This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) — and some of Book III — of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.
Related reading from yours truly:
Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)
A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)
Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)
III, 4:28 / 14:10 / 18:10
Here they take refuge in the absurd distinction that some sins are venial and others mortal; that for the latter a weighty satisfaction is due, but that the former are purged by easier remedies; by the Lord’s Prayer, the sprinkling of holy water, and the absolution of the Mass. Thus they insult and trifle with God. And yet, though they have the terms venial and mortal sin continually in their mouth, they have not yet been able to distinguish the one from the other, except by making impiety and impurity of heart to be venial sin. We, on the contrary, taught by the Scripture standard of righteousness and unrighteousness, declare that “the wages of sin is death;” and that “the soul that sinneth, it shall die,” (Rom. 6:23; Ezek. 18:20). The sins of believers are venial, not because they do not merit death, but because by the mercy of God there is “now no condemnation to those which are in Christ Jesus” their sin being not imputed, but effaced by pardon. I know how unjustly they calumniate this our doctrine; for they say it is the paradox of the Stoics concerning the equality of sins: but we shall easily convict them out of their own mouths. I ask them whether, among those sins which they hold to be mortal, they acknowledge a greater and a less? If so, it cannot follow, as a matter of course, that all sins which are mortal are equal. Since Scripture declares that the wages of sin is death,—that obedience to the law is the way to life,—the transgression of it the way to death,—they cannot evade this conclusion. In such a mass of sins, therefore, how will they find an end to their satisfactions? If the satisfaction for one sin requires one day, while preparing it they involve themselves in more sins; since no man, however righteous, passes one day without falling repeatedly. While they prepare themselves for their satisfactions, number, or rather numbers without number, will be added. Confidence in satisfaction being thus destroyed, what more would they have? How do they still dare to think of satisfying? (III, 4:28)
John Calvin apparently read a different Bible, or else his had many passages edited out of it – such as the ones I shall now present for consideration. What he thinks is “absurd” is quite matter-of-fact and casually assumed in Holy Scripture. It just depends where one looks. He produces a few passages that he thinks obliterate these distinctions, but they do not. Here are the most directly obvious and relevant passages in this regard:
James 1:14-15 but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.
1 John 5:16-17 If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that.  All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.
The Bible often indicates a difference in the degree or seriousness of various sins: precisely the basis that underlies the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins:
Luke 12:47-48 And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating.  But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.
Luke 23:34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” . . .
John 9:41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
John 19:11 . . . he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.
1 Timothy 1:13 . . . I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,
Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,
James 3:1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.
Secondly, the Bible frequently refers to (mortal or deadly) sins that will exclude a person from heaven if he or she doesn’t repent and stop committing them. Again, this is exactly what the Catholic Church teaches: some sins are sufficiently serious enough to separate one from God, to cause a lack of grace provided by Him, and, ultimately, with no change, apostasy and possibly damnation.
Other sins won’t cause all that, but it’s still good to repent of them and reform one’s ways, because no sin of any degree of seriousness is good for the soul:
Matthew 10:33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 25:41-46 Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,  I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts,  nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Galatians 5:19-21 Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness,  idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit,  envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Ephesians 5:3-6 But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints.  Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving.  Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.
Revelation 22:14-15 Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.  Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and every one who loves and practices falsehood.
Even were it possible for us to perform works absolutely pure, yet one sin is sufficient to efface and extinguish all remembrance of former righteousness, as the prophet says (Ezek. 18:24). With this James agrees, “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all,” (James 2:10). And since this mortal life is never entirely free from the taint of sin, whatever righteousness we could acquire would ever and anon be corrupted, overwhelmed, and destroyed, by subsequent sins, so that it could not stand the scrutiny of God, or be imputed to us for righteousness. (III, 14:10)
But the rule with regard to unrighteousness is very different. The adulterer or the thief is by one act guilty of death, because he offends against the majesty of God. The blunder of these arguers of ours lies here: they attend not to the words of James, “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill,” &c. (James 2:10, 11). Therefore, it should not seem absurd when we say that death is the just recompense of every sin, because each sin merits the just indignation and vengeance of God. (III, 18:10)
Calvin engages in his usual “take it to the extreme” / “either/or” exegesis, when it comes to disagreeing with traditional Catholic Christianity, passed down for nearly 1500 years up to his time. It’s quite easy in context to see that he makes this mistake with regard to Ezekiel 18. He states his interpretation of Ezekiel 18:24 as, “yet one sin is sufficient to efface and extinguish all remembrance of former righteousness.”
No, the prophet does not say any such thing! He is speaking generally and broadly of the sinners’ life vs. the life of the redeemed, righteous man. The verse (first part) states: “But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity and does the same abominable things that the wicked man does, shall he live?”
Notice that the sins are plural: not one little sin that supposedly undoes everything, as in Calvin’s schema. Ezekiel is teaching, in effect: “if you live in sin as the wicked and evil people do, you will [spiritually] die.” This is referring to people who give themselves totally over to sin (including mortal sins). These are what separate a person from God, not one white lie or lustful thought or stealing a cookie from the cookie jar.
Context makes this interpretation rather clear and obvious:
Ezekiel 18:5-13 “If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right —  if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of impurity,  does not oppress any one, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment,  does not lend at interest or take any increase, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between man and man,  walks in my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances — he is righteous, he shall surely live, says the Lord GOD.  “If he begets a son who is a robber, a shedder of blood,  who does none of these duties, but eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife,  oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination,  lends at interest, and takes increase; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.
The prophet continues in the same vein in 18:14-23. This is not Calvin’s “one sin”; it’s a host of sins, a lifestyle: a life given over to wanton wickedness and unrighteousness. Then in 18:26 he reiterates: “When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die for it; for the iniquity which he has committed he shall die.” If that weren’t clear enough, he refers again to “all the transgressions” (18:28, 31) and “all your transgressions” (18:30).
Again, he is plainly not talking about merely one sin, however small, but rather, a commitment to give oneself over to sin. We know this from the context, because the meaning is spelled out very clearly, in the greatest detail. But it’s easy to jerk one verse out of context and pretend that it means something different. Calvin literally abuses Scripture in order to bolster up a false tenet in his partially novel, heretical theology.
He does the same with James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” The fallacy here is the equation of keeping the law with all attempts to be moral and righteous whatever. The two are not identical. If they were, Paul would not have contrasted the law and grace, as he often does (e.g., Rom 5:20; 6:14-15; Gal 2:21; 5:4; cf. Jn 1:17). Calvin understands this distinction full well and teaches it himself. It’s elementary New Testament soteriology. Yet when it suits his purpose, all of that knowledge gets tossed out the window, and he engages in sophistry and eisegetes one verse to try to prove a false doctrine. This won’t do. One must be both consistent and honest in the interpretation of the Bible
In any event, James proves in the same letter that he himself recognizes qualitative differences or degrees of sin: “we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). He also teaches that “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (5:16). This mans that there are people who are relatively more righteous, and that God honors this by making their prayers more powerful and efficacious (James offers the example of the prophet Elijah: 5:17-18).
If there is a lesser and greater righteousness, in this way, then by the same token there are lesser (venial) and greater (mortal) sins also, since to be less righteous is to be more sinful, and vice versa.
Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]