Mortal Sin, Venial Sin, and the Sin That Leads to Death?

Not having grown up in the Roman Catholic tradition, I was always puzzled by the whole idea of mortal versus venial sins. What is all of that about, and where is it in the Bible, (or is it)?

Well, it all stems back to one of the more difficult passages in the Bible to interpret:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. (I John 5:16-17 ESV)

Bible scholars have been scratching their heads for hundreds of years on this one. Who is his “brother?” What are some examples of the different types of “sin“? What is meant by “death?” In other words, what in the world is John talking about here?

Spiritual Anxiety: Mortal vs. Venial Sins

During the medieval period, the Christian West gradually developed a view that would explain this puzzling passage in the Bible. While all sin harms our relationship with God, there are two types of sin: A sin that leads to death, and a sin that does not lead to death.

Whether you are Roman Catholic or Protestant, nearly all Western Christians believe that when you become a believer in Jesus, all of your sins are forgiven and wiped away clean.  Baptism, as the initiatory sacrament of the Christian journey, celebrates this washing away of all of our sins. This is truly a wonderful thing!  But it does not take too long to realize that Christians still sin, after they become believers, a topic that John takes up here in his first letter. So, how do you deal with that?

In Roman Catholic theology in the medieval period, and even today, a mortal sin for the Christian is a type of sin that leads to death; that is, spiritual death. In contrast with that, a venial sin does not lead to spiritual death. While all sin is harmful, a mortal sin is the more serious of the two. An unconfessed mortal sin can actually separate a person eternally from God. For a sin to be mortal, it must be a grave offense, a knowingly and deliberate transgression of God’s moral standard. Essentially, a mortal sin is something seriously wrong, that you know would offend God, but you go ahead and brazenly do it anyway.

Thankfully, a mortal sin can be forgiven. But you must come forward for confession for it before you die. The purification of purgatory can resolve any uncompleted penance, associated with a confessed mortal sin. But purgatory can not bring about the forgiveness of a mortal sin itself.  In other words, a sin that “leads to death,” as in I John 5, leads to spiritual death.

A venial sin is different, in that it can not ultimately separate us from God. It is a sin that does not lead to death. A venial sin injures our relationship with God, though it can not completely cut off that relationship. So, if you die having not confessed a venial sin, then you count on purgatory to cleanse you of all of your venial sins. A venial sin lacks the intentionality associated with a mortal sin. In other words, a venial sin can describe a wrong done as a result of simply a bad habit.

Prior to the 16th century Reformation (and sometimes still today!), this distinction between mortal and venial sins, could bring a tremendous amount of anxiety into one’s life. After all, there was a certain subjectivity as to what counted as a mortal versus a venial sin.

How could you know, for sure, if you had committed a mortal sin, versus a lesser, venial sin? Well, you could go see the priest. Hopefully, he would know. But then, that was the whole point of confession, anyway, to go see the priest. So, what if you could not make it to the priest, in time, before you got ran over by an ox cart, and died?

Mmmmm…. that is a recipe for deep, spiritual anxiety. In fairness, Roman Catholic teaching on this is a lot more robust, these days. But the risk of experiencing such anxiety still exists for those who are confused by this teaching.

Since the 16th century Reformation, Protestant Christians have generally rejected the rigid distinction between mortal and venial sins, as a doctrine grounded more in tradition, than in the teaching of Scripture. For example, there are passages in the Bible teaching that all sin is an affront to God, no matter how trivial or serious, we may think it is, such as:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it (James 2:10).

Mortal or venial, all sin keeps us from entering into the holy presence of God. Thankfully, the message of the Gospel is that no matter what the sin is, however big or small, Christ’s work on the cross takes care of it all:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (1 Peter 3:18).

In Roman Catholic doctrine, the distinction between mortal and venial sin is really just one piece in a larger web of doctrine, as to how sanctification is to be understood. Since it is so intimately tied in with the doctrine of purgatory, if you reject purgatory as something as not being taught in the Bible, then the whole question about mortal versus venial sin effectively evaporates.

Still A Difficult Verse… But Not Without Plausible, Alternative, Interpretive Solutions

If you reject the Roman Catholic view, it still leaves a very tricky question open in understanding this passage in 1 John 5: How are we to understand the difference between a sin that “leads to death,” and a sin that does not? Bible scholars have made several proposals to try to tease out the meaning of this interpretive puzzle.  I will only cover some of the major ones here. You can read more detail from this blog article by pastor and The Gospel Coalition contributor Sam Storms:

  • Physical Death:
    • The death spoken of here could be physical death, not spiritual death. This resolves the difficulty when considering other parts of the Bible, like James 2:10 above, that suggests that all sin leads to spiritual death, or separation from God. Not all sins can physically kill you, though surely enough, some can. An example of such a sin might include not taking care of one’s body; that is, a consistent pattern of poor health habits that shortens your life span. Our human body, as a believer, acts as a temple for the Holy Spirit, so “temple maintenance” is something we should not neglect (I Corinthians 6:19-20).
    • The problem with this view is in considering why John would discourage you from praying for someone, whose sin is leading them to suffer physical death. There are plenty of verses in the Bible saying that we should pray for people who are approaching death. Just consider James 5:13-16, for starters.
  • Apostasy:
    • However, if the death spoken here is truly spiritual, then another possibility is to view the “sin that leads to death” as being apostasy; or, when someone who has some knowledge of the truth, willfully rejects that truth.
    • Some see this as fitting in with other passages that suggest pretty much the same thing, like Hebrews 6:4-6. However, others object to this solution, because it goes against the idea that a true believer can never lose their salvation.  But you could simply say that such a “believer,” who had some knowledge, never really was a true believer to begin with.
  • Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit:
    • This is closely related to apostasy, and some even argue that apostasy and the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit are actually the same thing. To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, as in Mark 3:28-30, is to attribute the work of God in Jesus as actually being the work of Satan. Those who commit this sin will not be forgiven.
    • But it is difficult to figure out why John would still call this person a brother.  It is possible that John considers such a person to be brother only in rhetorical sense, as someone who professes to be a “Christian,” but who truly lacks a genuine knowledge of the Savior.

While there is not a consensus view that will satisfy everyone, several conclusions can be drawn from this: First, we should not be hasty to place judgment on someone, as to whether or not they have committed “the sin that leads to death.” Unless it becomes clear somehow, let God be the judge of that. In the meantime, continue to pray for such a person.

Secondly, some people unnecessarily freak out, fearing that they might have committed such a deadly sin themselves, implying that they might have crossed some line of no return, with no possibility of forgiveness, and become eternally separated from God, after becoming a Christian.  But this would be wrong-headed thinking. If you are afraid of committing something like apostasy, or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that sense of dread is a very good indication that you have not committed such a sin. No matter what the sin is, we should all confess those things to God, trusting that Christ’s finished work on the cross has dealt with even that sin, and forgiven us. A good rule of thumb to remember is that those who do commit apostasy or blaspheme, simply do not give a rip about God, they mock the Gospel, and they do not carry within them a sense of dread, over their sin.

Thirdly, there are other people who approach this from a different angle, who would rather gamble on the idea that their sin is not a sin that leads to death. Therefore, they do not really to take their sin too seriously. Frankly, those are the people who should be anxious and fearful. Some even go to the extreme of putting off the things of God until right before the moment they die. But this is utter foolishness, for we will never know the exact moment when we will die, and we have no guarantee that we will have any advanced warning to prepare for it. Furthermore, if our heart is not right with God now, what makes us so sure that we will want to be right with God, just before the moment of physical death? If there was ever a time to be fearful of “the sin that leads to death,” then now, right now, would be a good time to reconsider the Good News of the Gospel.

It is fitting to conclude with a couple of verses, just prior to this difficult passage:

And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (I John 5:11-12 ESV)

There is a solution to our spiritual anxiety regarding our sin. Trust in Christ, believing that He really does love you, that Christ died for you, so that you may live.

Do you believe this: that the God who has revealed Himself through the Crucified and Resurrected Christ, has truly forgiven you and given you life?


About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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