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Sin: The Debate Between Catholics and Protestants

For those who wish to move forward toward mutual accord, gaining an understanding of both sides is required

Catholics and Protestants differ on a number of issues surrounding faith and practice. Although controversy concerning the authority of Scripture and Tradition or the exact role that faith plays in salvation are the most well-known examples, disagreements extend into other related areas. These less commonly debated issues can produce as much division as those that get more press.

For those who wish to move forward toward mutual accord, gaining an understanding of both sides is required. It is difficult if not impossible to have fruitful dialogue when neither side can understand where the other is coming from. In my book With One Accord: Affirming Catholic Teaching Using Protestant Principles, I go into many doctrinal subjects looking for common ground that can be used to help each side gain a greater perspective. Here I will discuss some important matters pertaining to the Catholic and Protestant views of sin.

Are all sins equal?

There is an idea among some Protestants that all sins are somehow equal because any imperfection can keep someone out of heaven (cf. Rev. 21:27). If this is the case, they think, then any sin can send someone to hell. Practically speaking, this makes distinctions in “gravity” among sins rather pointless. After all, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). Although this thinking does have a certain logic to it, it is based in inaccurate thinking.

First, just because all laws are laws and all law-breaking is law-breaking does not mean that there is no hierarchy within the law. A Hyundai and a Lamborghini are both cars, but they are clearly not equal! Second, it seems evident from numerous passages of Scripture that various sins can result in varying levels of punishment:

  • Jesus tells the Pharisees that they received a greater condemnation for their actions (Matt. 23:14).
  • Jesus tells his disciples that anyone who will not listen to what the disciples say will be judged more harshly than Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:14-15).
  • St. James warns teachers that they will be judged more severely than others (James 3:1).
  • St. Peter says that for those who have come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ but then again defile themselves with the world, it would have been better if they had never known the way of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:20-22).
  • St. John records Jesus saying that Judas has a greater sin than Pilate (John 19:11).

It’s not just bad works (sins) that exhibit a spectrum. Good works do as well. Contrary to what many Protestants think, the Church teaches that these matter to one’s salvation as well.

  • Jesus says that certain actions will lead to greater rewards (cf. Matt. 5:11-12, 6:1-6, 16-20).
  • Jesus illustrates this idea in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30).
  • St. Paul repeats this principle: “He will render to every man according to his works” (Rom. 2:5-6).
  • Paul also distinguishes between the reward received by those whose good works endure and those whose do not: “If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved” (1 Cor. 3:14-15).

Because Protestants have an essential commitment to the idea that our good works play little to no role in our (ultimate) salvation, there seems to be a similar commitment to the idea that our bad works (sins) contribute nothing to the salvation equation either. This has the effect of flattening out the relative moral status of sinful acts, which is contrary to the Catholic Church’s distinction between venial and mortal sin.

According to the Church. there are some sins that harm but do not destroy the right relationship a person has with God. Other sins, however, brings so much harm to our relationship with God that they separate people from his saving grace. The former are known as venial sins, the latter mortal sins. These categories are defined in Scripture:

If anyone 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 a 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 (1 John 5:16-17).

Because many Protestants believe that every sin is mortal in the sense that it makes the sinner deserving of hell (even if they will go to heaven because of their faith in Jesus), they see this passage as a warning against only the loss of faith (apostasy).

So, although most Protestants affirm directly or indirectly that some sins are worse than others and that in some way they affect salvation, where the disagreement usually lies is with the stage of salvation or the levels of reward (in heaven) or punishment (in hell) the sinner experiences. But the fact that different sins have different effects seems clear even on Protestant principles.

Once saved, always saved?

Another important feature of the Church’s teaching on salvation is that saving grace can be lost. Once again, the Church is taking its cue from Sacred Scripture.

  • Jesus says that “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22).
  • John says that we must follow God’s commandments and that, if we do, we will “not lose what you have worked for but may win a full reward” (2 John 6-8).
  • Paul stresses the requirement of endurance in the faith (1 Cor. 15:2; Gal. 6:8-9; 2 Tim. 2:12; Heb. 6:4-6, 10:26).
  • James explains that people can wander from the truth and be brought back to it, resulting in salvation (James 5:19-20).

Many Protestants profess belief in “eternal security”—the idea that once someone has faith in Jesus Christ, he can never lose God’s grace—and offer prooftexts that seem to indicate that salvation can never be lost (e.g., John 10:28; Rom. 8:38-39, 11:29; 1 John 5:13). However, even many of those who hold this theological position still will not express complete confidence that they are one of the redeemed, because the only way to be sure is to never fall away.

Most Christians know of people who seemed to show every sign of true faith but fell away from it. Protestants typically fall into one of two camps when it comes to explaining this phenomenon. On the more “Calvinist” side, salvation is an act of God that cannot fail, and so no one can “unsave” himself any more than he can save himself. Therefore, anyone who falls away from the Faith was never truly saved in the first place.

For those on the more “Arminian” side, salvation is something of a cooperative act, and God will allow those who freely believed (resulting in their salvation) to freely disbelieve (resulting in their damnation). This means that those who fall away really might have been saved, but no longer are on their way to heaven. Whichever explanation is adopted, almost everyone agrees that those identifying as Christians can fall away.

When it comes to our works (good and bad), a similar line is drawn. For those in the Calvinist category, works are strongly indicative of salvation. (It has been said that if Jesus is not the Lord of all, then he isn’t Lord at all. In Protestant circles this is known as “lordship salvation.”) Contrary to this position is that of the “free grace” group that emphasizes God’s unilateral bestowal of saving grace such that one’s works (good or bad) become effectively moot.

However, even in this paradigm, works have great effect on the reward one receives in the afterlife. So we see once again that in both camps, our works (whether good or bad) have an effect on our salvation.

Counting our sins?

Another difficulty Protestants often have with Catholic teaching is what counts as sin in the first place. Protestant reliance on Scripture alone for morality, while often rightly considered a virtue, can be a kind of vice if it excludes other sources of guidance on good and evil (which the Bible itself affirms—e.g., Romans 2). Because the Catholic Church believes that all truth is God’s truth, we are able to learn from God’s revelation in nature through observation and reason. This is called the natural law because it derives God’s moral principles from God’s creation.

Paul tells us in the opening chapters of Romans that God’s nature itself can be known by looking at his creation:

What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (Rom. 1:19-20).

God has not only revealed his will through the prophets and sacred Scripture, he also has given all people a moral code in nature itself: “What the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them” (Rom. 2:15).

Because of God’s natural revelation, we can discover morality philosophically. By looking at what a thing is, what it is for, and what contributes to it fulfilling its purpose, we can know what is good for it. For example, a good knife is sharp whereas a good shoe is not! When it comes to judging actions, the same method applies. If an action supports the good of the person, then it is moral—and if it detracts, then it is immoral.

Moral-law arguments are important because they transcend any particular religious revelation. In fact, this approach was famously adapted from Aristotle by St. Thomas Aquinas. All people are bound under the precepts of natural moral law regardless of what the positive doctrines of their religion tell them. Neither a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, nor atheist may commit murder, rape, or theft and will be morally culpable if he does—because the immorality of these acts is naturally evident.

Another reason why the moral law is vital to the Christian is that it helps us to interpret Scripture. God’s natural revelation can help us to understand his supernatural revelation. For a revealed moral code to work, it needs more than just general principles. We also need to know how those principles are applied.

For example, we might all know that murder is wrong—but is abortion murder? The Bible doesn’t say. There are far too many actions a person can take to list them all as being either moral or immoral, and new situations arise as time marches on. In the cases where only general principles are available, natural law (when properly applied) can assist.

Although some Protestant scholars acknowledge and value the natural law, many Evangelicals are skeptical of natural law philosophy because they think that it violates the principle of sola scriptura. Unfortunately, this Protestant appeal to “Scripture alone” has produced a wide range of opinions and practices, some of which reject not only Catholic teaching but historic Protestant teaching, opening the door to debates that should have no traction among Christians.

Some Protestants bomb abortion clinics; others bless them. Some Protestants relegate all homosexuals to hell; others celebrate their unions and even ordain them to the highest levels of ministry. Many books have been written on various Protestant views of divorce and remarriage.

The memory of traditional Christian morality hasn’t been extinguished from Protestantism, and neither has the law of God written on human hearts. Many Protestants today are dismayed by the retreat from traditional morality, especially sexual morality, and are open to anything that will help strengthen it—even something outside of Scripture.

This too is an opportunity to build accord and share the riches of the Church’s natural law tradition. A return to natural law ethics could serve to get more Protestants aligned with God’s full revelation.

Conclusion

Although the doctrinal disagreements between Catholics and Protestants can seem overwhelming, there are often shared principles behind them that need to be understood before the particulars can be fruitfully discussed. All orthodox Christians agree that without grace mankind is lost due to sin, and all are born without the grace required to become saints.

Even after receiving such grace, the actions we choose can draw us closer to God or lead us farther away from him, and the sins we commit have varying effects on our salvation. God has revealed his moral law through more than just his written revelation. This revelation can help not only those who do not have access to God’s word in the Bible, but it can also help those of us with Scripture to understand it better.

Though Protestants have some problems with fully Catholic thinking in the area of sin and salvation, in practice they often follow principles to which Catholics can appeal in a quest for greater accord concerning the particulars.

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