Mortal and Venial Sin: A Lutheran Perspective

Lutherans rarely talk about the theological categories of mortal and venial sins, because these sound like a Roman Catholic invention. The word venial means slight or pardonable. It is the opposite of mortal, or deadly. Roman Catholics teach that a mortal sin is an especially evil deed committed intentionally and deliberately. When they speak of mortal and venial sins, they mean that mortal sins deserve eternal punishment in hell, but other sins are not so bad, only deserving punishment in this life. Under this definition, a Catholic can never be sure of God’s forgiveness for the worst sins.

The Catholic definition of mortal and venial sins is false, because Jesus’ blood is sufficient to cover all sins, no matter how wicked. However, the concept of different categories of sin is actually found in the Bible. The apostle John writes that there is a sin that leads to death, and there is sin that does not lead to death (1 John 5:16-17). And Jesus warns, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29).

So what is the correct definition of this horrible eternal sin? The correct definition of mortal sin is unrepentant sin. 1 John 1:9 teaches, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This means that forgiveness requires repentance and faith. Those who die embracing sin without repentance are condemned to eternal death. Because there is no forgiveness apart from Christ, unbelievers who reject him commit mortal sin. Mortal sin is also a danger for believers, since true faith cannot exist alongside unrepentance. If we are unrepentant, we grieve the Holy Spirit, destroy our own faith, and start down the path to unbelief. Unrepentance expels the Holy Spirit from our hearts and cuts us off from God. And when the Holy Spirit has departed, we are unable to pray or resist sin. We feel chained to sin like a slave. We need this condition pointed out to us so that we repent. An example of a believer living in mortal sin is King David, when he committed adultery and murder. If David had died without repentance, he would have been condemned to hell. But since God is gracious and loving, he sent the prophet Nathan to call him back to repentance and salvation.

On the other hand, even though repentant Christians still commit daily sins that deserve hell, these sins are actually venial, sin of weakness. Because in the strength of Christ through Baptism we daily repent and are forgiven for His sake, our sins do not drive out the Holy Spirit or extinguish faith. Sins of omission are venial, as long as we pray that God open our eyes to recognize our unknown sins and repent of them. We can pray like David, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults [sins of omission]. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins [mortal sins]; let them not have dominion over me!” (Psalm 19:12-13). Repetitive sins that we struggle with are also venial, because by God’s grace we are struggling against them. Paul lamented of his repetitive sins, “The evil I do not want is what I keep on doing,” but he trusted in Jesus to deliver him from his body of death (Romans 7:19-25). Still, we should never imagine that venial sins are unimportant, that we do not have to worry about them or seek forgiveness. Such thinking would turn our venial sins into mortal sins.

So how can we know whether or not we are living in mortal sin? All sins of the whole world are forgiven by the atoning death of Jesus, no matter how great. Being a Christian means that the Holy Spirit has given us justifying faith – faith that receives forgiveness through Jesus – not that we stop sinning. Christians never look at their own works or lack of sin for assurance of salvation. In fact, Christians become more acutely aware of their own sinfulness as they grow in faith. So instead of looking inwardly, look outwardly to Christ who died for all of your sins. He is sufficient. Look to Him and know that He loves you and will never forsake you.

Vicar Wagner

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LCMS-U at OSU

Join us at OSU for LCMS-U weekly Vicar-led Bible Study!

Wednesdays, 1:00-2:00 PM

Meeting Location: Ohio Union Flag Room

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Wednesday Night Service/Bible Study The First Wednesday (January 5th), the Service, beginning at 7:00 PM, will be Divine Setting Three, with Holy Communion. On Wednesdays (January 13th,19th, & 26th), the Service will be Compline, and will begin at 7:00 PM; there will be a Bible Study following the Services (7:45 PM), in the Family Room. Private Confession and Absolution will be available (by appointment) all Wednesdays, from 6:15- 7:00 PM, in Pastor Hromowyk’s Office.