‘Mortal Sin’ in the Bible & Early Church Writings

7 deadly sins

Most protestants/evangelicals deny the possibility that the fully conscious choice to commit a grave (‘serious’) sin can separate one from God.  Some hold to they idea of ‘once saved, always saved,’ while others believe that loss of faith is the only way to lose one’s salvation since we are supposed saved by ‘faith alone’ apart from anything we do or fail to do.  As we shall see below, both scripture and the early Church teach that the believer’s choice to cooperate or reject God’s grace (as manifest in our works) does effect whether or not we remain in the ‘state of grace’ (enjoying God’s forgiveness and friendship) necessary for entrance to heaven (either directly or through Purgatory).

First, here is how the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the Church’s teaching on mortal sin ;

394. How are sins distinguished according to their gravity?

A distinction is made between mortal and venial sin.

395. When does one commit a mortal sin?

One commits a mortal sin when there are simultaneously present: grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent. This sin destroys charity in us, deprives us of sanctifying grace, and, if unrepented, leads us to the eternal death of hell. It can be forgiven in the ordinary way by means of the sacraments of Baptism and of Penance or Reconciliation.

396. When does one commit a venial sin?

One commits a venial sin, which is essentially different from a mortal sin, when the matter involved is less serious or, even if it is grave, when full knowledge or complete consent are absent. Venial sin does not break the covenant with God but it weakens charity and manifests a disordered affection for created goods. It impedes the progress of a soul in the exercise of the virtues and in the practice of moral good. It merits temporal punishment which purifies.

>> Go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s full teaching on Mortal Sin (CCC, par. 1854-64)

gospelMortal Sin in the Bible

 

The term ‘mortal sin’ is taken directly from scripture:

  • 1 John 5:16-17: “If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.”

…The way we live effects whether or not we ‘abide in Christ’ and will be forgiven of our sins:

  • John 15:6,10: “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned . . . If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
  • Matthew 6:15: “but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
  • Matthew 5:29-30: “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.”
  • Ephesians 5:5: “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
  • 1 John 3-6:  “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.  Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
  • Luke 14:33: “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
  • Matthew 19:16-21: “And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “…If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
  • 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
  • Galatians 5:19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
  • In Revelation 3:15-16, Jesus warns the Church of La-odice’a,  “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”
  • Hebrews 10:26-29: “For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?
  • 1 Corinthians 9:26-27: “Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
  • 1 Corinthians 10:8-12: “We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
  • 1 Timothy 1:18-20: “This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith, among them Hymenae’us and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
  • 1 Timothy 6:9-12: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.”
  • 2 Peter 2:20-22: “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire.”

…Without obedient love, faith does not profit us:

  • John 15:6,10: “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned . . . If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
  • 1 Corinthians 13:2: “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
  • Galatians 5:5-6: “For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.”
  • James 2:14-26: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”
  • John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
  • Hebrews 5:9: “And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”
  • 1 John 2:3-6:  “And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments.  He who says “I know him” but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected.  By this we may be sure we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
  • 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8: “…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know Godand on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
  • Acts 10:34-35: ‘So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality,but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’

…St. Paul is comfortable in using the terms ‘belief’ and ‘obedience’ synonymously:

  • Romans 10:16: ‘But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”

…Real personal righteousness in needed to see God and enter Heaven, not a mere declaration of innocence:

  • Revelation 21:27: “But nothing unclean shall enter it [Heaven], nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood…”
  • Hebrews 12:14: “strive… for the holiness without which one cannot see God.”
  • Matthew 18:1-4:At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
  • Matthew 5:48: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
  • 1 John 3:5-7:  “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does right is righteous, as he is righteous.”

…All will be judged according to their works, not just for heavenly rewards (as most protestants claim), but also for whether one is worthy of either heaven or hell.  Nowhere in Scripture does it state that the believer will be personally judged according to Jesus’ deeds instead of his or her own personal deeds:

  •  Revelation 20:12-13: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done.”
  • Matthew 7:19-23: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. “Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? ‘And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’
  • Mathew 12:36: “I tell you, on the day of judgement men will give account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
  • Matthew 25:31-46: “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’… Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me… And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
  • John 5:28-29: [Jesus speaking:] “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.
  • Romans 2:6-8: “For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.”
  • 2 Corinthians 11:15: “…Their end will correspond to their deeds.”
  • Colossians 3:23-25: “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.”
  • 1 Peter 1:14-17: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you invoke as Father him who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.”

 

Mortal Sin in the Writings of the Early Church

Even from the earliest writings, the Early Church is clear that a life of unrepentant sin will lead to damnation, even if we have faith in Christ.  Through the first few centuries, you will read the Early Church Fathers progressively elaborating on which sins are serious enough to potentially cause the sinner to separate himself/herself from God (mortal sin)…

didacheThe Didache 

“Watch for your life’s sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord comes. But you shall assemble together often, seeking the things which are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you be not made complete in the last time” -(Didache 16 [A.D. 70]).

hermasHermas, bishop

“And as many of them . . . as have repented, shall have their dwelling in the tower [i.e., the Church]. And those of them who have been slower in repenting shall dwell within the walls. And as many as do not repent at all, but abide in their deeds, shall utterly perish. . . . But if any one relapse into strife, he will be cast out of the tower, and will lose his life. Life is the possession of all who keep the commandments of the Lord” -(The Shepherd 3:8:7 [A.D. 80]).

pope st Clement1Pope St. Clement of Rome (c. 95 A.D.)

“Take care, dear friends, lest his many benefits turn into a judgment upon all of us, as will happen if we fail to live worthily of him, and to do harmoniously those things which are good and well-pleasing in his sight . . . It is right, therefore, that we should not be deserters of his will.”       (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 21: 1, 4)

“Since, therefore, all things are seen and heard, let us fear him and abandon the abominable lusts that spawn evil works, in order that we may be shielded by his mercy from the coming judgments. For where can any of us escape from his mighty hand? And what world will receive any of those who desert him?” (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 28: 1-2)

“Let us therefore make every effort to be found in the number of those who patiently wait for him, so that we may share in his promised gifts. But how shall this be, dear friends? If our mind is fixed on God through faith; if we seek out those things which are well-pleasing and acceptable to him; if we accomplish those things which are in harmony with his faultless will, and follow the way of truth, casting off from ourselves all unrighteousness and lawlessness, covetousness, strife, malice and deceit, gossip and slander, hatred of God, pride and arrogance, vanity and inhospitality.” (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 35: 1-5)

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St. Justin MartyrSt. Justin Martyr, apologist (c. 155 A.D.)
“[E]ach man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions. “(First Apology, Chapter XII)
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“[F]or not those who make profession, but those who do the works, shall be saved, according to His word:” . . . (First Apology, Chapter XVI)
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“So that if they repent, all who wish for it can obtain mercy from God: . . . not as you deceive yourselves, and some others who resemble you in this, who say, that even though they be sinners, but know God, the Lord will not impute sin to them . . . how can the impure and utterly abandoned, if they weep not, and mourn not, and repent not, entertain the hope that the Lord will not impute to them sin?” (First Apology, Chapter CXLI)
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SaintIrenaeus- 2St. Irenaeus of Lyons, bishop

“[T]he ungodly and unrighteous and wicked and profane among men [shall go] into everlasting fire; but [he] may, in the exercise of his grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept his commandments, and have persevered in his love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their penance, and may surround them with everlasting glory” -(Against Heresies 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).

“God has given that which is good, and those who do it will receive glory and honor because they have done good when they had it in their power not to do so. But those who do not do it will receive the just judgment of God, because they did not do good when they had it in their power to do so. “(Against Heresies, IV, 37, 1; commenting on Romans 2:7)
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TertullianTertullian, apologist

“[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness” -(Repentance 10:1 [A.D. 203]).

“Discipline governs a man, power sets a seal upon him; apart from the fact that power is the Spirit, but the Spirit is God. What, moreover, used [the Spirit] to teach? That there must be no communicating with the works of darkness. Observe what he bids. Who, moreover, was able to forgive sins? This is his alone prerogative: for ‘who remits sins but God alone?’ and, of course, [who but he can remit] mortal sins, such as have been committed against himself and against his temple?” -(Modesty 21 [A.D. 220]).

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Clement_alexandrinSt. Clement of Alexandria, theologian (d. 215 A.D.)

“[W]hen we hear, “Thy faith hath saved thee,” we do not understand Him to say absolutely that those who have believed in any way whatever shall be saved, unless also works follow . . . No one, then, can be a believer and at the same time be licentious . . . those that have been glorified through righteousness.” (Stromata / Miscellanies, Chapter XIV)
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hippolytusSt. Hippolytus of Rome, bishop (d. 236 A.D.)
“He, in administering the righteous judgment of the Father to all, assigns to each what is righteous according to his works . . . the justification will be seen in the awarding to each that which is just; since to those who have done well shall be assigned righteously eternal bliss, and to the lovers of iniquity shall be given eternal punishment. ” (Against Plato, 3)
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cyprian-of-carthage0012St. Cyprian of Carthage, bishop

“Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord”             -(The Lapsed 28 [A.D. 251]).

“There is need of righteousness, that one may deserve well of God the Judge; we must obey His precepts and warnings, that our merits may receive their reward.” (On the Unity of the Church, 16)
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OrigenOrigen, theologian (d. 254 A.D.)
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“[B]elievers are to be instructed not to think that it is enough merely to believe [lacking fruit]; they ought to realize that the just judgment of God will reward each one according to his works. “(Commentary on Romans [2:5])
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“Let no one think that someone who has faith enough to be justified and to have glory before God can at the same time have unrighteousness dwelling in him as well. “(Commentary on Romans [4:2])
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LactantiusLactantius, advisor to emperor Constantine I (d. 320 A.D.)
“[W]e may either lose that true and eternal life by our vices, or win it by virtue.” (Divine Institutes, 7:5)
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athanasiusSt. Athanasius the great, bishop (d. 373 A.D.)
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“[E]ach one will be called to judgment in these points–whether he have kept the faith and truly observed the commandments. “(Life of Antony)

 

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Basil_of_CaesareaSt. Basil the Great of Caesarea, bishop 

“The clergyman who is deposed for mortal sin shall not be excommunicated” -Canonical Letter, canon 32 [A.D. 374]).

“In like manner they which have grieved the Holy Spirit by the wickedness of their ways, . . . shall be deprived of what they have received, their grace being transferred to others; . . . meaning complete separation from the Spirit.” (De Spiritu Sancto, chapter 15)

 

pacianSt. Pacian of Barcelona, bishop

 “Stinginess is remedied by generosity, insult by apology, perversity by honesty, and for whatever else, amends can be made by practice of the opposite. But what can he do who is contemptuous of God? What shall the murderer do? What remedy shall the fornicator find? . . . These are capital sins, brethren, these are mortal. Someone may say: ‘Are we then about to perish? . . . Are we to die in our sins?’ . . . I appeal first to you brethren who refuse penance for your acknowledged crimes. You, I say, who are timid after your impudence, who are bashful after your sins, who are not ashamed to sin but now are ashamed to confess” -(Sermon Exhorting to Penance 4 [A.D. 385]).

jeromeSt. Jerome, priest / theologian / historian

“There are venial sins and there are mortal sins. It is one thing to owe ten thousand talents, another to owe but a farthing. We shall have to give an accounting for an idle word no less than for adultery. But to be made to blush and to be tortured are not the same thing; not the same thing to grow red in the face and to be in agony for a long time. . . . If we entreat for lesser sins we are granted pardon, but for greater sins, it is difficult to obtain our request. There is a great difference between one sin and another” -(Against Jovinian 2:30 [A.D. 393]).

Saint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_ChampaigneSt. Augustine of Hippo, bishop

“[N]othing could have been devised more likely to instruct and benefit the pious reader of sacred Scripture than that, besides describing praiseworthy characters as examples, and blameworthy characters as warnings, it should also narrate cases where good men have gone back and fallen into evil, whether they are restored to the right path or continue irreclaimable; and also where bad men have changed, and have attained to goodness, whether they persevere in it or relapse into evil; in order that the righteous may be not lifted up in the pride of security, nor the wicked hardened in despair of cure” -(Against Faustus 22:96 [A.D. 400]).

“[A]lthough they were living well, [they] have not persevered therein; because they have of their own will been changed from a good to an evil life, and on that account are worthy of rebuke; and if rebuke should be of no avail to them, and they should persevere in their ruined life until death, they are also worthy of divine condemnation forever. Neither shall they excuse themselves, saying—as now they say, ‘Why are we rebuked?’—so then, ‘Why are we condemned, since indeed, that we might return from good to evil, we did not receive that perseverance by which we should abide in good?’ They shall by no means deliver themselves by this excuse from righteous condemnation. . . . since it may be said, ‘O man, in that which you have heard and kept, in that you might persevere if you want’” -(Admonition and Grace 11 [A.D. 426]).

“But those who do not belong to the number of the predestined . . . are judged most justly according to their deserts. For either they lie under sin which they contracted originally by their generation and go forth [from this life] with that hereditary debt which was not forgiven by regeneration, or they have added others besides through free choice: choice, I say, free; but not freed. . . . Or they receive God’s grace, but they are temporal and do not persevere; they abandon it and are abandoned. For by free will, since they have not received the gift of perseverance, they are sent away in God’s just and hidden judgment” (ibid., 13).

“This must not be understood in such a way as to say that a man who has received faith and continues to live is righteous, even though he leads a wicked life. ” (Questions 76.1; commenting on Romans 3:28)

“But if someone already regenerate and justified should, of his own will, relapse into his evil life, certainly that man cannot say: “I have not received’; because he lost the grace he received from God and by his own free choice went to evil.”  (Admonition and Grace [c. 427])

caesarius of arlesSt. Caesarius of Arles, bishop

“Although the apostle [Paul] has mentioned many grievous sins, we, nevertheless, lest we seem to promote despair, will state briefly what they are. Sacrilege, murder, adultery, false witness, theft, robbery, pride, envy, avarice, and, if it is of long standing, anger, drunkenness, if it is persistent, and slander are reckoned in their number. Or if anyone knows that these sins dominate him, if he does not do penance worthily and for a long time, if such time is given him . . . he cannot be purged in that transitory fire of which the apostle spoke [1 Cor. 3:11–15], but the eternal flames will torture him without any remedy. But since the lesser sins are, of course, known to all, and it would take too long to mention them all, it will be necessary for us only to name some of them. . . . There is no doubt that these and similar deeds belong to the lesser sins which, as I said before, can scarcely be counted, and from which not only all Christian people, but even all the saints could not and cannot always be free. We do not, of course, believe that the soul is killed by these sins, but still they make it ugly by covering it as if with some kind of pustules and, as it were, with horrible scabs” -(Sermons 179[104]:2 [A.D. 522]).

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