The concept of mortal sin has been an integral part of the Christian message since the very beginning. Literally dozens of passages in the New Testament proclaim it a fearful reality, and these biblical teachings were fully accepted by, and indeed expounded upon, by the early Church Fathers.
It was not until the time of John Calvin that anyone would claim that it was impossible for a true Christian to lose his salvation. That teaching, which was not even shared by Martin Luther and his followers, was a theological novelty of the mid-sixteenth century, a teaching that would have been condemned as a dangerous heresy by all previous generations of Christians. It would drive people to the despair of thinking that, if they had committed grave sins, they had never been true Christians. Further, they would suffer similar anxiety over any subsequent conversion, since their first would not have been genuine, according to this teaching. Or it would drive them into thinking that their grave sins were really not grave at all, for no true Christian could have committed such sins.
In time the “once saved, always saved” teaching even degenerated in many Evangelical circles to the point that some would claim that a Christian could commit grave sins and remain saved: sin did not injure his relationship with God at all.
Fortunately, most Christians today reject Calvin’s error, acknowledging that there are at least some mortal sins—sins that kill the spiritual life of the soul and deprive a person of salvation, unless he repents. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals—all acknowledge the possibility of mortal sin at least in some form. Only Presbyterians, Baptists, and those who have been influenced by these two sects reject the reality of mortal sin.
The early Church Fathers were unanimous in teaching the reality of mortal sin. They had to embrace the doctrine of mortal sin precisely because they recognized not only the salvific power of baptism but also the damning power of certain serious sins. The Church taught that “baptism . . . now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21). However, since during the persecutions some baptized people denied Christ, and since Christ taught that “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33), the Church Fathers recognized that it was possible to lose the grace of salvation after baptism.
The idea that one could never lose salvation would have been unimaginable to them, since it was evident from the Bible that baptism saves, that the baptized can deny Christ, and that those who deny Christ will not be saved unless they repent, as did Peter.
It was equally unthinkable to predestinarian thinkers, such as Augustine, who, just two years before he died, taught in his book The Gift of Perseverance that not all who were predestined to come to God’s grace were predestined to remain with him until glory. This was, in fact, the teaching of all the high predestinarians (Augustine, Fulgentius, Aquinas, Luther)—until the time of Calvin.
Here are examples of what early Christian writers had to say on the subject of mortal sin:
“Watch for your life’s sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord comes. But you shall assemble together often, seeking the things which are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you be not made complete in the last time” (Didache 16 [A.D. 70]).
“And as many of them . . . as have repented, shall have their dwelling in the tower [i.e., the Church]. And those of them who have been slower in repenting shall dwell within the walls. And as many as do not repent at all, but abide in their deeds, shall utterly perish. . . . But if any one relapse into strife, he will be cast out of the tower, and will lose his life. Life is the possession of all who keep the commandments of the Lord” (The Shepherd 3:8:7 [A.D. 80]).
Ignatius of Antioch
“And pray without ceasing in behalf of other men; for there is hope of the repentance, that they may attain to God. For cannot he that falls arise again, and he may attain to God?” (Letter to the Ephesians 10 [A.D. 110]).
“[E]ternal fire was prepared for him who voluntarily departed from God and for all who, without repentance, persevere in apostasy” (fragment in Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:26 [A.D. 156]).
“[T]he ungodly and unrighteous and wicked and profane among men [shall go] into everlasting fire; but [God] may, in the exercise of his grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept his commandments, and have persevered in his love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their penance, and may surround them with everlasting glory” (Against Heresies 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).
“[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness” (Repentance 10:1 [A.D. 203]).
“Discipline governs a man, power sets a seal upon him; apart from the fact that power is the Spirit, but the Spirit is God. What, moreover, used [the Spirit] to teach? That there must be no communicating with the works of darkness. Observe what he bids. Who, moreover, was able to forgive sins? This is his alone prerogative: for ‘who remits sins but God alone?’ and, of course, [who but he can remit] mortal sins, such as have been committed against himself and against his temple?” (Modesty 21 [A.D. 220]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord” (The Lapsed 28 [A.D. 251]).
Pacian of Barcelona
“Stinginess is remedied by generosity, insult by apology, perversity by honesty, and for whatever else, amends can be made by practice of the opposite. But what can he do who is contemptuous of God? What shall the murderer do? What remedy shall the fornicator find? . . . These are capital sins, brethren, these are mortal. Someone may say: ‘Are we then about to perish? . . . Are we to die in our sins?’ . . . I appeal first to you brethren who refuse penance for your acknowledged crimes. You, I say, who are timid after your impudence, who are bashful after your sins, who are not ashamed to sin but now are ashamed to confess” (Sermon Exhorting to Penance 4 [A.D. 385]).
“There are venial sins and there are mortal sins. It is one thing to owe ten thousand talents, another to owe but a farthing. We shall have to give an accounting for an idle word no less than for adultery. But to be made to blush and to be tortured are not the same thing; not the same thing to grow red in the face and to be in agony for a long time. . . . If we entreat for lesser sins we are granted pardon, but for greater sins, it is difficult to obtain our request. There is a great difference between one sin and another” (Against Jovinian 2:30 [A.D. 393]).
“[N]othing could have been devised more likely to instruct and benefit the pious reader of sacred Scripture than that, besides describing praiseworthy characters as examples, and blameworthy characters as warnings, it should also narrate cases where good men have gone back and fallen into evil, whether they are restored to the right path or continue irreclaimable; and also where bad men have changed, and have attained to goodness, whether they persevere in it or relapse into evil; in order that the righteous may be not lifted up in the pride of security, nor the wicked hardened in despair of cure” (Against Faustus 22:96 [A.D. 400]).
“[A]lthough they were living well, [they] have not persevered therein; because they have of their own will been changed from a good to an evil life, and on that account are worthy of rebuke; and if rebuke should be of no avail to them, and they should persevere in their ruined life until death, they are also worthy of divine condemnation forever. Neither shall they excuse themselves, saying—as now they say, ‘Why are we rebuked?’—so then, ‘Why are we condemned, since indeed, that we might return from good to evil, we did not receive that perseverance by which we should abide in good?’ They shall by no means deliver themselves by this excuse from righteous condemnation” (Admonition and Grace 11 [A.D. 426]).
“But those who do not belong to the number of the predestined . . . are judged most justly according to their deserts. For either they lie under sin which they contracted originally by their generation and go forth [from this life] with that hereditary debt which was not forgiven by regeneration [baptism], or [if it was forgiven by regeneration] they have added others besides through free choice: choice, I say, free; but not freed. . . . Or they receive God’s grace, but they are temporal and do not persevere; they abandon it and are abandoned. For by free will, since they have not received the gift of perseverance, they are sent away in God’s just and hidden judgment” (ibid., 13).
Caesarius of Arles
“Although the apostle [Paul] has mentioned many grievous sins, we, nevertheless, lest we seem to promote despair, will state briefly what they are. Sacrilege, murder, adultery, false witness, theft, robbery, pride, envy, avarice, and, if it is of long standing, anger, drunkenness, if it is persistent, and slander are reckoned in their number. Or if anyone knows that these sins dominate him, if he does not do penance worthily and for a long time, if such time is given him . . . he cannot be purged in that transitory fire of which the apostle spoke [1 Cor. 3:11–15], but the eternal flames will torture him without any remedy. But since the lesser sins are, of course, known to all, and it would take too long to mention them all, it will be necessary for us only to name some of them. . . . There is no doubt that these and similar deeds belong to the lesser sins which, as I said before, can scarcely be counted, and from which not only all Christian people, but even all the saints could not and cannot always be free. We do not, of course, believe that the soul is killed by these sins, but still they make it ugly by covering it as if with some kind of pustules and, as it were, with horrible scabs” (Sermons 179:2 [A.D. 522]).
NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004