When I was an Evangelical, one of the arguments I read against Catholic moral theology was that the concepts of mortal and venial sin are unbiblical. Sin is sin, say Evangelicals, and there's no good in trying to make out some sins as "minor." To us Evangelicals such nice distinctions smelled a great deal like rationalization and looked like an escape clause from the commandment "Be holy, for I, the Lord, am Holy."
After all, James wrote, "Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, 'Do not commit adultery,' also said, 'Do not murder.' If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker" (Jas. 2:10-11). So the forthright and honest Evangelical attitude was "We'll take our forgiveness straight, thanks! Let's have no plea-bargaining at the foot of the cross."
Such an attitude to purity before God is, I think, entirely commendable. Truth to tell, it contrasts favorably with the lax Catholics who really do say "It's just a teensy-weensy little sin" as an excuse for doing whatever they like. Such Catholics need to be reminded that "Whoever can be trusted with a teensy-weensy little thing can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with a teensy-weensy little thing will also be dishonest with much" (Luke 16:10, more or less).
But in so reminding them we are confronted with a question: What does Jesus mean in making a distinction between "little" and "much"? Why did he say that the one who knows his master's will and does not do it will be beaten with many blows, while the one who does not know his master's will and does not do it will be beaten with few blows (Luke 12:47-48)?
If "sin is sin," why this distinction? If all sin is one in God's eyes, what is the apostle John getting at when he writes, "If anyone sees his brother commit sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death" (1 John 5:16-17)?
To a "sin is sin" Evangelical like me, all this was incomprehensible. It sounded so . . . Catholic. I started to ask around, since I knew these verses couldn't mean what the Catholic Church meant. They had to refer to something other than mortal sin, so what was it?
Most likely, said my Evangelical teachers, they referred to the sin against the Holy Spirit which couldn't be forgiven in this age or in the age to come (Matt. 12:32). God, these good people taught, was always ready to forgive sin--even so-called "mortal" ones. As an Evangelical, one of the most treasured Bible verses I ever learned was 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
No sin is excluded from that beautiful offer--except one, for verse 10 goes on: "If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives." The sin leading to death is the sin we refuse to acknowledge. It is like a wound we keep wrapped in dirty, infected rags when the doctor wants to heal us. Such a sin, I was taught, is the sin of unrepentant disbelief. It is like a drowning man deliberately puncturing the life preserver thrown him. It is fundamentally suicidal, a rejection of grace by which we lock ourselves into damnation.
This explanation of John's words satisfied me then and still does. What did not satisfy me was the claim that this explanation is somehow different from what Catholics mean by mortal versus venial sin. I realized that, whatever else John was saying, he was making a distinction between "sin that leads to death" (that is, mortal sin) and sin that "does not lead to death."
This got me thinking. "Are we Evangelicals really committed to the notion of 'sin is sin' when we're not arguing down Catholic theology?" The question answered itself with another question: Do Evangelicals-- does anyone--really believe that a five-year-old who steals a cookie is the moral and spiritual equivalent of Jeffrey Dahmer?
Of course, nobody (and especially the Evangelicals who were far wiser than their own "sin is sin" theology) believed anything of the sort in their workaday lives. They just continued believing in mortal and venial sin but renamed them "backsliding" and "stumbling."
Thus, in Evangelical parlance, when Suzy or Billy swear in anger or goof off at work on a slow day and then ask forgiveness, this is "stumbling." It is taken seriously and forgiven (as is venial sin in Catholic circles), but neither Catholic nor Protestant would make a federal case out of it.
But if Billy and Suzy go off to college, sleep together, abandon fellowship, and establish a thriving narcotics business at the local elementary school, the average Evangelical would call this "very serious backsliding." Such sins, like the mortal sins to which they correspond, are not unforgivable in an absolute sense, but any fool can see they are going to be tougher cases.
If Billy and Suzy refuse ever again to acknowledge their wrongdoing and cover it up with a load of psycho-babble about "self-empowered personal autonomy," most Evangelicals would regard their state as perilous indeed.
All common sense, all actual Evangelical practice, and even much biblical wisdom gave legitimacy to the Catholic concept of "degrees of sin." This realization was strengthened by watching the evening news and seeing, with alarming frequency, what happens when people act out a crippling "sin is sin" morality. Here is a child beaten to unconsciousness for failing to take out the garbage, there is a man driven to suicidal despair for his failure to lose ten pounds. For such as these, every flaw is a hanging offense, and the sentence is carried out mercilessly in the name of an angry God.
So there is deep wisdom in our common-sense distinction between someone who eats too many cookies and someone who eats human flesh. But what of James' statement? It still looks like "sin is sin."
Perhaps a useful analogy would be to say "Injury is injury, but there's injury and then there's injury." Sin is fundamentally injurious. But it is tricky because it fools us into imagining some of the injuries we inflict on ourselves and others are "fun" (like lust) and others are "bad" (like murder). We console ourselves that as long as we don't commit the "bad" sins, it's okay to dabble with the "fun" ones. Indeed, we can imagine that the lightweights and lowlifes who cave in to "bad" sins just don't have the moxie we do. "I thank God I am not like other people," we mutter contentedly, "Okay, so I shoplift now and then, but those stores are rich, and I'm never cruel to dumb animals. People who are should go to jail!"
In contrast to this bogus self-righteousness James strips away the illusion of "okay" injuries and insists all sin is an injury to God, neighbor, and self. Absurdly indulging our "minor" sins is like indulging ourselves in a few cracked ribs or black eyes on the excuse that "it's not as if I were taking cyanide." Sane people avoid all injuries if they can, not just the "bad" ones, but sane people also know the cyanide poisoning is going to be harder (perhaps impossible) to cure.
Our working awareness of mortal and venial sin, by whatever name we call it, keeps us from classing the innocent with the guilty and prevents the vast majority of healthy adults from treating a cereal-spilling two-year-old like a serial-killing 22-year-old.
This came home to me recently in a bull session I had with a friend. Chatting about the possibility of moral progress, my friend, speaking as an average "sin is sin" Christian, said, "One society is no worse than any other just as no person is any worse than another." In other words, there is no difference at all between the nations because there is no difference at all between the people who comprise them.
With my newly-won g.asp of mortal and venial sin I was emboldened to observe that his whole argument was moonshine. Even though all have sinned, as Catholic teaching asserts, Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi, and Billy Graham are--obviously, overwhelmingly, blindingly--far better people than Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, or Lot's friendly neighbors. The former have opened themselves to grace, and the latter, so far as we can tell, did not.
This points us to a paradox: Mortal and venial sins are rooted in the recognition that real moral growth and differentiation is possible. The overarching truth of human history is the variety of God's gift of redemption, not the monotonous sameness of the Fall.
Lest I be taken for a universalist, allow me to explain. In our fallen state apart from grace, it is quite true that "sin is sin" and everything ultimately gets sucked down the same sewer pipe. Without God, it doesn't much matter whether you go to the devil by murdering someone or by "harmlessly" rotting away in front of ten thousand hours of "Gilligan's Island" reruns. Both fates ought to send us flying to our prayers. As real and as uniformly disastrous as the Fall is in all its chaotic manifestations, we must acknowledge that the full truth is that, since Christ died and rose again, we are not apart from grace. "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men." (Titus 2:11).
This is why it is wrong to say of men and their works, "They're all the same since they're all fallen." Ever since redemption entered the world, many have responded to the New Life and are no longer the same. While it is true that even in redemption we must remember that those who have responded are no less fallen than those who have not, it does not follow that we are forbidden to recognize the real effects of grace in the world. Thus, it is not arrogant to say that Billy Graham or Charles Wesley or Mother Teresa (or even non-Christians like Gandhi or Socrates) are better human beings than Himmler or Stalin or Lucretia Borgia. It's just sober common sense.
If we throw up our hands and say there's no such thing as growth or improvement (which is the necessary corollary of the belief that "no person is any worse than another"), then we doom ourselves to fatalism, for calling all people the same in that sense is identical with saying nothing has happened, since Francis of Assisi is the same as Hitler, who is the same as King David, who is the same as Shirley MacLaine.
In contrast, the Catholic vision says that redemption does make men, individually and corporately, better if they receive it--not better in the sense of superciliously superior, but better in the sense of healed and whole. We are not to be snow-covered dunghills (as Luther imagined); we are not to be monsters with a heavenly Lawyer pleading for us; we are to be glorious new creatures all the way down to our bones. That is why the Church takes history seriously. She believes God has been continually at work in the world and in our lives as a kind of storyteller and that the history one day will reach a conclusion like a story does. Something wonderful is to be made of us.
Since I believe in the reality of sin, I do not believe that "every day in every way, we're getting better and better" and that heaven is a sure thing for everyone, though I pray all will be saved. The hubris of automatic progress is a dangerous lie; it disastrously overlooks the real possibility of damnation for any of us.
Following Paul, I do not infer from the fact of the Fall that it is best to have a meaningless opinion of everyone as "equally bad and equally good," nor do I infer that, since the Fall is a fact, it is therefore the foundation. Rather, according to Romans 12:3, we are to have not a meaningless or a gloomy opinion, but a sober or accurate one, illumined by the totally unearned and undeserved grace of redemption won by Christ. Such a sober opinion, particularly of ourselves, springs neither from self-denigration nor from arrogance, but from love, and love, contrary to the proverb, sees. It sees as the eye of man sees, and it has the power to distinguish not only shades of gray, but all the range of color, shape, and nuance that the mind and choices of God and man can present to it. It is this power of sight (what Thomas Aquinas calls "the authority of the senses") that endows Catholic theology with the wisdom to which I was too long blind: the common-sense, practical, and hopeful wisdom that distinguishes between mortal and venial sin.