The Mortal Sin Problem, Part 1

by Jay Guin

Before we delve into falling away as described in Gal 5:4, we need to address a lingering question, which I call the “mortal sin problem.” You see, for a quarter century or more, every time I’ve taught grace as I understand it, someone raises the question, “But if we are saved by grace as you describe, then God will save even those guilty of [insert horrific sin]!”

At first it was always murder. In our dialogue with Mac Deaver, it’s been fornication and instrumental music. Others have asked about all sorts of other deeply sinful sin. And although we’ve addressed the question several times, I think it’s important enough that we look a little closer at the question. It’s a fair and important one.

Argument 1: Remember, only the penitent are in grace

For some reason, people have trouble remembering that it’s only the penitent who are in grace. If someone willfully continues in sin, if they rebel against the Lordship of Jesus, they aren’t saved. Therefore, if someone worships in error, knowing he is in error, his salvation is in serious jeopardy.

Therefore, those devout Christians who continue to sin the same sins are going to be Christians who either (a) don’t know that they are sinning or (b) know they are sinning but haven’t managed to overcome the weakness of the flesh. You or I may wrestle with lust or with a failure to evangelize, know perfectly well that we are sinning, and yet not fully overcome our weakness — and yet remain saved.

Indeed, God will judge the totality of our lives and our hearts. After all, none of us will ever overcome all sin. Even the very best of us will die with some sin in our lives not yet defeated. The test is whether we are working at it — not whether we’ve finished the task.

(Rom 8:13-14)  For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

“Put to death” is present indicative, meaning that it refers to something happening now but not yet complete.

(Heb 10:13-14)  Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

Just so, “being made holy” refers to contemporaneous, ongoing action, not completed action. In both passages, the author makes clear that the test of who is saved is whether we are working to defeat sin, not whether we’ve accomplished that — as though that were even possible.

Argument 2: Why is this sin a mortal sin?

If murder, for example, is outside of God’s grace — or instrumental music, or what have you — then why would God offer less grace for that particular sin than other sins? Why would some sins be mortal and others only venial?

Now, it’s easy to see how some could believe that certain sins are especially damning. For example, consider these passages —

(Mat 5:22)  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

(Mat 5:29)  If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

(Mat 7:1-2)  “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

(Mat 6:14-15)  For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

(Mat 25:28-30)  “‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

(Mat 25:44-46)  “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

(James 3:6)  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

(Rom 1:29-32)  They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

(1 Cor 6:9-10)  Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

(Rev 22:15)  Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

Now, in my experience in having these sorts of conversations, the questioner wants to ask about homosexual behavior, fornication, or some other sin he considers particularly reprehensible — and one he is certainly not likely to commit. But if you study the list carefully, you see that there are both sins we don’t struggle with ourselves — and several that we do.

What man among us can claim to be free of lust? Who has never judged by a standard that he can’t himself meet? Who has forgiven every single sin committed against himself?

Who among us can claim to have used all the talents (gifts, resources, money) that God has given him to produce at least a 100% return?

Who has consistently helped those who are hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison?

Who controls his tongue?

Who can claim to be guiltless from greed, envy, strife, deceit, gossip, slander, arrogance, boastfulness, greed, and the practice of falsehood? (Some of the worst gossips I know, when it comes to fellow preachers, are preachers. Some of the worst slanders and falsehoods I’ve ever read or heard were in church bulletins or pounded from a pulpit. And is it possible that the ministry has an arrogance problem?)

You see, we want to take these lists of reprehensible sins and treat them as mortal sins — sins not covered by grace — but we only want to take those sins that other people are guilty of. We unconsciously don’t even see in these sin lists the sins that infect us.

Therefore, if you want to argue that, say, fornication can’t be forgiven as graciously as, say, lust or an uncontrolled tongue, you’ll have to look somewhere else for Biblical support.

So why do Jesus, Paul, and John list these sins as damning? Well, for differing reasons.

For example, in Rom 1, Paul is making the case that certain sins demonstrate that a person is far removed from God. It’s not that these are uniquely damning sins. It’s that these are sins most people recognize as sin in other people. I may not mind or even notice my own arrogance, but I readily object to arrogance in others. Just so, I may steal or lie and feel justified, but I’d never consider someone who steals from me or lies to me as justified. And so, a society that approves these very sins is a society so far removed from God that it’s decadence should be obvious.

In other cases, the point is simply to point out that we can’t ignore even the “little” sins, because a sin like lust, that we like to think of as harmless, can break marriages and destroy families. And judging and failing to forgive destroys families and churches.

In other cases, the argument is that it should be obvious that you can’t act this way in God’s kingdom because you already know what you’re doing is wrong. And if you keep doing what you know to be wrong, you can lose your soul.

Therefore, no argument in favor of grace should ever be understood as an argument in favor of sin or being soft on sin. Indeed, one of the great dangers of sin — any sin — is that sin deceives.

(Heb 3:13)  But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

As the author of Hebrews argues, sin not only deceives, it hardens, and the hardening that comes from sin is what causes a Christian to fall away. All sin can damn, and all sin can be forgiven. The test isn’t whether it’s sin or a particularly bad sin. It’s the overall direction of your life and your continuance in faith. But, of course, some sins can be indicative of going in the wrong direction — especially sins that you know are sins and that you are reveling in rather than battling against.

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