On the Classifications & Degrees of Sin, & the Distinction Between Venial & Mortal Sin

“For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.”

James 1:10

“And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.  But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

Lk. 12:47-48

“Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after.  Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid.”

1 Tim. 5:24-25




Of Concupiscence, & that Desires of & Pre-Motions to Sin are Sinful, Irrespective of the Consent of the Will



Order of Contents

Practical – Sproul
Quotes  12+
Articles  8+
Encyclopedia Articles  2
Augustine Quotes
Historical Theology
Latin  8+




Not all sins are the same, nor affect the believer, and God’s grace in them, the same. Exploring the reformed material and distinctions on this new page of resources will help you to become much more acquainted with the nuances of our Lord’s will in these things.

Specifically, the Romanists distinguished between venial (light) sins, which do not bring about spiritual death, and mortal (deadly) sins, which extinguish the work of grace in the Christian.  While the reformed outright rejected the distinction in the Romanist sense, as all sins in their nature bring about spiritual death and are worthy of condemnation, yet they not infrequently used the distinction nonetheless in Biblical and reformed senses.

A big thanks to Andrés Eduardo Garcia Gonzalez of Venezuela who provided many of the materials on the page.



Practical – R.C. Sproul

How Can I Develop a Christian Conscience?  Buy  (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019)

“This distinction [that is, any distinction of degrees of sins] is important for Christians to understand so that we can learn to live charitably with each other.  The sin of pettiness, by which people begin to dwell on minor transgressions in the community, can tear the body of Christ apart.  Great damage comes when it is fueled by the fire of gossip and slander.  We are called to patience and tolerance towards the struggling failures of other Christians.  It’s not that we’re called to be lax on sin, for there are certain sins listed in the New Testament that are serious and ought not be allowed in the church.  Adultery is serious.  Incest calls for ecclesiastical discipline. Drunkenness, murder, and fornication are repeatedly mentioned.  These sins are so destructive that they call forth church discipline when they are manifested.

It’s clear that we have different degrees of sin when we consider the warnings of Scripture.  There are at least twenty-two references in the New Testament to degrees of rewards that are given to the saints in heaven.  There are different levels, different rewards, and different roles in heaven.  The Bible warns us against adding to the severity of our judgment.  Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, “He who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11).  Jesus measures and evaluates guilt, and with the greater guilt and greater responsibility comes the greater judgment.  It’s a motif that permeates the New Testament.

The idea of gradation of sin and reward is based upon God’s justice.  If I commit twice as many sins as another person, justice demands that the punishment fits the crime.  If I’ve been twice as virtuous as another person, justice demands that I get more of a reward.  God tells us that entrance into heaven will be only on the basis of the merit of Christ, but once we get to heaven, rewards will be dispensed according to works.  Those who have been abundant in good works will receive an abundant reward.  Those who have been derelict and negligent in good works will have a small reward in heaven.  By the same token, those who have been grievous enemies of God will have severe torments in hell.  Those who have been less hostile will have a lesser punishment at the hands of God.  He is perfectly just, and when He judges, He will take into account all of the extenuating circumstances.  Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36).

Why is it important for us to emphasize this point?  Many times I’ve talked to men who struggle with lust and they say to themselves or to me, “I might as well go ahead and commit adultery because I’m already guilty of lust.  I can’t be in any worse shape in the sight of God, so I might as well finish the deed.”  I always answer, “Oh yes, you can be in much worse shape.”  The judgment of actual adultery will be much more severe than the judgment upon lust.  God will deal with us at that level, and it’s a foolish thing for a person who has committed a misdemeanor, to therefore say, “I’m already guilty; I might as well make it a felony.”  God forbid that we should think like that.  If we do, we face the righteous judgment of God.  We must keep this in mind as we seek to build a Christian conscience and a Christian character”.



Order of Quotes

On the Post-Reformation  (Muller & Bavinck)
Bullinger & Heppe
2nd Helvetic Confession
Synopsis of Pure Theology
On Maresius
van Mastricht




On the Post-Reformation

Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, p. 220

peccata mortalia:

mortal sins; viz., sins that result in damnation and eternal death because their commission so denies faith and the work of the Spirit that salvation becomes impossible, as distinguished from peccata venialia, venial sins, which are merely weaknesses.

Against the medieval scholastics, both the Lutherans and the Reformed deny the distinction, at least in the sense that venial sins must also be recognized as damnable and as worthy of eternal punishment if the sinner perseveres in them to the point of impoenitentia finalis.  Medieval scholastic theology distinguished seven deadly or mortal sins: superbia, avaritia, luxuria, ira, gula, invidia, acedia: pride, greed, luxury, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth.  The Protestant scholastics more frequently speak of peccata cordis, oris, operis, sins of heart, mouth, and action or, as often rendered, thought, word, and deed.”


Herman Bavinck

Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3  (Baker Academic), part 1, ch. 3, ‘The Nature of Sin’, p. 153  Bavinck’s summary lacks significant qualification, as is seen by the rest of the material on this webpage.

“Reformers, however, rejected the distinction as incompatible with the Word of God.  They did not deny that there are degrees of sin, and while they continued to employ the terms ‘mortal’ and ‘venial sins,’ they attached a different meaning to them.  Lutherans to some extent had to take over this distinction, as much as believers could commit some sins without losing the grace of God and [commit] others that cost them that grace.

But the Reformed went further and wanted nothing to do with the whole distinction.  If they did at times still use the words, they meant by them that all sins, except the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, can be forgiven and are actually forgiven to believers, but that they are all inherently deserving of death.”


Heinrich Heppe Quoting Henry Bullinger

Reformed Dogmatics, ‘Sin or Man’s State of Corruption’, Heppe is summarizing what he understands the post-Reformation tradition to be, especially with regard to the German reformed, though see the rest of the materials on the webpage for some more significant qualifications.

“As regards distinction of sins that between mortal and venial is to be rejected.  On the one hand every sin, even the one that seems most trifling, is in itself a deadly sin, rendering a man condemnable for eternity; although the comparative differences in the guilt and magnitude of sins among themselves is not done away with.  On the other hand every sin of a person elect and born again is pardoned sin; that person can never fall away completely from grace or faith.

To begin with even Reformed dogmatics was inclined to recognize the distinction between venial and mortal sins as an essential one. Cf., e.g., Bullinger (III, 3):

‘All the sins of our thought, words and deeds are by no means equal to each other; they have their own degrees and are in fact some greater, some less than others.  If inflamed by a bad desire a man yet represses it, so that he utters it neither in word nor in deed; he sins les than the man who loosens the reins of concupiscence and is completely carried away by cupidity.

To sin against God is more serious than to be delinquent towards man.  It is a grave sin to commit manslaughter, but more serious to perpetrate parricide.  He who commits adultery once, sins more lightly than if he should commit this same sin a second time.  As the heap of sins increases, divine wrath and punishment are heaped up in the same degree.  Differences in punishments are set up by the Lord; which otherwise would not be the case, were all sins equal.

Now the godly in all ages have unanimously transmitted it from Scripture, that certain sins are venial or daily; I mean the slips and errors done out of ignorance and weakness rather than of wickedness and committed by otherwise holy men, who daily pray for the remission of their debts.  Among capital crimes, some are termed clamant (crying) as perpetually demanding divine vengeance, like the sin of the men of Sodom, Gen. 18, of Cain, Gen. 4, also defrauding poor hirelings of their profits and wrongs done to other poor men.’

Meantime the polemic against the Roman theologians very early led to another and more adequate treatment of this article.”



John Calvin

Institutes, II.8.59

“For in every little transgression of the divinely commanded law, God’s authority is set aside…  [S]ince God has explained his will in the Law, every thing contrary to the Law is displeasing to Him.  Will they feign that the wrath of God is so disarmed that the punishment of death will not forthwith follow upon it?  He has declared … “The soul that sinneth it shall die,” (Ezek. 18:20).  Again, in the passage lately quoted, “The wages of sin is death.”…

[L]et the children of God remember that all sin is mortal, because it is rebellion against the will of God, and necessarily provokes his anger; and because it is a violation of the Law, against every violation of which, without exception, the judgment of God has been pronounced.  The faults of the saints are indeed venial, not, however, in their own nature, but because, through the mercy of God, they obtain pardon.”


Peter Martyr Vermigli

Common Places, II.2.26

“Forsomuch then as it appears by most substantial reasons that the corrupt lusts which remain in us after baptism are sins; now it rests that we see unto what kind or part of sins they belong.  Sin may seem thus to be divided: that there is one thing, which may be forgiven, and another thing, which cannot.  Transgression against the law of God, which is never forgiven, is sin against the Holy Ghost.  But if sin may be forgiven, that may be two manner of ways: for either it is so forgiven as we must of necessity altogether depart from it; which we see come to pass in sore and grievous sins, which Paul says do separate us from the kingdom of God, and commonly be called mortal: and those be called small or venial sins, without the which man’s life cannot here be led.

[Note in margin: 1 Cor. 6:9, or else be so forgiven, as we depart not from them; partly, through ignorance engrafted in us, and partly, by reason of the infirmity, wherewith we be infected.]

[Note in margin: Lust and the first motions motions unto evil, be in their own nature mortal]

Paul has put a notable difference between these sins, when he exhorts us that we should not suffer sin to reign in us. (Rom. 6:1)  And of this third kind of sins the apostle complained, when he said, ‘O unhappy man that I am!  Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (Rom. 7:24)’  And of these sins do we mean, when we teach, that the works of men, notwithstanding they be godly men, be not without deadly sins; for that we do nothing without this kind of defects.  And such kind of defects be deadly, because in their own nature they deserve death: for the reward of sin is death.

Further also, for that so long as we carry about with us these blemishes of corruption, we cannot enjoy the life eternal: for so long are we excluded from it, until by death we have put off all corruption.  Moreover, it is written; ‘Cursed be every one, which abides not in all the things which are written in the words of this law.’  And he which complains with Paul, that he does not the good which he would, does not perform all the things, which the law requires, nor is not utterly without curse: though the same, through the mercy of God, be not imputed unto him unto eternal destruction.

[Note in margin: By the mercy of God they be not imputed to damnation]”


On Peter Martyr

John Patrick Donnelly, Calvinism and Scholasticism in Vermigli’s Doctrine of Man and Grace, p. 102

“Martyr distinguishes between mortal and venial sin, but his distinction is very different from that traditional in Roman Catholic theology.  For Catholics a mortal sin is that which removes or ‘kills’ the presence or life of grace in the soul.  Venial sin is sin which does not remove this supernatural quality in the soul.  Martyr works out of a different theology of grace which derives from Luther and refuses to see grace as a quality in the Aristotelian sense.  Hence Martyr’s distinction between mortal and venial sin must shift.

For Martyr all sins are lethal of their nature unless the grace of God intervenes.  That a given sin does not lead to damnation is due not to its smallness (Initar) but to God’s mercy.  No sin is venial because of what Roman Catholic theologians call paucity of matter.  All sins are serious and lethal, but Martyr insists that this does not imply the Stoic doctrine that all sins or vices are equal.  For Martyr those sins are mortal which in Pauline terminology ‘reign’ in man, that is, those which are not mortified, which man commits against his conscience without penitence: in short, wanton sin.  Paul gives a list of sins that exclude from the kingdom of God–these actions man must cease doing and repent.  Martyr defines venial sins as either those major actions which exclude from the kingdom of God but which man has repented and ceased doing, or they are those minor failings which, however much resisted, can never be excluded from human life because of man’s inborn weakness and ignorance.

Some examples may make Martyr’s distinction clearer.  Murder, unrepented, is a mortal sin.  Slight habitual impatience is a venial sin since it can never be totally overcome.”


2nd Helvetic Confession  1566

Ch. 8, ‘Of Man’s Fall, Sin & the Curse of Sin’, section 5

“ACTUAL SINS. We acknowledge that all other sins which arise from it are called and truly are sins, no matter by what name they may be called, whether mortal, venial or that which is said to be the sin against the Holy Spirit which is never forgiven (Mark 3:29; I John 5:16).  We also confess that sins are
not equal; although they arise from the same fountain of corruption and unbelief, some are more serious than others.  As the Lord said, it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for the city that rejects the word of the Gospel (Mt. 10:14 ff.;11:20 ff.).

THE SECTS. We therefore condemn all who have taught contrary to this, especially Pelagius and all Pelagians, together with the Jovinians who, with the Stoics, regard all sins as equal. In this whole matter we agree with St. Augustine who derived and defended his view from Holy Scriptures.  Moreover, we condemn Florinus and Blastus, against whom Irenaeus wrote, and all who make God the author of sin.”


Zacharias Ursinus

Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, following his commentary on Q&A #7

“Sin which does not thus reign, is that which the sinner resists by the grace of the Holy Spirit.  It does not, therefore, expose him to eternal death, because he has repented and found favor through Christ.  Such sins are disordered inclinations and unholy desires, a want of righteousness, and many sins of ignorance, of omission, and of infirmity, which remain in the godly as long as they continue in this life; but which they, nevertheless, acknowledge, deplore, hate, resist, and earnestly pray may be forgiven them for the sake of Christ, the Mediator, saying, ‘forgive us our debts’. Hence the godly retain their faith and consolation, notwithstanding they are not free from these sins.

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  “It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”  “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk after the Spirit.” “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults.” (1 John 1:8. Rom. 7:18; 8:1. Ps. 19:13.)

The common distinction of sin into mortal and venial may be referred to this division.  For although every sin in its own nature is mortal, by which we mean, that it deserves eternal death, yet reigning sin may be properly so called, inasmuch as he who perseveres in it will at length be overtaken by destruction.  But it becomes venial sin that is, it does not call for eternal death, when it does not reign in the regenerate who resist it by the grace of God; and this takes place, not because it merits pardon in itself, or does not deserve punishment, but because it is freely forgiven those that believe on account of the satisfaction of Christ, and is not imputed to them unto condemnation, as it is said: “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)

When thus understood, the distinction of mortal and venial sin may be retained; but not when it is understood in the sense in which the Romish priests use it, as if that were mortal sin which deserves eternal death on account of its greatness, and that venial which does not deserve eternal death on account of its smallness, but merely some temporal punishment.  Hence we would prefer, in the place of mortal and venial sin, the distinction which we have made of sin into reigning, and not reigning, and that for the following reasons:

1.  Because the terms mortal and venial are ambiguous and obscure.  All sins are mortal in their own nature.  The apostle John also calls the sin against the Holy Ghost mortal, or unto death.

2.  Because the Scriptures do not use these terms, especially venial sin.

3.  Because of the errors of the Papists, who call those sins venial which are small and do not deserve eternal death, whilst the Scriptures declare: “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.”  “Whosoever shall offend in one point, is guilty of all.”  “The wages of sin is death.”  “Whoso shall break one of these commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of God.” (Deut. 27:26; James 2:10; Rom. 6:23; Matt. 5:19)

In a word, every sin in its own nature is mortal, and deserves eternal death.  But it becomes venial, that is, it does not work eternal death in the regenerate, because their sins have been freely pardoned for the sake of Christ.”



Polyander, Rivet, Wallaeus, Thysius, The Synopsis of Pure Theology  (1625; Brill), vol. 1, Disp. 16, theses 48-51

“The papal teachers divide forgivable sin into mortal and venial.  They call venial sin that which does not deserve death, but which on account of being minor is worthy of pardon.  Mortal sin is what deserves death and cannot co-exist with the grace of God.
We do grant, however, that sins are not all equal and that one sin therefore causes greater offense to God’s justice than another; consequently it merits more serious punishment and pangs of the conscience.  Nevertheless, we state that not any sin is worthy of pardon in and of itself, or that it is not deadly, unless it is forgiven for Christ’s sake.  This is proved, because:

1) Holy Scripture declares about every sin that its wages is death (Romans 6:23), the sting of death is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56), and its end or fruit is death (Romans 6:16).

2), because every sin is against the law, of which every violation deserves the curse (Galatians 3:10).  That every sin is against the law is proved from the fact that the law demands love from the whole heart, the whole soul, and the whole mind (Matthew 22:37).

3) because every sin is against God (1 Kings 8:46), and against the law of the mind (Romans 7:23).

It is also undeniably proved by the foreshadowing in the forgiveness of sins in the Old Testament.  For not only for the more serious, but also for the lighter sins, namely of weakness and ignorance (which the papal teachers argue are venial sins), they were compelled to offer sacrifices, as is seen from Leviticus chapters 4, 5 and following.  But, the sacrifices pointed to the one and only sacrifice of Christ which made expiation for all our sins, since He has become the curse for us, to free us from the curse (Galatians 3:13).”


On Samuel Maresius

ed. Lehner, Ulrich, Richard Muller & A.G. Roeber, The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theology, 1600-1800  (Oxford), p. 234

“Maresius also addresses the question of venial and mortal sin.  He underlines that the denial that some sins are intrinsically venial, does not mean that the Reformed hold all sins to be equal: the fact that all sins are punishable by death does not mean that some sins are not worse than others.

Furthermore, Maresius is prepared to admit that sins can be either mortal or venial ‘in the event’; in which sense, all sins committed by the elect are venial, and all sins committed by the reprobate are mortal.  Maresius is even prepared to grant, albeit with some misgivings, that certain sins might properly be called mortal, because they are so serious that they may wound the conscience and reduce habitual grace, even though they cannot extinguish it completely.  Such sins would therefore exclude the sinner from the degree of divine favor that was previously enjoyed, although only in terms of the execution of that favor in the gift of grace, not in terms of God’s saving intention for the sinner (Maresius 1646-48, 1:553).”


Westminster Larger Catechism

“Q. 150. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?

A. All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.[m]

[m] John 19:11. Ezek. 8:6,13,15. 1 John 5:16. Ps. 78:17,32,56.

Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?

A. Sins receive their aggravations,

1. From the persons offending;[n] if they be of riper age,[o] greater experience or grace,[p] eminent for profession,[q] gifts,[r] place,[s] office,[t] guides to others,[v] and whose example is likely to be followed by others.[w]

[n] Jer. 2:8; [o] Job 32:7,9. Eccl. 4:13; [p] 1 Kings 11:4,9; [q] 2 Sam. 12:14. 1 Cor. 5:1; [r] James 4:17. Luke 12:47,48; [s] Jer. 5:4,5; [t] 2 Sam. 12:7-9. Ezek. 8:11,12; [v] Rom. 2:17-24; [w] Gal. 2:11-14.

2. From the parties offended:[x] if immediately against God,[y] his attributes,[z] and worship;[a] against Christ, and his grace;[b] the Holy Spirit,[c] his witness,[d] and workings;[e] against superiors, men of eminency,[f] and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto;[g] against any of the saints,[h] particularly weak brethren,[i] the souls of them, or any other,[k] and the common good of all or many.[l]

[x] Matt. 21:38,39; [y] 1 Sam. 2:25. Acts 5:4. Ps. 51:4; [z] Rom. 2:4; [a] Mal. 1:8,14; [b] Heb. 2:2,3. Heb. 12:25; [c] Heb. 10:29. Matt. 12:31,32; [d] Eph. 4:30; [e] Heb. 6:4-6; [f] Jude 8. Num. 12:8,9. Isa. 3:5; [g] Prov. 30:17. 2 Cor. 12:15. Ps. 55:12-15; [h] Zeph. 2:8,10,11. Matt. 18:6. 1 Cor. 6:8. Rev. 17:6; [i] 1 Cor. 8:11,12. Rom. 14:13,15,21; [k] Ezek. 13:19. 1 Cor. 8:12. Rev. 18:12,13. Matt. 23:15; [l] 1 Thess. 2:15,16. Josh. 22:20

3. From the nature and quality of the offence:[m] if it be against the express letter of the law,[n] break many commandments, contain in it many sins:[o] if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions,[p] scandalize others,[q] and admit of no reparation:[r] if against means,[s] mercies,[t] judgments,[v] light of nature,[w] conviction of conscience,[x] publick or private admonition,[y] censures of the church,[z] civil punishments;[a] and our prayers, purposes, promises,[b] vows,[c] covenants,[d] and engagements to God or men:[e] if done deliberately,[f] wilfully,[g] presumptuously,[h] impudently,[i] boastingly,[k] maliciously,[l] frequently,[m] obstinately,[n] with delight,[o] continuance,[p] or relapsing after repentance.[q]

[m] Prov. 6:30-35; [n] Ezra 9:10-12. 1 Kings 11:9,10; [o] Col. 3:5. 1 Tim. 6:10. Prov. 5:8-12. Prov. 6:32,33. Josh 7:21; [p] James 1:14,15. Matt. 5:22. Micah 2:1; [q] Matt. 18:7. Rom. 2:23,24; [r] Deut. 22:22 compared with verses 28,29. Prov. 6:32-35.
[s] Matt. 11:21-24. John 15:22; [t] Isa. 1:3. Deut. 32:6; [v] Amos 4:8-11. Jer. 5:3; [w] Rom. 1:26,27.
[x] Rom. 1:32. Dan. 5:22. Tit. 3:10,11; [y] Prov. 29:1; [z] Tit. 3:10. Matt. 18:17; [a] Prov. 27:22. Prov. 23:35; [b] Ps. 78:34-37. Jer. 2:20. Jer. 42:5,6,20,21.
[c] Eccl. 5:4-6. Prov. 20:25; [d] Lev. 26:25; [e] Prov. 2:17. Ezek. 17:18,19; [f] Ps. 36:4; [g] Jer. 6:16; [h] Num. 15:30. Exod. 21:14; [i] Jer. 3:3. Prov. 7:13.
[k] Ps. 52:1; [l] 3 John 10; [m] Num. 14:22; [n] Zech. 7:11,12; [o] Prov. 2:14; [p] Isa. 57:17; [q] Jer. 34:8-11. 2 Pet. 2:20-22

4. From circumstances of time[r] and place:[s] if on the Lord’s day,[t] or other times of divine worship;[v] or immediately before[w] or after these,[x] or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages:[y] if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.[z]

[r] 2 Kings 5:26; [s] Jer. 7:10. Isa. 26:10; [t] Ezek. 23:37-39; [v] Isa. 58:3-5. Num. 25:6,7; [w] 1 Cor. 11:20,21; [x] Jer. 7:8-10. Prov. 7:14,15. John 13:27,30; [y] Ezra 9:13,14; [z] 2 Sam. 16:22. 1 Sam. 2:22-24

Q. 152. What doth every sin deserve at the hands of God?

A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty,[a] goodness,[b] and holiness of God,[c] and against his righteous law,[d] deserveth his wrath and curse,[e] both in this life,[f] and that which is to come;[g] and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.[h]

[a] James 2:10,11; [b] Exod. 20:1,2; [c] Hab. 1:13. Lev. 10:3. Lev. 11:44,45; [d] 1 John 3:4. Rom. 7:12; [e] Eph. 5:6. Gal. 3:10; [f] Lam. 3:39. Deut. 28:15-68; [g] Matt. 25:41; [h] Heb. 9:22. 1 Pet. 1:18,19


Johannes Maccovius

Anti-Eckhard, ch. 10, On Sin, p. 657, Question 6  in Joannes Maccovius Redivivus…  (Amsterdam, 1659)

“Whether the distinction of sin into mortal and venial is able to be tolerated?

This distinction is inept. Indeed, all sins merit eternal death; and if it may happen to be remitted, the sins of all the regenerate are of the sort that that is not from the nature of the sin, but out of the grace of God whereby we are embraced in Christ.”


Francis Turretin


“V. (3) The question is not whether a distinction relative to the administration of divine providence in the covenant of grace in punishing the sins of believers can be admitted; whether certain sins in believers can be called mortal because they are grievous and atrocious, which more deeply wound and injure conscience, hinder the act of justifying faith and take away present fitness for the kingdom of heaven (upon which therefore he denounces wrath and indignation; yea, threatens exclusion from the kingdom of heaven and eternal death, like those treated of in 1 Cor, 6:10 and Col. 3:5); whether others, however, may be called venial, which are lighter and of daily commission, not hindering the rule and operation of grace, nor taking away the sense of God’s favor or the confidence of the pardon of sin (such as the rebellious motions of concupiscence, of which Paul complains in Rom. 7–defects and blemishes adhering even to the best works of the renewed).

There are some of our party who think the distinction of mortal and venial sin can be retained in this sense, as Robert Baron, following the theologians of Great Britain, in his Judicio de Perseverantia, although it does not seem sufficiently appropriate on account of our opponents; the distinction of heavy and light sins is better.  The question simply concerns the nature of sins in themselves according to the strictness of the law.  We think all are mortal, none truly venial.”


Peter van Mastricht

Theoretical-Practical Theology (RHB), vol. 3, bk. 4, ch. 3, section XXII

“3. Is there sin that by its own nature does not merit eternal death, or that is venial?

XXII.  It is asked, third, whether there is sin that by its own nature does not deserve eternal death, or that is venial.  The papists, so that they may more effectively run to the help of their purgatory, their indulgences, from which so much is added to their storeroom, and consequently to the dominion of the pope, state that there is venial sin that is beside the law, not contrary to the law, which accordingly does not merit by its own nature eternal death, but only temporal and bodily punishments.

The Reformed on the contrary deny that there is any such venial sin, because:

(1) God expressly pronounces him cursed who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10).

(2) From the thought of James, he who has impinged in one point is guilty of the entire violated law ( James 2:10).

(3) Every sin, however trivial it seems, impinges upon the infinite majesty of God, and by its own nature tries as if to cast down God from his own throne.

(4) It is said that the wages of all sin altogether is death (Rom. 6:23), and that the one who loosens even one of the least of the commandments, shall be least, that is, not present, in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:19).

Objections However, what they object:

(1) from Matthew 5:19, “He who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be bound to judgment, whoever shall say ‘Raca’ shall bound to judgment, he who shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be bound to the Gehenna of fire,” from the style of the Hebrews, taken from tribunals, argues for nothing but that there are diverse degrees of punishments, just as of sins, and not that there are some sins that by their own nature do not deserve eternal punishment.

Nor (2) does the Savior’s comparison between the mote and the beam (Matt. 7:3–5) make for any other conclusion than that there are diverse degrees of sins and punishments.

Just as also (3) wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. 3:12) do not intend so much a comparison of sins as the difference between erroneous dogmas and heretical dogmas, nor in addition do they extend further than to diverse degrees of sins.

Nor also (4) in James 1:15 is concupiscence absolved from death, but it is also told of as its cause.

Furthermore, (5) in 1 John 5:16 there is indeed taught a sin that does not lead to death, such as is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, but there is not by that fact taught a venial sin which by its own nature would not deserve eternal death.

And although (6) every offense between men does not take away friendship, yet the same thing must not be immediately said with respect to God, since we are obliged more solemnly by far to God, than is any man to man.  I need not add that man properly does not sin against man, nor in that respect does punishing justice properly have a place here.”





Melanchthon, Philip – Locus 11  of The Chief Theological Topics: Loci Praecipui Theologici 1559  ed. Preus  Buy  (Concordia)

Musculus, Wolfgang – ‘Of Sin’, IV.  ‘Whether One Sin be Greater than Another’ & V.  ‘Of the Difference of Venial & Mortal Sin’  in Common Places of the Christian Religion  (1560), 24b-27a



Guild, William – ‘An Annex…  concerning the Distinction of Sin into Mortal & Venial, which is the Main Pillar of this Pyrotechny, & being Pulled Down, Makes the Whole Fabric to Fall’  in Ignis Fatuus, or the Elf-Fire of Purgatory, wherein Bellarmine is Confuted…  (London, 1625), pp. 49-57

Guild was a Scottish minister who wrote much against Romanism.

Davenant, John – Question 31. ‘All Sin in its Own Nature Deadly’  in The Determinations, or Resolutions of Certain Theological Questions, Publicly Discussed in the University of Cambridge  trans. Josiah Allport  (1634; 1846), pp. 382-6  bound at the end of John Davenant, A Treatise on Justification, or the Disputatio de Justitia...  trans. Josiah Allport  (1631; London, 1846), vol. 2

Heylyn, Peter – Article 10, Pt. 2, bk. 3, ch. 5, pp. 438 bot. – 439  in Theologia Veterum [Old Theology]: or the Sum of Christian Theology, Positive, Polemical & Philological, Contained in the Apostles’ Creed, or Reducible to it: According to the Tendries of Both Greeks & Latins, in Three Books  (London, 1654)

Heylyn (1599–1662) was an Arminian, Anglican clergyman and opponent of the puritans.

Sedgwick, Obadiah – The Anatomy of Secret Sins, Presumptuous Sins, Sins in Dominion & Uprightness, Together with the Remissibleness of All Sin, & the Irremissibleness of the Sin Against the Holy Ghost, being Sermons on Ps. 19:12-13  Buy  (1660)

Sedgwick was a Westminster divine.

Marshall, Stephen – ‘Christ’s Intercession, or Sins of Infirmity: Opened in a Sermon at Paul’s, Nov. 19, 1654’  in The Works of Mr. Stephen Marshall, the First Part. viz. 1. Of Christ’s Intercession & of Sins of Infirmity...  (1661)

Marshall was a Westminster divine.

Turretin, Francis – Institutes of Elenctic Theology  ed. Dennison  (P&R), vol. 1, 9th Topic

Q. 2, ‘Whether the Hekousion or Voluntary (inasmuch as it is of him who Knowingly & Willingly does Anything) is of the Essence of Sin?  We Deny Against the Papists & Socinians.’  593-94

Q. 4, ‘Whether All Sins of Themselves & in Their Own Nature Mortal [deadly].  Or Whether any Venial [slight & excusable] Sin can be Granted.  The Former we Affirm; the Latter we Deny Against the Papists.’  596-601

van Mastricht, Peter – bk. 4, ch. 2, section 29, ‘Is Original Sin a Light & Venial Sin? [No]’  in Theoretical-Practical Theology  (RHB), vol. 3, pp. 468-9



McAdoo, Henry R. – Ch. 4, ‘Mortal & Venial Sin: the Reforming Strain’  in The Structure of Caroline Moral Theology (Longmans, Green, 1949), pp. 98-119



Encyclopedia Articles


McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopedia

‘Venial Sin’

‘Mortal Sin’



Augustine Quotes


These quotes are interesting, amongst other reasons, in seeing the discrepancy between the protestant way Augustine used the term venial sins versus the later Romanist interpretation of Augustine inline with their own theology.


Opera Omni, Editio Latina  in Patrologia Latina, vol. 38, col.179A, Sermons on Scriptures of the Old Testament, Sermon 1, ‘A Tract Contra the Manicheans…’

“Whoever commits even the smallest sins is guilty of all; and whoever commits some other greater and more vituperative, is also guilty of all.  One is to a greater extent and the other to a lesser extent; but both are guilty of all, so that in the diversity of sins one need only ask about the more and the less.”


Letter 167.2,4

“The doctrine of the equality of sins, however, the Stoics alone dared to maintain in opposition to the unanimous sentiments of mankind: an absurd tenet, which in writing against Jovinianus you have most clearly refuted from the Holy Scriptures. In that most delightful and noble dissertation you have made it abundantly plain that it has not been the doctrine of our authors, or rather of the Truth Himself, who has spoken through them, that all sins are equal.”


Letter 167.5,16

“Hence it is true that if a man shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he becomes guilty of all, because he does what is contrary to the love on which hangs the whole law.  A man, therefore, becomes guilty of all by doing what is contrary to that on which all hang.”


Exposition on Ps. 129 (130):5

“Maybe you say they are mild sins.  But the Lord says: They are answerable to the fire of hell.”


Sermon 29.6

“Without a doubt, sin has to be punished.  This deserves sin: punishment and condemnation.”


Letter 104.4,14

“But the question here is not whether this also is reckoned a misdemeanor, but whether this offense and the others which you mentioned are faults equal in demerit, unless, of course, they are to be pronounced equal because they are both offenses; in which case the mouse and the elephant must be pronounced equal because they are both animals, and the fly and the eagle because they both have wings.”


Sermon 213.2

“Let no one say, ‘You cannot forgive my sins.’  How can the almighty not?  But you insist: ‘I have sinned much.’  I also insist: ‘But he is almighty.’  And you: ‘Such are the sins that I have committed that I cannot be freed or purified from them.’  I answer: ‘But he is almighty.’  See what you sing to him in the psalm: ‘Bless, my soul, my soul, and do not forget the benefits of those who are merciful with all your iniquities and heal all your ailments.'”



Historical Theology

Early Church


Durkin, Eugene Francis – The Theological Distinction of Sins in the Writings of St Augustine  (St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, 1952)  161 pp.  This work is not easy to find.

A review by Andrés E. Garcia G. of AugustinismoProtestante.com

“Despite that we must we differ with some biased interpretations of this work, it is a unique and greatly erudite work that offers a great quantity of Augustinian sources and exhaustive analysis from the Latin.  This work will lead the Reformed Christian to question why it has been taken for granted that Augustine upholds the distinction between mortal and venial sin in the Romanist way.  It will also lead to a reflection upon the few secondary sources, Romanist, Lutheran and Reformed, that present an exhaustive study of their distinction and terminology.  In fact, perhaps this work from year 1952 is the only one that exhaustively face the topic in Augustine.

At the beginning of this work, the methodology with which the author approaches this academic study is presented and an introductory treatment of the predecessors of the pre-Augustinian distinction is made, where they consider themselves fathers, like Saint Cyprian of Carthage.  Then, although the author recognizes that Augustine did not use the term peccatum mortale, he addresses the question of deadly sins as mortal sin and speaks of the examples in his works, their nature and consequence.  Then he talks about the inevitability of sin and the weakness of human nature.  And finally, he talks about the examples, nature and consequences of daily sins in Augustine.  The author mentions it as venial sin, but recognizes that venialia was used in an ordinary way by Augustine to refer to both mortifying and daily sins.

It is interesting that throughout the book it is extremely noticeable the difference of emphasis and attitude of Saint Augustine with the points of view of medieval theologians, of the counter-reform and current ones on this distinction, especially when speaking of venial sins.”


Early to Medieval Church


McAdoo, Henry R. – Ch. 4, ‘Mortal & Venial Sin: the Reforming Strain’  in The Structure of Caroline Moral Theology (Longmans, Green, 1949), pp. 98-119

“But first of all, it is necessary to consider certain changes which took place in Christian thought on this subject during the preceding centuries.  Be the origin of the doctrine in the attempt to smooth the rough places of law for the sake of the weak or tender conscience, or in the practical necessity for a guiding principle of division as a kind of ready reckoner for pastoral purposes, or in both these causes, a change of deep significance came about in its structure.

At first, and up to the close of the patristic era, the key-note of the distinction was oþjectivity.  The external act is the criterion, so that there is a regular tabula of sins, the commission of any of which involves the sinner in mortal sin.  But by the time of the Schoolmen, and notably, of in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, a tremendous ethical course, change in the idea has come about.  There are still sins which are reckoned as mortal, suo genere [in its genera], but the governing factor is no longer the external act.  It is the deliberateness with which the act is committed.  In other words, intention or motive is receiving recognition as the determining element in assessing the gravity of sin.  It was to Peter Abelard [c. 1079–1142)] that Aquinas and his fellows were indebted for this improved idea: In the Scito Te Ipsum [Know Yourself, by Abelard] the discussion of sin moves forward out of the realm of externals.  Consequent on this stressing of deliberateness at the expense of drawing a clear line between what was mortal and what venial.  This indeterminacy. inevitably paved the way for laxity in the computation of the guiltiness of certain sinful acts.”



Latin Articles


Szegedin Pannonius, Stephan – 3. Of Popish Doctrine, ‘Actual Mortal Sin’ & ‘Actual Venial Sin’  in Common Places of Pure Theology, of God & Man, Explained in Continuous Tables & the Dogma of the Schools Illustrated  (Basil, 1585/93), pp. 473-4  These are table outlines.

Szegedin (1515-1572) also was known as Stephan Kis.



Pareus, David – Bk. 1, Selections 19-37  of 6 Books on the Loss of Grace & the State of Sin by Robert Bellarmine…  to which three following are joined, on Original Sin, are Explicated & Castigated  (Heidelberg, 1613)  ToC

Pareus (1548-1622) was a German Reformed Protestant theologian and reformer.

Gomarus, Frankcis – Disputation 10, thesis 13  in Gomarus, Arminius, Trelcatius, Jr., A System of Theological Disputations, in the Academy at Lugduni-Batava (Rotterdam, 1615), p. 169

Maresius, Samuel – pp. 549-603  in Controversy 12, ‘On Actual Sins & the Cause of Sins’  in A New Synopsis of Elenctic Theology...  (Groningen, 1648), vol. 1

Rutherford, Samuel – An Examination of Arminianism (c. 1639-42; Utrecht, 1668), ch. 12, ‘Of the Justification of Sinners’

5. Whether a distinction should be made between mortal and venial sin?  We respond with a distinction. 516

6. Whether there is any sin under the New Covenant which is by its nature venial?  We deny against the Remonstants and Papists. 517

7. Whether the most excellent works of the regenerate are polluted with sin?  We affirm against the Remonstrants and Papists. 520

9. Whether the Apostle speaks of the regenerate man in Rom. 7?  We affirm against the Remonstrants and Papists. 527


Chamier, Daniel – Book 6, Question 3, chs. 7-13, ‘Of Venial & Mortal Sin’  in Panstratiae Catholicae, or a Body of the Controversies of Religion Against the Papists, vol. 3 (Man)  (Frankfurt, 1627-1629), pp. 86-98

Voet, Gisbert – Appendices 1-2, ‘On Venial Sin’ & ‘On the Seven Mortal Sins’  4 pp.  after Subtitle 2, ‘On Original Sin’  in Tract 4, Title 3, ‘On Sin’  in A Syllabus of Theological Problems…  (Utrecht, 1643), no page numbers

These are questions and answers for disputations for students in seminary.  In the first 5 or so questions on venial sin, Voet mostly denies the distinction outright.  In the 6th question he allows a faithful protestant sense of it.  After that he gives absurd and inept questions about such things (usually taken from adversaries).

What the abbreviated answers mean is explained in the Explication of the Notes.



Latin Book

Baron, Robert – A Theological Disputation on the True Distinction Between Mortal & Venial Sin & the Impossibility of Fulfilling the Law of God from the Daily Incursion of Venial Sins; to which is annexed an Appendix on the Possibility of Perfecting [Praestandi, Supassing?] the Law Considered as a Gospel Rule  (Aberdeen, 1633)  176 pp.

Baron (1596-39) was one of the Scottish ‘Aberdeen doctors’, a hypothetical universalist, and one whom Rutherford disputed with.  Turretin says:

“There are some of our party who think the distinction of mortal and venial sin can be retained in this sense [as in Rom. 7], as Robert Baron, following the theologians of Great Britain, in his Judicio de Perseverantia, although it does not seem sufficiently appropriate on account of our opponents; the distinction of heavy and light sins is better.  The question simply concerns the nature of sins in themselves according to the strictness of the law.  We think all are mortal, none truly venial.”




Related Pages


Differing Levels of Reward in Heaven

Bible Verses on Degrees of Punishment in Hell


Judgment Day


Original Sin

How did the First Sin Happen?