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Venial and Mortal Sins:
A Deceptive Distinction

Question: As Catholics we believe that there are mortal sins and venial sins. The slight failings, if you could call them that, what are they for you? Are they sins?

Answer: According to Catholic teaching, sin is sub-divided into greater sins, called mortal, and lesser sins, called venial (from Latin venia meaning pardon). Mortal sin is a grievous offense against the law of God. This sin is called mortal because it deprives of spiritual life and brings everlasting death and damnation on the soul. Venial sin is a slight offense against the law of God in matters of less importance, or in matters of great importance it is an offense committed without sufficient reflection or full consent of the will. Venial sin weakens the individual but it does not deprive him of spiritual life. There is no obligation to confess venial sins, which can be remitted through penance, attending mass and purgatory.

Catholic theologians appeal to the first epistle of John for biblical support for the distinction between mortal and venial sins: “If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death” (1 John 5:16,17). However, it can be shown that this passage does not prove the Catholic doctrine. Protestant author H.M. Carson explains:

“It will not do to appeal to the apostle John who speaks of ‘a sin unto death’ for this would prove too much. A mortal sin for Rome is one which can be forgiven, and for which therefore pardon should be sought. But the sin of which John speaks is one of such a serious character that he cannot even ask his hearers to pray for one who is guilty of it. It would seem therefore that he is referring to such a sin as apostasy, or final and persistent impenitence - the sin against the Holy Spirit for which the Lord says there is no forgiveness - and this is, in fact, recognized in the note in the Douay Version” (Carson H.M, Roman Catholicism Today, IVF, 1964, p. 93).

We readily admit that every sin is not equally serious and wicked, and that there will be degrees of punishment in hell (Luke 12:47,48). Murder is worse than an angry word; adultery is worse than a lustful look. However it is misleading to classify murder and adultery as mortal sins, while anger and a lustful look are classifed ‘venial’ - as if they are not sufficiently serious to be punishable in hell. I read a Catholic apologist who argues: “Denying this would be tantamount to saying that a white lie or a momentary pang of jealousy or lust (especially if unrepented of) is the moral equivalent in God's eyes of a torture, rape, and murder.”

Momentary lust may not be the strict moral equivalent of rape, but according to Jesus, the consequences of the lesser sin is not some sort of ‘temporal punishment.’ The consequences are eternal, just as it is for adultery. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:27-29).

The idea of venial sin may be very appealing since we always tend to minimize the seriousness of sin. Murder is definitely a mortal sin; being angry and calling someone a fool during a brawl would probably be classified "venial" by many Catholics. Again, we would do well to listen to Jesus for a proper evaluation of the seriousness of sin, rather than the wisdom of man: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:21,22). You need not murder to be in danger of damnation; it is enough to call your brother a fool to end up in hell.

Away with this dangerous idea of mortal and non-mortal sins! The wages of sin, whatever it may be, is death! A white lie is a lie nonetheless, whatever its particular colour. Pinching an object from the Supermarket and an organized bank robbery, both fall under the same category of stealing, the breaking of the eight commandment. Sin, any sin, is the defiance of the authority of God Almighty, and that’s what makes sin so serious.

Who knows how many Catholics are deceived by this dangerous and unbiblical doctrine about venial sins? They go about excusing themselves, indulging in ‘venial’ sins, falsely believing that they are not punishable by death and that they can remitted by a few acts of penance and the like. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

Evangelical Christians take a very serious view of sin. To be sure, we often sin, sometimes very gravely. We have no delusions that we have arrived and we confess our sins daily to the heavenly Father, as our Lord taught us. Conscious of the redemptive work of Christ on our behalf, we strive to live in the light of righteousness and truth. “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7-9).

The believer escapes the condemnation of hell not because he is sinless or because his sins are venial or light. He is saved from the eternal punishment he deserves because the blood of Jesus Christ keeps on cleansing him from all sin. Christians do not measure the weight of sin by penance, saying a few prayers, deeds of charity and attending church. The gravity of sin is measured by the price paid for our cleansing - the precious blood of Jesus! Therefore we avoid it like plague. We have been brought with a price and our heart’s desire is to glorify the God who loved us so much.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi