Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Sins - mortal and venial?

What is mortal sin and venial sin? I know what it is to the Roman Catholic church, but I didn't know that the confessional Lutheran church ascribed to this delineation. The WELS Q & A feature at WELS.net is helpful, as always. Here is a summary of answers that helped me to understand:

Question: I read the book, A Summary of Christian Doctrine, by Edward Koehler. It is very conservative Lutheran. In it, it does mention mortal and venial sin. Did the Lutherans acknowledge this at one time. I've learned to think that a sin is a sin, mortal or venial, greater or lesser. I've never thought of sins as some greater than the other. They're all damnable unless you repent. The Catholic church is heavy on the terminology of mortal and venial. If the Lutheran church acknowledges mortal and venial sin, is it referred to as mortal sin as being impenitence and venial sins as the sins Christians do commit but that they are forgiven because of faith?

Answer: Lutherans have historically used the terms "mortal" and "venial" in classifying sins, but define the terms differently than Roman Catholicism does. Edward Koehler, at this particular point, is quite brief and it is understandable that questions be asked and clarifications be sought.

Your comments and explanations are right on target. All sins we commit are worthy of death and mortal in that sense. They are also, because of Christ's work, fully forgivable and through faith are therefore venial. In classifying sins, therefore, we always refer to the spiritual state of the person who sins, not to the nature of the sin itself. "Mortal sins" are sins that are not accompanied by faith and forgiveness. So they are inseparable from spiritual death. "Venial sins" are those committed (in ignorance or weakness) by people who still possess saving faith and forgiveness.

Question: Lutheran theology, as I understand it, distinguishes between "willful" sins and sins of "weakness." Could you explain the distinction and provide some specific examples? Also, is faith lost only through willful sins?

Answer: Even though the Bible simply speaks about sin, we can make some distinctions. The first is to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary sins. An involuntary sin would include any of the following:

--sin of ignorance in general (Leviticus 4:2)
--sin of ignorance regarding God's will or law (1 Timothy 1:13)
--sin of ignorance where one is ignorant of the fact (Genesis 29:23,25)
--sin of ignorance where one has chosen to be ignorant (Isaiah 7:10-12)
--sin of ignorance where one has not chosen to be ignorant (Genesis 19:33)
--sin of weakness (Matthew 26:69-74)

When a person knows something is a sin and yet chooses to do it anyway, he is committing a voluntary sin. While it is not easy to determine how "willing" a person has to be in committing a certain sin before he falls from the faith, we could say that habitual, persistent voluntary sin may signal a fall from grace. King David (2 Samuel 11 & 12) would be an example of a willful sin. David had fallen from the faith. Fortunately the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with his sin. David confessed his sin and was forgiven.

Another helpful distinction is venial sins and mortal sins. A venial sin is not damning. This is the case not because it is less serious but because it has forgiveness connected to it. On the other hand a mortal sin is damning, not because it is so per se, but because it marks a loss of saving faith in Christ as Savior. Because a Christian is living in a state of forgiveness, every sin he or she commits is a venial sin. Likewise every sin an unbeliever commits--whether "big" or "small"--is a mortal sin because it is done in a state of unbelief. A believer's sin would be considered mortal only if it resulted in a fall from faith.

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