Closely related to our understanding that a person who was once a member of the body of Christ can be severed and “lose” their salvation is an understanding of whether certain sins will result in this separation. For all of those Christian groups who do not profess a doctrine of Once-Saved, Always Saved or in Calvin’s terms the Perseverance of the Saints, the answer to this question has to be yes. There are certain sins that will result in our voluntary separation from Christ. In the Catholic world we refer to those as mortal sins, as opposed to lesser, venial sins.
The Catechism offers this insight into the Catholic view:
CCC1854 Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture, became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.
CCC1855 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.
CCC1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us – that is, charity – necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation
CCC1857 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.“
The last paragraph tell us that we don’t “accidentally” fall into mortal sin. What constitutes “full knowledge and deliberate consent” is something each of us had to honestly evaluate in our own lives. It can be easy to make excuses when it comes to our own behavior and the behavior of those we love. Suffice it to say that if a person, through no fault of their own really doesn’t know that a certain choice constitutes “grave matter,” they have not fallen into mortal sin. In terms of deliberate consent, only God can really be the judge of that. We must always be on guard however that we haven’t created a situation where we have fooled ourselves.
Those who profess a belief in the Perseverance of the Saints, or Once-Saved, Always-Saved reject the idea that some sins could have that kind of effect and others not. Keep in mind that there is a fairly equal divide on this question within those groups who view the Bible as their sole authority.
Here’s an example of their perspective I ran across:
My son-in-law leads a local group of Fellowship of Christian Athletes. One of the Catholic girls expressed her belief that there are big and small sins. He knows that all sin is sin and must be repented of and confessed. He said they would talk about it this Sunday.
Do you have some special teaching or insight that would make it clear to her what the truth really is? Thank you so much for your help.
Your son-in-law’s friend is repeating a Catholic belief in two levels of sin. According to Catholic doctrine there are venial sins which don’t lead to death and mortal sins which do lead to death. Both must be forgiven by a priest, usually with some penance thrown in. Venial sin that hasn’t been confessed before death must be worked off in purgatory. Mortal sin can’t be worked off in purgatory and will condemn a Catholic believer to Hell.
Obviously this distinction between types of sin isn’t Biblical nor is the notion of Purgatory. The best way to handle this is to show that the Bible considers all sin to be mortal (the wages of sin is death. Romans 6:23) and only through the death of Jesus can our sins be forgiven, but He can forgive even mortal sin if we have truly given our heart to Him. Romans 8:1 clearly says that there’s no condemnation for those who trust in Christ Jesus.
My prayer is that all of our young Catholics, if not prepared at the time to answer such a challenge to their faith at least have the resources and desire to earnestly seek the answer and not just accept another’s faith tradition simply because it is presented as “the” Biblical view.
Setting aside the Biblical understanding of Purgatory for a time, we’ll look closely at whether the distinction between types of sins is Biblical or not. From the Catholic perspective it is clearly Biblical. And there is no question in our mind that Jesus can forgive mortal sin – of course he can! The question is whether such sins exist and are revealed in Sacred Scripture.
In one sense, I think we instinctively know this. Consider a person who is running short of paper for their home printer, and takes a ream from their office. That is clearly theft, and a sin. But is it the same as murdering someone? Few would say yes, but there are those who profess in the eyes of God it is the same for all sins are equal. In our hearts I think we know there is a difference.
Regarding Romans 6:23, where St. Paul says that “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” as a Catholic I would understand that to be referring to our state before we become a member of the body of Christ at all. When we’re speaking of a mortal sin we’re referring to those who have become united to Christ and are in the body of Christ. And for these, while all sins damage our relationship to God in some way, we would contend that there are some sins that can completely severe it, bringing death to the soul. “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself.” (CCC1861)
My next post will delve into the Scriptural basis for this understanding.