Something Protestants should borrow from Catholics

Something Protestants should borrow from Catholics August 15, 2011

Earlier (some months ago now) I posted an essay here arguing for a Protestant version of purgatory.  (Hold your fire unless you’ve read that post!)

Now I’d like to argue for a Protestant version of categories of sin–something like the Catholic categories of mortal and venial.

Recently someone commenting here repeated the Protestant cliche that all sins are equal.  I think that is folk religion UNLESS it has been reflected on critically and a strong biblical case made for it.  Far too many Protestants simply mindlessly repeat it having no idea that it conflicts with scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

Now, IF all it means is that all sins (like sinfulness itself!) offend God and harm (if not destroy) relationship with God…fine.  We could easily transfer that to human experience and say that every little act of selfishness harms any relationship.  But we also know from experience that, in a relationship of love, not every act of selfishness equally harms the relationship.

So what is my biblical evidence for this distinction between sins that can destroy a relationship with God (at least in this life if not in the next) and sins that harm but do not destroy it?  Romans 14:23 says that whatever is not done with faith is sin.  Can anyone claim he or she always does everything with faith?  What about sins of ignorance and omission?  Jesus talked about a sin that is unforgiveable.  1 John 5:14-17 talks about sins that are mortal and sins that are not mortal.  This distinction appears throughout Christian history–even in the Protestant Reformation.  But Protestants have generally relegated “mortal sin” to the one “unforgivable” sin.

I would like to suggest that this Protestant tradition (and the cliche that expresses it in folk religious style) is simply an over reaction to Catholicism.  In fact, something LIKE the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins makes a lot of sense–biblically, rationally and experientially.

IF we say that all sins are equal, even “in God’s sight,” then we have to say that kidnapping, raping and murdering a little child is on the same level as telling someone their new hair style is becoming when it isn’t.  That just doesn’t make sense.  Sure, of course, both child murder and the “little white lie” offend God but surely not equally!

Let’s apply a little mind experiment to test this.  Suppose a true Christian–a saved person–gives into an awful impulse and rapes and murders a child and does NOT repent of it.  Then suppose another real Christian–a saved person–gives in to the temptation to deceive a co-worker with a hideous new hair style by saying “It’s so pretty” and does NOT repent of it (for whatever reason but for the sake of argument let’s say she forgets about it).

Do both sins equally break the persons’ relationships with God?  (Let’s not get into a debate about “once saved, always saved” over this.  For now, in this context, I am simply asking whether both sins equally damage a person’s fellowship with God in this life.)  Will God equally withdraw his blessing from each person?  Will communion with God be damaged equally by both sins not repented of?  I think that’s ludicrous–to think so.

I remember these debates in church youth group and in Sunday School–many years ago.  We were told by some of our mentors that every little sin, including a “little white lie,” breaks off your relationship with God until you repent of it.  But we were also told (sometimes by the same mentor!) that the condition of “sinfulness” causes everyone to commit sins of omission and ignorance but these are “covered” by the “blood of Jesus” so that they do not break off fellowship with God or God’s blessing.  (Although we were also always encouraged to ask God’s forgiveness in “blanket style”–for all our sins known and unknown to us.)

What is that but something LIKE the Catholic doctrine of mortal versus venial sins?  And yet, our mentors would ALSO say “All sins are equal.”  I remember struggling with these contradictions but being afraid to point them out or ask for clarification.  Then–during my years in a fundamentalist Bible college I DID ask about them and was harshly criticized for doing so!

So what would a Protestant version of categorizations of sin look like?  I see no problem with borrowing the terminology “mortal” and “venial” sin from Catholic theology, but I know many especially evangelical Protestants will choke on those words EVEN IF they agree that not all sins are equal in terms of damaging our relationship with God.  However, I haven’t come up with alternative single words for the two categories.  Do we necessarily need them?

I suggest we teach our people that there are sins that damage and even break off one’s personal relationship with God and that SHOULD result in church discipline if discovered–unless the person repents.  Some of them should result in the committer being barred from some levels of leadership for a time of restoration.  (The fact that many Protestant denominations and churches already so this supports my contention that most Protestants really do NOT believe “all sins are equal!”)  Then there are sins that do NOT break off a saved person’s relationship with God even if no specific repentance follows.  We don’t have to say these are harmless or unimportant; we can say that if they become practice and a part of a person’s lifestyle they CAN add up to serious sin that harms or even breaks off the relationship with God.

In my book Questions to All Your Answers I have a chapter on this issue and I use an example from my own family history.  I recall that occasionally a letter would arrive not postmarked so that the stamp could be cut off the envelope and re-used.  My father insisted it was okay to do that.  My stepmother insisted it was sin to do that.  My brother and I listened with some amusement (but also confusion) to their discussions about this.  Now, one of my parents was right and the other one was wrong.  But let’s say my stepmother was right and, in God’s sight, re-using the stamp was a sin.  Did re-using one break my father’s relationship with God?  I can’t imagine it.  Years later he was caught embezzling from his church.  Did that break off his relationship with God?  (I’m not talking about the being caught but the first willful, conscious, presumptuous theft he did not repent of.)  I think so–unless and until he repented.

Now, was there some connection between my father’s re-using a stamp and his later embezzling from his church?  Perhaps.  But that doesn’t make them equal!  What it means is that even those things we think are not sin but MAY BE should be carefully considered and avoided if possible–but not to the point of scrupulosity about everything (like Luther’s spending hours in confession confessing every thought that might possibly be sinful until his confessor told him to go away and not come back until he had something really sinful to repent of!).

In short, I think “all sins are equal” is simply a cliche.  We should drop it–and challenge it when overheard.  It doesn’t make any sense–biblically, in terms of the Great Tradition, rationally or experientially.

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  • mark wolfinbarger

    In regard to your perspective I would like hear how you understand and interpret Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 5 v21-30.

    • rogereolson

      I take it Jesus was explaining to his audience that everyone is a rank sinner.

  • Prof, you are a genius at perceiving categories and analyzing them. But your acumen apparently does not extend to marketing decisions. Your own post says, “I see no problem with borrowing the terminology ‘mortal’ and ‘venial’ sin from Catholic theology, but I know many especially evangelical Protestants will choke on those words EVEN IF they agree that not all sins are equal in terms of damaging our relationship with God.”

    As you know, most Protestant Christians cannot spell “venial” and and have no clue what it means. “Mortal” is understood only marginally better. Since you know these words will not be accepted, and since they communicate poorly anyway, how can you possibly justify keeping them?

    I don’t “choke” on these Catholic words, even though I am a committed Protestant, perhaps because my father was raised as a Roman Catholic. But the bigger concern in my book is that the words don’t communicate.

    As to your theology, it makes sense. Perhaps it is significant that the sixth commandment singles out murder for inclusion in the Ten Commandments. That makes little sense if all sins are equal. God then adds adultery, stealing,false witness, and coveting. Again, it makes little sense to single these out if all sins are equal.

    Thanks for skewering this concept of the equality of all sins.


    • rogereolson

      Thanks. But I’ve never claimed to have any sense when it comes to marketing decisions! 🙂

  • Can I piggy back another phrase for expiration?

    “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

    Great thoughts. This is one that has been kicking around in the back of my mind, but not explicitly addressed. Thanks.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I think you are correct in that every sin is not as grave a wrongdoing as every other one. It may be interesting to compare one sin to another and speculate about the possible implications, but I think categories are a poor idea.

    Galatians 5:19+ has “jealousy” in the same list as idolatry and witchcraft and drunkenness – people who practice these “obvious” sins won’t inherit the Kingdom of God. Don’t we risk assuming that we know too much if we were to get too detailed about our categories? As for myself, I read Paul here and feel as if my sentiments/wisdom are not close to his on this matter.

    Would it be best to say that not all sins are the same and leave it at that?

    • rogereolson

      It might be best, but inquiring minds will want to know….:) Pastorally, I think it is helpful to be able to go further and explain to people that some sins will ruin your relationship with God (if not repented of) and some will not (even if not repented of). And then, of course, a pastor should add that enough “venial sinning” will probably add up to mortal sin. I think the Catholics basically have it more nearly correct than most Protestants and well-educated and sensitive priests can actually a better job of helping people understand this issue than most Protestants who may say either “all sins are equal” or “not all sins are equal” and thereby raise more questions than answers.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Of course you are correct with the Pastoral care aspect, but I’m still doubtful about the whole endeavor. Into what category would this fall: eating fruit that one is not supposed to eat? Or this one: a careless calculation error that costs the lives of dozens of people?

        If it is the relationship with God that is at stake, and since God knows us completely, couldn’t a hateful thought be similar to murder? or a lustful thought be similar to adultery? It would be too difficult to quantify and categorize sins out of the context of intention and relationship for us finite (and Protestant!) people.

        General and vague categories are fine and probably needed. But as to the set of sins in each category, I’d argue that there is no concrete arrangement. Too much is dependent on other factors. And that’s when the deference to the Pastoral care is especially called for.

        Thanks, Roger, for the thoughtful ideas.

  • Bill

    Thank you. I have always felt this is biblical! Some will never accept that all sins are not equal, but I cannot believe otherwise from my study and experience.

  • There are some good bible verses to support your contention that there are degrees of sin – do we need to turn to the Catholic Church?

    “Sickness is sickness” – that’s true. Someone who has the flu is sick and someone who has cancer is sick – but there are differences.

  • Stephanie Edmonson

    I come from a southern baptist background and was taught that all sin is equal in God’s sight. I recently have been looking into Catholic theology and doctrine and became aware of their belief of categories of sin: mortal and venial. In working through my own beliefs regarding the matter of equality of sin or inequality I have come to formulate a few conclusions. My thoughts regarding the matter is this: All sin is equal in God’s sight. However the consequences of sin are not equal. Therefore I propose an idea that protestants need not borrow the idea from Catholics of categories of sin but instead categorize the consequences of sin. To me all sin is equal in God’s sight. If a person gets burned in a fire that person suffers the death of tissue in the body. Depending on the extent of the injury the person can be categorized with having 1st degree, 2nd degree, or 3rd degree burns. This is decided based on the evidence the doctors find in examining a person and also it determines how extensive the course of healing, therapy, and recooperation the individual receives. When a person commits a sin, either willfully or unaware, he is automatically going to suffer the consequences of a seperation from God and no matter how big or minute that seperation is he is is still going to suffer the consequences. The consequences of a seemingly minute sin should not be minimized or compared to a seemingly ‘worse’ sin. All sin is destructive regardless of how seemingly big or small it may seem. However the consequences may need to be evaluated in order to appropriately confront and deal with it. So with that said I disagree wholeheartedly with having categories of sin and supporting Catholic belief of there being mortal and venial sins. I will admit I have not yet read what the 1 John passage says since I am at work but if it is supporting mortal and venial sins I may have to read it because I may interpret it differently as I am not Catholic and am a wholehearted Baptist. As far as actual scripture to support myself or to look for agreement of my theological pisition I would need more time to think through the matter but that is my initial idea on this topic with out quoting any versus. Whether that is a weak or a strong arguement I am not sure but that’s what I’ve got.

  • Danny Steis

    Great post. I think part of the problem may be that while many church leaders believe that all sins are NOT equal, at least on a functional level, preaching and teaching that all sins ARE equal helps get them out of hot water with certain issues. When asked about the “sinfulness” of divorce and the Christian response in a world where church going people have the same divorce rate of the rest of the world, it is much easier for a pastor to say something along the lines of “well, we’re all sinners” with no further explanation than to speak to the destructiveness of divorce and how it IS more sinful than other actions.

  • Dave P

    I wonder, if as well as the categories of sin, if the type or form of confession makes a difference as well? Does motive in confession or passion or desire to confess have any impact on the relational side of God’s response to our sin.

    Does the blessing of forgiveness “in Christ” (in which we are seated in heavenly places with Christ) make any difference? Have all our sins been forgiven and we just need appropriate or receive that forgiveness, or are we in need of “re-seating” ourselves with God over and over again?

    I struggle with this whole concept, not because I do not see the lesser/greater severity of some sin, but if the “every spiritual blessing in Christ” from Ephesians is true and I have been sealed with the Holy Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing my inheritance, then what difference does the severity of the sin make? I am NOT advocating for a sin all the more so that grace will abound concept, but what do all the promises of our position in Christ mean? They were accomplished before the foundation of the world – doesn’t that seat me with Christ now. God sees me as His son, not a mortal or venial sinner. He sees me through the work of His son, not my confession and forgiveness tactics.

    Anyway just my thoughts and questions.

    I am a new reader and really like your stuff.

    I pastor a small church in New England (so my questions are legitimate as I try to lead people into a relationship with the Almighty.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, there are deeper questions to consider. Aren’t there always? 🙂 I think one difference among Christians is between those who believe (for whatever reason) that when a person repents and believes his or her past, present and future sins are all forgiven at once and those who believe (for whatever reason) that when a person repents and believes only his or her past and present sins are forgiven and a right relationship with God is established such that God considers him or her his child but that relationship can be damaged or broken by persistent, presumptuous or mortal sin that is not repented of. To a certain extent, these two approaches have characterized Reformed (and many Baptist) groups versus Arminian/Wesleyan groups. But not entirely. That’s just a tendency I’ve observed. And it doesn’t have to do with “once saved, always saved” because even in the first scenario one’s own subjective feelings about God resulting from presumptuous sin could hinder one’s relationship with God who has forgiven him or her of all sins.

  • Beakerj

    Always the wise word. I wish I could sit in on your classes.

  • John Metz

    If you look at it from one point of view, all sins are equal, that is, any one sin makes one guilty of the whole law — James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law yet stumbles in one point has become guilty of all.” This is related to our inability to justify ourselves or to be justified by the law. All sins are the same also from the aspect that none is too awful to be forgiven through Christ’s death and His shed blood.

    From another point of view, after believing, some sins are more damaging to our fellowship with the Lord than are others–or at least seemingly so. This depends upon, or is relative to, our growth in life and our dealings with the Lord and before the Lord.

    It also has to do with the activity of our conscience. For example, one may easily cheat on his taxes with no apparent protest from his conscience. But, as he grows in life, due to the exercise of his conscience and his living before the Lord, he may become aware that this is sinful and be caused to repent. Some may not be aware of coveting things (this got to Paul in Romans 7) and their desire for things may not hinder their fellowship. But, as they grow in Christ, the light shines on their desire for things and they repent.

    Also, from the standpoint of damage, some sins are more damaging to the sinner and to others. Murder is a good example. Being angry without cause or hating your brother are likened to murder but only one party, the angry, hateful one, is damaged while with murder, the other party is damaged more severely. Lying damages the liar and those deceived by the lies.

    Interesting post. I am not sure that venial and mortal do anything to help the situation.

  • Professor Olson,

    Thanks for a provocative post. You suggest what sounds to me as a gradation of sins (with language of “equally” and “on the same level as …”). It seems, then, that there would be some sin that falls in between reusing a postage stamp and embezzling from the church — say, perhaps fudging on your income taxes and not declaring all that black market lawn-mowing money.

    If a graded scale is really more accurate to reason and experience, then two questions follow: 1) Why do you advocate the traditional binary categories of ‘mortal’ and ‘venial’ (or ‘big’ and ‘little,’ if some prefer)? It seems that, at this point, the tradition runs a bit roughshod over reason and experience. 2) Who decides how serious a sin is — i.e. what category it goes into or what grade on the scale it receives? Is this a pastoral duty? Is it necessary that it occur at all? (It would seem so, if those sins on the ‘More Serious’ end of the scale disrupt the believer’s fellowship with God, while those on the ‘Less Serious’ end do not.)

    • rogereolson

      Something akin to the binary categorization was certainly at work in the evangelical churches I grew up in (and around). But we definitely rejected it at the same time (due, I think, to our anti-Catholicism). Yes, I think it can be pastorally helpful–to ease the overly scrupulous conscience (my stepmother’s) and caution those who think sinning presumptuously is safe (once you’re saved).

  • Bob Johnson

    So who gets to make the list?

    • rogereolson

      I volunteer! 🙂 Actually, even the Catholic church does not have a definitive list. I’m not sure one has to exist for the taxonomy to be helpful.

  • JohnM

    Once again, I’m glad you’re saying it, but I hope you know what an uphill struggle it is challenging this cliche. I know because I’ve tried. Where people are taught from children’s S.S. through youth group to adulthood that all sin is the same you’re likely to get a talk-to-the-hand response without an explanation even being considered.

    What are the reasons for so fiercly resisting any challenge to this particular misconception? That’s an actual question if you care to offer any thoughts but one reason I think is that many Protestants are borderline antinomians. All sins are equal anyway gives them an out.

    The above is one reason I think it matters that we do challenge the cliche even if it’s hard. Another is that it damages our ability to carry out church discipline when it is called for. Yet another is that it damages our credibility in the world. I don’t care about credibilty in the eyes or a fallen world when the church is right, but sometimes conventional wisdom is right in it’s critique of our cliches.

    • rogereolson

      I think the cliche has two attractions: 1) its obvious anti-Catholic purpose, and 2) its tendency to ease one’s conscience (about one’s own sins or others’).

      • John Miller

        The irony is, we claim that all sin is equal, but we beleive that everyone else’s is worse than ours. This has bothered me for some time. We say things like, ” we are guilty of sin and we deserve death,” yet I hear so many Christians support the death penalty and staunch ‘let’s kill Arabs’ (pronounced Ay-rabs).

        I know I’m late to the conversation, but thanks for posting. I really enjoy your blog.

  • Dave P

    Mr. Olson
    I commented on your post earlier today and it said that it was waiting to be moderated and then never showed up. I wondered if I said something offensive or off base?.

  • Doug

    The area I have difficulty with is distinguishing between things which will break one’s relationship with God and things which will not, if not repented of. I guess I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at in terms of “break off [one’s] relationship with God.” Is this a statement about prayer? Salvation? Vocation?

    Furthermore, even if I were to grant your premise that not all sins are equal, it seems like establishing a dichotomy, especially based on “break[ing] off [one’s] relationship with God,” is very odd. I guess this will get back to what exactly we mean by that phrase, but why, if we are to grant your premise, should we not acknowledge degrees of separation from God?

    Amongst arguments that do make me willing to consider this view however, are Matthew 10:15 and Matthew 11:22ff (“more bearable on that day”).

    • rogereolson

      It just seems clear to me that a Christian who murders his wife (for example) is probably going to suffer a serious breakdown in his relationship with God whereas a Christian who tells his wife she’s still beautiful (at 80) (and doesn’t really think so) is probably going to suffer no such breakdown in his relationship with God even though he might want to repent of his “little white lie” anyway.

      • K Gray

        Maybe “seared conscience” has application here?

  • John I.

    If all sins were equal, then why would God establish different categories of sins in the law, and different punishments?

    Furthermore, if all sins were equal, how could we distinguish between good and evil people (and degrees in between). Surely Idi Amin was worse than a child who takes change from his mother’s purse?


  • Fred

    Dr. Olson,

    I have wondered if this isn’t what Paul is saying in Romans 1. It isn’t so much the condition of homosexuality that he is concerned with but that homosexual behavior characterizes sin at its worst. Hence, a kind of gradation of sins.

  • K Gray

    The sentence “all sin is equal” accomplishes a switch in playing fields, from theological to rational. The topic is sin.

    Sin is theological. We sense it but God reveals and exposes it: through the Law, the prophets, the Light, the Holy Spirit. All manner of it resides hidden in our hearts and minds, which only God completely knows and weighs. Related concepts are evil, fault, brokenness, fallenness, injury, hurt, damage, struggle, groaning, and so forth.

    God is love: matchless, majestic, boundless, personal, covenantal, surprising, chastening (whom He loves), patient, longsuffering, holy, just, etc. Love, grace and forgiveness are of God.

    Equal is not particularly theological, but rather objective, measurable, mathematical and rational in origin. Even it’s political application, although good and admirable and representing our best efforts, is flawed and pales in comparison to God’s love.

    It’s just good to be aware in dialogue what field you’re on. Rational concepts sometimes confuse and deflect if the topic is sin. (As some have noted, it allows us to rationl-ize).

  • Tiff

    Just a quick note on the “criteria” that determines whether a sin is mortal or venial in the Catholic Church. Only one of those criteria has to do with the type of sin, the other two have to to do with the knowledge and consent of the sinner:

    “In order for a sin to be mortal, it must meet three conditions:

    Mortal sin is a sin of grave matter
    Mortal sin is committed with full knowledge of the sinner
    Mortal sin is committed with deliberate consent of the sinner

    This means that mortal sins cannot be done ‘accidentally.’ A person who commits a mortal sin is one who knows that their sin is wrong, but still deliberately commits the sin anyway. This means that mortal sins are ‘premeditated’ by the sinner and thus are truly a rejection of God’s law and love.”

    • rogereolson

      Question: Can a venial sin be committed presumptuously and still be venial and not mortal? I think so, but perhaps you know better.

  • Rose Coward

    Any sin makes us corrupt enough to deserve divine judgement, in that sense all sins are equal, but ONLY in that sense. In the Old Testament law we see sins that required restitution and others that required death. In this sense they are NOT equal.