Saturday, January 13, 2007

Of Faith and Mortal Sins

This week has been an interesting journey for me, theologically. Last week, I made a statement in a post on a Lutheran email list about how we are in an age where many people can and do get up out of the beds on Sunday mornings that they share with someone that they are not married to, go to church, and not even be aware that God does not hear their prayers.

This set off quite a controversy, as occasionally can happen on this list, though not a hostile one (fortunately, we are blessed in that hostile discussions rarely happen. There are lists where I wouldn't dare to type a word for fear of attack). It really surprised me that this is what jumped out and caught people's attention, because it was only a sentence or two in a discussion about the third use of the law. What really surprised me was how strong the response was of "How can we say God doesn't hear their prayers? I sin constantly, even repeated sins. If this is the case, how do I know that God hears my prayers?"

As Lutherans, we are diligently taught that one sin is not worse than another. This is true. All sins are a result of our sinful state and all merit death without Christ as our Savior. Yet we can fall away, and we can be in a state of impenitence. I knew I'd read that God doesn't hear the prayers of the impenitent. So I went to the Bible and found these verses:

John 9:31 -"We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, God listens to Him.

Psalm 34:15-16"The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.

"Psalm 66:18"If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.

"Proverbs 15:29"The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous."

and there are others.

I also found this in the Smalcald Articles from Luther:

It is therefore necessary to know and to teach when holy people, aside from the fact that they still possess and feel original sin and daily repent and strive against it, fall into open sin (as when David fell into adultery, murder, and blasphemy), faith and the Spirit have departed from them. This is so because the Holy Spirit does not permit sin to rule and gain the upper hand in such a way that sin is committed, but the Holy Spirit represses and restrains it so that it does not do what it wishes. If sin does what it wishes, the Holy Spirit and faith are not present, for St. John said "No one born of sin does commits sin." Yet it is also true, as the same St. John writes, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."

Open sin. It still did not make a difference, in fact, some continued saying "we cannot say that they have no faith" and others seemed to be more panicky about "how do I know that I am not in that state over some other sins of mine?" Someone pointed out someone who habitually says "God damn" not meaning to damn anyone, but a regular part of their vernacular. While I could clearly understand myself while all sin is rebellion against God, that there were some sinful states, such as choosing a career as a thief, that refused to put any trust in God to provide for our needs, that utterly reject God's law and guidance in their lives....being able to find the words that express it clearly seemed to be outside of the vocabulary I was given as a Lutheran. Even the last part of Luther's statement didn't help to clarify what protection our faith gives within the context of these verses. Does God consider us to be the sinners that are mentioned in in these verses, or even though we sin, are we covered by our baptism into Christ's death and resurrection, and where would that place people who believe but are living in open sin? How is this sin different from the ones that I commit and struggle with every day? I didn't want to continue any further, because I didn't want to say anything that would cause more distress until I was on a surer footing.

I went to the "Apology of the Augsburg Confession" in The Book of Concord and swam around in Article IV, Justification (wow..I highly recommend reading this...really reading it. It's beautiful. I've perused it before, but not like this). Several times, I found a phrases like this:

"But we are talking about a faith that is not an idle thought, but frees us from death, brings forth a new life in our hearts, and is the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore this cannot exist with mortal sin, but whenever it appears, it brings forth good fruits...."

First of all, one thing is clear from the start it all out, we need to define the word "faith." Because it is clear that are people who are engaged in living together, who get abortions, who steal or worse for a living (lest you think I am focusing on sexual sins), who think they have faith. We think they have faith. But the Apology is very clear that there is a difference between knowledge of God or even of Christ and His death and resurrection, and true faith. As the Bible and the Confessions so aptly point out, even Satan himself believes that Christ rose from the dead.

"Paul clearly shows that faith does not simply mean historical knowledge, but is a firm acceptance of the promise," Melancthon writes. Faith is active, grasping, reaching, clinging to Christ. Faith is brought about through the Holy Spirit and after the terror that results from being condemned by the Law, it clings to Christ in penitence. After that, the Holy Spirit creates us anew; He regenerates us, and new impulses toward good arise. Good works must follow, as Scripture tells us and the Augsburg Confession states. If they do not, and if a person continues to unite themselves willfully to open sin, or enters into that state, their faith is dead. But as Christians, we believe that dead does not mean without hope, as in the case of the Prodigal Son, and so continue to hope for their repentance and return as long as their heart is pumping blood through their bodies.

But back to that quote I mentioned above. If I had only seen it once in the Apology, it might have escaped my notice. But repeatedly I saw the phrase that faith cannot exist with mortal sin. "Wait a minute," I thought. "All sins are rebellion against God. He can't mean the Catholic tendency to divide sins up into trivial sins, serious sins, etc. Eating the fruit off the tree which God commanded Adam and Eve not to touch as warranted the condemation of mankind as surely as mass murder does! " But he said it over and over again, and since he was talking to Catholics (and since, while written solely by Phillip Melancthon, it was signed by many theologians who affirmed it, and our church body holds it up as a true reflection of Biblical beliefs), and there is no refutation of our belief in this classification at the same time, I decided to look it up, so I Googled it.

St. gave a clear definition here, along with a list of what the Catholics consider to be mortal sins (note: these seem to vary depending on who says):

Mortal sins destroy the grace of God in the heart of the sinner. By their very grave nature, a mortal sin cuts our relationship off from God and turns man away from his creator. St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews tell us that "if we sin willfully after having the knowledge of the truth, there is now left no sacrifice for sins" (Hebrews 10:26)

It also said:

In order for a sin to be mortal sin, it must meet three conditions:

  1. Mortal sin is a sin of grave matter
  2. Mortal sin is committed with full knowledge of the sinner
  3. Mortal sin is committed with deliberate consent of the sinner

Now that's what I was getting at. Too bad we don't believe in it......but yet, its right there in the Apology, repeatedly. So my husband suggested that I look up sin in A Summary of Christian Doctrine by Edward W.A. Koehler, which is a standard text on systematics that is used in Lutheran colleges - its kind of a summary of Pieper's Dogmatics, written for the common man to understand, and is considered a reliable classic in LCMS circles. Bam! Pages 71-72 "Classifications of Sin."

(f) Venial sins are sins of weakness; they are limited to believers, and do not kill faith, because they are not done intentionally. In themselves they are real sins and are worthy of death, but through faith Christians have forgiveness for them. Mortal sins are such as kill faith, and drive the Holy Spirit from the heart, because no man can sin wilfully and intentionally and at the same time believe in Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

So, really, there are two issues here. Defining faith as something that is active, not just an acknowledgement of Christ, and an awareness that there are (and we confess) willful sins that we can enter into that kill faith and drive the Holy Spirit from the heart causing God to depart from us until we come to repentance.

I like what Koehler says about faith:

"Merely to accept facts and statements as true is not faith. But if
these facts and statements mean something to us personally, if we feel sure that they will help and benefit us, and if we trust in them for such help, then we believe in them; then we have faith....Faith therefore is an emotional attitude of the heart plus an act of the will (emphases mine)."

So with this example, a person who is living with someone else is not trusting in God to provide for her guidance in what a godly relationship should be, to provide for her wellbeing, even to provide for her physical welfare. She is taking the guidance for action in her own hands, and wilfully not loving God, not loving her neighbor (her parents - even if they don't God's commands is what honors our parents; those that she attests to that she is a Christian, those that she worships with, and definitely, she is not showing love to the person that she is uniting herself with by not loving them enough to insist upon a Godly union, leading him down the path of eventual damnation with her. The kind of love that she feels toward him is not true love, a love that wants what is only good and right for the beloved, but in previous days would still be called what it is, lust.) Obviously, you can switch the gender of the pronouns here.

Now I want this to be understood, just because the Holy Spirit leaves our heart doesn't mean He gives up on us. If we were to enter into such a sinful state, He would still work on us and call us to repentance, and I don't think any of us can deny the existence of those who have committed many a mortal sin who return to the fold. The Parable of the Prodigal Son itself shows us this, as well as the entire Old Testament history of the children of Israel. the Death of Faith has a strong sense of finality, but as Christians, we don't believe that death has to be final, though it is certainly woefully serious and grievous.

And I am not trying to be legalistic either, going around classifying sins. To the contrary, I was wondering why, as Lutherans, we don't talk about this more in these terms? I only have heard them in regard to discussing the Catholic view of making penance for different degrees of sin, and that, we clearly reject.

The panic and alarm that was shown in this discussion on the email list was very real. The questions regarding our own sinfulness caused palatable distress. Reading this, having words for it, brought comfort to me to have an answer to all my questions, "Why don't my own sins put me in a state of separation from God? Have I done enough to warrant this? Doesn't this seem rather arbitrary? How is it different to be sleeping with someone, or to have bad thoughts or to have sworn when someone cut me off, or to struggle with the feelings that I sometimes have toward being a pastor's wife, or to flake off on days that I know that I should be diligently working with my kids on their lessons (and far worse)??" Hopefully, it will help some of the others that had these questions, too.

I know that there was a time in my life where I can now clearly say "I had no faith." I knew God, I believed in the resurrection of Christ, yet it made no difference to me in my life and in my choices, and I found God to be an angry God, and I was angry with Him. In fact, I can see two periods where I was clearly separated from God, even for my first few years as the wife of a pastor. Yet the Holy Spirit kept working on me and He brought me back to repentance and a life of faith.

And on the flip side, what is also comforting is that for the majority of us, as Christians, the majority of sins that we deal with are not sins that put us in this position, which is where this discussion went. We also take comfort in the fact that when we are faced with such temptation we are given the strength by the Holy Spirit to handle it. We have His protection. Sure, there are some venial sins (wow, that doesn't feel right) that can become mortal sins if we let them take control (i.e. yelling at our kids, rather than being an occasional situation, becomes an attitude and habit of abuse), but again, we live a life of repentance that is the life of the Christian, continually receiving God's forgiveness and His strengthening and protection. He will work to convict us of our sin, call us to repentance, and will give us the strength to endure and conquer...and He has died for all sin so that it does not separate us from God...our faith reaches out and grasps that assurance.


Orycteropus Afer said...

I can see where these comments could get some folks' knickers in a knot. We're looking at the borderline between discernment and judgmentalism. However, I think that the overall thought and tenor of this post definitely bear reading and consideration.

While we don't absolutely know the faith of others, the testimony of their deeds is strong. I wouldn't say that God hears no prayers of those who persist in what appears to be intentional sin, since I cannot judge intent unless it's been expressed, but I certainly wouldn't say that He is listening.

Of course, sexual sin, even in many "conservative" or "confessional" congregations — Lutheran or otherwise — isn't always proscribed as it once was. I fear that too many pastors and churches are allowing others to practice what looks like willful disobedience when actually we are witnessing sins of ignorance because of poor catechesis and faulty Law preaching.

Susan said...

The Heidelberg Disputation by Luther defines mortal sin from a Lutheran perspective; it's a little different from Aquinas's definition. It basically says that mortal sin is sin that damns, and venial sin is forgivable sin. That's not going to tell you as much as you are wondering about, but you can read more in volume 31 of Luther's Works.

By the way, dittos to the Aardvark's second paragraph.

Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

Yes, when I made the statement, it was out of concern, not trying to be judgemental, and that is a very good point about lack of catechesis meaning that more of these sins are done in ignorance, rather than in defiance. Which really is why I found the issue and exploring it so fascinating.

That is a better way to put it, we cannot give the assurance that their prayers are heard, though we cannot know the heart.

Cool Mama said...

Hi! I often read your blog, but have't left any comments! I'm not I'm not sure doctrinally what anyone's position is on comment you mentioned. I liked the statement, simply because it brings us face to face, with the reality, that often in the church today, we don't confront sin - or we like to turn the other way rather than make people uncomfortable, or look legalistic or religious. In reality tho, eventualy someone has to tell sinners, that they're sinning. I mean, even tho Jesus has grace and compassion for the woman caught in adultery, He did tell her to go and sin no more. We've had people in our church, who are lving together, and we love them dearly and make sure they know that. Eventually tho, when they know we are interested in THEM as people, we do bring up the issue. What they chose to do, is up to them, but atleast we feel we've discharged our duty as a pastors. Yes, of course God still loves them. I think men who are not honoring their wives, should be as nervous as anyone else sinning: IPet. 3:7..says "Treat your wives then as equals, so your prayers don't run aground." Hmmm....seems God is interested in alot of the things we do in life, that could affect our prayers. He also says He draws near to the humble, but stands afar off from the proud. So..all in all - I don't think you comment was wrong at all. There's lots of things we don't address these days, that we probably should!

Devona said...

Amen, to O.A.'s 3rd paragraph.

I am going to link to this on my blog, K?

Sorry this is so brief, I have a squirmy infant in my lap.

solarblogger said...

If we say that there are sins that we can commit which drive out the Holy Spirit, that suggests that we keep the Holy Spirit by avoiding such sins. I think that reverses the cause and effect taught in Galatians.

We originally received the Spirit through hearing with faith (Galatians 3:2). St. Paul is clear that we continue the same way we began (3:3).

There are warnings in the Scriptures against very many of the practices you mention. And the connection with unbelief that you mention is clear. But what do we do when we see such unbelief? I think we need to try to rebuild faith. And certain teaching on mortal sin might do the opposite. In effect it says that until you trust God for everything, you cannot trust him for anything, since you might not know whether he even hears your prayers.

I don't reject the idea that sin can kill faith. I am more wary of the idea of this being as automatic as it is sometimes taught. The Scriptural basis for that idea seems a bit weak.

Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

John 9:31 -

"We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper
of God and does His will, God listens to Him. John 9:31

Psalm 34:15-16
"The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of
them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and
delivers them out of all their troubles."

Psalm 66:18
"If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened."

Proverbs 15:29
"The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous."

For just a few....

I agree with you, the purpose is to lead people to repentance, and to let them know that there is dangerous ground. A person who is living with someone else is not trusting in God for every good thing. They need to be brought to repentance.

Unfortunately, the response often is that which the Apology of the Augsburg Confession states is the response that man has when he does not have faith...either anger at God's judgement or denial that it is sinful.

But we pray, we speak God's word in truth, and we hope.

Pr. Petersen mentions it here, also:

Of course, we continue through the way that we came...but Man can reject God, even if he can't come to faith of his own will. He can do that once he has come to faith as well as before.

While we come to faith through the power of the Holy Spirit, and not by ourselves, and our strength to continue in the faith comes from the Holy Spirit, the fault for not being a believer rests on ourselves alone. We can reject Christ's gift, just as we can choose to not trust God in everything and choose the ways of this world.

The danger is there, and people should be aware of it. They also should know that God does not abandon them when temptation strikes. That He does give us the strength to live according to His will. Scripture and the confessions (read Article V of the Apology) are very clear that when a person walks away from that and chooses a life that is not trusting in God, they are putting their soul in peril.

If we start itemizing and voting on which sins are like this, like the Catholics do, it is getting petty and unscriptural. I would agree with you there. But there is a place for this understanding in our beliefs.

Pablo said...

Since when does a Christian truly trust God for ANY good thing? What is faith? Trusting God enough to wait till marriage to have sex or trusting in Christ as the savior who paid for all of our sins? The scriptures you quote beg a question. Why would a Christian not fit the descriptions as a wicked, sinner or cherishing iniquity? Has God enabled me to do the law or did he fulfill the law in my place.
Also I think there is alot of concern in the Lutheran Blogasphere about autonomianism right now. I dont know. Its hard for me to listen when nothing but Law (Latest church growth program) is being preached in our parishes.

Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...


You are right. Christians constantly struggle with sin and our Old Adams constantly want to return to the domain of sin.

But there is a difference. When a Christian takes an attitude toward a particular sin or sinful lifestyle where they say "I know what God's Word says, and I don't care." It stops being about sinning and returning to the cross for forgiveness. It becomes a rejection of God's Word.

The Confessions, most especially the Apology of the Augsburg Confession say REPEATEDLY "faith cannot exist with mortal sin." Mortal sin is the kind of sin where we place that sin in a constant place in our lives over God's Word. The soul returns to an attitude that the Confessions again describe as an attitude of faithlessness. They either treat God's law with anger or reject it ("How dare you tell me I can't do it? or "That doesn't matter." I can do what I want.") A person with faith, when confronted with their sin responds with contrition and repentance.

I can understand your aversion when you're presented with a church growth atmosphere all the time that is entirely law based. That's not good either. The Law and the Gospel need to be properly distiguished, and work with each other. But someone does not come to contrition without the Law, so it must be addressed and taught.