The Savior’s sacrifice invites all believers to remember that the penalty for sin has been taken care of. We are invited to keep our eyes not on the penalty but the one who took it, who has risen in glory!
According to the Catholic Church, there are seven mortal or cardinal sins: lust, gluttony, avarice (greed), sloth (laziness), anger, envy, and pride. Roman Catholic theology states that these are “the gravest of sins, representing a deliberate turning away from God and destroying charity (love) in the heart of the sinner.”
It is a sin committed knowingly and puts the sinner at risk of losing his or her salvation “until it is repented, usually in confession with a priest.” If a person does not repent and dies unrepentant, the sin in question is so grave that he or she will go to hell. Is this true?
Only Two Types of Sin?
The other type of sin, a venial sin, is a less serious offense, such as a sin committed unwittingly, out of ignorance.
For example, someone who is ignorant about God’s law might do something, which is considered sinful, but since this is not understood by the individual, it is not as grievous as if he or she had knowingly committed it.
A venial sin “weakens the sinner’s union with God [but] does not wholly block the inflow of sanctifying grace” (Ibid.).
But some Christians, even Christian pastors, argue that there is only one “type” of sin, and all sin is deadly. Christians can find scriptural commentary for both sides of the argument.
James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” That is, every sin is deadly. On the other hand, Jesus told Pilate “He who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). In other words, there are degrees of sin.
Is the Roman Catholic Teaching Correct?
Stephen Wellum explains that “within Roman Catholic theology, the distinction is tied to their overall sacramental theology” whereby “God applies Christ’s work to us by receiving the sacraments that he has established in the church.”
As a result, “even apart from saving faith” one can be saved. Mortal sin, “if not confessed and penance done, stops this entire process, which results in eternal condemnation.”
On the other hand, venial sins “if committed and not confessed and repented of, [...] do not stop the process” of justification, which began when someone was baptized. “These sins result in temporal punishments, but do not cut off a person forever from salvation or prevent the individual from becoming increasingly righteous over time” (Ibid.).
While Wellum and others agree there are degrees of sin, the Bible does not bear out certain aspects of this theology. For one thing, baptism and other sacraments do not justify or sanctify a person.
Baptism is an action, which symbolizes dying to one’s old self and being reborn in Christ. It is symbolic, public, and is an invitation for the congregation to come alongside the new believer, but Christ alone justifies from the inside out.
Participation in a ritual does not change the individual, it is only external, and it does not save. Genuine salvation happens inwardly but is expressed outwardly as a person submits and allows God to sanctify him or her.
Furthermore, every sin is an act of treason against God. In one sense, all sins are mortal sins because, without Christ’s covering of righteousness, believers would be dead before God regardless of what sins they do or do not commit.
But believers are still sinners yet are not cut off from God. “For the believer who is born of the Spirit and united to Christ as our covenant head, since our justification is complete in Christ, there is no sin that removes our justification, and ultimately thwarts the sanctifying work of the Spirit by the loss of our salvation.”
Paul admitted he was a sinner who, by the grace of God alone, possessed this beautiful confidence: “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
The Degrees of Sin
Then again, Scripture indicates that the “degree of guilt is also tied to our intention in our actions.” (Ibid., emphasis mine). Wellum directs the reader to God’s definition of murder in Genesis 9:6. He also offers other examples to clarify the point, including Numbers 15:27-30.
These verses separate “unintentional” and “defiant” sins. Many versions use the word “unintentional” such as the NIV, ESV, and NKJV. The NAB says “inadvertently” and the CEV reads “without knowing it.” In the KJV, the phrase is “through ignorance.”
Defiant is the most common translation of the Hebrew “beyad,” although its definition in the Hebrew interlinear version is “presumptuously” derived from “into the hand.”
That is, the sin of murder is actually the sin of taking the decision of who should live or die out of God’s hands and into one’s own hands. It is indeed presumptuous, defiant, and intentional.
It is a deliberate sin and more grievous than a sin committed “unwittingly.” As Wellum puts it, “This kind of distinction makes no sense unless we think in terms of degrees of sin.”
Wellum delves further into the issue of identity as it relates to degrees of sin. Some sins are “a denial of God’s created order” producing consequences for “the person, families, and the entire society.”
This is why murder, “sexual activity outside of God’s creation of heterosexual marriage, even disobedience to parents are highlighted as ‘greater’ because all of them are a denial of God’s created order.”
These sins contradict the identity, which God has given to an individual and devalues it. A “mortal” sin is that much worse when committed by someone who should understand that all people were created in the Image of God for the purpose of glorifying him and knowing him.
All Sin Has Been Paid For
R.C. Sproul puts it this way: “when I sin, I choose my will over the will of God Almighty. By implication, I'm essentially saying that I'm more intelligent, wise, righteous, and powerful than God Himself.” In other words, there is a necessary price for all sin according to a just God.
He cannot look at sin, so it had to be paid for at the cross or all people would be condemned to death. Instead, every person who declares Christ as Savior experiences his grace and forgiveness.
This does not let the believer off the hook—sin is still treason, and the believer should know better. Instead of condemning us to death, however, Sproul explains that God “allows us to live [...] We have to repent, yes, but the justifying grace that the Holy Spirit brings to us is not killed by our sin.”
God’s tenderness and patience should inspire the Christian to likewise show “patience and tolerance towards the struggling failures of other Christians,” which is not laxity but a reflection of the Lord’s own grace.
Discipline is loving, especially when handled in such a way, which mercifully and truthfully leads someone to repent and experience God’s peace.
What Does This Mean?
Jeremy Pierre wrote that “we can sin without deliberate choice because we are always acting intuitively out of hearts conditioned by inherited sin.” That first sin in Genesis 3 continues to influence us, even unconsciously, so that we sin when we want to be like Christ.
But the Savior’s sacrifice invites all believers to remember that the death penalty for sin has been taken care of. We are invited to keep our eyes not on the penalty but the one who took it, who has risen in glory!
When we do that, we see the horrific, treasonous nature of every trespass and choose, instead, to focus on the nature of Christ so that our hearts are increasingly enlarged with those qualities, which he exemplifies and which lead us into worshipful obedience, away from all sin.
For further reading:
"Love the sinner. Hate the sin" - Its Origin and True Meaning
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.