To resolve the question as to whether some sins are greater than others, we simply have to look to the words of Christ. When standing before Pilate to be condemned to death, Pilate asks Jesus, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” And Jesus in reply tells him that “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:10-11)
St. Paul has a great deal to say about sin and its consequences for believers. In Galatians 5:16-21 he issues a warning to an established community of believers that “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” We see similar warnings in Ephesians 5:3-6 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
St. James writes in James 1:12-16 “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.” He establishes a difference between sin at its “birth” and when it is full grown and causes death, or in other words, “mortal.” This is consistent with what we see in the catechism — “Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin” (CCC1863). His warning is why as Catholics we are taught to avoid even the “near occasion” of sin, and as we conclude our confession with the Act of Contrition, “I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” In other words, don’t deliberately put yourself in a situation you know has the potential to give birth to sin, whatever that may be in your particular circumstance.
John MacArthur has an interesting take on this verse in his study Bible. As one who believes that a true Christian can’t lose their salvation and therefore denies the possibility of mortal sin, his response to the idea that sin can bring forth death is that this isn’t referring to spiritual death for a believer, but physical death. Now I can certainly think of at least one example in Sacred Scripture where sin brought forth physical death. In Acts Chapter 5 Ananias and Sapphira hold back some money they received from selling a piece of property. Peter indicates the problem was not that they had reserved some money for themselves, but rather that they had lied to God, and both dropped dead on the spot. And there may be other cases in Sacred Scripture where sin brings forth physical death. But is this the norm in our life experience? Do we expect sin to bring forth immediate physical death, and do we act as though we do? Not that I can really see.
MacArthur’s view becomes more problematic when you continue in St. James’ letter. In James 5:19-20 he states “My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” There is no option here to interpret this to mean physical death. MacArthur reverts back to the view that this passage is not talking about “true” believers but rather those with a “dead faith.” But does the passage support that? James speaks of someone who “wanders from the truth” that you would “bring back.” This implies they indeed at one time were living in the truth. If not, what are you bringing them back to – a dead faith? That doesn’t make a great deal of sense.
In my next post we’ll consider one of the clearest indicators in Sacred Scripture that mortal sin exists, and also one of the more puzzling.