The Scriptural Support for Mortal and Venial Sin: James 1:12-15

The following is Essay 06 of a new essay series that I am working on titled “The Mortal Sin of Protestantism: How Eve Proves the Doctrine of Venial Sin”. Please note that while I am, in fact, very sympathetic to Protestantism, and I am arguably more Protestant than Catholic in personality, when it comes to the matter of mortal and venial sin–which is a matter that I have been thinking about for some time now–I simply see the arguments falling on the side of the Catholic doctrine of mortal and venial sin. Hence this essay series. 

In the previous essay in this essay series, scriptural passage 1 John 5:16-17 was focused on as being a passage which can be seen as supporting the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. But 1 John 5:16-17 is not the only scriptural passage that can be used for this purpose, for James 1:12-15 is also a passage which can be interpreted as supporting the aforementioned doctrine. Indeed, as this essay will argue, James 1:12-15 is actually just as powerful of a scriptural support for the doctrine of mortal and venial sin as 1 John 5:16-17 is. And to understand why, first consider James 1:12-15:

[Quote] Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under 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 being 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 fully grown brings forth death. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, James 1:12-15, English Standard Version]

In addition to the above, note as well that the New American Standard Version of the New Testament translates James 1:15 as saying the following: “Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished [or , alternatively, when sin is “is brought to completion”], it brings forth death.”

Notice that in these verses there is a clear and unmistakable differentiation between sins, for James 1:12-15 states that a desire or lust being conceived merely gives birth to a sin, but only when the sin is “fully-grown” or “brought to completion” does that sin actually bring forth death. Thus, only a fully-grown sin brings death, whereas a birthed sin, though still a sin, does not bring forth death. And note that there also appears to be little-to-no interpretative wiggle-room concerning this passage, for the passage is clear that only a fully-grown or accomplished sin brings forth death; and this, in turn, clearly implies that a non-fully-grown sin does not bring forth death, even though it is nevertheless still a sin. Now, if the death that is being spoken of in James 1:12-15 is spiritual death, then James 1:12-15 literally means that only fully-grown (or fully accomplished) sins lead to spiritual death, whereas non-fully-grown sins do not lead to spiritual death. Yet this is exactly what the doctrine of mortal and venial sin teaches. Consequently, if James 1:12-15 is referring to spiritual death—a matter which shall be examined below—then it is a passage which provides very strong scriptural support for the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.

Now, this idea of a difference between fully-grown sins and non-fully-grown sins may seem strange, but it is, in fact, not. In fact, when reflected upon for a few moments, this distinction is quite obvious and commonsensical. Consider, for example, that Jesus, in Matthew 5:27-30, says that a man who looks at a woman lustfully and imagines engaging in sexual relations with that woman is committing adultery with the woman in his heart, which is a sin. But obviously, the person has nevertheless not yet committed adultery with the woman in a physical sense. Thus, the person’s sin is not fully-grown. The lust for the woman has been conceived and has given birth to sin, but the sin is not fully-grown because the lust for adultery has not yet grown into actual physical adultery; if it had, then the sin would be accomplished and brought to completion. Or, for a different example, consider a case of murder. An individual might vividly imagine murdering someone, and plan out every detail of the murder in his mind, live the moment in his head, and relish the imaginary feeling of killing the other person. And such a desire is no doubt a sin. Nevertheless, the murder itself has not been brought to completion. The desire and lust for murder is there, but the murder itself has not be accomplished in any real physical sense. Thus, murder has been conceived in the mind, and this is a sin, but the sin is not fully-grown or accomplished, because no murder actually happened. So, from these two examples—and there could be many more—it is possible to understand the difference between a sin that has just been conceived but is not fully-grown, and a sin that has been fully-grown and brought to completion.

Spiritual Death or Earthly Death

Now, as was the case with 1 John 5:16-17, the Protestant, in this case, could claim that James 1:12-15 is referring to an earthly physical death, not a spiritual death. But such an interpretation is neither plausible nor supported. And there are a number of reasons why this is the case.

First, consider the context of James 1. The context, although not definitive, strongly indicates that the discussion in that chapter concerns spiritual life and death, not earthly life and death. For example, James 1:12 states that the man who remains steadfast under earthly trial and testing will receive the crown of life, which is referring to eternal and spiritual life. After all, human beings do not receive the crown of indefinite and continuous life in this earthly life, for all humans die an earthly death. But in the next life, such a crown of life is potentially received, and so James 1:12 is most plausibly referring to spiritual life in the future when it talks about the ‘crown of life’. Furthermore, the fact that Revelation 2:10 also clearly speaks of the crown of life as being of a spiritual nature lends additional support to the above interpretation of James 1:12. At the same time, James 1:21 speaks of saving souls, which again points towards the issue of spiritual life, not earthly life. Thus, the context surrounding James 1:12-15 concerns spiritual life, not earthly life, and so this supports the claim that James 1:12-15 is dealing with spiritual life and death, not earthly life and death.

While the contextual issue noted above is important, the second reason to see James 1:12-15 as referring to spiritual death over earthly death is philosophical and commonsensical, rather than scriptural. After all, consider that many individuals have brought sins such as murder and adultery to full completion, and yet these individuals—whether believers or unbelievers—do not die an immediate earthly death from their completion of these fully-grown sins. Now, of course, the proponent of the earthly death interpretation, such as the Protestant, might claim that such an earthly death for fully completed sins need not be immediate, even though this claim seems in tension with some of the earthly death examples that Protestants often point to, such as Acts 5:1-10. But nevertheless, even if the Protestant simply means that an earthly death will occur at some point in the future for fully completed sins, then a problem still arises. And this problem is that such a claim is trivially true, and is thus uninformative. After all, God, whether directly or indirectly, ultimately brings about the death of all individuals at some point in time, so the Protestant’s claim is true, but uninteresting. Furthermore, under the assumption that the writer of James 1:12-15 was not a fool—a safe assumption—the fact that the writer’s claim would be merely trivially true under such a Protestant interpretation of it is itself grounds to doubt that interpretation, for it is doubtful that the writer of James 1:12-15 would merely want to point out a trivial truth in a scriptural passage which is clearly and expressly trying to point out an important distinction between sins. So, the trivially-true interpretation of James 1:12-15 is not very plausible. Additionally, there are commonsensical problems on the opposite side of this equation as well. For example, newborn infants die earthly deaths, and yet infants have neither conceived of sin, nor desire sin, nor have they ever brought sins to completion. But if fully-grown sins are the things that bring forth death, then why do infants die earthly deaths if they have never brought any sins to completion. And note that in James 1:14, the writer states that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire”, which indicates that the writer of James 1:14 was applying his point broadly and to most people. Thus, the point is that when a number of considerations are looked at concerning James 1:12-15, there are indeed philosophical and commonsensical tensions when that passage is read under the earthly death interpretation; but these tensions dissipate when a spiritual death interpretation of James 1:12-15 is used.

Consequently, the least problematic way to read James 1:12-15—meaning the way that is most in-line with its scriptural context and with common-sense—is via the interpretation that death, in this case, means spiritual death, not earthly death. And this, in turn, means that it is eminently reasonable to believe that James 1:12-15 is teaching that while some sins (meaning fully-grown ones) lead to spiritual death, other sins (meaning non-fully-grown one) do not lead to spiritual death. But this is precisely what the doctrine of mortal and venial sin teaches. And it is also the opposite of what Protestants believe concerning the distinction between sins. Indeed, for if all sins brought forth spiritual death, then such a particular and specific description of a difference between sins—fully-grown sins versus non-fully-grown sins—would not be expected to be found in scripture. And yet such a distinction is right there in James 1:15, thereby meaning that this fact counts as evidence in favor of the doctrine that differentiates between mortal and venial sin. So, James 1:15 is, in essence, a verse which can be interpreted as strongly supporting the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.

Conclusion

And so, from both 1 John 5:16-17 and James 1:12-15, it is possible to see that the Catholic doctrine of mortal and venial sin is not without direct Biblical support; granted, the interpretation of these two scriptural passages can be disputed, but the point is that the Catholic can readily point to such verses in order to support the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. In fact, and as has been argued, in both the case of 1 John 5:16-17 and James 1:12-15, the Catholic interpretation of these passages is the most plausible and reasonable. Thus, even without touching on the Biblical example of Adam and Eve, there are still solid Biblical reasons to accept the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.

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