Karl Barth speaks for the Reformed tradition when he rejects the traditional distinction between mortal and venial sins. This distinction, he writes, “assumes a quantitative concept of sin which cannot be united with the decisive seriousness of the divine judgment and the human situation under this judgment. It can serve only to veil the depth of human misery and therefore the depth of the free grace of God” (Church Dogmatics, IV/2:493). Given Barth’s dual assertion that in Christ man has simultaneously been judged and justified, it is not surprising that Barth would find the mortal/venial sin distinction to be useless and misleading.
But the distinction between mortal and venial sins has enjoyed a place within the dogmatic tradition of Lutheranism. 16th century theologian Martin Chemnitz discusses this distinction at length in his Loci Theologici. Chemnitz makes the following points:
1) From God’s perspective, all sins, no matter how insignificant, are mortal and “worthy of the curse and eternal death” (II:675). He approvingly cites Luther: “Mortal sin and venial sin are distinguished from each other not on the basis of the substance of the deed involved or according to some difference in the sin committed, but on the basis of the person or because of the difference of those who commit the sin.” There are of course degrees of gravity between sins and so “there are also degrees among the damned because of the difference in their sins. Yet all are in damnation” (II:675).
2) Consequently, it is difficult to know when a person has committed a mortal sin in this life, but Chemnitz suggests the following criterion: mortal sins in the regenerate can be recognized “when the regenerate refuse to repent, do not fight against sin but indulge in wicked lusts and knowingly and willingly act upon them. For where there is no repentance, there there is no faith, and no grace. When a person refuses to repent, at the same time the Holy Spirit is driven out and faith is lost” (II:676). And with the loss of faith the grace of God, the remission of sins, and the inheritance of eternal life are lost “and the person is again guilty of the wrath of God, eternal death, and condemnation” (II:678).
Yet even still, the person who has committed mortal sin may be saved by repentance and the return to Christ.
3) Sins are venial in the regenerate when they are accompanied by the struggle against sinful desires and continual repentance. Even if a person consents to sin, the sin is demonstrated to be venial if he immediately repents of his sin:
Even if the fires of depraved lusts in their great power take the regenerate as captives either to the point of consent or to the actual performance of some evil work, yet if they immediately repent in sorrow and in faith seek forgiveness, it is certain that the Holy Spirit has been grieved or hurt, but not yet crushed, and faith and the grace of God have not been lost. For the Holy Spirit works in the regenerate that he may rise again as a righteous person, even if he falls seven times in a day. (II:679)
Chemnitz is clear, however, that repentance involves more than just an acknowledgement of sin but a change in behavior: “For what kind of nonsense is it to devise for ourselves a license to sin and in our hearts to say, ‘It will do no harm as I say to myself that I am repenting'” (II:681). This is the appearance of repentance; it is not true repentance.
The 17th century dogmatician David Hollaz offers a similar definition of mortal and venial sin, though with a twist:
A mortal sin precipitates the sinner into a state of wrath, death, and condemnation, so that, if he should die in this state, and without repentance, he would be eternally condemned; but a venial sin, because it has pardon as an inseparable attendant, can consist with the grace of God and saving faith. (Quoted by Adam Cooper)
What is interesting about Hollaz’s definition is the apparent assertion that venial sin is forgiven the moment it is committed. I would love to hear a Lutheran elaborate upon this. Perhaps Hollaz simply has in mind the argument made by Chemnitz that if a sin occurs within a life that is struggling in faith against sin, then it cannot be mortal. The justified Christian lives his life within the circle of God’s grace. Since he does not intend by his venial sin to reject this grace, the sin may be said to be forgiven at its occurrence. These sins do not drive away the Holy Spirit nor do they call into question the standing of the sinner before God in the Church.
Is there here a real difference between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic understandings? Both agree that a mortal sin requires a full commitment of the will. Both affirm that the life of grace and the Holy Spirit may be recovered through repentance and faith. But there is a difference in emphases, is there not? If I am reading the literature rightly, the Catholic wants to say that man’s fundamental option for or against God cannot be separated from his individual acts (see Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor): the graver the sin, the more spiritually dangerous it’s likely to be. Thus the classic threefold definition of mortal sin: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (CCC 1857). The Lutheran wants to say that even the smallest sin can become mortal; therefore we need to be on guard against spiritual laxity.
I find the mortal and venial sin distinction unclear. It seems to me that two different, though related, concerns are being confused. On the one hand, there is the Catholic concern to accurately identify and classify sin by degrees of moral seriousness. On the other hand, there is the Lutheran concern to negotiate the eschatological relationship between God’s unmerited grace and the eternal destiny of the individual sinner. The Catholic acknowledges the Lutheran concern by refusing, willy nilly, to identify grave sins and mortal sins—hence the insistence of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.” The Lutheran acknowledges the Catholic concern by acknowledging degrees of seriousness of moral acts. All sins are not equal. An individual may not willfully murder another and yet at the same time believe in Christ as Lord and Savior. Such acts deny the covenantal relationship between Christ and the sinner and destroy the life of grace. But it must be said that the Lutheran is most concerned, not with specifying the degrees of gravity between sins, but with the willful and intentional act of sin and its consequences upon the life of faith. C. F. W. Walther writes:
The light of faith can be extinguished not only by gross sins, but by any willful, intentional sin. They plan to do a certain thing and carry out their purpose, although they know that it is contrary to God’s Word. In such instances faith becomes extinct…. As soon as faith is lost through some mortal sin, the grace of God is also lost, and such a person becomes a child of death and damnation. He may return to faith and ultimately be saved, but in the interval he was not a blessed, but an utterly miserable, lost creature. (Quoted by Sam Degner.)
Let me register here a very different Lutheran voice, Robert W. Jenson. According to Jenson, every human being stands under the judgment of God and the judgment of man. These two judgments create a division of the moral person, because there is no direct connection between the two judgments. According to the court of humanity, our moral worth is determined by our service to our neighbors. In this court our faith in God counts for nothing. All that matters is how well we have served humanity, how well we have given ourselves to the good of our fellow man. “The unbeliever’s bread is good in this court,” writes Jenson, “and the believer’s faith and mere wishes are evil. If the neighbor’s belly is full, the neighbor will affirm that that is good, and in this court that ends the discussion. If I filled that belly then my deed is good in this court. And in this court even God makes no private judgments of his own–He simply confirms the judgment of the neighbor” (“The Division of the Moral Person,” Lutheran Seminary Bulletin [Feb. 1975]: 46).
In the court of God, however, it’s a different story. In the gospel God speaks to us his last and final judgment upon the value of our lives, and it is “utterly independent of all judgments we make on ourselves and each other.” The gospel is God’s eschatological word let loose into the present—“You are justified!”—and it is this word that determines our true identity:
Before God, our deeds are what they morally are as God finds them good or bad for his purposes, as he is able to accept and use them. God’s purposes are those which are established in that the Lord Jesus is risen; which means that God accepts all created realities, including our deeds, as objects and matter for the promises of the gospel. In other courts our deeds are some of them good and some of them bad; but in this court they are all of them the matter of the promise. They are all of them that which we heap up in order that God may affirm some of them and forgive others of them; and alike with his affirmation and with his forgiveness create his kingdom. Therefore, in this forum all we can do is turn our deeds over to God as the raw materials of the kingdom. Our evening prayer is: “Lord, here are my acts of the day. Keep them in your memory, for the kingdom, for Jesus’ sake.” Again the anthropological axiom: we are what we do. Before God, therefore, we simply are whatever it is that God in his eschatological wisdom proposes to make of us in the kingdom; that is all there is to us before God. The Reformation term for the moral selfhood posited in this unconditional affirmation by God, was “faith.” The self of faith is transcendent to all moral judgments. The self of faith exists only by God’s unconditional will to use us in and for the kingdom. As this self, therefore, as this Jenson, I am “free Lord of all,” subject to no person’s critique—not yours, not any other human’s, not even the devil’s, and not even my own. If God says I am his dearly beloved child, then I am, no matter what you may—even justifiably—call me. (p. 46)
Here is a way of looking at matters that is, quite frankly, virtually incomprehensible to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians. For Jenson, the gospel is itself the Word of God that recreates the sinner. If God tells me that I am righteous, then I am truly righteous. If God tells me that I am alive in the Spirit of his kingdom, then I am truly alive. If God tells me that, despite my ungodliness and disbelief, he will conquer my sin and make me into a person who loves him completely and totally, then I will be and indeed already am such a a person. By God’s Word I am fit for heaven and all of its glories.
Yet in the present we stand with one foot in the court of the world and one foot in the court of God. We are therefore divided persons, divided by the moral judgment of the law and by the eschatological judgment of God. The unification of these two selves must await the coming of Christ in glory.
For now I hang between two selves, crucified in my moral self-fulfillment. I can never surely grasp myself as a moral subject; for as a moral subject I am in the eschatological making. I cannot guarantee what I “really” am; for I really am not any one thing at all. I cannot guarantee why I really do what I do; for I really do what I do for contradictory reasons. I cannot guarantee my “authenticity,” or “get my head together,” or “get hold of myself,” or any other item of that litany. And if you peel me as you would an onion, when you get to the core of Jenson what you will find is two cores of different colors. It is not possible for me to take judgment into my own hand and confront the world as an autonomous moral person, for there is no one of me to do that. I can only, to use Luther’s phrase, “sin bravely”; I can only act in hope and fear and trembling. (p. 47)
Thus the question of mortal sin cannot arise for Jenson, because to ask “Have I separated myself from God through mortal sin?” is to look away from the external promise of the gospel that has been and is continually spoken to me by the Church and sealed to me in baptism and eucharist. It is this promise that tells me that I am a child of Heaven. To turn away from this external Word and to introspectively analyze my motivations is to return to the damnable state of incurvatus in se, the state from which the gospel has liberated me. “Surely a mortal sin, if we must needs use the language,” Jens wrote to me in 2004, “is simply one that proves mortal—which cannot be known in this life.”
I do not know how to negotiate Jenson and what might be called classical Christianity. Are the two positions irreconcilable? The latter enjoys ascetical commonsense and most of the catholic tradition behind it. Yet Jenson’s position captures something of the wonder of the kingdom of God that we find in the gospels and the epistles of Paul. Everything is turned upside down. Sinners enter Heaven before the righteous. The kingdom is present and not yet. The deaf hear. The lame walk. The blind see. The dead are raised to new life. When confronted by the eschatological reality given to us Christ Jesus, our distinctions between mortal and venial sin seem woefully inadequate.
(This is an edited version of an article originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 13 December 2004)