What is sin? It is everything thought, said, or done against God and his divine Law. Sin, though, can also be classified into different groups according to the Bible. There are sins against the first table of the Law or against God directly; there are sins against the second table of the Law, or against our neighbor. There are voluntary and involuntary sins. Voluntary sins are committed out of a desire to do them. Involuntary sins are committed out of ignorance, or infirmity. Sins of infirmity can only be spoken about the believer. “…Since, all unbelievers, being dead in trespasses and sins, Eph 2:1, and captive in the power of Satan, Eph 2:2; 1 Tim. 2:26 deserve the very sins into which they are misled by the devil, Eph 2:3; John 8:44”1 There are sins of commission and omission. There are mortal and venial sins too. Mortal sin is discussed in another article; venial sin is the focus of this article.
“Natura sua et per se nullum prorsus peccatum est veniale, sed tale fit ac dicitur per et propter Christum. Phil. Mel. In Exam.”2 (By it’s own nature and through itself, no sin is truly venial, but such a thing happens and is said through and on account of Christ.) When we talk about venial or mortal sin, it is “as to their effect,”3 on spiritual lives. Venial means pardonable, or able to receive grace or forgiveness. Venial sins can only be talked about with believers. For unbelievers, every sin is mortal because they all kill the man. “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”4
Is not all sin by itself inherently mortal? Are not we all like “filthy rags,” as Isaiah says? What is it in venial sin that does not drive away the Holy Spirit and consequently kill saving faith? True, every sin is mortal and fatal for the man. St. Augustine called sin a “disease,” which infiltrates the entire man, body and soul. Sin, anything against the Law of God, thoroughly corrupts and destroys every single thing that one does. It does not matter whether it is big or small, important or miniscule, sin is in it. This sin is so evil, so blinding, so misleading that we cannot recognize it by nature. “What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet."5 This passage states it well; we are not able to realize our sin, except through the Law. The Law shows and tells us how far we have fallen from perfection. It beats the Old Adam down, presses on him with God’s divine scorn, makes him despair in himself, and leaves him cowering, screaming out of his utter dismay with the people at Pentecost, “Brothers, what shall we do?”6 Based on this, sin cannot be venial, but only through and on account of Christ.
After the Law has shown our decrepitation and failure, the Gospel comes and gives us a way out from under the Law. Christ has lived the perfect life that we cannot, he has died the death meant for us, and he has risen again which will be for us. Only Holy Spirit-created faith can receive this Gospel message. In turn, that is why venial sin is discussed only in respect to believers.
Venial sins are sins committed in weakness in such a way that does not drive out the Holy Spirit as stated before. In the moment of their conception, they are already forgiven. Why is that? “Venial sin… has pardon connected with it by an indissoluble bond.”7 The Lord God in his infinite love and mercy has joined venial sin and forgiveness for his children. “…I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”8 “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”9 One cannot be found without the other. A person cannot rip apart the one from the other. What a comforting message that is, while we strive to live a new life in the light of the Gospel through the Holy Spirit. Even though we fail and fall time and time again, God is right there with his saving forgiveness. We are now living in the shower of God’s forgiveness. This struggle between the sinful nature and new man will continue until the day we die. This struggle is one where we constantly lose the battle, but the war was won already in Christ. When we are in the deepest Anfechtung10 over sin, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”11 He will always be with us, to pick us up and strengthen us. In this passage, he does not say that he will take us away from the struggle though, but he will revive us for the struggles that are and are to come. Moreover that glorious day is coming soon which Jesus prayed for, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am to see my glory.”12 Though we pilgrim through this life, enduring pain, suffering, and sorrow on account of sin, death, and the devil, we are confident in Christ’s promise for that day, “…They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."13
Many people have also misunderstood venial sin. The Catholics have their notion of seven deadly, or mortal sins, (superbia, avaritia, luxuria, ira, gula, invidia, acedia or pride, greed, lust, wrath, gluttony, envy, sloth) while other sins are venial and do not deserve death, but only temporal punishment.14 From these classifications of sins also come the source of satisfactions, indulgences, purgatory, and penance, as Luther noted in the Smalcald Articles.15 The Arminians hold essentially the same viewpoint as the Catholics. “The Calvinists teach that in the case of the elect even peccata enormia (enormous crimes) do not destroy faith nor deprive them of the Holy Spirit.”16
One final note on venial sin is from Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, “Iustorum opera essent mortalia, nisi pio Dei timore ab ipsismet iustis ut mortalia timerentur.” (The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.) Luther explains himself in this way: (It should be noted that this is early in Luther’s way to becoming a Lutheran, so he has some Catholic ideas in it.)
“This is clear from Thesis 4. To trust in works, which one ought to do in fear, is equivalent to giving oneself the honor and taking it from God, to whom fear is due in connection with every work. But this is completely wrong, namely to please oneself, to enjoy oneself in one's works, and to adore oneself as an idol. He who is self-confident and without fear of God, however, acts entirely in this manner. For if he had fear he would not be self-confident, and for this reason he would not be pleased with himself, but he would be pleased with God.
In the second place, it is clear from the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 143:2), “Enter not into judgment with thy servant,” and Ps. 32:5, “I said: I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” etc. But that these are not venial sins is clear because these passages state that confession and repentance are not necessary for venial sins. (Luther is still Catholic here.) If, therefore, they are mortal sins and “all the saints intercede for them”, as it is stated in the same place, then the works of the saints are mortal sins. But the works of the saints are good works, wherefore they are meritorious for them only through the fear of their humble confession.
In the third place, it is clear from the Lord's Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses” (Matt. 6:12). This is a prayer of the saints; therefore those trespasses are good works for which they pray. But that these are mortal sins is clear from the following verse, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15). Note that these trespasses are such that, if unforgiven, they would condemn them, unless they pray this prayer sincerely and forgive others.
In the fourth place, it is clear from Rev. 21:27, “Nothing unclean shall enter into it” (the kingdom of heaven). But everything that hinders entrance into the kingdom of heaven is mortal sin (or it would be necessary to interpret the concept of ‘mortal sin’ in another way). Venial sin, however, hinders because it makes the soul unclean and has no place in the kingdom of heaven. Consequently, etc”
Saying sin is venial versus mortal does not give a Christian a license to sin though. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”17 Throughout this chapter in Romans, St. Paul makes the point that we are dead to sin; Christ has raised us with him from that death. Why would we ever want to go back to the shackles of sin, after Christ has freed us from them once and for all? “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.”18
In conclusion, venial sin is only venial on account of God’s mercy. He has his forgiveness of sins joined with it through Jesus Christ. That is why it only applies to believers. This distinction between mortal and venial sin can best serve a pastor counseling his parishioners dealing with their own sins. When they fail to do what God desires, when they realize their sin and how far they have fallen, when they see they are dangling over the abyss of hell; then the Seelsorger19 ("one who cares for souls," a German term for pastor) can comfort them that God still showers his forgiveness over his believers. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.”20
May God be praised for the limitless grace he has shown his people! May we sing with the holy angels, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”21 His favor has rested on us through all he has done and continues to do so for our salvation. May glory indeed be to God!
- 1. John Mueller. Christian Dogmatics. Concordia Publishing House; St. Louis, MO, 1934. p.229
- 2. Leonhard Hutter. Compendium Locorum Theologicorum.
- 3. Franz Pieper. Christian Dogmatics Vol. I Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1950. p.568
- 4. Isaiah 64:6
- 5. Romans 7:7
- 6. Acts 2:37
- 7. Heinrich Schmid. Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Augsburg Publishing House; Minneapolis, MN, 1899. p.254
- 8. 1 John 2:1
- 9. Romans 8:1,2
- 10. c.f. Ein Kleines Theologisches Wörterbuch. Prof. Daniel Desutschlander p.11
- 11. Matthew 11:28
- 12. John 17:24
- 13. Revelation 21:3,4
- 14. John Mueller. Christian Dogmatics. p.231
- 15. Trig. p.485, 21ff.
- 16. Pieper. Christian Dogmatics. Vol. I, p.568
- 17. Romans 6:1,2
- 18. Romans 6:14
- 19. c.f. Ein Kleines Theologisches Wörterbuch p.6
- 20. Epehsians 1:7,8
- 21. Luke 2:14