Sins of Two Sorts
Sin has been a human problem from the very beginning of things. Sin has also been a problem for the theologians to define. Part of the “mystery of iniquity” has been in how to define it, so that people know how to deal with it within their own experience.
Some have insisted that all sins are equal. “A sin is a sin, period!” But the biblical record is more complex than that. In the earliest books of the Old Testament two kinds of sins are outlined.
There are some sins that are committed accidentally or unintentionally. (Leviticus 4:2, 13, 22, 27, 5:15-17, Numbers 15:27-29, Deuteronomy 19: 4-5, Joshua 20:1-6, etc.) When such sins occur, the person is asked to offer a sacrifice, and receive absolution. On the Great Day of Atonement the guilt of all such sins was removed from the entire community each year. (Leviticus 16:20-22.)
But, there are sins that are high handed, premeditated, and intentional. (Numbers 15:30-31, Deuteronomy 19: 11-13.) When such sins are committed there are no sacrifices that can be offered, but a person rests under the judgment of God and the excommunication from Israel, unless forgiveness is sought and offered by prophet, priest or king acting as the representative of God Himself.
That same understanding about sins of two sorts pervades the entire book of 1st John, but comes to focus in 5:16-17. “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin that does not lead to death.”
When the early Christian theologians pondered these texts, they came up with two words for the two kinds of sins: Mortal and Venial.
Mortal Sin is an attitude or action that kills faith in the soul, whereas Venial Sin is an attitude or action that wounds the soul.
Mortal Sin is the outflow of wickedness, while Venial Sin is often the result of human weakness.
Mortal Sins are “willful transgressions of the known law of God,” while Venial Sins are those responses that “fall short” of the glory/perfection/wishes of God.
Venial Sins flow from our weak and wounded mortality. They are caused in part by our clumsiness, our carelessness, our lack of vigilance, our ignorance, our cultural biases, etc. But Mortal Sins stem from a will to do wrong “with malice aforethought” and with little desire to desist or repent.
All sin is inexcusable, and not to be shrugged off as incidental, but sins of both kinds are not unforgivable. Though it must be said, some sins are almost impossible to repent of. It is why they are called mortal – they can kill us, and the communities of which we are part!
Published in Light and Life, July-August, 2005