Are there degrees of sin? The simple answer to that question is “yes.” Jesus himself acknowledged degrees of sin when He said to Pilate, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). In light of Christ’s words, we must acknowledge degrees of sin. However, we must also beware of drawing unbiblical conclusions from this truth.
In the article below, I want to examine the Bible’s teaching on degrees of sin. We will note that the Scriptures treat all human sin as serious. Nevertheless, some sins are more serious than others. Moreover, we will give some space to consider the most egregious sin, namely, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Before we launch into our study, though, I would like to describe and refute the Roman Catholic distinction between “mortal” and “venial” sins.1
“Venial” and “Mortal” Sins?
As early as Tertullian and Augustine, theologians began making a distinction between “venial sins” and “mortal sins.”2 Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas further refined this distinction.3 According to a modern Roman Catholic dictionary, a venial sin is “an offense against God not serious enough to cause the loss of sanctifying grace. Venial sin is likened to an illness of the soul, and not its death.” The dictionary then offers two examples, such as stealing a nickel or telling a jocose lie. In contrast, the dictionary defines a “mortal sin” as a “transgression in a grave matter of law which is made with full advertence [awareness] and full consent. It is called mortal … because it cuts the sinner off from sanctifying grace and in a sense brings death to the soul.”4
One of the primary passages cited to justify this distinction is Galatians 5:19-21. That text lists at least 17 different sins, including sins like “adultery,” “idolatry,” “murder,” and “drunkenness.”5 Then it ends with the warning that “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Thus according to Roman Catholic theology, these sins must be “mortal” since the commission of them results in the forfeiture of eternal life. Presumably, any sin not identified or implicated as “mortal” does not result in the loss of eternal life.
Not surprisingly, this distinction between venial and mortal sins relates to the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance. According to Catholic theology, if you commit a venial sin, and you fail to confess and repent of that sin, you are not in danger of hell. If you commit a mortal sin, however, and you fail to confess and do penance for that sin, then you are in danger of hell. Thus the Roman Catholic believer is told he may confess his venial sins if he desires, but he must confess his mortal sins if he hopes to gain eternal life.6
You may be aware of the practical results of this kind of theology. In some people, this distinction leads to an ongoing state of anxious fear. They are always worried they may have stepped over the line and committed a “mortal” sin. As a result, they have to get to the priest quickly and make confession lest they die without hope. In other people, this distinction between venial and mortal sin leads to a state of careless presumption. They assume that since most sins are not mortal, then they have little to worry about. What do the Scriptures say to this kind of thinking?
The Biblical Teaching on Degrees of Sin
According to Scripture, all sin is serious, some sin is more serious, and one sin is unpardonable.
All sins are serious.
According to Scripture, all sins—from the least to the greatest—are serious and worthy of damnation. Quoting Deuteronomy 27:26, Paul warns, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them [emphasis mine]” (Gal. 3:10). Thus according to Paul, to break just one commandment of God’s law makes one liable to God’s curse. The apostle James confirms this when he writes, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).
Because the law is a reflection of God’s holy nature, and because God’s nature is an inseparable unity, then the smallest violation of God’s law becomes an attack upon God himself. This great reality was underscored at man’s fall into sin. What was Adam’s “mortal” sin? His mortal sin was not idolatry, murder, or adultery. Adam’s sin was to eat the forbidden fruit. At one level, his sin might be comparable to breaking the speed limit or running a stop sign. It was a peccadillo. But at another level, Adam’s sin was nothing less than rebellion against His Creator. And because he disregarded the command of an infinitely holy and just God, Adam’s “peccadillo” placed himself and the human race under the justice and wrath of Almighty God.
Therefore, the distinction between venial sins and mortal sins must be rejected. The Bible represents all sin as serious and worthy of damnation. In that sense, all sins are mortal.7
Some sins are more serious than others.
The fact that all sins are serious and worthy of damnation does not rule out degrees of sin. As I pointed out earlier, Jesus himself used a comparative adjective to distinguish one sin from another. Without question, some sins are “greater” than other sins. This truth is further supported by the passages which allude to degrees of punishment. For example, Jesus warns His contemporaries, “I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the Day of Judgment than for you [emphasis mine]” (Matt. 11:24). Note the comparison. According to Jesus, His fellow countrymen who reject him are in for greater punishment than that suffered by the former inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jesus’ threat obviously implies that some sins are more serious in God’s sight than others.
But this conclusion leads us to ask the question, Why does God treat some sin more seriously than other sin? The answer to that question depends upon at least two factors: the degree of light the sinner possesses, and the degree of intention involved in the sin. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
1 I’ll be drawing much of the material below from Anthony Hoekema’s helpful summary of “Gradations of Sin” in Created in God’s Image (Eerdmans, 1986), 177-186.
2 Tertullian, On Modesty, chs. 2, 3, 19; Against Marcion, 4:9. Augustine, Enchiridion, 44, 71; City of God, Bk. 21:27.
3 Lombard, Sentences, II, Dist. 42; Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Qq. 88, 89.
4 Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary, ed. Albert J. Nevins (Grosset and Dunlap, 1956), pp. 529-30.
5 The other seventeen listed include, “fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envyings, and revellings.
6 The New Catholic People’s Encyclopedia, rev. ed. (The Catholic Press, 1973), 3:718.
7 John Calvin draws this conclusion when he writes, “Let the children of God hold that all sin is mortal. For it is rebellion against the will of God, which of necessity provokes God’s wrath, and it is a violation of the law upon which God’s judgment is pronounced without exception.” Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8:59.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.