“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 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 Jn. 5:16-7)
I felt that opening up this post with this Scripture quote was most appropriate, being that our subject matter is sin. We want to look specifically at whether all sin is truly equal. Then we want to know if all sin is judged as equal.
Many Protestants have this odd idea that all sins are equal. In a manner of speaking, all sins are equal. God is infinite. Because He is infinite, all sins offend Him infinitely. So to God, all sins are equal. The real question is, “Does God judge all sins infinitely?”
Based on scriptural evidence, we must answer this question in the negative. God does not, and indeed, could not, judge all sins equally. We are finite beings. We are finite precisely because we are not infinite. Hence, we experience different “degrees” of sin.
An example of this could be the difference between striking a person, and murdering a person. No one would equate murder with striking. If I were to strike my boss at work (a desire most people can relate to), it might hurt him. The pain, however, would subside. If I were to kill my boss, the damage there could not be repaired. So murder is more serious than simply striking someone.
Our quotation from 1 John proves this very point. He specifically speaks of mortal sin (sin that kills), and he mentions the existence of sin that does not kill. But there are other verses which indicate that there are different degrees of sin. Some of these are: Prv. 6:16-9; Col. 3:8; 1 Cor. 6:9-11. There are more, but these suffice to prove the point.
So we know that there are different degrees of sin, and that is how God judges us. How many types of sin are there, and what are their effects?
In Catholic theology there are two types of sin: original sin and actual sin. Original sin is not, properly-speaking, sin. Original sin is the absence of grace on the soul when we are conceived. It is a side effect from the sin of Adam and Eve (the “original sin”).
“Actual sin,” to quote the Baltimore Catechism, “is sin we ourselves commit.” It is some offense we commit against the laws of God. Actual sin is subdivided into venial sin and mortal sin.
Venial sin is a minor offense against God. There is a certain kind of grace we must have to get to Heaven. We call this grace sanctifying grace. You could also call it the love of God in the soul. Jesus sometimes refers to it as life within us. (See Jn. 6, for example.)
Venial sin does not destroy sanctifying grace in our soul, but it has the effect of weakening our soul. You can compare venial sin’s effect on the soul to a germ’s effect on the body. Certain types of germs won’t kill you, but they might weaken your body’s defenses to other more serious illnesses. This is what venial sins do.
Venial sin weakens the soul’s defenses against mortal sin. If we die with venial sin on our soul we can go to Heaven (because we still possess sanctifying grace), but we will have to spend sometime in Purgatory. An example of a venial sin is gossiping. Generally, gossiping is a venial sin. Under certain conditions, however, a venial sin can be a mortal sin. (We will not discuss the conditions of what makes a sin venial or mortal here.)
A mortal sin is a serious breach of the laws of God. (It should be here noted that breaching certain laws of the Church can be mortal, since the Church possesses God’s authority.) Since mortal sin deals with grave matters, committing such sin destroys our love of God. Since venial sins deal with minor offenses, such sins do not destroy our love for God. We often commit venial sin without even thinking about it.
Mortal sin is different. Mortal sins are serious offenses. As such, when we commit mortal sin, we place ourselves or some other person or object above God. This elevates that person or thing to God’s position, and essentially, equates to worshiping that person or thing. We put something or someone in God’s place! This has the effect of killing the proper love of God in our soul.
Since mortal sin kills the love of God in our soul, we no longer possess sanctifying grace. As Jesus would put it, “We have no life in us.” If we die in this state of sin, we will be sentenced to Hell.
This is the teaching of the Catholic Church on sin. We could go much more in-depth, but our post here would become interminably lengthy. For further study on this topic I would suggest the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You can also read “Sin and its Consequnces” by Edward Cardinal Manning. If you’re up for it, you can take a look at what St. Thomas Aquinas says about sin in his “Summa Theologica”. These are just some of the excellent works that have been written about the Catholic stance on sin.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity