Mortal Sin

by Alvin Kimel


The problem with mortal sin is that it’s so damned mortal. It scares me—as it rightly should. I know that the reason I was drawn to Luther and Lutherans back in the 80′s was because they seemed to provide a way to get the fear of mortal sin off my back. After all, wasn’t that the great quest of Luther, to find the gracious God and relieve his fear of eternal damnation? And didn’t he solve that quest by his rediscovery of faith? “Faith in Christ,” Luther declared, “overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation.”

Hmmm, now that sounds pretty darn good. Salvation is the gracious gift of God. I don’t have to earn it. I don’t have to do anything. From his side, God has done everything for my salvation. Does that mean, therefore, that I can’t be damned? Does that mean that I can’t choose hell? Well … errr … even the Lutherans admit that hell remains a real possibility for Lutherans. Some Lutherans who believe today will disbelieve tomorrow. Every Lutheran retains the freedom to apostasize. Every Lutheran retains the freedom to choose eternal separation from the God who graciously died for their sins.

Now, one might reasonably ask why anyone would make such a choice. Why would anyone choose to be Judas? Non-Lutheran Karl Barth called this the “impossible possibility.” And yet we each know that we are given in Christ the freedom to make this choice. And we know that, under the right circumstances, we might indeed—God forbid!—make this choice. Who hasn’t read C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and seen himself reflected in the various characters who choose to return to the “grey town”? The door to hell may be locked only from the inside, but that doesn’t mean that I will decide to unlock the door.

How do I know that I will choose God? How do I know that I am choosing God at this present moment? There are no second chances. Not even the Catholic doctrine of purgatory offers a second chance. Life is a single choosing. When we die and meet the living God, we will then discover which choice we have made.

The problem is free will. Whatever one wants to say about the bondage of unbelievers to sin, the New Testament is clear that believers are given a new freedom in the Spirit. We are given a freedom to say “yes” to God. We are given a freedom to obey his commandments. We are given a freedom to love. And apparently we are also given a freedom to say “no” to all the above. Even for the Spirit-filled, born-from-above believer, hell remains a possibility, an impossible, terrifying possibility.

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit (Heb 6:4).

Calvin and his successors sought to negate the threat by insisting on divine monergism and the predestination of the elect. God will ensure that those whom he has chosen for salvation will persevere in faith. The threat of damnation is thus eliminated for the elect. Of course, a new problem is created: Who are the elect? How do I determine whether I am one of them? Am I truly regenerate, truly born again? My faith looks and feels genuine; but counterfeit faith always remains a possibility. Yes, I’m doing good works, but they are never enough to satisfy the condemning conscience. I may be performing them for the wrong motives. As C. S. Lewis wrote to Dom Bede Griffiths:

The bad (material) tree cannot produce good fruit. But oddly, it can produce fruits that by all external tests are indistinguishable from the good ones: the act done from one’s own separate and unredeemed, tho’ “moral” will, looks exactly like the act done by Christ in us. And oddly enough it is the tree’s real duty to go on producing these imitation fruits till it recognizes this futility and despairs and is made a new (spiritual) tree. (Quoted in Leanne Payne, Real Presence [1979], p. 100.)

Puritan and Reformed theology has struggled with this for four hundred years, to no resolution. We cannot penetrate by our intellectual efforts into the inscrutable will of the sovereign God. Christ may be the mirror of my election, but how do I know if the promise of salvation is truly spoken to me? How do I know if I have fulfilled the saving condition of faith? How do I know I am predestined to heaven and not to hell? At one point some Reformed preachers actually got to the point where they could not speak directly and personally to any given sinner the words “Christ died for you,” because they could not confidently determine who the elect were. And so gospel preaching became reduced to the third-person proclamation “Christ died for sinners” (see James Daane’s The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit [1973]). J. I. Packer nobly attempted to escape this problem in his Introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ; but for Packer the gospel remains third-person proclamation. It is up to the individual sinner to apply to himself through his repentance the general message “Christ died for sinners.” But the sinner who finds himself in the condition of the anguished conscience needs to know quite specifically that Christ died for him, not just for the elect. I need to know that God’s saving love is intended for me! All preachers who have been shaped by Robert Jenson’s and George Lindbeck’s hermeneutical understanding of justification, as I have been, must emphatically reject the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement and the way it necessarily distorts the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Reformation didn’t solve the problem of assurance. It accentuated it. The Reformation only succeeded in turning the sinner’s gaze around into the black abyss of the human heart. The anguished conscience remains. It’s a minority problem, of course. Most Christians have not struggled with it and do not struggle with it. Most Christians live lives of humble faith, doing good works, saying their prayers, and trusting and fearing the final judgment of the gracious and holy God, hoping but not knowing what that final judgment will be. As one of my good friends who was struggling with serious sin in her life once told me, “I cannot presently repent, but I accept whatever God’s judgment upon my life might be. Who better to judge my life than the Father of Jesus?” As for the rest of us, perhaps Prozac has solved the problem. But the problem of the anguished conscience is ecumenical. It doesn’t matter if one is Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, or Orthodox.

For all orthodox Christians, mortal sin remains a terrifying threat … unless one is willing to adopt a heretical theological position that affirms both divine monergism and God’s universal salvific will, resulting in universal salvation. If God will ultimately cause all human beings, including me, to freely love him, then I don’t have to be afraid of Hell. Only this option gets the monkey of damnation off my back. Yet neither the New Testament nor catholic tradition permits me to affirm universal salvation. The Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553) dogmatically anathematized the assertion of apocatastasis. We cannot wave our theological wands and make Hell vanish!

10 December 2004


Speaking as both a pastor and penitent, how helpful is the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin?

Let’s first define our terms. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read the following: “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent’” (#1857). “One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent” (#1862).

This mortal/venial sin distinction makes good sense to me. It has biblical basis (1 John 5:16-17), and I suspect that all pastors have used this distinction, in one way or another, in their counseling of penitents. Sometimes parishioners come to us tortured by sins, real or imagined, that simply are not serious or whose seriousness is mitigated by circumstances. Part of our job as pastors and confessors is to help our parishioners to evaluate themselves fairly and honestly, and sometimes much more gently. Yet the need for repentance and absolution still remains. Sin is sin. We cannot honestly tell our people that sin does not matter. It matters.

The Catholic Catechism states that the first condition of mortal sin is grave matter. The Ten Commandments are suggested as a good place to begin for the identification of grave sins (#1858). Again, this seems right. The early Church identified specific actions as so gravely contrary to the will of God that excommunication was deemed necessary (murder, apostasy, adultery, abortion, and infanticide). These sins were judged mortal because they excluded the sinner from the Eucharist and the sanctifying life of the Church. But the category of grave sin has been expanded to include sins beyond the Ten Commandments, though no doubt it can be argued they are implied in them. A search of the Catholic Catechism reveals that the following are considered grave sins also: hatred of neighbor; failure to participate in the Eucharist on days of holy obligation without good cause; homosexual acts; premarital sex; cohabitation; masturbation; artificial contraception; abusive language, if accompanied by destructive intention; perjury; lying, if it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity. I’m sure there are many others. Ultimately we are not talking about transgressions of an external standard, for which penalty points are assigned, but the destruction of charity in our hearts in our relationship to God and his world. Our love of God cannot be abstracted from the choices that we make in our daily lives.

The determination of grave sin, therefore, is complex business. There are actions that are identified as objectively grave in and of themselves. There are actions that become grave if accompanied by evil motivations. And there are attitudes of the heart that are rightly judged as grave. The seven deadly sins immediately come to mind.

The Catechism tells us that “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion” (#1385). What I want to know is how can anyone not be conscious of grave sin in their lives by the end of the week. Does this mean that we should all be making weekly confessions? Are we sinning if we do not?

Sin is a serious matter. The consequences are eternal. There is sin that is truly mortal. Our culture prefers a sentimental universalism. We want to believe that, excepting Adolf Hitler and a few other nasty people with whom we do not want to share eternity, we are all pretty nice people bound for heavenly glory. But the catholic tradition knows that Hell is a possibility even for nice, decent people. Peter Kreeft explains how the mortal/venial sin distinction bears on our eternal destiny:

Venial sin damages the relationship with God; mortal sin destroys it. Venial sin is like a fight between spouses; mortal sin is like a divorce. To die in a state of mortal sin is to lose heaven forever. For there is no more time for repentance and conversion after death. (Catholic Christianity, p. 197)

We all want to believe, no matter what choices we are presently making in our lives, no matter what our actions may be, no matter what our sins of omission and commission, that at our death we will gladly run into the merciful embrace of our Judge and Savior. But will we?

11 December 2004


Mortal sin cannot ultimately be reduced to transgression of divine law. As profound as the Church’s concern for the moral order of the world is, she also has a deeper concern—the eternal salvation of every human being. And it is out of this concern that she has formulated the concept of mortal sin.

Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1861)

What a remarkable freedom God has given to human beings—the freedom to obey his commands, the freedom to love and fear him, the freedom to spend eternity in his holy and gracious presence, and, most terrifying of all, the freedom to separate ourselves from him forever. It is this freedom that is embodied in our choices, decisions, and actions.

When I was in seminary I ran across an article by Charles Curran on “the fundamental option.” It’s been twenty-five years since I last read it, so feel free to correct me if I misrepresent Curran’s views. But as I recall, Curran’s thesis is that our individual acts do not necessarily affect our fundamental orientation before God. No single act, no matter how grave, need be considered a mortal sin. What is important is whether we remain open to God’s love and mercy. Curran’s approach to the question of mortal sin appealed to me, as I’m sure it does to most Episcopalians. I could immediately stop worrying about the impact of my actions upon my relationship with God, as long as I avoided the big no-no’s of the Ten Commandments. I easily integrated Curran’s fundamental option into my interpretation of C. S. Lewis’s Great Divorce … And then I added a good dose of Martin Luther and … voila! … What, me worry? Hell no longer posed a threat. The other bozo’s on Lewis’s bus may have chosen to return to their squalid existence in the grey town; but I was confident that, if given half a chance, I would decide for Heaven. Absolutely. No problema. I was grateful to Curran for providing just the theological justification I needed to discard the antiquated notion of mortal sin. Praise be to God! Hell quickly ceased to be a concern. And so for over twenty years I never preached a single sermon devoted to Hell and I never seriously warned anyone of the possibility of eternal perdition. I was a practical universalist. All was grace and growth in grace. No fear. I acknowledged the theoretical possibility of Hell, but I wasn’t worried for the eternal salvation of any of the folks I hung around with. Who in their right mind would choose to return to the grey town?

But over the past year I have discovered, to my chagrin, that the fundamental option theory has been severely criticized by the Catholic magisterium. Now as an Anglican I do not need to take the Vatican’s criticisms with solemn seriousness; but when I read Pope John Paul II’s critique of fundamental option theory in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (65-68), I had to change my tune. I find the Pope’s criticisms of fundamental option to be compelling:

By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter.

Faith in Christ, in other words, cannot be divorced from the various concrete ways this faith is incarnated in our moral lives. “Show me your faith apart from your works,” the Apostle James writes, “and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18). Clearly faith is a mystery that cannot be reduced to a transcendental relation to God independent of the concrete actualities of living. To one degree or another, my acts are directed to or away from God. I am whom I live to be. Assent, trust, hope, love, good works—all together form the mystery of my personhood in relationship with my Lord and Savior. I cannot say that I love God while freely choosing to disobey his commandments. I cannot say that I trust in the promises of Christ while freely choosing to live a life of infidelity and dishonesty.

Underlying all of this is the dazzling and terrifying gift of freedom in Jesus Christ. When considered in light of our eternal destiny, are any sins truly venial? “No sin is too great for God’s forgiveness to save us from,” writes Peter Kreeft, “but no sin is too small to damn us if we refuse to repent of it” (Catholic Christianity, p. 123). Or in the famous words of C. S. Lewis: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it.”

The Catholic Catechism is thus wise to insist that while we can properly judge an act to be a grave violation of God’s moral will, we cannot ultimately judge whether the person who commits that act is guilty of mortal sin. If this is true for our judgment of others, how much more true is it for our judgment of ourselves! There is only one Judge and before him we each must stand. In him we will meet absolute truth. Through him we will discover the truth of our lives. Only then will we learn whether we have chosen Heaven or Hell. As St John Maximovitch states:

When “the books are opened,” it will become clear that the roots of all vices lie in the human soul. Here is a drunkard or a lecher: when the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too. No! There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and that sin was sweet to the soul, and if the soul has not repented of the sin and has not freed itself from it, it will come to the Last Judgement also with the same desire for sin. It will never safisfy that desire and in that soul there will be the suffering of hatred. It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition, it will hate everyone and everything. ‘There will be gnashing of teeth’ of powerless malice and the unquenchable fire of hatred. A “fiery gehenna”—such is the inner fire. “There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Such is the state of hell.

Let there be no minimizing of the danger of sin. There is sin that is mortal. “In each of us,” Lewis writes, “there is something growing up which will of itself be Hell unless it is nipped in the bud. The matter is serious: let us put ourselves in His hands at once—this very day, this hour.”

12 December 2004


Karl Barth speaks for the Reformed tradition when he rejects the traditional distinction between mortal and venial sins. This distinction, he writes, “assumes a quantitative concept of sin which cannot be united with the decisive seriousness of the divine judgment and the human situation under this judgment. It can serve only to veil the depth of human misery and therefore the depth of the free grace of God” (Church Dogmatics, IV/2:493). Given Barth’s dual assertion that in Christ sin has been judged and man has been justified, it is not surprising that Barth would find the mortal/venial sin distinction to be useless and misleading.

But the distinction between mortal and venial sins has enjoyed a place within the dogmatic tradition of Lutheranism. 16th century theologian Martin Chemnitz discusses this distinction at length in his Loci Theologici. Chemnitz makes the following points:

1) From God’s perspective, all sins, no matter how insignificant, are mortal and “worthy of the curse and eternal death” (II:675). He approvingly cites Luther here:

Mortal sin and venial sin are distinguished from each other not on the basis of the substance of the deed involved or according to some difference in the sin committed, but on the basis of the person or because of the difference of those who commit the sin.

There are of course degrees of gravity between sins and so “there are also degrees among the damned because of the difference in their sins. Yet all are in damnation” (II:675).

2) Consequently, it is difficult to know when a person has committed a mortal sin in this life, but Chemnitz suggests the following criterion: mortal sins in the regenerate can be recognized “when the regenerate refuse to repent, do not fight against sin but indulge in wicked lusts and knowingly and willingly act upon them. For where there is no repentance, there there is no faith, and no grace. When a person refuses to repent, at the same time the Holy Spirit is driven out and faith is lost” (II:676). And with the loss of faith the grace of God, the remission of sins, and the inheritance of eternal life are lost “and the person is again guilty of the wrath of God, eternal death, and condemnation” (II:678).

Yet even still, the person who has committed mortal sin may be saved by repentance and the return to Christ.

3) Sins are venial in the regenerate when they are accompanied by the struggle against sinful desires and continual repentance. Even if a person consents to sin, the sin is demonstrated to be venial if he immediately repents of his sin:

Even if the fires of depraved lusts in their great power take the regenerate as captives either to the point of consent or to the actual performance of some evil work, yet if they immediately repent in sorrow and in faith seek forgiveness, it is certain that the Holy Spirit has been grieved or hurt, but not yet crushed, and faith and the grace of God have not been lost. For the Holy Spirit works in the regenerate that he may rise again as a righteous person, even if he falls seven times in a day. (II:679)

Chemnitz is clear, however, that repentance involves more than just an acknowledgement of sin but a change in behavior: “For what kind of nonsense is it to devise for ourselves a license to sin and in our hearts to say, ‘It will do no harm as I say to myself that I am repenting’” (II:681). This is the appearance of repentance; it is not true repentance.

The 17th century dogmatician David Hollaz offers a similar definition of mortal and venial sin, though with a twist:

A mortal sin precipitates the sinner into a state of wrath, death, and condemnation, so that, if he should die in this state, and without repentance, he would be eternally condemned; but a venial sin, because it has pardon as an inseparable attendant, can consist with the grace of God and saving faith. (Quoted by Adam Cooper)

What is interesting about Hollaz’s definition is the apparent assertion that venial sin is forgiven the moment it is committed. I would love to hear a Lutheran elaborate upon this. Perhaps Hollaz simply has in mind the argument made by Chemnitz that if a sin occurs within a life that is struggling in faith against sin, then it cannot be mortal. The justified Christian lives his life within the circle of God’s grace. Since he does not intend by his venial sin to reject this grace, the sin may be said to be forgiven at its occurrence. These sins do not drive away the Holy Spirit nor do they call into question the standing of the sinner before God in the Church.

Is there here a real difference between the Lutheran and Catholic understandings? Both agree that a mortal sin requires a full commitment of the will. Both affirm that the life of grace and the Holy Spirit may be recovered through repentance and faith. But there is a difference in emphases, is there not? If I am reading the literature rightly, the Catholic wants to say that the graver the sin, the more spiritually dangerous the sin is likely to be (recall Pope John Paul’s critique of fundamental option); the Lutheran wants to say that even the smallest sin can become mortal and therefore we all need to be on our guard against spiritual laxity.

I admit that I find the mortal and venial sin distinction unclear. It seems to me that two different, though related, concerns are being confused. On the one hand, there is the Catholic concern to accurately identify and classify sins by degrees of moral seriousness. On the other hand, there is the Lutheran concern to negotiate the eschatological relationship between God’s unmerited grace and the eternal destiny of the individual sinner. The Catholic acknowledges the Lutheran concern by refusing, willy nilly, to identify grave sins and mortal sins—hence the insistence of the Catechism that we may not judge another as guilty of mortal sin. Only God can judge. The Lutheran acknowledges the Catholic concern by acknowledging degrees of seriousness of moral acts. All sins are not equal. An individual may not willfully murder another and yet at the same time believe in Christ as Lord and Savior. Such acts deny the covenantal relationship between Christ and the sinner and destroy the life of grace. But it must be said that the Lutheran is most concerned, not with specifying the degrees of gravity between sins, but with the willful and intentional act of sin and its consequences upon the life of faith. C. F. W. Walther writes:

The light of faith can be extinguished not only by gross sins, but by any willful, intentional sin. They plan to do a certain thing and carry out their purpose, although they know that it is contrary to God’s Word. In such instances faith becomes extinct…. As soon as faith is lost through some mortal sin, the grace of God is also lost, and such a person becomes a child of death and damnation. He may return to faith and ultimately be saved, but in the interval he was not a blessed, but an utterly miserable, lost creature. (Quoted by Sam Degner.)

But let me register here a very different Lutheran voice, Robert W. Jenson (“The Division of the Moral Person,” Lutheran Seminary Bulletin [Feb. 1975], pp. 44-52). According to Jenson, every human being stands under the judgment of God and the judgment of man. These two judgments create a division of the moral person, because there is no direct connection between the two judgments. According to the court of humanity, our moral worth is determined by our service to our neighbors. In this court our faith in God counts for nothing. All that matters is how well we have served humanity, how well we have given ourselves to the good of our fellow man. “The unbeliever’s bread is good in this court,” writes Jenson, “and the believer’s faith and mere wishes are evil. If the neighbor’s belly is full, the neighbor will affirm that that is good, and in this court that ends the dicussion. If I filled that belly then my deed is good in this court. And in this court even God makes no private judgments of his own–He simply confirms the judgment of the neighbor” (p. 46).

In the court of God, however, it’s a different story. In the gospel God speaks to us his last and final judgment upon the value of our lives, and it is “utterly independent of all judgments we make on ourselves and each other.” The gospel is God’s eschatological word let loose into the present—”You are justified!”—and it is this word that determines our true identity:

Before God, our deeds are what they morally are as God finds them good or bad for his purposes, as he is able to accept and use them. God’s purposes are those which are established in that the Lord Jesus is risen; which means that God accepts all created realities, including our deeds, as objects and matter for the promises of the gospel. In other courts our deeds are some of them good and some of them bad; but in this court they are all of them the matter of the promise. They are all of them that which we heap up in order that God may affirm some of them and forgive others of them; and alike with his affirmation and with his forgiveness create his kingdom. Therefore, in this forum all we can do is turn our deeds over to God as the raw materials of the kingdom. Our evening prayer is: “Lord, here are my acts of the day. Keep them in your memory, for the kingdom, for Jesus’ sake.” Again the anthropological axiom: we are what we do. Before God, therefore, we simply are whatever it is that God in his eschatological wisdom proposes to make of us in the kingdom; that is all there is to us before God. The Reformation term for the moral selfhood posited in this unconditional affirmation by God, was “faith.” The self of faith is transcendent to all moral judgments. The self of faith exists only by God’s unconditional will to use us in and for the kingdom. As this self, therefore, as this Jenson, I am “free Lord of all,” subject to no person’s critique—not yours, not any other human’s, not even the devil’s, and not even my own. If God says I am his dearly beloved child, then I am, no matter what you may—even justifiably—call me. (p. 46)

Here is a way of looking at matters that is, quite frankly, virtually incomprehensible to the Catholic Christian. For Jenson, the gospel is itself the Word of God that recreates the sinner. If God tells me that I am righteous, then I am truly righteous. If God tells me that I am alive in the Spirit of his kingdom, then I am truly alive. If God tells me that, despite my ungodliness and disbelief, he will conquer my sin and make me into a person who loves him completely and totally, then I will be and indeed already am such a a person. By God’s Word I am fit for heaven and all of its glories.

Yet in the present we stand with one foot in the court of the world and one foot in the court of God. We are therefore divided persons, divided by the moral judgment of the law and by the eschatological judgment of God. The unification of these two selves must await the coming of Christ in glory.

For now I hang between two selves, crucified in my moral self-fulfillment. I can never surely grasp myself as a moral subject; for as a moral subject I am in the eschatological making. I cannot guarantee what I “really” am; for I really am not any one thing at all. I cannot guarantee why I really do what I do; for I really do what I do for contradictory reasons. I cannot guarantee my “authenticity,” or “get my head together,” or “get hold of myself,” or any other item of that litany. And if you peel me as you would an onion, when you get to the core of Jenson what you will find is two cores of different colors. It is not possible for me to take judgment into my own hand and confront the world as an autonomous moral person, for there is no one of me to do that. I can only, to use Luther’s phrase, “sin bravely”; I can only act in hope and fear and trembling. (p. 47)

Thus the question of mortal sin cannot arise for Jenson, because to ask “Have I separated myself from God through mortal sin?” is to look away from the external promise of the gospel that has been and is continually spoken to me by the Church and sealed to me in baptism and eucharist. It is this promise that tells me that I am a child of Heaven. To turn away from this external Word and to introspectively analyze my motivations is to return to the damnable state of incurvatus in se from which the gospel has liberated me. “Surely a mortal sin, if we must needs use the language,” Jens wrote to me earlier this year, “is simply one that proves mortal—which cannot be known in this life.”

I do not know how to negotiate Jenson and traditional Catholicism. Are the two positions irreconcilable? The traditional Catholic position has ascetical commonsense and most of the catholic tradition behind it. Yet Jenson’s position captures something of the wonder of the kingdom of God that we find in the gospels and the epistles of Paul. Everything is turned upside down. Sinners enter Heaven before the righteous. The kingdom is present and not yet. The deaf hear. The lame walk. The blind see. The dead are raised to new life. When confronted by the eschatological reality given to us Christ Jesus, our distinctions between mortal and venial sin seem woefully inadequate.

13 December 2004


The street-corner evangelist asks, Are you saved, brother?

That is the question. It is this question that plagued Martin Luther. Until his tower experience. And the Western Church was torn asunder.

Clearly Martin Luther was a man tormented in ways that ordinary people are not. Those of us who suffer deep depression can sympathize with his sufferings. But should pathology and excessive scrupulosity be allowed to govern our theological and ecclesial reflections? What if Prozac had been around? Would the Reformation have happened if Luther had been in therapy? Without the anfechtung of Luther to drive it, perhaps the Reformation might have been a reformation within the Church rather than a schismatical break from the Church.

In any case, Luther’s was a search for assurance. Eventually he came to believe that he had found assurance in his peculiar doctrine of justification by faith. Did it really solve his problem, though? Luther scholars can correct me here, but from the little I have read, it sounds like Luther was plagued by his anfechtung throughout his life.

Can we know that we are saved?
Let’s tackle this question by asking several other questions.

Can we know that God loves every human being unconditionally, apart from their merits and despite their sins?
Answer: Yes, absolutely. This is the gospel that has been proclaimed to the world for two thousand years–sola gratia!

Can any given human being know that God loves him personally?
Answer: Yes, absolutely. This is what Holy Baptism is all about.

Can a baptized Christian know that God forgives his sins?
Answer: Yes, absolutely. This is what the sacrament of Penance is all about.

Can a human being know whether he is presently in a state of grace?
Answer: Hmmm. Now things start to get more complicated. Let’s assume that we have not recently committed any of the top ten grave sins or that if we have, we have repented of them and have been absolved. Each Sunday we attend the Eucharist and partake of the body and blood of Christ. We say our prayers. We try to do the right thing most of the time. When we fail to love our neighbors, as we do in so many ways each day, we ask the Lord to forgive us and to help us. More often than not, it is convention and circumstances that keep us from committing more serious sins than we do, yet we try to live good lives. We live, pray, and die in the communion of the Church. This sure sounds like a state of grace to me. I suspect that the overwhelming majority of believers for the past two thousand years have experienced this kind of life precisely as a life of grace and have died in hopeful expectation that God would receive them into his kingdom. And this is just fine. It’s the way it should be.

But hold on, we say. It’s possible to go through all the external motions of Christian living and yet not really believe. There seem to be so very few saints in our midst. Most of us—all of us?—are still pretty selfish, still of the world, still in need of deep and radical conversion. At this point C. S. Lewis’ parable The Great Divorce comes to mind. A bunch of the “damned” take a bus ride to Heaven, and each of them is encouraged to stay in Heaven. There’s only one catch. They have to leave their favorite sins behind. One by one, with one exception, the damned return to Hell—which is why they are damned.

Can I really know that I will choose to stay in Heaven? Can I really know that I love God more than I love myself? Can I really know if I believe and trust the promises of Christ? Can I really know whether I am trusting in Christ alone or am also trusting in my good works or my faith or spiritual gifts for my righteousness? Can I really know if I have truly repented of my sins? Can I really know whether I gave my life to Christ when I came forward at that Billy Graham crusade? Can I really know whether I was filled with the Spirit when the preacher laid his hands on me? Can I really know that the consolations that I experience are authentic. Can I really know that my present faith is real and not counterfeit? There are so many ways we can pose the question, but it is always the same question:

Can I really know the real and final truth about my heart in relationship to God?
Answer: No, I cannot really know. (I put aside, for the moment, special revelation from God.) I cannot presently know myself as God knows me. I am as much a mystery to myself today as I was forty years ago, if not more so. My feelings come and go. My faith waxes and wanes. Sin remains strong in my life. Sometimes I believe that God loves me, and sometimes I fear his condemnation. Sometimes I truly fear that I would choose creaturely goods and loves above all else. In the final analysis, all I can do is to put the matter into God’s hands and trust in his merciful and good and true judgment.

Am I saved? My baptism tells me precisely that I am—or more precisely, God tells me in baptism that I am. The old Prayer Book Catechism gives us the answer in the first two questions and answers:

Question. What is your Name?
Answer. N. or N. N.
Question. Who gave you this Name?
Answer. My Sponsors in Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

All I can do is rely on the promise spoken and sealed to me by Christ in the baptismal sacrament, a promise renewed to me in eucharist and penance. I do not know, cannot really know, any more than this promise. Only God knows my heart. When I turn away from the Word and look into the mystery of my soul, I find a murderer, adulterer, thief, liar. If God consigns me to Hell, then his will is good. If I ultimately find myself in Hell, it will only be because that is what I want. I pray, though, that God will give me a heart that will desire with every breath to spend eternity with him in the community of the Holy Trinity. In the meantime, I rely upon the baptismal promise. I can do no else.

But what if my heart still insists on an answer? What if I continue to torture myself through endless introspection and self-examination? Perhaps then the words of Luther may be of help:

Let every man, then, so practise with himself, that his conscience may be fully assured that he is under grace, and that his person and his works do please God. And if he feel any wavering or doubting, let him exercise his faith, and wrestle against it, and labour to attain more strength and assurance of faith, so that he may be able to say, I know that I am accepted, and that I have the Holy Ghost: not for mine own worthiness, work, or merit, but for Christ’s sake, who of His love towards us made Himself subject to the law, and took away the sins of the world. In Him do I believe. If I am a sinner, and err, He is righteous and cannot err. Moreover, I gladly hear, read, write, and sing of Him, and desire nothing more than that His gospel may be known to the whole world, and that many may be converted to Him. These things do plainly witness that the Holy Ghost is present with us and in us.

This is a powerful word, especially when read in the context of Luther’s strong objective understanding of the sacraments. Yet I also wonder about its universal pastoral wisdom. For some it may be just the right word. Yet for others it could lead into even greater despair. For some it might be right to say, Wrestle with your doubts and anxieties until you believe more strongly. But for others it might be right to say, Accept, ignore, and forget your lack of assurance and focus instead on trying to live like our Lord. Sometimes we simply need to be told to give alms, help the poor, and serve our neighbor. The “correct” pastoral answer may well differ for every believer. May the Spirit guide our pastors, spiritual directors, and soul friends to speak the right word to us at the time of our greatest need.

Lack of assurance is an ecumenical problem. It cannot be solved by theological sleight-of-hand, unless of course one opts for a heretical and easy universalism. We are sinners who live by grace and wait for its fulfillment in our lives. Come, Lord Jesus. Richard John Neuhaus summarizes accurately our present condition under the mercy of Christ:

Make no mistake: hell is real. Eternal separation from God is a distinct possibility to be feared, and to be feared first of all for ourselves. The passages of warning are to be taken with utmost, indeed ultimate, seriousness. God only knows who, if any, are damned. Our unqualified prayer is that God’s will be done. Do I know beyond a possibility of doubt that I will not be damned? Of course not. To answer otherwise is the sin of presumption. I believe, I have a confident faith, that I will be saved because of the mercy of God in Christ. It is sometimes said that Protestants, who subscribe to “justification by faith,” know they will be saved, while Catholics only hope they will be saved. That is a distinction without a difference. Faith is hope anticipated, and hope is faith disposed toward the future.

I conclude this series of reflections on grace, mortal sin, and Hell with the words of the psalmist:

For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be greatly shaken. (Ps 62:1-2)

15 December 2004


I have been skimming through Christopher Malloy’s book Engrafted into Christ (2005). This book is a critique, from a Tridentine perspective, of the Lutheran/Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification. Unfortunately, my present schedule does not allow me to sit down and read it cover-to-cover before I have to return it to the library; but I have been able to read sections of the book.

I am particularly interested in Malloy’s assertion that the Declaration undermines the Catholic understanding of mortal and venial sin. “Traditional Lutheran teaching,” he writes, “avoids the distinction between mortal and venial sins, though Lutherans, unlike those in the Reformed tradition, admit that true faith can be lost and with it, justification. Still, only the loss of faith, on account of which God justifies the sinner, is held to be truly damning” (p. 289). This is perhaps not true for all Lutherans (see “Can we know our mortal sins?”); but it’s true enough. Generally speaking, for Reformation theology damning sin is “always and only unbelief.”

Malloy notes that the typical Lutheran view bears strong resemblence to some contemporary Catholic construals of “fundamental option.” Each human being, in the depths of his being, makes a fundamental decision for or against God. A person who has made a basic decision for God exists in a state of grace; a person who has made a basic decision against God exists in a state of judgment This primary attitude underlies all moral acts. Our acts can be signs of one’s fundamental option, but they do not cause it or necessarily reflect it. Hence one can be in a state of grace even while freely disobeying God in a grave matter.

In his encylical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II condemns those construals of fundamental option that divorce moral acts and one’s basic orientation to God (65-68):

These tendencies are therefore contrary to the teaching of Scripture itself, which sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly to particular acts. By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter.

To separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behaviour means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul. A fundamental option understood without explicit consideration of the potentialities which it puts into effect and the determinations which express it does not do justice to the rational finality immanent in man’s acting and in each of his deliberate decisions. (67)

My relationship to God in love and faith is indeed affected by my moral choices. My orientation to God is actualized and determined by the decisions I make in my day-to-day life. My faith, and disfaith, is embodied in my actions. If I knowingly and freely violate one of the Ten Commandments, I deny the love of God and his claim upon my life, even if I do not consciously intend to do so.

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matt 7:21)

We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1 John 2:3-4)

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:19-20)

The Christian’s fundamental option is the baptismal covenant. When the believer commits a serious sin, deliberately and with full consent, he violates the baptismal covenant and destroys the life of the Spirit (sanctifying grace) within him: our sin becomes mortal. When this happens, he needs to return to his baptism through the sacrament of penance and be restored to the life of grace. It is true that none of us are in the position to judge ourselves as God judges us, that none of us are capable of discerning whether any given moral action entails the necessary degree of freedom and knowledge to make a sin truly mortal. But we do know when a sin is serious, when its object is of grave matter. Hence when we sin seriously, or subsequently realize we have sinned seriously, the most prudent thing for us to do is to get ourselves to “the box” as quickly as possible and avail ourselves of the sacramental mercy of our God.

I am beginning to think that Malloy may be right when he says that a critical difference exists between the Catholic and Reformation understandings of grace and sin. To detach faith from its necessary personal embodiment in our moral actions is to underwrite antinomianism. A clear distinction between mortal and venial sins is crucial.

14 March 2006


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