A couple of posts back I quoted a view that the concept of a difference between mortal and venial sins isn’t Biblical. We’ll now turn to the most explicit passage of Scripture that specifically says, yes it is.
We already reviewed this passage in the context of whether a person can lose their salvation where St. John writes in 1 John 5:13 that “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”(NRSVCE) As reviewed in that post, it’s most important to know what “these things” are that St. John has written. It’s also quite important to read further in the text. 1 John 5:13-17 says this: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.” (NRSVCE)
I remember the first time I was directed to this passage after having been told by someone that Catholics were not Biblical in our view of mortal and venial sin. It was fairly early in my journey of exploring the Biblical roots of my Catholic faith, and it confirmed in me the need to press onward and not just accept someone’s assertion that Catholic teachings weren’t Biblical. I remember thinking to myself, how could somebody have missed that?
Regardless of how someone could miss that, there it was staring me in the face. St. John clearly states that there is sin that is mortal, and sin that is not, putting Sacred Scripture solidly aligned in the Catholic camp on this topic.
John MacArthur in his study Bible here returns to the view that this passage is speaking about physical death, and in the camp of those who believe that once-saved, always-saved, that appears to be the only possible way to explain the passage. Life experience alone would cause me to reject the idea that God deliberately ends the life of Christians who persist in sin. Death comes to us all, at different times and stages of life and is no discriminator based upon how well one is walking with Christ.
The puzzling aspect of this passage is St. John’s instruction to pray for one whose sin is not mortal, but regarding those whose sin is mortal, he has a different view. He doesn’t tell us that we shouldn’t pray for them, but he does say that he’s not telling us to pray about it. At least that is what he seems to say on the surface, and it is a passage that seems to equally puzzle scholars no matter what you interpret “mortal” to mean. I don’t know that there is a clear-cut answer, but there are certainly some thoughts that can help shed some light on what St. John may mean.
Let’s return for a bit to the vine and the branch analogy I’ve mentioned before (John 15:1-8). When we become united to Christ by faith, we are alive in that faith because of the life flowing from the vine. St. Paul uses a similar analogy when he talks about the “body” of Christ and how we are all members of the same body, of which Christ is the head (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Colossians 1:18).
Consider what happens in my body if I cut my finger. My body is equipped with built-in healing processes whereby other parts of the body rush to aid of the injured member. My blood vessel walls narrow to help stop the flow of blood. Platelets rush to the site. Proteins in my blood act like glue to help form a clot to stop the bleeding. White blood cells head to the scene to clear out bacteria and germs to prevent infection. Blood cells show up to start to build new skin, providing the oxygen and nutrients it needs to heal and grow.
As members of the one body, we have the ability to provide healing and strength, or what St. John refers to as “life” in a unique and special way to each other. It is a sharing of our common life of faith attached to the vine that can help to strengthen the overall health of all the branches. Sin is very much like an injury to a part of our body. It impacts the one who sins, but also can spread like a virus throughout the body if the body’s natural defenses are sleeping on the job. But just like our body, we have the defenses we need to combat the wound and infection. St. John tells us “And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal.” (1 John 5:14-16 NRSVCE) We know that the healing of someone who has sinned is always within the will of God. We also know that while attached to the body, by our prayer we can help to bring the necessary healing to the wounded member. So indeed, pray about that St. John says.
Consider though what happens if my finger is completely severed from my body. It quickly becomes lifeless, like a branch that has been cut off from the vine. No amount of natural healing can occur for the severed finger because it’s been cut off from everything that gave it life and the ability to heal. Something radical has to be done whereby the finger can be reattached, the branch has to be grafted into the vine again in order to again receive the flow of life.
So is St. John literally telling us not to pray for such a person? Nobody interprets the passage that way. But he is making a strong statement that we should recognize the grave difference between venial and mortal sin and their consequences, and our prayers about mortal sin can’t help to repair the damage that has been done to a member of the body in the same way. They have chosen to no longer be a part of the body and have lost the associated benefits of that relationship. In future posts I will cover the Biblical roots of the sacrament of Reconciliation, but for now suffice it to say that in the Catholic world it is the normal method of reuniting those to Christ’s body who have severed themselves. So indeed, we pray for the grace of conversion for them, that they may seek that reconciliation.
Before I leave this topic, I want to remind us that in the world of those who view the Bible as their sole authority, the question of whether or not a person can lose their salvation is a strongly debated issue. I mentioned this in a previous post, but I’ll replay it here. Of course those groups that align with Calvinism like Presbyterians and Reformed Churches believe in the Perseverance of the Saints. But we also see many Baptists (including Southern Baptists), many Evangelicals, and some Pentecostals who believe the doctrine of Eternal Security. On the other side we see groups like Lutherans, General Baptists, Free Will Baptists, the Church of Christ, the Amish, Mennonites, Methodists, and other Pentecostals like the Assembly of God who reject a “once-saved, always-saved” theology.
The other thing I hope has become clear is that all groups can tend to filter Scripture though a particular lens. For the Calvinist who believes we have no free will in matters of salvation, the Scriptures on predestination speak to that; others see a different meaning. In reviewing John MacArthur’s study Bible regarding whether one can lose their salvation, all verses are interpreted to point to the view that you can’t. Therefore, any verse than seems to indicate you can fall from grace is to be understood that this can’t be talking about a “true” believer. Any verse that indicates sin can cause death has to refer to “physical” death, unless it’s clearly isn’t. Then it again must be speaking about someone who was not a “true” believer. For those groups who would believe you can lose your salvation, those verses are seen in a different light, through a different “lens.” It will be quite a while before I address the topic of what the Bible says about authority. For now I’ll just say that from the Catholic perspective it’s for just such questions as these it is necessary, and has been provided.