Towards a Catholic and Protestant convergence in the understanding of Sin
|"Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring
repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession,
absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without
discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living
and incarnate. " Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This paper is an attempt to examine the understanding of sin, and degrees in
sin, within the Catholic and Protestant traditions to see how far the underlying
understanding is in fact more convergent than divergent.
The Protestant approach to the sinfulness of man can be succinctly described -
all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. Here sin is understood as
a form of universal moral corruption, which effects all mankind, but which is
overcome by Jesus dying upon the cross.
The Catholic position usually cites 1 John 5:16-17 as a means of demonstrating
that there are degrees of sin. The passage deals with sinful acts, and
distinguishes between general sins and "deadly sins". This is used as the basis
for the differentiation between venial and mortal sins.
I would note that the Protestant and Catholic position are not quite at
loggerheads, as is commonly assumed. The Protestant position concentrates upon
what we might term the ontological facet of sin, that sin is inextricably part
of human beings. This is in fact also present in the Catholic position, in the
idea of "original sin", where it is understood in terms of "natural law", as
almost part of the genetic legacy of mankind. In this respect, both agree with
Romans 3:23: "...all have sinned and fall
short of the glory of God.".
The Catholic distinction between classes of sinful acts is distinct from and
complementary to this agreed position. Drawing from the letter of John, it
brings out the common-sense perception that there are differences in sinful
acts, and that to lie, for instance, is not on the same moral level as to
murder; this is an ethic which certainly has underpinned criminal law, where
there is a perceived threshold beyond which an act is not just immoral, but also
It is certainly clear that John, in his letter, is making some kind of
distinction between two types of sinful behaviour. However, it has to be said
that the passage is extremely obscure, and to apply it to other passages as a
kind of filter to classify types of sin by list is most certainly improper
exegesis; if we are to understand it, it must be understood in context. That in
itself is difficult, because the whole letter
reads as a series of disjointed homilies rather than a unifying whole. However,
the intent of the writer does link in moral acts with belief - 1 John 2:3-4
speaks of saying "I know Jesus" as being linked to keeping his commandments;
there is a stated argument that belief does not excuse us from
morality, or to put it another way, faith and actions cannot be separated.
This passage is echoed in the Pauline ones of those who "will not inherit the
kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6:9-10, Gal 5:19-21, Eph 5:5), there is a clear teaching
from Paul that faith and persistent sin are not compatible; he lists those who
are "sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, the self-indulgent, sodomists,
thieves, misers, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers" (1 Cor 6:9-10). He also
speaks of the Corinthians as washed clean of their sins, and removed from that
kind of life.
This brings us to the heart of the problem facing the early Church from New
Testament times onwards. What is the position of a Christian who has repented,
turned to Christ - and then turned away again as evidenced by their deeds?
A form of distinction is evident in Paul and John, and also was apparent in
Christians in the first few centuries whenever the Roman Empire was particularly
vehement in persecution. How does one treat Christians who have offered
allegiance to Caesar, and commited idolatory to avoid persecution? It is
interesting that while repentance was required, those who had purchased
certificates to say they had worshipped Caesar were treated more leniently than
those who had actually done so.
The Protestant solution to sinful action is to see this as "backsliding", and
the remedy is a fresh act of repentance, of turning back to God, and renouncing
again the immoral deeds; the Protestant position, despite the emphasis on
justification by faith, does not see this as a means of excusing sin, or as
Bonhoeffer termed it, "cheap grace", which amounts to "the justification of sin
without the justification of the sinner.". Bonhoeffer is writing from a Lutheran
perspective, and saw himself as standing firmly within the Protestant
Reformation tradition,. Nevertheless, he writes: "Cheap grace is not the kind of
forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the
grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness
without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion
without confession, absolution without personal confession. ". Protestantism
always faces the danger of cheap grace, in affirmations like "God accepts me and
blesses me just as I am. ", "I am saved", "I can't do any better; God
understands", "I've done everything I could; now its all up to God. ", all which
which contain some truth, but are abused when used as a form of
This essay continues below.
The Catholic solution is to differentiate between the grey areas in life,
where we are uncertain of the morality of our actions, and those areas where we
clearly know (from scripture and conscience) that the acts are wrong. The grey
areas are termed "venial sin" and the clear cut areas "mortal sin". This is in
many ways a common-sense understanding of morality. Again, there is a call for
repentance, and reconciliation with God. There are particular ways in which this
is done - congregational acts of penitence, and a sacrament of reconciliation,
and both acknowledge the seriousness of sin. In passing, I would also comment
that the Anglican church, which in its rubrics offers the option of a personal
confession, falls here within the Catholic tradition.
Where the Catholic solution has in the past taken a wrong turn is to list and
codify these, and produce a kind of taxonomy of sin, which is then laid down as
a form of legalistic framework for actions. There is nothing wrong with this,
provided that the motivations, the inner attitude, is not forgotten - Christian
ethics is more than just keeping rules, it is seeking purity in heart. Also the
distinction, as Aquinas noted, is not always so clear cut, so-called venial sin
if wilfully persistent merges into mortal sin.
However, there come times when the individual may need some form of guidance,
and the taxonomy does help as a guide for understanding what acts are sinful,
and why. The explanation is as important as the definition, or otherwise all
that is left is a set of rules. But even Protestants feel that some form of
moral judgement should be made on actions, especially when human life is at
Moreover, even the Protestant acknowledges some differentiation in sinful acts,
as can be seen from marriage in church and participation in the Eucharist. In
each case, an individual acting in a particular manner, such as living in an
adulterous relationship, may not be eligible for marriage in church, or
participation in the Eucharist, because this is perceived as inadmissible due to
the gravity of the moral act. There is a case for church discipline, and even
Protestants will accept this, even if the form in which in takes may differ from
one form of Christianity to another, and even from one Church to another.
Catholicism codifies restrictions to participation in the mass in the same way.
The dangers of precedent leads to no exceptions in the written rule book (of
Canon law), however, it is well known that some priests who know the background
to the situation may exercise their own discretion, although this is not
acknowledged officially. The binding nature of Church discipline in regard to
individual confession, which has been more rigorously tightened recently by John
Paul II, fails to acknowledge the reality of the situation. In the lay mind,
mortal sin has moved to being understood from an existential and situational
perspective rather than a consideration of external lists, and the decrease in
private confessions cannot be reversed by orders to be obeyed without question,
whatever their source. At some point, the Catholic hierarchy will either
acknowledge this, or seek to impose impossibly draconian discipline.
In conclusion, both Protestant and Catholic positions acknowledge the inherent
sinfulness of mankind, and they both make a kind of moral spectrum on which to
judge moral acts, whether implicitly or explicitly, which accords with emergent
distinctions noted within the New Testament. Persistence in an immoral act is
also seen as incompatible with Christian belief or we have what Bonhoeffer terms
"cheap grace". Church discipline also acknowledges this distinction.
The Catholic distinction between venial and mortal sin is an attempt to codify
this discipline, and place a threshold marker between immoral acts clearly
requiring church discipline, and those not requiring discipline; the borders
being drawn along the lines of the emerging New Testament distinctions.
Protestants would probably not use such language, but the underlying principles
would be similar, and borders would be drawn, even if at different places.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "The Cost of Discipleship," Touchstone, (1995).
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- Tablet article on confession:
- Aquinas on Confession:
- Confession in the Mass:
- Australia - general absolution:
- Prohibition on general absolution:
- Bonhoeffer and "cheap grace:"
http://www.geocities.com/ and at
http://koti.mbnet.fi/ for a detailed text.
- Concerning popular Protestantism:
- Grace and discipleship:
- Grace and works:
Copyright © 2004 by "Tony"
Originally posted: 2004-NOV-11
Latest update: 2004-NOV-11