Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mortal, Venial, Lesser, Worse, or Equal Sins

My article from this week's newspapers about different types of sins:

Q:  Are there some sins that God considers more offensive or worthy of punishment than others? 

The endeavor of classifying or comparing sins is one that takes on different nuances depending on the context in which the question is asked. 

The most straightforward example of this would be the context of salvation.  In this context, both the quality and the quantity of the sin are irrelevant.  The Epistle of James reveals this concisely when it states that “Whoever keeps the whole law, yet sins at just one point, is guilty of breaking all of it.”  If one proposes to earn salvation by means of obeying the law, the standard of perfection.  The presence of any sin, great or small, means failure.  In this sense, one sin is the same as the next, whether mass murder or shoplifting, and all incur the same consequence.

In contrast to this, it has been proposed by some that there are two types of sin—mortal sins which lead to condemnation and venial sins which, while still morally wrong, do not necessarily condemn.  However, the type of sin is not what condemns, but rather the un-forgiven status of the sinner who commits it.  Mortal sins really are those committed, no matter how small, apart from Christ’s forgiveness.  Venial sins are really those committed, no matter how large, that are covered by Christ’s forgiveness. 

The fact that all sin does not cease to be true for those who become Christians.  The Bible does not tell a story of sinners and righteous people, but rather the story of one righteous man, Jesus, and a world of sinners—some forgiven and some un-forgiven.  The difference between Christians and non-Christians is not portrayed by the Bible as whether they sin or not, but as how that sin is to be handled.  For one who trusts in himself, in nothing at all, or in some other entity than Jesus, he bears the burden of repaying his sins himself, and even the smallest sin condemns.  On the other hand, for one who trusts in Jesus as his substitute in living a God-pleasing life and in suffering sin’s punishment, no sin can condemn. 

Similarly, there is the case of willful or unrepentant sin—these are sins done with the knowledge that they are wrong, but disregarding concern for the fact that they are.  This is the sort of sin would cause great concern that the one who commits it is apart from Christ.  On the other hand, there are those that might be known as sins of weakness or crimes of passion.  These are committed without contemplation of or with inadequate appreciation for their sinfulness, and might only be realized as wrong after the fact.  These might be committed by the Christian and non-Christian alike, and would include such things as an assault or murder that occurs in a flash of anger or the suicide committed in the dark depths of depression or despair.  While such actions certainly remain sins before God, they would not necessarily indicate to a pastoral care provider that the one who commits them has been denied forgiveness or separated from Christ. 

In another context, there is a distinction between a sin’s implications before God versus before man.  Before God, all sins are equally condemning, as previously described, while at the same time, those sins have varying degrees of impact here on earth.  These consequences before man are significantly different in that some sins merely cause offense to those who are sinned against, while others create a devastating ripple effect that causes immeasurable harm to those sinned against.  This is why society responds more harshly to sins like child molestation and premeditated murder than to gossip or lust and why habitual criminals are more strongly punished than first-time offenders. 

The important realization to be emphasized regarding sin is that all sin must be accounted for, either by the sinner himself, or by Jesus, and that the important factor is not the quantity or quality of the sin, but rather that it be forgiven by Jesus and the sinner reconciled to God through Him.


  1. Can you tell me where it is in the Lutheran Confessions that it condemns the concept of "Mortal Sins?"

    Ron Rosenkaimer
    Hebrews 10:26-27

  2. I don't think that the Confessions do condemn the concept of Mortal Sins, as far as I am aware. In fact, they are spoken of as a given on several occasions throughout. Even though they do not expressly define a mortal sin, I do believe that they speak of them in a manner consistent with the above summary, which the dogmaticians would later clarify more explicitly, as can be found in Volume I, pp. 568-569 of Pieper's Christian Dogmatics.