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Towards a Catholic and Protestant convergence in the understanding of Sin

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bullet "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 1

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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 illegal.

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 self-justification.

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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 stake.

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.

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Useful references:

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "The Cost of Discipleship," Touchstone, (1995). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Tablet article on confession:
  3. Aquinas on Confession:
  4. Confession in the Mass:
  5. Australia - general absolution:
  6. Prohibition on general absolution:
  7. Bonhoeffer and "cheap grace:" and at for a detailed text.
  8. Concerning popular Protestantism:
  9. Grace and discipleship:
  10. Grace and works:

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Copyright 2004 by "Tony"
Originally posted: 2004-NOV-11
Latest update: 2004-NOV-11
Author: "Tony"

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