Thesis Thursday

In Lecture 31, Walther discusses mortal vs. venial sins:

Thesis XIX.

In the fifteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher speaks of certain sins as if they were not of a damnable, but of venial nature.

Unless you ponder the highly important matter now before us well, you will lack much of the clear vision that you ought to have for the proper discharge of the ministerial office.

We have already seen that a distinction must be made between mortal and venial sins. A person failing to make this distinction does not rightly divide Law and Gospel. But the distinction between these two kinds of sin must be made with great care. It must be clearly shown that the distinction is made for the purpose of proving that certain sins expel the Holy Ghost from the believer. When the Holy Spirit is driven out, faith, too, is ejected; for no one can come to faith nor retain it without the Holy Ghost. Sins which expel the Holy Ghost and bring on spiritual death are called mortal sins. Any one who has been a Christian will readily perceive when the Holy Spirit has departed from him by his inability to offer up childlike prayers to God and to resist sin stoutly and bravely as he used to do. He will feel as if he had become chained to sin, like a slave. It is a good thing if he has at least this knowledge of his condition, for thus he may be brought back to God. But while this condition endures, he is not in communion with God.

Venial sins are termed such as a Christian commits without forfeiting the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They are sins of weakness or rashness; frequently they are called the daily sins of Christians.

While inculcating this distinction upon our hearers, we must be scrupulously careful not to create the notion in them that venial sins are sins about which a person need not be greatly concerned and for which he does not have to ask forgiveness. A preacher who leads his hearers to entertain this view becomes the cause of their perdition. He makes them carnally secure and drives the fear of God from their hearts. That is not the true evangelical way of preaching about these sins, nor is it, in general, a true evangelical notion that only he is a real evangelical preacher who does not preach the Law a great deal. Both the Law and the Gospel must be preached, the one in its sternness, the other in its sweetness. A preacher who does not preach both does not deserve the name of an evangelical minister, but is a false leader and is sowing the Gospel as if he were casting wheat into the ocean, where no crop can be raised. It happens only too often that preachers, when speaking of the distinction between venial and mortal sins, create the impression that to Christians venial sins are matters over which they need not worry. Since all are sinners and no one ever gets rid of sin entirely, there is no reason why one should feel disturbed because of these sins. A talk of that kind is really awful and ungodly.

Christian experience also proves that in its nature no sin is venial. Any true Christian will tell you this to be his experience, that, as soon as he had sinned, he felt an unrest, which continued until he had asked God for forgiveness. In every true Christian the conscience promptly rings an alarm. A Christian merchant becomes restless over five cents in his receipts that do not belong to him. A Christian is reproved by his conscience for wrongdoing when he has treated a brother discourteously or in loveless fashion. For the slightest offense which he has given by his sinful conduct he apologizes, and he has no rest until he has done so. Is not that remarkable? It shows that venial sins, too, are something evil, a fire that may be kindled for our perdition. Small sins become great when they are regarded as small.

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11 Responses to Thesis Thursday

  1. RubeRad says:

    Hey, I got a few ideas how not to imply that some sins are unimportant:

    (a) Get rid of the mortal/venial distinction!
    (b) CC37, SC84, LC152 (although I never understood the point of SC83, LC150-151)

  2. matt says:

    I agree. Get rid of the distinction as I don’t find it in Scripture.

    Attending a Wi. Synod Lutheran gradeschool from K-8 and it’s church (which I continually thank God for) we weren’t taught this nor did I know of it. I thought it was an only-Catholic distinction.
    I’ve been attending a Mo. Synod church and I wonder if they teach this. I haven’t joined yet.
    It’s funny, they just finished up their weekly class of Walther’s Law & Gospel (I only made it to two classes) all the while I’ve been enjoying CO’s fantastic critique of this same book for these many months which is causing me to believe, as you affirmed in a post on Lecture 30, that “Calvinists are not Lutherans”.

    So I’m not a Lutheran and it makes sense as I’ve been associating my theology more with Reformed theology these last 10 years due to Horton, Riddlebarger, this blog and others.

    Where is this Children’s Catechism from? We went thru Luther’s Small Catechism in gradeschool.

    CC37: I agree
    SC84: I agree
    LC152: This is even better

    SC83 and LC150: There sure are several aggravations – pretty heady stuff.
    In my finite and sinful understanding I could agree some sins are more heinous than others
    in the sight of God but I still believe they equally deserve the same punishment.

  3. RubeRad says:

    You can read about the children’s catechism here, but basically, I call it the “shorter than shorter catechism.”

    You should find the teacher of the Walther class and ask, it’ll probably be fresh in his memory.

  4. Tony says:

    I find Walther’s discussion of mortal v. venial sins very confusing. It seems contrary to Luther’s pastoral and theological concern, that a proper understanding of the Gospel is the only way to battle against “that monster, doubt.” Good grief, wouldn’t the apostle Paul in Romans 7 be disqualified by the following: “Any one who has been a Christian will readily perceive when the Holy Spirit has departed from him by his inability to offer up childlike prayers to God and to resist sin stoutly and bravely as he used to do. He will feel as if he had become chained to sin, like a slave. It is a good thing if he has at least this knowledge of his condition, for thus he may be brought back to God. But while this condition endures, he is not in communion with God.” Doesn’t Paul confess that he finds this other “law” of the flesh “warring against the law of my mind [i.e., that of the new man], and bringing me into CAPTIVITY to the law of sin which is in my members.”

    So I did some more research, and I found some help in Mueller’s Christian Dogmatics. I’ll post a couple of replies with what I found:

    “e. Mortal and venial sins. Mortal sins (peccata mortalia) are all sins which actually precipitate the transgressor into a state of wrath, death, and condemnation, so that, if he should die without repentance, his punishment would be eternal death, John 8:21, 24; Rom. 8:13. All sins of unbelievers are mortal sins since unbelievers reject Christ, for whose sake alone God pardons sin, Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7; Acts 4:12. When we speak of mortal sins of “believers,” we mean such sins as grieve the Holy Spirit, Eph. 4:30, and destroy faith (David’s murder and adultery, Ps. 32:3, 4). “A mortal sin is that by which the regenerate, overcome by the flesh and not remaining in a regenerate state, transgress the divine Law by a deliberate purpose of the will, contrary to the dictates of conscience, and thereby lose saving faith, reject the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit, and cast themselves into a state of wrath, death, and condemnation.” (Hollaz.)—Venial sins (peccata venialia) are the involuntary sins of believers, which, though in themselves deserving eternal death, are forgiven for Christ’s sake, in whom the believer trusts and in whose strength he continually repents of his sins, Ps. 19:12, 13; 51:9–12.
    On this point the papists err, who teach that certain sins are in themselves mortal (superbia, avaritia, luxuria, ira, gula, invidia, acedia), while others in themselves are venial and so deserve only temporal punishments. The Calvinists err in this matter by teaching that the elect never lose faith or fall from grace, even when they commit enormous sins (peccata enormia).
    With mortal sins may be identified the so-called dominant and with venial sins the so-called non-dominant sins. In unbelievers all sins are dominant, since they are dead in trespasses and sins and are in the power of Satan, Eph. 2:1–3. The blessed state in which sin is no longer dominant in man is found in believers only, Rom. 6:12, 14. If believers give up the struggle against sin, Gal. 5:16, 17, so that it again reigns over them, they have fallen from grace and lost faith, Gal. 5:4; 1 Cor. 5:11.”

    Mueller, J. T. (1999). Christian dogmatics (electronic ed.) (231–232). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

  5. Tony says:

    Then Mueller proceeds to a discussion of the unpardonable sin, and the sin against the Holy Ghost.

    “g. Pardonable sins and the unpardonable sin. A pardonable sin (peccatum remissibile) is a sin of which it is possible to repent, while the “unpardonable sin” (peccatum irremissibile) excludes the possibility of repentance. Since all sins are pardonable except the sin against the Holy Ghost, Matt. 12:31, 32; Mark 3:22–30; Luke 12:10, which is the only irremissible sin that Scripture records, this sin requires special consideration. However, the classification just given must not be abused in the interest of carnal security and indifference toward sin. Every sin is pardonable only if the sinner in true repentance trusts in the vicarious satisfaction of Christ. It is only from the viewpoint of divine grace that sins are pardonable, not from that of human merit, Rom. 4:5–8. There is no “guiltless sin” before God, Rom. 3:19; Gal. 3:10.
    h. The sin against the Holy Ghost. The sin against the Holy Ghost is described in Scripture as “blasphemy against the Holy Ghost,” Mark 3:28, 29. This blasphemy is distinguished from that directed against Christ, Matt. 12:32, which, as our Savior expressly teaches, is pardonable. As Scripture references to the sin against the Holy Ghost our dogmaticians consider also 1 John 5:16 and Heb. 6:4–6; 10:26, 27.
    The sin against the Holy Ghost is unpardonable because it is directed, not against the divine person of the Holy Ghost, but against His divine office or His gracious operation upon the human heart. Peccatum in Spiritum Sanctum non in personam, sed in officium Spiritus Sancti committitur. That is the nature, or essence, of this sin. However, not every resistance against the work of the Holy Ghost comes under the head of this sin; otherwise every person in the world would commit this unpardonable sin, since by nature all men resist the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 8:7.
    The sin against the Holy Ghost is committed only when the Holy Spirit has clearly revealed the divine truth to the sinner and the sinner nevertheless utters blasphemies against it. Hence this sin must not be identified a) with that of final impenitence (impoenitentia finalis) nor b) with blasphemy of the divine truth flowing from spiritual blindness, 1 Tim. 1:13, nor c) with the denial of the divine truth through fear, Luke 22:61, 62. The sin against the Holy Ghost consists in the perverse, persistent denial and rejection of the divine truth after the latter has been sufficiently acknowledged and accepted as such, joined with voluntary and atrocious blasphemy. In other words, it is the malicious and blasphemous rejection of the Gospel by a hardened sinner, who through the gracious illumination of the Holy Ghost has been fully convinced of its divine truth… {an extended & untranslated Latin quote follows}”

    Mueller, J. T. (1999). Christian dogmatics (electronic ed.) (232–233). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

  6. Tony says:


    …The reason why the sin against the Holy Ghost is unpardonable is because it is malicious and persistent resistance against the converting and sanctifying work of the Holy Ghost, through which alone sinners are saved.
    The Calvinists err in teaching that the sin against the Holy Ghost is unpardonable for the reason that God from eternity has predetermined to damnation those who maliciously resist the divine truth. Over against this error it may be shown that Christ earnestly desired to save the very Pharisees who rejected His Word and committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, Matt. 12:22–32; 23:37.
    The question whether the sin against the Holy Ghost still occurs must be answered in the affirmative, since Matt. 12:31, 32 and its parallel passages are general statements and so apply at all times. From 1 John 5:16 we conclude that in certain cases those who commit the sin against the Holy Ghost may be known; for in this passage believers are asked not to intercede for such (“I do not say that he,” etc.). At the same time we must not be hasty in charging with this sin a person who may appear to us to be guilty of it, but rather continue in the testimony of the truth as we have opportunity, warning the wrong-doer against the dreadful offense which our Lord so strongly condemns, just as He Himself earnestly warned the Pharisees against it, Matt. 12:22–32.
    Whether Heb. 6:4–6 and 10:26, 27 treat of the sin against the Holy Ghost is an exegetical question, though many scholars believe that these two passages speak of this sin. In Heb. 12:17 the word “repentance” refers to Isaac rather than to Esau, the meaning of the text being that Esau with all his tears could not prevail on his father to change his mind and turn Jacob’s blessing to his advantage, Gen. 27:34–38.
    Only divine grace can preserve us from the sin against the Holy Ghost. If they were left to themselves, all who have come under the gracious operation of the Spirit of God would commit this heinous sin. Those who are in great distress of mind because they fear that they have committed it should take comfort from the fact that this unforgivable sin is committed only by such as maliciously spurn and blasphemously reject the grace of God in Christ Jesus, not, however, by any one who repents of his sins and longs for the forgiveness which the Gospel offers. To him apply such passages as Matt. 11:28; 9:13; John 6:37.

    Mueller, J. T. (1999). Christian dogmatics (electronic ed.) (233–234). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

  7. Tony says:

    So in the end, is a “mortal sin” the willful, unbelieving rejection of the Gospel and a “malicious & persistent” resistance to the Holy Spirit’s convicting & converting work? I think that’s the Lutheran view. Maybe.

  8. RubeRad says:

    That’s all interesting stuff; it’s ironic that the Lutherans, who claim to offer more comforting and sure assurance, undercut it with this mortal & venial sin stuff (not to mention the nonperseverance of true salvation). Or maybe it’s just a matter of personal temperament whether one finds more assurance from certain salvation today (but uncertain tomorrow), or from certain perseverance for the elect (but difficulty discerning election).

  9. Tony says:

    Yes, I find this puzzling, too. If I have the history right, Walther became a convinced confessional Lutheran after some time in the wilderness of Lutheran Pietism. So he may well have been a recovering pietist – as I think his discussion above may indicate. As to assurance, I think the Lutherans would say that “objective justification” – Christ died for all sinners, and I qualify – is the only basis for assurance. Deny Christ and you don’t have assurance. Repent and believe the Gospel, and you do.

  10. says:

    Isn’t this the bottom line?

    Deny Christ and you don’t have assurance. Repent and believe the Gospel, and you do.

  11. RubeRad says:

    The Calvinist objection is: What good is assurance of salvation today if you have no assurance of perseverance tomorrow?

    The Lutheran retort is: what good is perseverance if election is hidden, so you can’t personally have assurance that you will persevere?

    The answer in WCF18 seems to be that it is indeed possible to have assurance:

    such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus … may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace…This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith…This infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto.

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