Somewhere, you may have heard of a category of sins that are especially serious and damaging. In Catholic teaching, these are called mortal sins, because of their serious impact and consequences.
But what exactly are mortal sins? And perhaps more importantly, will God forgive mortal sins?
Mortal sins are sins that lead to death. The Bible teaches that death is the consequence of all sin, and that forgiveness is available to all through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
Before we begin, note that this is not a Catholic blog. Our answers are provided from a theologically reformed, evangelical interpretation of scripture. Nevertheless, it is necessary to spend some time with Catholic doctrine in order to properly frame and answer the question.
Catholic Teachings on Sin
Many readers, even those without a Catholic background, are familiar with what the Catholic Church calls the capital – or more commonly – seven deadly sins; pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, sloth, lust, and greed.
These sins are called capital sins because they are root sins that lead to additional sins. For example, the sin of lust leads to the sin of adultery, while the sin of greed compels the sin of stealing.
Mortal sins, according to Catholic doctrine, encompass not only these sins but a range of others, including—but not limited to— violations of the Ten Commandments.
The Catholic Catechism teaches that “Mortal sin is sin:
- whose object is grave matter
- and which is also committed with full knowledge
- and deliberate consent.”
Any sin that does not meet all of these criteria – seriousness, understanding, and purposefulness – is considered, in Catholic teaching, to be a lesser or venial sin:
The Catholic Catechism describes venial sins, as:
- …a less serious matter
- or when he disobeys… without full knowledge
- or without complete consent
Generally, sins that are committed unknowingly or that have a minimal earthly impact are classified as venial sins.
Why the Difference?
According to Catholic teaching, God will forgive mortal sins through the Sacrament of Penance. This sacrament begins with contrition (remorse and repentance) on the part of the sinner, which compels confession to a priest and absolution of sins, also administered by the priest.
Venial sins, under Catholic doctrine, do not require penance (but may be absolved through penance). According to Catholic teaching, a person who dies while holding unabsolved venial sins is subject to a post-death absolution in purgatory before being granted entry into paradise.
To this non-Catholic writer, it appears that the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins exists not to put greater weight on the more serious sins, but to lessen the burden on the sinner who commits less serious offenses, and to establish the notion of purgatory (an unbiblical concept that we shall discuss at another time).
All Sin is Sin
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!
You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:15, 18, 21-23
To the non-Catholic Christian, the question “Will God forgive mortal sins?” is, at best, a poorly worded question, because the Bible teaches that God forgives all sin, without the need for a priestly intermediary or a post-death period of cleansing.
As we have been freed from sin, we have also been freed from the consequence of sin (death), and in its place given the gift of eternal life.
What about the Unforgivable Sin?
…but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.Mark 3:29
A quick aside, as we do not have the space to fully examine this topic. Jesus did indeed declare that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. But this is not a sin that believers need to worry about in their own lives. Anyone who believes has already received the Holy Spirit.
Since it is the unique work of the Holy Spirit to call people to salvation in Christ, anyone who is closed off to the leading of the Spirit will not experience salvation. In other words, such people are already declared to be under judgment, even as they yet live.
For example, when God ‘hardened Pharaoh’s heart,’ (Exodus 9:12) He was declaring that Pharaoh was already and irrevocably subject to judgment.
This is the distinction that John is referring to when he speaks about ‘sin that leads to death’ and ‘sin that does not lead to death,’ (1 John 5:16-17). John’s statement, therefore, should not be interpreted as a distinction between mortal and venial sins, as Catholic doctrine teaches.
Examples of Forgiveness
To illustrate the magnitude of God’s grace, let’s examine some of the well-known people in scripture who were forgiven and made righteous despite their very serious sins.
- Moses: When God called Moses through the burning bush, Moses was living apart from Egypt because he had killed a man and fled to evade justice. (Exodus 2:11-15)
- David: The Bible calls David a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). Yet, his famous tryst with Bathsheba was a compounding of multiple serious sins. First, David succumbed to lust and committed adultery. Then when his plot to deceitfully pass off his child as the child of Uriah failed, he arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle. (2 Samuel 11:1-27)
- Paul: As a persecutor of the early church, Paul executed arrest warrants and sentences on behalf of the Sanhedrin. Shortly before his conversion, Paul oversaw the stoning of Stephen. (Acts 7:54-60)
God Forgives Us, Too
The same grace that made Moses, David, and Paul righteous before God is available to each of us. When we repent and believe, God promises:
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”1 John 1:9
Though we make no distinction between mortal and venial sins, we must remain mindful of Paul’s warning to the Galatians that ‘God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.’ (Galatians 6:6-7).
Even though our eternity is secured from the moment of salvation, we must take care to surrender to Jesus, and seek His power over sin daily, so that we may grow in our faith and walk each day in victory.