The concepts of mortal and venial sin have been part of Catholic theology for centuries, but do these categories have a biblical basis? Let’s take a closer look at what the Bible says about different types and degrees of sin.
Defining Mortal and Venial Sin
In Catholic teaching, mortal sin is defined as a grave violation of God’s law that destroys the life of grace within a person. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be met: 1) it must be a serious matter, 2) the person must have full knowledge that it is wrong, and 3) the person must give full consent of the will to commit the sin. Mortal sins cut off a person’s relationship with God and, if unrepented, lead to eternal punishment in hell.
Venial sins, on the other hand, are lesser sins that do not cut off the life of grace in a person’s soul. Venial sins wound the relationship with God, but do not destroy it completely. Examples of venial sins include minor lies, impatience, and idle talk.
The Bible on Degrees of Sin
While the Bible does not use the specific terminology of “mortal” and “venial” sin, it does indicate that there are degrees of sin and some sins are more serious than others in God’s eyes. Here are some examples:
- Jesus said that “it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Sodom than for” those cities that rejected His message (Matthew 11:24). This suggests some sins warrant a greater judgment.
- Jesus told Pontius Pilate that the one who handed Him over for crucifixion “has the greater sin” (John 19:11). He implies a hierarchy of sin.
- 1 John 5:16-17 distinguishes between “sin that leads to death” and “sin that does not lead to death.” This could correlate to mortal and venial sins.
- Ezekiel 8:6 states that some sins are “greater abominations” than others.
- Throughout the Old Testament, punishments matched crimes according to their severity (Exodus 21; Leviticus 20).
Based on these and other verses, we can conclude there are light and serious sins according to God’s standard. Some sins incur guilt before Him, while others sever our relationship with Him completely.
Sin as Rebellion Against God
More importantly, the Bible consistently presents sin as rebellion against God. 1 John 3:4 defines sin as “lawlessness.” In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve’s original sin was choosing their own way rather than obedience to God (Genesis 3). Sin distorts the image of God within us, causing separation between us and Him.
Romans 3:23 famously declares that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Every human, with the exception of Christ, has sinned and suffers the consequences of being estranged from our Creator. Even one instance of sin makes us lawbreakers and convicts us before a holy God (James 2:10).
From God’s perspective, all sin represents rebellion against Him and stains our soul. Even small or “venial” sins, if left unaddressed, distort His image in us and affect our relationship with Him. There is no such thing as an “insignificant” sin in God’s eyes.
Sin’s Wages and God’s Gift
The Bible is clear that any and all sin earns the wages of death (Romans 6:23). Because God is perfectly holy, the smallest sin separates us from Him. But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ. There is no sin too great for God to forgive if we repent and turn to Him.
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was sufficient payment for all sins – past, present, and future. His mercy extends to any who humbly seek forgiveness, regardless of the type or degree of sin:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
While God hates sin, no sin is beyond the reach of His grace. He stands ready to forgive anyone who approaches Him in humility and faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ alone.
Warnings Against Sin’s Dangers
Although God forgives all confessed sin, Scripture contains warnings about the dangers of sin:
- Sin gives the devil a foothold in our lives (Ephesians 4:27).
- Those who continue in sin become slaves to sin (John 8:34).
- Wilful, unrepentant sin leads to spiritual death (Hebrews 10:26-27; 1 John 5:16-17).
- Sin deceives, hardens hearts, and dams the conscience if unchecked (Hebrews 3:13; 1 Timothy 4:2).
- Sin reaps consequences, corruption, and destruction in our lives (Galatians 6:7-8; James 1:15).
God disciplines those He loves to turn them from sin (Hebrews 12:6). While He forgives all confessed sin, unrepentant sin has dire effects on our walk with God. For this reason, we must take all sin seriously.
Called to Holiness
More than forgiving certain sins, God calls every believer to a life of holiness:
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ (1 Peter 1:14-16)
We are not saved by good works or personal holiness. But out of gratitude and reverence for God’s mercy, we seek to obey Him and be holy as He is holy. God gives us His Spirit to empower us to overcome sinful habits and reflect His character to the world.
Examining Our Hearts
While the Bible may not classify sins in the same way as Catholic theology, it does call us to regular self-examination. As believers, we are called to bring sin into the light through conviction of the Holy Spirit, repentance, and dependence on Christ’s cleansing blood.
Rather than evaluating whether a sin is “mortal” or “venial,” Scripture urges us to humbly and sincerely confess all known sin. God looks at the posture of our hearts more than keeping a checklist of do’s and don’ts. When we truly love Him, even “small” sins will grieve us because they offend His holiness.
Our motivation is not to avoid punishment but to dwell in joyful relationship with Jesus. He is faithful to forgive when we come to Him in humble repentance. The blood of Christ is powerful enough to cover any sin – past, present or future – for those who walk in relationship with Him.