The following is Essay 09 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.
Although the whole set of essays in this essay series has argued for the reality and scriptural-nature of the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, the truth is that there still remain some scriptural passages that are used as objections to this doctrine. In particular, there are three such scriptural passages that need to be examined: James 2:10, Isaiah 59:2, and Romans 6:23. And so, let us consider each of these in turn.
Objection 1 – James 2:10
Arguably, the main scriptural objection that is offered by Protestants against the doctrine of venial sin stems from James 2:10. Indeed, James 2:10 is the Protestant’s go-to verse to counter the legitimacy of the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. And, in the English Standard Version, James 2:10 says the following:
[Quote] For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. [Unquote, English Standard Version, James 2:10]
Now, the reason why this verse is used against the doctrine of venial sin is obvious. After all, this specific verse does seem to suggest that all sin is the same given that it claims that even failing on one point of the law means that the whole law is transgressed. Thus, one sin is the same as any other, and so there is no difference in kind between sins. And, if such an interpretation of James 2:10 was correct, then the doctrine of mortal and venial sin would be mistaken.
However, right off the bat, we should ask ourselves if the Protestant interpretation of James 2:10 is the correct one. And the reason for this query is because when James 2:10 is read in its full context, not only does that passage not harm the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, but it actually provides further support for that specific doctrine. Now, to see why this is the case, let us examine James 2:10 in context, which means that we need to look at James 2:8-13 as a whole. Thus, in the English Standard Version, here is James 2:8-13:
[Quote] If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgement is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgement. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, James 2:8-13, English Standard Version]
So, on its own, James 2:10 says that ‘whoever breaks one point of the law breaks the whole law’. And again, such a passage does seem to argue against the idea that there is a distinction between sins. However, when that verse is read in context—as seen above—it suddenly becomes clear that the author of the Book of James, in James 2:10, is actually speaking of a specific law, namely the royal law. Indeed, it is clear that James 2:10 is connected to James 2:8, which is the verse that mentions the royal law, and so the law that James 2:10 is speaking of is the royal law found in James 2:8. Thus, it is the case that in these verses, when James is speaking of the ‘law’, he is speaking of the specific ‘royal law’, but not necessarily the whole law in its absolute totality. And it is this precise point which is critical; it is also the critical point which actually serves to support the division between mortal and venial sin, for, as will be argued, the royal law is actually best understood as a law which deals with mortal sins, not venial ones.
So, it is the fact that James 2:8-13 is referring to the royal law which removes James 2:10 as an objection against the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. And now let us examine in detail why this is so.
Reason 1 – The Types of Law & Sins Mentioned in James 2:8-13
In order to see how this ‘royal law’ distinction actually serves to support the idea of mortal and venial sin, consider, first, that the author of the Book of James specifically tells us that the royal law is that ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. Thus, to sin against one aspect of that specific law is to sin against all of it. But then notice that immediately after mentioning that to sin against one aspect of the royal law is to sin against all of it, the author of the Book of James lists some sins that breach that law. Indeed, James lists both the sins of murder and adultery, and then compares and contrasts them, saying that to commit one of these sins is to breach the whole law. But for the Catholic, this point is perfectly in-line with the Catholic doctrine of mortal and venial sin. After all, for the Catholic, both murder and adultery—and other serious sins like them—are considered mortal sins; furthermore, the Catholic agrees with the fact that to commit one mortal sin is like committing any other mortal sin in terms of its effects on a person, and so the Catholic has no problem endorsing what the author of the Book of James says. Indeed, the Catholic agrees that to break the law of mortal sin in one aspect is to break the law of mortal sin in all aspects.
Now, from the full context of James 2:8-13—namely, the specific use of murder, adultery, and partiality as examples of sin, as well as the fact that the royal law is explicitly concerned with breaches of the command to love your neighbor as yourself—a solid case can thus be made that the royal law is actually concerned with sins that involve a ‘grave’ matter, which is a key component used to determine if a sin is mortal or not. But if this is the case, then the Catholic proponent of mortal and venial sin truly has no problem with James 2:10. Because if all James 2:10 means is that the whole royal law can be breached by committing a grave sin, regardless of what grave sin it is, then this idea is completely in agreement with the Catholic idea of mortal sin, for to commit one mortal sin is like committing any other mortal sin in terms of its effects on a person.
Additionally, to augment the idea that James 2:8-13 is speaking about what the Catholic would consider to be grave sins, and not just venial ones, note that all the examples given in James 2:8-13 do indeed concern sins that deal with grave matters. After all, James does not, for example, compare some extremely petty theft done out of necessity to a grand robbery done with malicious intent as his example that breaking one part of the law serves to break the whole law. Rather, as noted, James only equates certain sins together: namely, murder, adultery, and partiality. But, just like James, the Catholic would also acknowledge that all these sins are the same, for they are all mortal sins. Consequently, the fact that James—under inspiration—could have compared a mortal sin to a venial one, but did not do so, and instead chose to compare various sins which are clearly mortal in nature, does provide some evidence in support of the idea that the royal law deals only with mortal sins, not venial ones. Furthermore, the fact that James only compares mortal sins together, also gives the Catholic reasonable grounds to claim that James 2:10 cannot be treated as a obvious scriptural objection to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, for it is by no means clear that James is including venial sins in his discussion of sin in James 2:8-13.
Reason 2 – Sinning Against Your Neighbor
Note that, as per James 2:8-13, the royal law concerns loving your neighbor as yourself. And so, as per James 2:10, to not love your neighbor as yourself in one specific way is to not love your neighbor in all specific ways. But now, in terms of its relation to the idea of mortal and venial sin, note that this law deals specifically with the sin of not loving your neighbor as yourself, but it does not refer to all potential sins. Indeed, for consider that while it is true that to fail to love your neighbor in one way is to fail to love your neighbor in all ways—and the proponent of mortal and venial sin would not deny this—that claim says nothing about all the other minor sins that a person can commit without sinning against a neighbor. For example, consider such sins as the following: 1) being a drunkard, which is a sin according to 1 Corinthians 6:10, but being a solitary drunkard who has no interaction with his neighbor when he is drunk; or 2) solitary cursing and swearing, which Colossians 3:8 tells Christians not to do; or 3) privately defacing, piercing, or dishonoring your own body, which, as per 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, is a temple of God and needs to be honored; or, 4) being alone and yet willfully and maliciously damaging some part of God’s creation, such as torturing an animal, which goes against such verses as Proverbs 12:10.
Additionally, note that not everyone is our neighbor. After all, in Matthew 5:43-44, Christ articulates the fact that people have both neighbors and enemies, and then Christ commands Christians to love their enemies (although, quite interestingly, Christians are not called on to love their enemies as themselves (as they are called on to do in the case of their neighbors), but rather, Christians are just to love their enemies, which is a critical difference). And further to the idea that not everyone is a Christian’s neighbor, note as well that an entirely reasonable interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which is found in Luke 10:25-37, shows us that not everyone is our neighbor; rather, those who treat us with love and compassion are our neighbors, but those who do not do so are not to be considered our neighbors. Now, when all of this is considered, note the following: given that Christians are called to love their enemies, and given that Christians can obviously still sin when dealing with both enemies and/or non-neighbors (for the two are not necessarily synonymous), then this means that there exist sins that can be committed against other people but which fall completely outside of the royal law of loving your neighbor as yourself. And this point is critical, for it means that there are sins which have nothing to do with the royal law, and to commit one of those types of sins does not breach the royal law at all.
Finally, it is also worth noting that if the author of the Book of James, when writing James 2:8-13, decided that it was important enough to specify that he was speaking about the royal law as opposed to just the law in general, then this fact, in and of itself, can serve as some evidence that James means for his readers to understand that there is a royal law that exists, but also a non-royal law that exists as well. But then, given that these are two separate laws, it is simple logic to realize that breaching the non-royal law does not logically or necessarily entail breaching the royal law. Thus, even breaching the whole royal law does not mean that you necessarily breach the non-royal law.
So, from the various paragraphs above, it is clear that there exist numerous sins which are still sins, but which have nothing to do with the royal law of loving your neighbor as yourself. Thus, to commit one of those types of sins does not breach the royal law, for those sins are not sins against your neighbor. But this difference is critical to the issue of James 2:10. Why? Because the scriptural warning in James 2:10, when read in context, is that to break one part of the royal law—meaning sinning against one’s neighbor—is tantamount to breaking the whole royal law; but this fact would obviously not apply to any sins that do not fall under the royal law. And, as noted, there are many such sins.
Thus, a properly contextualized reading of James 2:8-13 shows that the ‘whole law’ mentioned in James 2:10 does not mean all sins, but rather it only means all the sins specifically involving one’s neighbor. Therefore, while James 2:10 is correct that to commit one type of sin against your neighbor—such as murder or adultery—is like committing any other type of sin against your neighbor, that fact says nothing about non-neighbor related sins. After all, as has been demonstrated, the royal law does not and cannot refer to all possible sins. So, the ‘whole law’ in James 2:10 just means the law concerning sins against your neighbor. And so, in light of this fact, James 2:10 should actually be understood in the following manner: “For whoever keeps the whole royal law but fails in one point of the royal law has become accountable for all of the royal law.” Or, to make matter even more explicit, James 2:10 should be understood as follows: “For whoever keeps the whole law concerning loving your neighbor as yourself but fails in one point of the requirement to love your neighbor as yourself has become accountable for all of the law about loving your neighbor as yourself, but this does not include nor concern the laws and sins that are not related to the command of loving your neighbor as yourself.”
Now, with the distinctions above noted, and with James 2:10 properly understood in the context that it is supposed to be understood in, what all of the above means is that James 2:10 is entirely compatible with the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. Indeed, the proponent of mortal and venial sin has absolutely no problem admitting that breaking one aspect of the royal law is like breaking the whole law; in fact, and as previously mentioned, the proponent of mortal and venial sin already believes that to commit one type of mortal sin is the same, in consequence, as committing any other type of mortal sin, which is entirely congruent with James 2:10. At the same time, however, the proponent of mortal and venial sin can point to the fact that James 2:10, when understood in its context of referring only to the royal law, does nothing to negate the idea of mortal and venial sin, for even if all sins committed against the royal law are mortal sins, this does not mean that all sins committed against the non-royal-law are mortal sins, which thus leaves a completely legitimate opening for venial sins to enter the picture.
Reason 3 – Considering James 1:13-15
In addition to all of the above points, there is yet another reason to be suspicious of the claim that James 2:10 actually contradicts the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. And this suspicion arises from the fact that the same author who wrote James 2:10 also wrote James 1:12-15, which is a scriptural passage that strongly supports something like the doctrine of mortal and venial sin—a point which was argued for in essay six. Indeed, a solid case can be made that James 1:13-15—a set of verses which are obviously set before James 2:10—strongly supports the claim that there is a difference in kind between sins, with only fully developed sins leading to spiritual death, but with non-fully developed sin not leading to spiritual death. And this is precisely the type of distinction that exists in the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.
Consequently, the Protestant now has an important question to consider when reading James 2:10 as being against the idea of venial sin: namely, since it is safe to assume that the author of the Book of James was not an absolute fool who would have written two contradictory things right next to each other, then we must thus ask ourselves how to reconcile this scriptural tension between James 1:13-15 and James 2:10? One way would be to claim that the author of the Book of James was indeed a fool who wrote contradictory things, but such an answer would very likely not satisfy either Catholics or Protestants. Another answer—and the answer that Protestants would probably prefer—would be to deny that James 1:13-15 supports something like the doctrine of mortal and venial sin; however, as observed in essay six, a solid case can be made that James 1:13-15 does support something like that doctrine, and so this would be a difficult position to maintain. Next, it could be maintained that a full understanding of either James 1:13-15 or James 2:10 is simply not possible, and so we cannot draw any firm conclusions from these scriptural passages; but while such an answer might damage the proponent of mortal and venial sin by removing James 1:13-15 from his argumentative arsenal, this answer would be almost fatal to the Protestant, for it would mean that the Protestant could not use James 2:10 as a clear passage against the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. As such, this answer would not be good for the Protestant. Finally, the last answer is that to admit that James 2:10 is not opposed to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, like the Protestant claims it is. And here is the rub: in light of the distinction found in James 2:8-13 between the royal law and the non-royal law, and in light of how this distinction applies to James 2:10, then this last answer is arguably the best one. Indeed, once this ‘royal law’ distinction is taken into account, the tension between James 1:13-15 and James 2:10 is completely negated, for it can be understood that fully completed sins against the royal law, such as murder or adultery, do lead to spiritual death, whereas sins against the non-royal-law, or sins that are not yet fully completed, do not yet lead to spiritual death. And so, this fact once again supports the claim that the best way to understand James 2:10 is that it is only referring to fully completed sins which fall under the royal law—such as murder or adultery—rather than referring to all sins in general. And this interpretation of James 2:10 makes it eminently compatible with both the doctrine of mortal and venial sin and with James 1:13-15.
Reason 4 – Eve’s Sin
Another way to know that James 2:10 cannot refer to all sins has to do with what has been thoroughly discussed over the last two essays: namely, the issue of Eve’s first sin. Indeed, remember that, as argued for in the past two essays, it was shown that Eve, in the sinless Garden of Eden, sinned before Adam did; and yet, at the same time, Eve’s sin was not responsible for spiritual death entering the world nor did Eve lose her innocence nor suffer separation from God upon sinning.
Now, if it is true that James 2:10 refers to the whole law without qualification, and thus to all sins without qualification—thereby meaning that to commit one type of sin is to be guilty of all the different types of sin—then when Eve sinned in any way, she should have been guilty of all sins. But this, in turn, would have meant that Eve’s sin would have clearly been worthy of causing spiritual death and separation from God to enter the world based on her sin. And yet, as has been shown, that is not what happened. Eve’s sin did not bring spiritual death and separation from God into the world. After all, even though Eve sinned before Adam did, Eve’s sin was not the cause of original sin nor the cause of mankind’s separation from God. But what this means is that James 2:10 cannot refer to all sins, or else James 2:10 is contradicted by Eve’s own example.
However, since it is completely reasonable to understand James 2:10 as only referring to the whole of the royal law—which deals with loving your neighbor as yourself—then it is easy to show the compatibility of James 2:10 with the issue of Eve’s sin, for Eve’s sin was a solitary one, not one directed against her neighbor. And this, of course, shows that James 2:10 is readily compatible with the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. Furthermore, what this also shows is that while the proponent of mortal and venial sin can easily account for James 2:10 and Eve’s sin without contradiction or major problem, the opponent of venial sin has a great deal of trouble coherently accounting for how the Protestant interpretation of James 2:10 can deal with the issue of Eve’s sin without suffering from a contradiction or some serious scriptural tension.
Reason 5 – Ignoring the Royal Law
The final point to note concerning James 2:10 is that even if—for the sake of argument—it is denied that the idea of the royal law should apply to that verse, then that fact does nothing to show that James 2:10 necessarily contradicts all aspects of the doctrine and mortal and venial sin. Indeed, even if, for the sake of argument, it is accepted that the ‘whole law’ in James 2:10 applies to every sin—and so then to commit one sin is like committing all of them—this still does not mean that the doctrine of mortal and venial sin is completely overridden.
Consider that, for the sake of argument, every sin that a person could commit, no matter how small, concerns a grave matter, which, under the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, would make every such sin a potentially mortal sin that leads to spiritual death. Thus, to commit one sin, of any type, is like committing any other sin; this parallels the idea that to breach one aspect of the law is to breach the whole law. But even with this assumption, note that under the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, a sin can indeed be a sin that concerns a grave matter, but so long as a person lacks full knowledge of the sinful act or commits the sin without complete consent, then the sin will still be a venial one.
So, even if, for the sake of argument, every possible sin is deemed to concern a grave matter, this still does not mean that every sin is necessarily a mortal one which leads to spiritual death and a separation from God. And Eve’s first sin is a potential case-in-point of this fact. So, what this, in turn, means, is that the proponent of mortal and venial sin could simply argue that even if James 2:10 does mean that to commit even one insignificant sin is to break the whole law, and is thus like being guilty of breaking all the laws, this still does not mean that the person has committed a mortal sin. After all, if a person stumbles with one point of the law, but stumbles in a venial way—meaning without full knowledge and consent—then even if the person is guilty of breaking the whole law, it could still be the case that he is guilty of doing so in a venial way. Catholic doctrine does, after all, teach that even the absolute worst and gravest sin could still be considered venial if full knowledge and consent was not present, and so even if a person is considered guilty of the most brutal sin in the whole law, that sin could still be venial in terms of its guilt and punishment.
And so, the point here is that the proponent of mortal and venial sin could, for the sake of argument, accept the fact that James 2:10 does not specifically refer to the royal law, and yet still note that James 2:10 nevertheless remains compatible with the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.
In the end, James 2:10 does not pose a significant challenge to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. For, on the one hand, the best explanation of James 2:10 is that it is actually only referring to the royal law, which, in turn, completely negates James 2:10 as an objection against mortal and venial sin. At the same time, even if James 2:10 is interpreted as referring to the whole law, and not just to the whole of the royal law, this fact nevertheless still does not undermine the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. So either way, James 2:10 is a verse that is compatible with the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.
Objection 2 – Isaiah 59:2
Another scriptural passage which is sometimes used to argue against the doctrine of mortal and venial sin is Isaiah 59:2. And in the English Standard Version, Isaiah 59:2 reads as follows:
[Quote] but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear. [Unquote, English Standard Version]
So, on a superficial reading, this passage could potentially be understood as undermining something like the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. But, on closer examination, the proponent of mortal and venial sin has nothing to worry about from this verse, for, as will be seen, there are numerous reasons why it does not harm the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.
Reason 1 – No Logical Contradiction
Now, the very first point to note is that, logically-speaking, it is not clear whether Isaiah 59:2, when it is claiming that “your sins have made a separation between you and your God”, is 1) actually referring to all of a person’s sins taken collectively, or 2) it is referring to just some specific sins that a person committed, or 3) it is referring to every single sin, each one treated individually and separately, that a person committed. Indeed, it could be any one of these options. Thus, on this fact alone, the proponent of the doctrine of mortal and venial sin can point out that there is no obvious contradiction between that doctrine and Isaiah 59:2, for the doctrine of mortal and venial sin is easily compatible with the first two of the three possible interpretations listed above. In fact, the doctrine of mortal and venial sin is even compatible with the last interpretation, so long as all the sins that the person committed were mortal in nature.
Now, lest someone argue that such an answer to Isaiah 59:2 is stretching credulity, and that the additional interpretations of that verse are being offered simply as a way to save the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, note that this is not the case at all. After all, imagine an individual who has been a brutal criminal his entire life, and he has committed crimes ranging from speeding, to shoplifting a chocolate bar, to rape and premeditated murder. Finally, the individual has been arrested, charged, and convicted of all his numerous crimes. At his sentencing hearing, the judge says the following to the criminal: “…but your crimes have made a separation between you and society, and your crimes are worthy of death.” Now, what could this statement from the judge mean? Well, for one, it could mean that all the criminal’s crimes, when taken collectively, and thus necessarily including the criminal’s most heinous crimes, are worthy of death. Alternatively, the judge could just be using short-hand to mean that some of the criminal’s crimes, namely, his most brutal ones, are worthy of death, while assuming that people’s God-given reason and common-sense will help them realize that the judge is not claiming that a mere shop-lifting offence is worthy of death. And, as a final explanation, it could be the case that the judge is claiming that each and every single crime the criminal committed, taken individually and separately, is worthy of death and separation from society; and yet, our reason opposes such an interpretation. After all, a person should not be put to death for mere shoplifting or speeding. In fact, this latter explanation is the least likely interpretation of what the judge means concerning the criminal. And in much the same way, so too is this latter explanation the least likely interpretation of Isaiah 59:2. But that is the very interpretation that the Protestant needs to be true in order to even have a chance of using Isaiah 59:2 against the doctrine of mortal and venial.
Furthermore, what the above analogy also shows is that even if, for the sake of argument, all three possible interpretations of Isaiah 59:2 are deemed equally plausible, there is nothing in the verse itself to tell us which interpretation is the best one, and so the Protestant cannot legitimately claim that Isaiah 59:2 unequivocally opposes the doctrine of mortal and venial sin; ergo, just from this fact alone, Isaiah 59:2 is not a lethal threat to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin (however, when Isaiah 59:2 is seen in context, there actually are grounds to believe that the Protestant-friendly interpretation of Isaiah 59:2 is the least plausible interpretation of that verse).
So, given that the terms ‘your iniquities’ and ‘your sins’ in Isaiah 59:2 could quite reasonably and plausibly be understood as referring to some just some sins or to all sins collectively, then there is no logical problem for the proponent of mortal and venial sin from this passage.
Reason 2 – Isaiah 59:2 Refers to Someone Specifically
Another point to note is that Isaiah 59:2, when read in context, can be reasonably and plausibly understood as referring to a specific individual or group of individuals, thus meaning that it is linked to a specific time and place. Indeed, consider the English Standard Version of Isaiah 59:1-8:
[Quote] Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies; your tongue mutters wickedness. No one enters suit justly; no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity. They hatch adders’ eggs; they weave the spider’s web; he who eats their eggs dies, and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched. Their webs will not serve as clothing; men will not cover themselves with what they make. Their works are works of iniquity, and deeds of violence are in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked; no one who treads on them knows peace. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, Isaiah 59:1-8, English Standard Version]
Now, the reason that it is important to note that Isaiah 59:1-8 appears to be referring to a specific group of people is because if it refers to such a specific group, then Isaiah 59:2 can be reasonably interpreted as a passage that does not deal with all possible sins, but just the ones committed by the specific group that Isaiah 59 is referring to, which would very likely include people who have sinned mortally. So then it makes perfect sense for Isaiah 59:2 to note that the sins of such a group of people caused a separation from God for them, for, as noted, members of that specific group very likely sinned mortally. But in that case, Isaiah 59:2 cannot be taken as a general statement from which a universal doctrine can be formulated, and so, once again, Isaiah 59:2 is no threat to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.
Reason 3 – The Sins Are Mortal in Nature.
It is also worth noting that the sins which are being spoken of in Isaiah 59 are all of a mortal nature—at least when taken at face-value. Indeed, as can be seen in Isaiah 59:1-8 noted above, the sins that are being committed are quite harsh and brutal. There is talk of violence, and blood being on “your” hands, and shedding innocent blood, not to mention the speaking of lies and a disregard for justice. But again, all these sins—which are listed just after Isaiah 59:2—are sins which would count as mortal sins, and so this fact supports the conclusion that Isaiah 59:2, when read in its full context, is dealing with mortal sins, not necessarily all types of sin.
Additionally, Isaiah 59:12-13 supports the above point even more, because that passage lists the iniquities that the writer of Isaiah 59 is speaking of, and those iniquities are certainly mortal in nature. Indeed, consider Isaiah 59:9-13 in full:
[Quote] Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope for the wall like the blind; we grope like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among those in full vigor we are like dead men. We all growl like bears; we moan and moan like doves; we hope for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. For our transgressions are multiplied before you, and our sins testify against us; for our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities: transgressing, and denying the Lord, and turning back from following our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, Isaiah 59:9-13, English Standard Version]
Thus, as is obvious from the latter part of the above passage, the sins that Isaiah 59:1-13 is speaking of—denying the Lord, speaking revolt, lying, etc.—are all mortal sins, for these issues concern grave matters. Furthermore, the writer of Isaiah 59:13 claims that the sinners “know their iniquities”, which means they had knowledge of their sins. And there is nothing to indicate that the sinners’ consent had been violated, and so the sins listed in Isaiah 59:1-13 match all the criteria required of mortal sin. Thus, in light of this context, the proponent of mortal and venial is on solid ground if he claims that the best, or at least an eminently reasonable interpretation of Isaiah 59:2 is that it is only dealing with mortal sins, not venial ones. Consequently, the proponent of mortal and venial sin can fully support the claim from Isaiah 59:2 that such sins, meaning mortal ones, will separate a person from God.
In the end, also note that—for the sake of argument—even if the above interpretation is not taken as the best one, at the very least, the proponent of mortal and venial sin can claim that the fact that the sins dealt with in Isaiah 59:1-13 are clearly mortal sins is sufficient, in and of itself, to undermine any attempt to use Isaiah 59:2 as an unambiguous proof-text against the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. Indeed, for that fact is sufficient to create reasonable doubt that Isaiah 59:2 is speaking about all sins rather than just mortal ones. And so, even if—for the sake of argument—there is some tension between the doctrine of mortal and venial sin and Isaiah 59:2, the above point shows that Isaiah 59:2 cannot reasonably be used to refute the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, and so the proponent of that doctrine need not consider Isaiah 59:2 as being fatal to his position.
Reason 4 – Eve and Isaiah 59:2
In addition to all of the above points, note that we know for a fact that Isaiah 59:2 cannot be referring to all sins. Why do we know this? Because, as the last two essays showed, Eve sinned before Adam did, and yet Eve’s sin did not lead to a separation from God nor to a loss of her innocence. Indeed, as was also argued for in Objection 1, if Isaiah 59:2 meant that all sins separate a person from God, then Eve’s sin should have done so for her; furthermore, since Eve’s sin was the first sin ever committed, then Eve’s sin should have been the sin to cause a loss of innocence and for separation from God to enter the world. But, as articulated at length in the last two essays, that is not what happened. Eve sinned, and yet her sin did not bring spiritual death into the world, nor did it cause a separation from God, nor did it lead to a loss of innocence. So, if Isaiah 59:2 is interpreted as claiming that all sins cause a person to be separated from God, then Eve’s sin is a clear example that contradicts that claim, and it is an inescapable contradiction, which is a problem for the aforementioned interpretation. By contrast, the doctrine of mortal and venial sin has no problem accommodating Isaiah 59:2 with the issue of Eve’s sin, for whereas the former is dealing with mortal sins, the latter dealt with a venial sin, and so there is no contradiction between these two scriptural passages.
Reason 5 – The Doctrine of Venial Sin Can Still Stand
Finally, the proponent of mortal and venial sin can also note that even if it is accepted— for the sake of argument—that all sins are mortal in nature, and thus that, normally, every one of a person’s iniquities would separate them from God, such a claim would still not negate the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. After all, even a grave sin can be made venial if full knowledge and full consent are lacking. Thus, the proponent of venial sin—again, for the sake of argument—could admit that every sin that a person commits concerns a grave matter and is thus mortal in nature if done with full knowledge and full consent, but that such full knowledge and full consent is not always present, thereby making some grave sins ultimately venial.
Now, what such an interpretation allows is for the proponent of venial sin to accept the claim—also for the sake of argument—that Isaiah 59:2 does mean that every sin leads to a separation from God under normal circumstances, but that such circumstances are not always present. And note that such an understanding would be in-line with the actual example of Eve’s sin. After all, even if Eve’s first sin concerned a grave matter—an assumption made for the sake of argument—it was nevertheless the case that Eve’s sin did not lead to her separation from God. Thus, Eve’s sin is a literal Biblical example of the fact that a grave sin can be committed, and that a person, like Eve, can know of their sin, and can be punished for it, and can indeed be a sinner, and yet that sin still does not necessarily lead that person to be separated from God, nor does it open their eyes to their sin, nor does it lead to their spiritual death. Consequently, such a sin would be essentially venial in nature.
So, even if the proponent of venial sin accepts the Protestant’s claim that Isaiah 59:2 refers to all sins, this still does not fatally undermine the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. By contrast, Eve’s first sin—the one that did not lead to her separation from God nor to sin entering the world—does seriously undermine the Protestant doctrine that all sins, no matter how small, lead to spiritual death and separation from God.
Objection 3 – Romans 6:23
Romans 6:23, in the English Standard Version, says the following:
[Quote] For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, Romans 6:23, English Standard Version]
Now, this scriptural verse—at least the first portion of it—is indeed used by certain Protestants to argue against the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. And the reason why this verse is used for that purpose is obvious: namely, Romans 6:23, at first blush, sounds like it is clearly saying that the wages of all sins is spiritual and physical death, and so, in light of this fact, their cannot be anything like venial sin. However, upon review, this anti-venial sin interpretation of Romans 6:23 is not as fatal to the aforementioned Catholic doctrine as it seems to be. And the reasons for why this is the case closely mirror some of the reasons provided in response to the first two scriptural verses that were considered earlier. Thus, let us consider each of these reasons in turn.
Reason 1 – Not Clearly Opposed to Venial Sin.
The first thing to note about Romans 6:23 is that it is not clearly opposed to the doctrine of venial sin. After all, Romans 6:23 does not say that the wages of each and every individual sin ever committed, no matter how small, is death. Instead, the meaning of Romans 6:23 is actually indeterminate. Why? Because again, just like with Isaiah 59:2, it is not clear if the writer of Romans 6:23 is claiming that the wages of all of a person’s sins—including Original Sin—when taken collectively, is death, or if the writer is just referring to some sins, or if he is speaking of each and every type of singular sin that there is.
Again, to understand this point, consider the following analogy: in a speech to a legal audience about life-long criminals, a judge states that “…the wages of crime is prison”. Now, upon hearing such a statement, several different interpretations of it are both possible and plausible. First, it is possible that the judge means that a life-long criminal, being a criminal from the very beginning of his life, has obviously committed numerous crimes, and these crimes, when taken as a whole, are clearly worthy of prison time. Or, alternatively, the judge might be implying that a life-long criminal, during his criminal career, has no doubt committed some crimes serious enough to warrant prison time, and so the wages of such crimes is prison; but this does not necessarily mean that each and every individual crime, when viewed in isolation, is actually worthy of prison time. For example, the criminal’s past robbery is obviously worthy of prison time, but his past 50 cent shoplifting offence is not. Or, finally, perhaps the judge does indeed mean that each and every individual crime, no matter how small, is actually worthy of imprisonment. But again, merely the claim that “the wages of crime is prison” is not sufficiently clear, in and of itself, concerning which of these meanings it is meant to convey. Further clarification is needed.
Now, when this analogy is transferred to the context of sin, as in Romans 6:23, the same issue arises. Merely stating that the wages of sin is death does not clearly determine which of the above meanings is meant by Romans 6:23. And so, from this fact alone, the proponent of mortal and venial sin can note that, at the very least, there is no clear contradiction between Romans 6:23 and the doctrine of venial sin.
At the same time, when Romans 6:19-21 is read before Romans 6:23, another interesting point arises. So, consider Romans 6:19-21, in the New American Standard Bible translation, which says the following:
[Quote] I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, Romans 6:19-21, New American Standard Bible]
Now, the reason that the last half of Romans 6:21 is important to note is because it states that the outcome of the sins that people committed is death. But note the use of the plural when it states that “…the outcome of those things is death.” So, this verse once again raises the question of whether this section of Romans is being used to claim that a person’s sins in totality, and as a collective, leads to an outcome of death, or whether it is just the shame-worthy sins that lead to death, or if it is each and every sin individually that leads to death. Ultimately, each option is a plausible interpretation of Romans 6:21.
However, and as will be argued for in detail in the next section, in Romans 6:19-21, the author of Romans is also writing to an audience of adults who are clearly serious sinners, and who have no doubt sinned in ways that the Catholic would consider to be mortal. So again, Romans 6:19-21, which has bearing on Romans 6:23, reinforces the fact that it is not clear that the Protestant interpretation of Romans 6:23 is the correct one. And this opening, as noted, is sufficient for the proponent of mortal and venial sin to point out that that doctrine is compatible with a fully plausible interpretation of Romans 6:23.
Furthermore, this whole issue is made even more complex when the matter of Original Sin enters the picture, especially since the doctrine of Original Sin stems largely from what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 5, which is the chapter immediately preceding Romans 6:23. After all, Original Sin brings death to all men, and all men inherit Original Sin, so it is true that the wages of sin is death for all men due to this inheritance. But this fact muddies the waters concerning the statement that the wages of sin is death, for all men suffer physical and spiritual death due to the sin inherited from Adam, but this does not mean that all personal sins necessarily lead to spiritual death.
So, the fact that Romans 6:23, alongside Romans 6:19-21, does not explicitly contradict the doctrine of mortal and venial sin is sufficient to allow the proponent of that doctrine to claim that the idea of venial sin is not refuted by Romans 6:23. Furthermore, the fact that certain interpretations of Romans 6:23 are actually quite compatible with the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, means that the proponent of that doctrine can also reconcile the idea of venial sin with Romans 6:23.
Reason 2 – The Audience of Romans 6:19-23
Another point to note—and one which was briefly mentioned above—is that the audience that is being referred to in Romans 6, and in the Book of Romans in general, is obviously a mature audience. But such an audience is no doubt filled with individuals who have committed numerous sins, including numerous mortal sins. In fact, in Romans 6:19-21, the Apostle Paul claims that his audience were slaves to impurity and lawlessness, and that they were slaves to sin, thereby doing things of which they were eventually ashamed.
So, the point is that the audience of Romans 6 can be reasonably believed to be composed of individuals who would have committed sins that the Catholic would consider mortal. Thus, this point again provides the proponent of venial sin some grounds to claim that the precise meaning of Romans 6:23 is unclear in terms of its opposition to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. Indeed, for if Romans 6 is speaking to an audience of individuals who have sinned mortally, and if Romans 6:23 can be plausibly interpreted to means all such an individual’s sins collectively, or just his most serious sins—as it can be—then this again provides the proponent of venial sin an opening to claim that it is by no means clear that Romans 6:23 contradicts the doctrine of venial sin given the wider context of that verse.
Reason 3 – Even If True, It Does Not Necessarily Undermine Venial Sin
Although this point has already been made concerning the two previous scriptural verses used to try to undermine the doctrine of venial sin, it is valuable to remember that even if—for the sake of argument—it is admitted that Romans 6:23 means that the wages of each and every sin is death, again, this does not necessarily destroy the doctrine of venial sin. For again, the proponent of mortal and venial sin can note that even if, for the sake of argument, it is accepted that every sin is mortal in nature under normal circumstances, and thus that, normally, the wages of every one of a person’s sins would be death, this would not fully negate the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. After all, a mortal sin could be made venial if full knowledge and total consent were lacking. Thus, the proponent of venial sin—for the sake of argument—could admit that every sin that a person commits concerns a grave matter and is thus mortal in nature if done with full knowledge and full consent, but that such full knowledge and full consent are not always present.
What such an interpretation allows is for the proponent of venial sin to accept the claim—again, for the sake of argument—that Romans 6:23 does mean that the wage of every sin is spiritual and physical death when taken in general terms; but when looked at in specific cases, where knowledge and consent are lacking, some mortal sins might be made venial in those specific cases.
Note as well that the above understanding would be in-line with the actual example of Eve’s sin. After all, even if Eve’s first sin concerned a grave matter—an assumption made for the sake of argument—it was nevertheless the case that Eve’s sin did not lead to her separation from God. Thus, Eve’s sin is a literal Biblical example of the fact that a grave sin can be committed, and that a person, like Eve, can know of their sin, and can be punished for it, and can indeed be a sinner, and yet that sin still does not necessarily lead that person to be separated from God, nor does it open their eyes to their sin, nor does it lead to their spiritual death. Consequently, such a sin would be essentially venial in nature.
So, even if—for the sake of argument—the proponent of venial sin accepts the Protestant’s claim that Romans 6:23 is speaking of each and every sin, this still does not fatally undermine the doctrine of venial sin.
Reason 4 – Eve and Romans 6:23
Finally, in addition to all the above points, and as articulated in the sub-section immediately preceding this one, also note that we know for a fact that Romans 6:23 cannot be claiming that each and every sin, when taken individually, leads to spiritual death Why? Because, as the last two essays showed, Eve sinned before Adam did, and yet the wage of Eve’s sin was not spiritual death, neither for her individually nor for the world as a whole. In fact, Eve did not even lose her innocence from her first sin.
Now, if Romans 6:23 meant that the wage of every single sin is spiritual death, then Eve’s first sin should have led to spiritual death for her, and it should have also introduced spiritual death into the world. But, as articulated at length in the last two essays, that is not what happened. Eve sinned, and yet her sin did not bring spiritual death into the world, nor did it cause a separation from God, nor did it lead to a loss of her innocence. So, if Romans 6:23 is interpreted as claiming that each and every sin, treated individually, causes a person to suffer spiritual death—which is the Protestant doctrine concerning sin—then Eve’s sin is a clear example that contradicts that claim, which is a serious problem for the aforementioned Protestant interpretation. By contrast, the doctrine of mortal and venial sin has no problem accommodating Romans 6:23 with the issue of Eve’s sin, for whereas Romans 6:23 is ultimately dealing with mortal sins, Eve’s sin is venial, and thus, on the Catholic view, there is no contradiction between these two scriptural sections.
Ultimately, there is no doubt that there do indeed exist some scriptural verses which appear to be opposed to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. However, once these scriptural verses are examined in detail, a very strong case can be made that either they are not explicitly opposed to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, and can thus be accommodated to that doctrine, or else the verses themselves, when understood in context, actually do not oppose the doctrine of mortal and venial sin at all.
Furthermore, the case of Eve’s first sin is itself an example of an iniquity which works against the Protestant interpretation of these alleged anti-venial sin verses. After all, Eve’s first sin clearly shows us that in Biblical history there was a sin that was committed by Eve, and yet that particular sin did not separate God from Eve nor did it lead her to suffer spiritual death.
Thus, in the end, there are good reasons to believe that the scriptural verses that appear to be in serious tension with the doctrine of mortal and venial sin can not only be readily and coherently reconciled with that doctrine, but they may have to be reconciled to that doctrine so as to avoid a contradiction with the fact that Eve sinned first, and yet her sin—as fully explained in the last two essays—did not lead to spiritual death nor to separation from God.