How do we define “sin”? That’s pretty easy. Sin is rebellion against God. A Bible Christian would rightly say that any thought, action, or act of omission that defies God’s will as revealed in His Word is a sin.
But Roman Catholicism draws a distinction between major or “mortal” sins and lesser or “venial” (Latin: venialis – pardonable) sins. If a Catholic dies with any unconfessed mortal sin on their soul, they are told they will be sent to Hell. If they die with only venial sins, they will be sent to Purgatory to be cleansed before proceeding to Heaven.
So what’s the difference between mortal and venial sins? Catholicism teaches that for a sin to be mortal it must meet the following three conditions:
- Its subject must be a grave (or serious) matter. The Ten Commandments define grave matter.
- It must be committed with full knowledge, both of the sin and of the gravity of the offense.
- It must be committed with deliberate and complete consent, enough for it to have been a personal decision to commit the sin.
Examples of mortal sins include premeditated murder, purposely missing obligatory mass on Sunday, adultery, and stealing a large sum of money.
Examples of venial sins would be saying the Lord’s name in a fit of anger, nagging a spouse, smoking cigarettes, and stealing an inexpensive item.
Of course, the distinctions between mortal and venial sins get very hazy, very quickly. At what dollar amount does an inexpensive item become an expensive one? At what point does nagging become psychological abuse? When watching an R-rated movie with nudity, when does more-than-casual interest drift into unmitigated lust?
So, why does Catholicism distinguish between major and minor sins? Church father, Tertullian*, introduced the distinction between mortal and venial sins in the latter half of the second century. As the early church became increasingly institutionalized, simple, saving faith in Jesus Christ as Savior devolved into ritual and religious legalism controlled by the increasingly powerful clergy and corresponding changes in doctrine were required. If ALL sin was deadly to the soul, as the Bible teaches, then no one could possibly earn their salvation. By grading sin, it was postulated that people could successfully merit their way into Heaven with the help of the clerics. Over time, sin became even less deadly. The Jesuits are infamous for introducing the concept of “casuistry.” Using this intellectual sophistry, a person could commit even a mortal sin without any guilt if they had made a reservation in their mind that the sinful action would result in a moral good. Needless to say, Catholics flocked to Jesuit confessors because much of their mortal sin could be rationalized away.
In contrast to Rome’s teaching, the Bible teaches ALL sin is deadly. We aren’t sinners because we sin, we sin because we’re sinners. Yes, all of us are sinners and we all deserve eternal punishment. But God loves us so much He sent Jesus Christ, God the Son, to pay the penalty for our sins on the cross. But He rose from the grave, defeating sin and death, and offers eternal life and fellowship with God to all who accept Him as Savior by faith.
But aren’t there some Bible verses that talk about the “sin unto death”? Yup, but they’re not talking about the “mortal” sin of Catholicism. See here. But doesn’t the Bible talk about some sins being worse than others and meriting greater punishment? Yup, but sin is still sin. See here.
Catholics are walking a religious tightrope and are hoping by their efforts they can merit Heaven. The Catholic doctrine of mortal and venial sin gives Catholics the false hope that they can earn their way into Heaven. Because of this system, many Catholics seek to justify themselves, declaring something along the lines of, “I might not be perfect but at least I’ve never killed anyone or sold drugs to children.” But God’s Word declares all of us are sinners to the core and none of us can possibly earn Heaven. Even the good things that we do are often motivated by sinful intentions.
“As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’” – Romans 3:10-12
Like the thief on the cross without a single plea, accept Jesus Christ as your Savior by faith. Once you have repented of your sins and accepted Christ, then you can follow Him as Lord of your life.
“Whoever believes (Greek: pisteuo – to believe, put one’s faith in, trust, with an implication that actions based on that trust may follow) in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:18
* Webster, William. The Church of Rome at the Bar of History (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), p. 104.