” (John 20:23), He was not extending that authority to every believer, but only to His Apostles and those whom the Apostles authorized to exercise that power, i.e. those having the succession from the Apostles, namely, the bishops, and the presbyters whom those bishops authorized to carry out their priestly function in their stead.

    When you say, “I simply don’t see it anywhere in scripture” you are bringing a sola scriptura paradigm to the question. So to resolve the question, we would have to step back and answer the prior question, does the Apostolic deposit come down to us only through Scripture or also through the unwritten Tradition? See the section in my reply to Michael Horton titled “Scripture and Tradition.” See also “comment #37 in the “Solemnity of the Assumption” thread.

    Regarding the twelve steps, you write:

    … they are simply a systematized approach to the process of confession, restitution, and restoration. They work, they work effectively, and they work without needing to confess to a priest. The confession that occurs regularly in the context of the 12 step groups is “one to another”.

    If by ‘work’ you mean they are useful for helping a person overcome a habit or an addiction, I agree. But that isn’t the same thing as forgiveness of sin. If a person does not have love for God above all things, and is sorry for his sins only because those sins are ruining his life, and not because they are an offense against God whom he should love above all things, then he does not yet have agape, and therefore is still dead in his sins. A non-Catholic can receive forgiveness of sins without going to the sacrament of confession, but his contrition must be based on love for God above all things, not only on fear of hell, or on the harm his sin has done to his life or his family. I recommend listening to Prof. Feingold’s answers to questions 3 and 4 of the Q&A following his lecture on Actual Grace. (See “Lawrence Feingold on Sanctifying Grace and Actual Grace.”)

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  3. Jeremiah,

    I see Bryan Cross has given an excellent response which I agree with. I am a Catholic but also am involved in 12 Step recovery. Disclosing my failings and defects to my sponsor or even to the whole meeting when it is appropriate is a natural healing process. Making restitution is part of both 12 Step and Sacramental Confession.

    Sacramental Confession is supernatural. Sacramental confession can only be accomplished with someone who is authorized by God to administer the sacrament.

    God bless

    GNW_Paul

  4. Bryan!

    Are we twins?

    I’ve written something on this very subject. I share it here just to reinforce what you are saying. Do you remember me suggesting we get together if you’re ever in town? We are destined, my brother. :) But maybe not till heaven. Thank you for helping spread the faith! You are a blessing.

    Augustine and Calvin on Mortal and Venial Sins, Part 1 (2 Posts)

    Augustine and Calvin on Mortal and Venial Sins, Part 2 (2 Posts)

    With love in Christ,
    Pete Holter

  5. Bryan,

    I appreciate this post and I would also add that Calvin himself made a distinction between two forms of sins: Those sins which merely demonstrate continuing sanctification in a believer’s life and those sins which demonstrate the apostasy of a person from the faith.

    My issue is, how do we visibly distinguish between both types of sin in Calvin’s thought? By Calvin’s own admission, we can deliberately sin (mortally) but still be a believer in the process of sanctification and imperfection. Yet apostates deliberately sin and are not considered a part of the flock. In both cases, the person is ordered toward himself as his highest end.

    This is my issue with the Reformed understanding of regeneration, namely that there’s supposedly a renewed mind ordered toward the love of God as the highest end, and yet there are deliberate sins (remember that Protestants allow for believers to mortally sin and still be regenerate) which are ordered towards man (i.e. himself) as higher than God. Isn’t that the reason why the non-believer hates God? But Calvin argues that the regenerate believer supposedly loves God as his highest end despite these mortal sins?

  6. Ariel, (re: #5)

    The distinction to which you refer in Calvin’s theology is not a distinction between two different kinds of sin, but a distinction between two different conditions under which sin is committed: the condition of having faith, and the condition of not having faith. So how do we visibly distinguish? Well, we can’t do so infallibly, but the best we can do is look for faith or its absence.

    Yes there is supposed to be a renewed mind, but in the Calvinist system that renewing is a life-long process, and anything less than absolute perfection is intrinsically eternally damnable, as I explained in the post. Hence the rejection of the mortal/venial distinction requires extra nos imputation, such that it does not matter if we are in a state of [mortal] sin, because in the Reformed system the active obedience of Christ has been imputed [extra nos] to our account, if we have faith.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  7. All the reformers affirmed the Catholic teaching of St. Anselm (see Cur Deus Homo) that all sins (no matter how small) are against an infinite God and thus incur an infinite debt that requires eternal punishment.

    However, unlike Calvin leading English (see Article 16) and Lutheran Reformers (see Apology of Augsburg) affirmed the distinction between “venial” and “mortal” sins inasmuch as “mortal” sin or states of sin kill or drive out a saving faith and the Holy Spirit while “venial” sins do not.

    As the English Reformer Latimer notes (Sermon from 1552-when the 42 Articles (later shortened to 39 Articles) and 1552 BCP were being completed):
    [THE SIXTH SERMON, PREACHED ON THE FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT, 1552, BY MASTER HUGH LATIMER]
    Which be venial sins? Every sin that is committed against God not wittingly, nor willingly ; not consenting unto it : those be venial sins. As for an ensample : I see a fair woman, I am moved in my heart to sin with her, to commit the act of lechery with her : such thoughts rise out of my heart, but I consent not unto them ; I withstand these ill motions, I follow the ensample of that godly young man, Joseph ; I consider in what estate I am, namely, a temple of God, and that I should lose the Holy Ghost; on such wise I withstand my ill lusts and appetites, yet this motion in my heart is sin ; this ill lust which riseth up ; but it is a venial sin, it is not a mortal sin, because I consent not unto it, I withstand it ; and such venial sins the just man committeth daily. For scripture saith, Septiea cadit Justus, ” The righteous man falleth seven times;” that is, oftentimes: for his works are not so perfect as they ought to be. For I pray you, who is he that loveth his neighbour so perfectly and vehemently as he ought to do? Now this imperfection is sin, but it is a venial sin, not a mortal : therefore he that feeleth his imperfections, feeleth the ill1 motions in his heart, but followeth them not, consenteth not unto the wickedness are to do them ; these be venial sins, which shall not be unto us to our damnation
    …I put the case, Joseph had not resisted the temptations of his master’s wife, but had followed her, and fulfilled the act of lechery with her ; had weighed the matter after a worldly fashion, thinking, “I have my mistress’s favour already, and so by that mean I shall have my master’s favour too ; nobody knowing of it.” Now if he had done so, this act had been a deadly sin ; for any act that is done against the law of God willingly and if sin have wittingly, is a deadly sin. And that man or woman that committeth such an act, loseth the Holy Ghost and the remission of sins ; and so becometh the child of the devil, being before the child of God. For a regenerate man or woman, that believeth, ought to have dominion over sin ; but as soon as sin hath rule over him, he is gone: for she leadeth him to delectation of it, and from delectation to consenting, and so from consenting to the act itself. Now he that is led so with sin, he is in the state of damnation, and sinneth damnably.
    http://books.google.com/books?id=EFoJAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA8&dq=latimer&ei=Y-tOSeCdM6TCMYOenY0M#PPR5,M1

    Or, as the Anglican Homily against Fornication (Book of Homilies–see Article 25) notes even more graphically regarding the loss of Salvation which occurs through this deadly sin of fornication:
    He declares also that our bodies are the members of Christ. How unseemly a thing is it then to cease to be incorporated or embodied and made one with Christ, and through whoredom to be enjoined and made all one with a whore?”
    http://www.anglicanlibrary.org/homilies/bk1hom11.htm

    [Of course, as the Reformers note elsewhere–lust/spiritual fornication/spiritual adultery can certainly be mortal sin–which is why Christ said that it is better to gouge out the eye than be cast into hell]

    Now, Luther didn’t like the “venial” and “mortal” sin distinction because he believed it obscured the Scriptural and Catholic truth noted above (namely, that all sin is worthy of eternal damnation).

    However, Luther did affirm regularly the distinction between sins/states of sin which are “mortal” inasmuch as they drive out a saving faith and the Holy Spirit (and thus cause the believer to cease to freely partake in the remission of sins through true faith)
    Smalcald Articles (and Luther says likewise in innumerable passages):
    It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them [they cast out faith and the Holy Ghost]. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present. For St. John says, 1 John 3:9: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, … and he cannot sin. And yet it is also the truth when the same St. John says, 1:8: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

    Also, Luther was not absolutely opposed to the terminology of “mortal”/”venial” sin being used when it was properly made–as is evident from the use of it in the Apology of Augsburg (written by his close associate Melanchthon).
    Apology of Augsburg–On Love and Fulfilling the Law:
    Likewise the faith of which we speak exists in repentance, i.e., it is conceived in the terrors of conscience, which feels the wrath of God against our sins, and seeks the remission of sins, and to be freed from sin. And in such terrors and other afflictions this faith ought to grow and be strengthened. Wherefore 22] it cannot exist in those who live according to the flesh who are delighted by their own lusts and obey them. Accordingly, Paul says, Rom. 8, 1: There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. So, too 8, 12. 13: We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye, through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. 23] Wherefore, the faith which receives remission of sins in a heart terrified and fleeing from sin does not remain in those who obey their desires, neither does it coexist with mortal sin.
    http://www.bookofconcord.org/augsburgdefense/5_love.html

    God Bless,
    WA Scott

  8. William,

    Where, exactly, in St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo do you think he denies the distinction between mortal and venial? I’ve read that work more than once, and I don’t recall seeing him say such a thing.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  9. Anselm never denies the Catholic and Scriptural distinction between mortal and venial sins (i.e. that some kill a living faith and thus bring loss of Salvation)–rather he denies that any sin is unworthy of eternal damnation.

    God Bless,
    WA Scott

  10. William, (re: #9)

    The sin he is talking about there is mortal sin, not venial sin.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  11. […] will not dwell on this point since it has been addressed elsewhere, other than to highlight that the distinction between sins that are mortal and sins that are not is […]

  12. Bryan what do you do with the evidence that the fathers understood venial sins to be sin proper and that idea that venial sins is not sin proper is pelgian in origin. I think that Aquinas does not square with Trent on the issue that venial sins does not deserve eternal punishment. Clark points this out in his analysis of Perkins:

    He appealed to Romans 7:17. Sin, not mere want or weakness, dwells in baptized believers. Further, baptized infants “die the bodily death before they come to the years of discretion.” If baptism removes original sin in the way Rome claims there would be no cause of death them. Third, concupiscence (sinful desire) remains after baptism (Galatians 5:17 and (James 1:14). Finally, under this heading, Perkins appealed to Augustine (Epistle 29), where he argued that in baptism the reigning power of sin is broken but not that there is no sin whatever.

    Perkins concluded this section by addressing four objections the essence of which has to do with defining sin. According to Perkins, Rome is Pelagianizing. Rome’s account of sin does not match the biblical doctrine of sin and it doesn’t square with Augustine’s (mature) doctrine of sin against the Pelagians and semi-Pelagians. Rome is implicitly perfectionist. Once again, according to Rome, in Adam we are sinful but we are not so sinful (depraved) that we cannot do our part, cooperate with grace unto sanctification and thence to justification.

  13. Vincent (#12),

    You wrote:

    I think that Aquinas does not square with Trent on the issue that venial sins does not deserve eternal punishment.

    In Summa Theologiae I-II q.87 a.5 (“Whether every sin incurs a debt of eternal punishment?”) Aquinas writes:

    I answer that, As stated above (Article 3), a sin incurs a debt of eternal punishment, in so far as it causes an irreparable disorder in the order of Divine justice, through being contrary to the very principle of that order, viz. the last end. Now it is evident that in some sins there is disorder indeed, but such as not to involve contrariety in respect of the last end, but only in respect of things referable to the end, in so far as one is too much or too little intent on them without prejudicing the order to the last end: as, for instance, when a man is too fond of some temporal thing, yet would not offend God for its sake, by breaking one of His commandments. Consequently such sins do not incur everlasting, but only temporal punishment.

    [emphasis added]

    Also see further his remarks in Question 88, especially article 1 where he affirms the distinction of mortal and venial sins and quotes St. Augustine in support of this position: “a crime is one that merits damnation, and a venial sin, one that does not.”

    Peace,

    Fred

  14. Vincent,

    I have a bit more time, so I thought I might reply more fully. :-)

    You wrote:

    Bryan what do you do with the evidence that the fathers understood venial sins to be sin proper

    What evidence do you have in mind?

    You wrote:

    and that idea that venial sins is not sin proper is pelgian in origin.

    That claim is new to me, but it does not square with the fact that St. Augustine, the great foe of the Pelagians, affirmed the distinction between the two, as I observed in #13 above.

    You wrote:

    I think that Aquinas does not square with Trent on the issue that venial sins does not deserve eternal punishment.

    I already replied in part to this, but to be more complete it is worth noting what Trent says about this subject:

    For, although in this mortal life, men, how holy and just soever, at times fall into at least light and daily sins, which are also called venial; yet they do not therefore cease to be just. [Decree on Justification, Chapter XI]

    So Trent is consistent both with Aquinas and with Augustine: there is a distinction between mortal sin by which one loses salvation and venial sin which does not rupture one’s fellowship with God and consequently does not merit damnation.

    You wrote:

    Clark points this out in his analysis of Perkins:

    Which Clark is in view here? Who is Perkins? Is there a reference for this quotation?

    If baptism removes original sin in the way Rome claims there would be no cause of death them.

    I am pretty sure that this is only the case on the view that immortality was the natural state of Adam: i.e., that apart from grace he would have lived forever by nature if he had not sinned. This is not the Catholic view, according to which Adam needed grace for eternal life even if he had not sinned, precisely because attaining to heaven is completely beyond our natural powers.

    Third, concupiscence (sinful desire) remains after baptism

    The Catholic view of concupiscence is that it consists in an inclination to sin. See §§76-78 in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, here. It is not sinful itself and does not imply that we are unable to resist it (particularly with the help of God’s grace). So this criticism depends upon a view of concupiscence which is foreign to the Church.

    Rome’s account of sin does not match the biblical doctrine of sin

    This is incorrect. It may be, however, that the author does not agree with the Catholic view of what the Bible says about sin; that is another question entirely.

    Rome is implicitly perfectionist.

    If this implies that the Church teaches that man can live a sinless life apart from grace, this is false. And Trent explicitly says contrariwise, as we have seen.

    Once again, according to Rome, in Adam we are sinful but we are not so sinful (depraved) that we cannot do our part, cooperate with grace unto sanctification and thence to justification.

    Not so. We are not at all able to cooperate with grace without first receiving grace to do so.

    Peace,

    Fred

  15. Thanks for responding Fred. I do not dispute the fact that Augustine and Aquinas held to a distinction of mortal/venial sins, however I dispute the fact that they did not consider venial sins to be sin proper but only a disorder. It seems to be that Rome believes that after baptism man can avoid to sin and even live a perfect sinful life with God’s grace. This contradicts Augustine and Aquinas who admit that as long as we live we always will struggle with sin. Perkins is an English Reformer and this is what he says about Rome’s view of orginal sin:
    ” Rome teaches, he argued, that, in baptism, original sin is “taken away” so completely that “it ceases to be a sin properly” so that it is now, after baptism, only a “want, a defect, a weakness” which leaves the potential of sin “like tinder” that is ready to burst into flames. They take this position in order to make it possible for them to “uphold some gross opinions of theirs namely, that a man in this life may fulfill the law of God: and do good works void of sin: that he may stand righteous at the bar of God’s judgement by them.”

  16. Hello Vincent,

    You wrote (#15):

    I dispute the fact that they did not consider venial sins to be sin proper but only a disorder.

    I am not quite sure what you are denying here, but as I have already shown they did consider them to be sins, and so does the Catholic Church.

    It seems to be that Rome believes that after baptism man can avoid to sin and even live a perfect sinful life with God’s grace.

    Did you read the quotation I offered from Trent? They explicitly say that basically everyone commits venial sins, right? Nevertheless I think two things should be pointed out. As the fathers of Trent said elsewhere in chapter XI of the Decree on Justification, God does not command impossibilities. If we sin the fault is ours and not that God demands what we cannot do. Second, it seems that you are saying that God cannot enable His people to lead sinless lives by His grace. But nothing is impossible for God, right?

    This contradicts Augustine and Aquinas who admit that as long as we live we always will struggle with sin.

    Struggling with sin means that we struggle, not that we cannot avoid mortal sin, even if we do fall into venial sin. Again, God does not command impossibilities.

    original sin is “taken away” so completely that “it ceases to be a sin properly”

    Original sin is not personal sin. That is why Ezekiel can say “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20). To say that we bear the personal guilt of Adam’s sin as though we committed it ourselves is to contradict what Ezekiel says here.

    Peace,

    Fred

  17. Thanks for responding Fred. Do you know where Aquinas says conspicuous is not sin proper or a violation of God’s law? I know Augustine considered it to be serious sin which needs forgiveness. What does Aquinas have to say about it?

  18. Hello Vincent,

    A little bit of digging at New Advent turns up his discussion of concupiscence here. See also this, where he says that formally speaking original sin consists in the privation of original justice but materially in concupiscence, and particularly so (in ad 1) insofar as it is not subject to reason. An inclination to sin is not sin per se; consenting to that inclination and actually sinning is where the evil rests.

    In the view of Aquinas man has by nature a concupiscible appetite, which moves him to seek pleasure (of various sorts). There is no sin in desiring pleasure when the pleasure is not contrary to reason or to God’s law. If a man allows himself to be directed by his desires then he may indeed sin, because he ought to govern his actions by reason.

    Fred

  19. Hey Fred can you rpovide with your email so we can discuss this further.

  20. This post got me thinking about something that I think is another serious problem for the Reformed tradition. Bryan has already pointed out that if all sins are equally grave and thus equally damnable, and the “just man sins seven times a day” (Prov 24:16), then the Christian is committing damnable sins multiple times each day. And he has logically pointed out that this greatly mars (if not obliterates) any outward moral living between the regenerate and unregenerate, since outwardly they’re both committing damnable sins. But I think this can be taken one step further.

    The rejection of the mortal/venial sin distinction totally undermines the so called “warning passages” of Scripture such as Galatians 5:19; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Eph 5:3-5; and 1 Thess 3:4-6. Traditionally, the Reformed have said these are hypothetical warnings or warnings to pick out who is ‘not really saved in the first place’. But why is the Apostle “warning” to avoid certain grave sins if all sins are equally grave? These texts no longer can serve any useful function because the Christian is not avoiding grave sin himself. I see this as a reductio ad absurdum that refutes Calvinism since Calvinism effectively commits apostasy in this case.

  21. […] we cannot have certainty that we will endure to the end due to mortal sin, if we persevere we will be glorified (Romans 2:7). As we love Him and our neighbor by the Spirit, […]

  22. Hi Bryan,

    I have a question about the gravity of sins.

    According to the Catechism mortal sin destroys charity in the heart by a grave violation of God’s law. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

    I understand why a sin committed without full knowledge or deliberate consent is compatible with agape. But what makes a sin a “grave” sin, or not? Whenever I do anything that I know is against the will of God, and I do it with full knowledge and consent, isn’t that a grave sin? Can you explain the principled difference between a “grave” sin and a “not so grave” sin?

    The example I know of is intentionally speeding. It can be risky and dangerous, so you shouldn’t do it, but as long as there is no intention to murder, then speeding does not explicitly violate the 5th commandment.

    But I am having trouble understanding the general principle. What about sins of gluttony- eating too much or drinking too much? Are these grave sins? Does God explicitly condemn gluttony? (According to another list, gluttony can be a grave sin).

  23. Jonathan, (re: #22)

    The gravity of sin is determined principally by its object. St. Thomas has provided a helpful summary here in articles 1-5 of Summa Theologica I-II Q.73.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  24. Hi Bryan,

    Thanks for the link. I read St. Thomas’s explanation of how the gravity of various sins can be compared against one another in Question 72, according to the object of the sin (and various other considerations).

    But what I don’t see answered in this question, or in the surrounding part, is a distinction between a sin that is “grave” and a sin that is “not grave”.

    CCC1850 says that a mortal sin has “grave matter” as its object, and CCC1851 says “Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments”. However, I suspect there is grave matter that is not specified by the Ten Commandments, such as Paul’s list in Galatians 5. And then there is James’s example of favoritism in James 2. And there’s St. Thomas’s examples of “capital sins”. So what I am searching for is a general principal which can be used to distinguish an object which is “grave matter” from an object of sin that is “not grave matter”.

    I understand St. Thomas as saying that what distinguishes mortal sin is what a man turns against (God in the case of mortal sin). But I also understand him to be saying that all sins against nature and against man are also against God. So if all sins are against God, man, or nature, then is it true that all sins are mortal if the sin is committed with full knowledge and consent?

  25. Bryan I think the following scriptural verse greatly undermines the concept that venial sins are not actual sins. How does a Roman catholic try to reconcile such a verse with their church’s teaching?

    For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws.

  26. Vincent, (re: #25)

    In the post there are two paragraphs that discuss that verse (i.e. James 2:10).

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  27. Hi Bryan,

    It seems like whether a sin is mortal or venial ultimately depends on the will of the perpetrator. So if that’s the case then the severity of a sin is defined not by its very essence but by the intentions behind that sin.

    For example, a Christian who murders another could be said to be committing a venial sin if he were doing it out of love for God. If he strongly believed that committing such an act would be pleasing to God and if his will were directed to God as its final end, then it can’t be said that he committed a mortal sin.

    Is this a fair conclusion? How would you argue against it?

    I understand that this is a hypothetical scenario and would be near-impossible in reality. This question was posed by a Protestant friend of mine and I was thinking about what the right response should be.

    Thank you and many blessings

    Julian

  28. Bryan,

    What does the Church teach about unconfessed venial sins and unconfessed mortal sins and their influence on one’s going to heaven? Is it in the Catechism?

    –Christie

  29. Bryan (re: original article),

    This is an excellent essay and really helps explain the differences between the “list paradigm” and the agape paradigm” (Sidenote: How do you pronounce agape when talking to people?) .

    You wrote:

    This is the whole purpose of the gospel, to bring about the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) that fulfills the law through living faith [faith informed by agape], so that we might attain to union with God in the beatific vision; this “obedience of faith” is the faith that works through love. This love is the law-written-on-the-heart (Rom 2:15, 29), which is the “new life of the Spirit” in contrast to “the old written code.” (Rom 7:6) This living faith is itself a gift of grace, through Christ, (Rom 3:24); it makes us “doers of the law” who will be justified on that Day. (Rom 2:13) By writing the law on our hearts through the infusion of sanctifying grace and agape, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus sets us free from the law of sin and death, (Rom. 8:2) doing what the written code could not do. In this way, the requirement of the law is fulfilled in us in the way that we walk, walking not according to the flesh, but walking according to the agape infused into us by the indwelling Spirit. (Rom. 8:4)

    1. Is this fulfillment of the law through agape what Jesus has in mind in Matthew 5:18? I can imagine Reformed Protestants using that portion, Matthew 5:18-48, in support of the “list paradigm” which would in turn drive Christians to justification by faith since no one could live up to the standard Jesus describes.

    2. Can a Catholic in a state of grace claim that they are currently fulfilling the whole law?

    Peace,
    John D.

  30. Hi John D.

    Can a Catholic in a state of grace claim that they are currently fulfilling the whole law?

    St. Thomas, in Summa Theologica II – II, Q.44, part 6, states regarding the precept of charity that a precept can be fulfilled either perfectly or imperfectly. He says this precept will be fulfilled perfectly in heaven, but it is fulfilled imperfectly on the way there.

    So, if as St. Thomas says, it is possible to fulfill the precept of charity “in a fashion”, then it is possible to fulfill the whole law, because “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command” (Galatians 5:14).

    Does this answer your question?

  31. JohnD (re: #29)

    If you read Greek, you pronounce agape as you do ἀγάπη, with the accent on the second syllable. Regarding your question about Mt. 5:18, St. Chrysostom writes of the previous verse:

    But the law He fulfilled, not in one way only, but in a second and third also. In one way, by transgressing none of the precepts of the law. For that He did fulfill it all, hear what He says to John, “For thus it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness.” Matthew 3:15 And to the Jews also He said, “Which of you convinces me of sin.” John 8:46 And to His disciples again, “The prince of this world comes, and finds nothing in me.” John 14:30 And the prophet too from the first had said that “He did no sin.” Isaiah 53:9

    This then was one sense in which He fulfilled it. Another, that He did the same through us also; for this is the marvel, that He not only Himself fulfilled it, but He granted this to us likewise. Which thing Paul also declaring said, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes.” Romans 10:4 And he said also, that “He judged sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh.” Romans 8:3-4 And again, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law.” Romans 3:31 For since the law was laboring at this, to make man righteous, but had not power, He came and brought in the way of righteousness by faith, and so established that which the law desired: and what the law could not by letters, this He accomplished by faith. On this account He says, “I am not come to destroy the law.”

    But if any one will inquire accurately, he will find also another, a third sense, in which this has been done. Of what sort is it then? In the sense of that future code of laws, which He was about to deliver to them. For His sayings were no repeal of the former, but a drawing out, and filling up of them. Thus, “not to kill,” is not annulled by the saying, Be not angry, but rather is filled up and put in greater security: and so of all the others. (Homily 16 on Matthew)

    Notice especially that second way in which Christ fulfilled the law, namely, by granting us to fulfill it, not by extra nos imputation, but by living faith. And the third way in which Christ fulfills the law is by giving a new law that draws out and entirely encapsulates the old law. This is agape.

    Regarding Mt. 5:18 in particular, not the smallest stroke will be removed from the moral law. Christianity is not antinomian; it is the power by which the law is fulfilled in us who believe.

    2. Can a Catholic in a state of grace claim that they are currently fulfilling the whole law?

    St. Gregory of Nazianzus, as the bishop of Constantinople, in a homily delivered in Constantinople on January 6, 381, on the topic of baptism, said:

    But not yet perhaps is there formed upon your soul any writing good or bad; and you want to be written upon today, and formed by us unto perfection. Let us go within the cloud. Give me the tables of your heart; I will be your Moses, though this be a bold thing to say; I will write on them with the finger of God a new Decalogue. Exodus 38:28 I will write on them a shorter method of salvation. (Oration, 40)

    By receiving in baptism the agape by which the law is written on our heart, the law is fulfilled in us, unto perfection. Notice that St. Gregory says that, in baptism, in persona Christi, “I will be your Moses.” “I will write on [the tablets of your heart] with the finger of God a new Decalogue.” That’s the heart of the agape paradigm. And with that writing on the heart comes “perfection.”

    But perfection has more than one sense. There is perfection with respect to the essence of righteousness, and that is what we receive when we receive agape. But there is also perfection in our members in their participation in this perfect righteousness, that is, in the dispositions of our powers and appetites, and in our thoughts and actions. I have explained this in the comments under the Imputation and Paradigms article. This participation is not perfected during this present life, and so we commit venial sin, and also remain susceptible to committing mortal sin. In that respect we are not perfect in this present life; God has left this imperfection with us for the sake of merit and greater acts of love, as is explained in my analysis and exposition of Session Five of the Council of Trent on original sin.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  32. Bryan (re: #31),

    Thanks for the helpful reply (I don’t read Greek btw). The Chrysostom quote does help distinguish the senses in which Christ fulfilled the law.

    You quoted Chrysostom:

    For since the law was laboring at this, to make man righteous, but had not power, He came and brought in the way of righteousness by faith, and so established that which the law desired: and what the law could not by letters, this He accomplished by faith. On this account He says, “I am not come to destroy the law.”

    Is it clear elsewhere in Chrysostom that he speaks hear of an infused righteousness rather than an imputed righteousness? From this quote alone, I’m not sure if it’s clear that he means one over the other (unless I am not reading closely enough).

    But perfection has more than one sense.

    Thanks for explaining the distinctions here. What do you think Christ intends when He says “Be perfect” in Matthew 5:48?

    Peace,
    John D.

  33. On Mortal/Venial Sin,

    I was under the impression that Catholics confess venial sins every mass, for example in the confiteor prayer, but that confession of mortal sin was reserved to the sacrament of reconciliation. If that is the case, why does the confiteor include the line, “for I have greatly sinned” ? It seems as though “greatly sinned” would refer to mortal sin.

    I am open to thoughts and/or correction from anyone.

    Peace,
    John D.

  34. JohnD,

    Thanks for your dialogue here. I’ve appreciated your contribution to the discussion. I’ll give a brief response.

    First, I notice you are using the translation from the 70s that was superseded a few years ago. The current translation in the mass is “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” (Of course this is translating Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa and notice clearly, Culpa is used. I need to admit that I am absolutely not a latin scholar and I am using internet resources to back up my limited memory, but it also fits wholly with my “sense of the Catholic Faith” which is pretty well developed. The word used in latin is Culpa and we are now translating this as Fault, instead of as sin which was the previous wording.

    Before I launch into the latin lesson, I’ll mention the Seven Deadly Sins, which are not actually “sins” as in specific acts that are sinful, but rather seven conditions of weakness in human nature that do indeed bear fruit in actually sinful acts. That is the same situation we are looking at here. Sin as used in english, at least traditionally, like Culpa can mean both a specific act that transgresses the commandments and is a sinful act, or also a fault, or culpability (a weakness) of our person. Other latin words are more specific to sinful acts. Peccatus or Peccatum looks like the most obvious choice to refer to a sinful act. For example, “I have sinned” in latin is peccavit. In English I don’t think we have a better word, but we need to be more specific to make our meaning clear. For example, we could say “I have committed a sin,” or “I am guilty of a sin and that makes it more clear we are specifying an action. I suppose part of the difficulty here is that in the previous line we say “I have sinned through my own fault” so perhaps we are holding to that idea when we come to the mea culpa. I have similar discussions with people who are pretty well informed Catholics who are put off my Mea Maxima Culpa because they translate it to themselves and “My very great big sin.” I think their reasoning is very poor for reasons unrelated to actual mortal sin.

    The point of my rambling, is that in the confiteor we are confessing our sinfulness, and also our sins but not the same way we do in confession. The focus is on our weakness, our frailty in sin and our need for Christ, not on the specific acts we may have committed. Canon Law reflects sacramental theology in recognizing that any venial sins we have committed are forgiven in the several confessions and blessings during the mass in preparation for communion. At the same time, it is clear that if one is aware of serious sin one must make a good confession and receive absolution from a priest.

    I hope this is helpful. I am certainly willing to spend more time, and do some better research if this answer isn’t sufficient.

    GNW_Paul

  35. GNW_Paul (re: #33),

    Thanks for the reply. I’d like to make a few comments and ask a few questions.

    First, I notice you are using the translation from the 70s that was superseded a few years ago. The current translation in the mass is “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

    I actually was not referring to the “mea culpa” portion of the prayer. The opening line is, “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned…”. I don’t know Latin or what’s behind the word “greatly” but since the new translation is more literal than dynamic I would assume the Latin word means something close to “greatly”. I am also willing to admit that “greatly” doesn’t necessarily mean “mortally”, but I’ve just found the language confusing in light of the fact that I thought we only confess venial sins at mass and reserve mortal sins for the sacrament of reconciliation. Of course, some people attend mass many in a state of mortal sin, so it wouldn’t seem wrong to confess that sin prior to getting to confession, but that would seem to be the exception not the general rule.

    So, my question comes back to this: If the general rule is that venial sins are to be confessed (and subsequently forgiven) at mass, why does that opening line of the confiteor bring to mind mortal sin?

    The point of my rambling, is that in the confiteor we are confessing our sinfulness, and also our sins but not the same way we do in confession. The focus is on our weakness, our frailty in sin and our need for Christ, not on the specific acts we may have committed.

    Hmm, I suppose I agree that the emphasis is on our sinfulness, but I would also add that the emphasis is on the fact that we have sinned (even if the specific sins aren’t called to mind or spoken as they are in preparation and reception of the sacrament of reconciliation). Again, it just seems weird that the language calls to mind mortal sin (at least for me), when in reality we may have only sinned venially (hopefully) in the past week.

    Canon Law reflects sacramental theology in recognizing that any venial sins we have committed are forgiven in the several confessions and blessings during the mass in preparation for communion. At the same time, it is clear that if one is aware of serious sin one must make a good confession and receive absolution from a priest.

    No argument there.

    Peace,
    John D.

  36. Re: JohnD, “greatly sinned”

    Confiteor Deo omnipotenti,
    et vobis fratres,
    quia peccavi nimis
    cogitatione, verbo,
    opere et omissione:
    mea culpa, mea culpa,
    mea maxima culpa.

    My dictionary says “quia peccavi nimis” means “that I, too, have sinned”, not “that I have greatly sinned”. So I’m not sure why the English translation says “greatly”.

    My opinion is that it is right to recall not only venial sins, but also grave sins during the confiteor. For even if I go to reconciliation and confess specific sins to a priest, I should still confess these sins in a general way to the whole church. Thus, in mass, I have a chance to express my sorrow not only to God, but also, to my brothers and sisters in the assembly, whom I have harmed through my sins. For grave and venial sins do not offend only God. These sins have also caused harm to myself, and others. Thus I express sorrow to my brothers and sisters, and ask their help and intercession for me.

  37. Jonathan (re: #36),

    So I’m not sure why the English translation says “greatly”.

    Thanks for the info. I must admit I am perplexed because the whole “new translation campaign” pushed the idea that they were going from a dynamic equivalence to a more literal equivalence. Right?

    My opinion is that it is right to recall not only venial sins, but also grave sins during the confiteor.

    That does seem like a reasonable opinion to me as well.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Peace,
    John D.

  38. Re:

    I must admit I am perplexed because the whole “new translation campaign” pushed the idea that they were going from a dynamic equivalence to a more literal equivalence. Right?

    I guess someone thought that we Americans need a little extra emphasis on the magnitude of our sins.

  39. Jonathan and JohnD,

    “Nimis” does not mean “too” in the sense of “also.” It means “too” in the sense of “excessively,” i.e., “too much,” “a great deal.” (So in English you’d translate it “too” if it’s modifying an adjective, like, “Wash your hands, kid, they’re too dirty”; you’d translate it “too much” if it’s modifying a verb: “You sleep too much.”) It’s a loose-ish, non-technical word, the way French uses “trop” or “bien.” And we use it in the liturgy because the righteous man falls seven times a day and, especially if he’s righteous, he knows that’s too much. Venial sin isn’t “no big deal.”

    So the translation “I have greatly sinned” is accurate.

  40. Re: 39

    John S, thanks for the info on “nimis”. That definitely helps clear things up.

  41. Bryan (re: #31),

    But perfection has more than one sense. There is perfection with respect to the essence of righteousness, and that is what we receive when we receive agape. But there is also perfection in our members in their participation in this perfect righteousness, that is, in the dispositions of our powers and appetites, and in our thoughts and actions. I have explained this in the comments under the Imputation and Paradigms article. This participation is not perfected during this present life, and so we commit venial sin, and also remain susceptible to committing mortal sin. In that respect we are not perfect in this present life; God has left this imperfection with us for the sake of merit and greater acts of love, as is explained in my analysis and exposition of Session Five of the Council of Trent on original sin.

    Thanks for explaining the distinctions here. What do you think Christ intends when He says “Be perfect” in Matthew 5:48?

    Peace,
    John D.

  42. JohnD (re: #41)

    We are to live in agape, and seek always to grow in agape.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  43. Bryan,
    Very good article. Thank you. It came up as a result of a google search as I was attempting to get a clearer understanding of venial vs. mortal sins. As a former Presbyterian and now a Catholic, I am attempting to understand if my separated brothers, Protestants, will be saved if – 1) They have committed a mortal sin in the past, and – 2) They are truly repentant of the sin, and – 3) They do not confess to a priest, because of course, they’re not Catholic. What is the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding this topic?

    John Norris

  44. John,

    Thanks for your comment. This came up in the “Real Presence” thread; see comment #15 there. Just as the grace of the sacrament of baptism can be received by explicit or implicit desire for the sacrament of baptism, so the grace of the sacrament of reconciliation can be received by explicit or implicit desire for the sacrament of reconciliation. Such a desire is implicit when a person seeks (by the preceding work of God’s grace in his or her heart) to be reconciled to God, but does not know that there is a sacrament of reconciliation established by Christ through which we are to receive this grace and be thus reconciled to God. By contrast, a person who knows that there is a sacrament of reconciliation that Christ established in His Church cannot have implicit desire for this sacrament. Such a person either has explicit desire for this sacrament, or chooses not to make use of this sacrament. A Protestant therefore, can have implicit desire for this sacrament, which, when this contrition is out of love for God (rather than fear of hell), and includes repentance, allows him or her to receive the grace of this sacrament, just as persons can receive the grace of baptism by the implicit desire for baptism.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  45. Dr. Cross,
    I have a question. Since I went through a period of unwanted doubt before I found The Church, I lost what might be called the simple faith that I had upon my first notable conversion when I was a young adult when I heared and believed,so I struggle to rest again in the love that God has for me. Now I don’t know how to know if I have true contrition because I love God or if I only fear Him. Can you tell me how to know the difference especially since I have a hard time understanding whether or not I have sinned mortally since I was reconcilled with Jesus upon entering the Church? Any reading recommendations would be appreciated too.

    Susan

  46. Bryan Cross,

    My basic presupposition is that if someone believes and is baptized, then they are filled with the holy spirit. So my question is: is it possible for someone to be spirit-filled and not be saved? If the answer is “no,” then does that mean that when a person commits a mortal sin the Holy Spirit leaves them until they are reconciled to the church?

  47. Hello Susan (re: #45)

    Have you asked a priest to explain this to you? That’s what I’d recommend. Anecdotally at least, a number of Protestants who become Catholic struggle with scrupulosity, precisely because they don’t know how to answer the question you’re asking. But when it comes to learning how to examine your conscience, it is better to talk to a confessor than get a textbook answer that does not see or understand where you are coming from.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  48. Marcus (re: #46)

    So my question is: is it possible for someone to be spirit-filled and not be saved?

    No, if by ‘saved’ you mean ‘in a state of grace.’

    If the answer is “no,” then does that mean that when a person commits a mortal sin the Holy Spirit leaves them until they are reconciled to the church?

    When a person commits a mortal sin, he thereby drives the Holy Spirit from himself, in the sense of losing communion with the Holy Spirit. Though the Holy Spirit continues to draw and move his soul, he remains without the indwelling communion of the Holy Spirit until he is reconciled to God either through implicit desire for the sacrament of reconciliation with perfect contrition, or through receiving the sacrament of reconciliation.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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