The Protestant Rejection of Mortal and Venial Sin

The following is Essay 02 of a new essay series that I am working on titled “The Mortal Sin of Protestantism: How Eve Proves the Doctrine of Venial Sin”.

In the first essay of this series, namely “The Doctrine of Mortal and Venial Sin”, it was explained that Catholic doctrine teaches that whereas a mortal sin is one which is of such gravity that it separates a person from God and leads to spiritual death and condemnation to hell if not repented of, a venial sin is a less grave sin which does not lead to spiritual death and condemnation. At the same time, in that essay, it was also claimed that nearly all Christian denominations of the Protestant variety reject the distinction between mortal and venial sin. And now, in this essay, that latter claim will be expanded upon and substantiated.

So, in order to demonstrate that most Protestant denominations do indeed reject the Catholic doctrine of mortal and venial sin, let us consider, first, the information provided by a popular evangelical and non-denominational Protestant website called ‘gotquestions.org’. In their article “Does the Bible teach mortal and venial sin?”—which was accessed on the 24th of April 2017—the article’s author clearly answers this question in the negative, and the article affirms that the doctrine of mortal and venial sin is not accepted by most Protestants. Specifically, the article says the following:

[Quote] The Roman Catholic Church divides sin into two categories, mortal sin and venial sin. The issue of sin as the Bible teaches it is one of the most fundamental aspects of understanding life with God and what it means to know Him. As we walk through this life, we must know how to respond biblically to our own sin and the manifestations of humankind’s sinfulness that we encounter moment by moment, day by day. The consequences of not having a biblical understanding of sin and, thus, not responding to sin accordingly, are devastating beyond words. … Over and against the concepts of mortal and venial sin, the Bible does not state that some sins are worthy of eternal death whereas others are not. All sins are mortal sins in that even one sin makes the offender worthy of eternal separation from God. … Based on the above biblical truth, the concepts of mortal and venial sin are not biblical and should be rejected. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, https://www.gotquestions.org/mortal-sin-venial.html%5D

So, this is one popular and well-used source which articulates the fact that Protestants reject the concepts of mortal and venial sin.

Next, let us examine the very important Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1647, which concurs with the rejection of the doctrine of mortal and venial sin when it states the following within its pages:

[Quote] Chapter 6, Point 6 – Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.

Chapter 15, Point 4 – As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds3.iv.xvii.ii.html%5D

So, from the above, it is clear that even historically, many Protestant denominations reject the distinction between mortal and venial sins, and they claim, at least officially, that every sin, no matter how small, leads to spiritual death and deserves damnation.

Finally, let us also look at a 10th of November 2011 ‘calledtocommunion.com’ article by former-Protestant-turned-Catholic Dr. Bryan Cross titled “Why John Calvin did not Recognize the Distinction Between Moral and Venial Sin”, which was accessed on the 24th of April 2017. This article—an article which bases its assertions directly on what John Calvin himself said in his Institutes (in particular, Institutes II.8.59 and Institutes III.4.28)—states the following concerning mortal and venial sin:

[Quote] Catholics and Protestants agree on many points regarding sin, but the Catholic Church makes a distinction generally not found in Protestant theologies: the distinction between mortal and venial sin. John Calvin rejected the distinction between mortal and venial sin, and Protestantism has largely followed Calvin on this point. Calvin rejected it because he did not see it clearly laid out in Scripture, and also because he viewed sin primarily in legal terms. For Calvin, all sin is a rebellion against God’s law, and therefore deserving of eternal punishment. Therefore for Calvin all sin committed by those who have come to faith in Christ is mortal sin in what it deserves, but is venial in the sense that it is covered by the merits of Christ, so that those who have come to faith never lose their justification.

            …

The substance of Calvin’s argument is that all sin is a violation of God’s law, and is therefore a rebellion against the will of God. But the wages of any rebellion against God’s will is eternal death, and therefore all sin is mortal sin. The sins of the saints are all venial only in the sense that though each sin deserves eternal condemnation, yet on account of the righteousness of Christ having been imputed to the saints, none of their sins is in effect mortal. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2011/11/why-john-calvin-did-not-recognize-the-distinction-between-mortal-and-venial-sin/%5D

Thus again, this is yet another source which notes the fact that Protestant denominations reject the distinction between mortal and venial sin in the way that Catholic doctrine understands that distinction. Indeed, as Cross explains, John Calvin viewed all sins as mortal, but Christians were saved from the effects of these mortal sins through Christ, and thus for Christians, their sins were only “venial” in that sense. By contrast, for non-Christians, all sins are mortal. So this is how Jon Calvin understood sin, and most Protestant denominations followed Calvin in this understanding. But this is, of course, different from the Catholic doctrine, which holds that both Christians and non-Christians alike can commit either mortal sins or venial ones; indeed, according to Catholic doctrine—as explained in the last essay—Christians, as Christians, can commit mortal sins and become separated from God if those sins are not repented of. At the same time, Christians might also commit venial sins, but nevertheless not be separated from God for such non-mortal sins. But either way, the key point is that Protestants ultimately reject the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins.

Now, in light of the above, it is also worth mentioning—as Cross himself hints at—that for certain Protestant denominations, this rejection of the distinction between mortal and venial sin is partly due to other Protestant doctrines, such as the doctrine of ‘eternal assurance’ and/or ‘salvation by faith alone’. Indeed, due to these other doctrines—and as already noted—many Protestants consider all sins committed by a true Christian to be essentially ‘venial’ in nature given the popular (but by no means universal) Protestant doctrine that a Christian is always saved regardless of what he does; at the same time, for the non-Christian, the Protestant views all their sins, no matter how minor, as essentially mortal in nature and thus leading to spiritual death unless the non-Christian is eventually saved. So these other Protestant doctrines influence the reasoning behind the rejection of the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. And the reason that this is important to note is because if the doctrine of mortal and venial sin is shown to actually be a biblical doctrine, then this could have a blow-back effect on these other doctrines as well.

Finally, it is also worth mentioning that though Protestants officially disavow the formal doctrine of mortal and venial sin, it is important to note that certain Protestant groups have, for all practical purposes, a similar distinction in their theology. For example, certain Protestants sometimes use the word ‘back-sliding’ to denote something akin to mortal sins, and they use the term ‘stumbling’ to articulate the idea of a venial type of sin. Now, when these two terms are understood in the context of a person advancing towards the goal of greater and greater holiness, it is possible to understand why they mirror the idea of mortal sin and venial. After all, to ‘back-slide’ on the path to holiness is to actually move away from God and greater holiness; by contrast, to simply ‘stumble’ means to fall and be delayed in your move towards God and greater holiness, but not to actually move away from holiness itself. Therefore, the ‘stumbler’ does not lose the closeness to God that he already has. Now, while this Protestant idea of ‘back-sliding’ and ‘stumbling’ are not identical to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, they are similar enough to make one realize that even certain Protestants accept, in some way, a distinction between degrees of sinful actions, and the fact that they do so should be a clue that the Catholic doctrine of mortal and venial sin is neither strange, nor necessarily far-fetched, nor obviously unbiblical.

And so, while there are certainly some peripheral issues to consider when it comes to Protestants and the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, in the end, it is clear that nearly all Protestants reject that doctrine. However, the critical question now becomes: Are Protestants correct in their rejection of this doctrine, or rather, are they, in fact, the ones who are rejecting a doctrine that is indeed Biblical and which can be supported through a clear Biblical example? And that is the key question that the rest of this work will seek to answer.

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