Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Things you may have forgotten you believed in: Mortal Sin and the Loss of Salvation

What does saving faith look like? And what does it not look like? The chief teacher of the Augsburg Confession was not afraid to ask and answer those questions.

It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them [they cast out faith and the Holy Ghost]. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present. For St. John says, 1 John 3:9: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, ... and he cannot sin. And yet it is also the truth when the same St. John says, 1:8: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. (SA III.3.43)

So there is a difference between "having and feeling original sin" and, on the other hand, "falling into manifest sins" such as "adultery, murder, blasphemy," etc. So it turns out you can out-sin God, as the Apology confesses: "But when we say of such faith, that it is not mere idle thinking, but that it delivers us from death and begets new life in our hearts, and is a work of the Holy Spirit, it does not co-exist with mortal sin, but produces good fruits only so long as it is really present" (Ap. II.45, emphasis added).

Now, in one sense it is surely true that you can't out-sin God: Jesus died for every sin. But in the sense in which Luther and the Apology are speaking you can out-sin God: you can drive faith and the Holy Spirit away with mortal sin, which is clearly a Confessional category. (This is the problem with theology by catch phrase: most catches phrases are both true and false depending on context and definition of terms.) Of course, you can be brought to repentance and come to faith again, as happened with David (thanks be to God). But it can also happen that you "make a shipwreck of your faith" and are not reconverted like Hymenaeus and Alexander in I Tim 1:19-20.

None of us will ever be rid of the Old Adam until we set aside this flesh. We will all always need to struggle against the flesh in the Romans 7 way: repenting in agony when we end up "doing what we don't want to do." Struggle, stumbling, repenting, trusting and all that continually: that is the Christian life. That is not mortal sin.

But ceasing the struggle, giving in, willfully choosing open sin as something you do want to do....well, that's a different thing altogether: mortal sin.

Failing to distinguish between the common struggle against original sin and falling into open, manifest sin is a failure of the first order in Lutheran theology. It first cropped up in what became known as the Antinomian Controversy. The quotation from Luther above is a summary of his definitive response to this controversy in the Antinomian Theses. You can (and should) read a full treatment of the topic in Walther's Law & Gospel, Thesis X: "In the sixth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher describes faith in a manner as if the mere inert acceptance of truths, even while a person is living in mortal sins, renders that person righteous in the sight of God and saves him; or as if faith makes a person righteous and saves him for the reason that it produces in him love and reformation of his mode of living" [emphasis added].

What is a mortal sin in Lutheran theology? Not the same thing as in Roman theology, of course. In Lutheran theology it is not the objective magnitude of the sin (adultery vs stealing a pack of gum), but rather the willful choosing of the sin against better knowledge. Every sin is in fact mortal objectively: that is, every sin is objectively deserving of death. But not every sin is mortal subjectively, or in effect. Other sins are mortal in effect because they drive faith and the Holy Spirit away. Thus Luther's example of David's prolonged, willful, deliberate sin in the Bathsheba and Uriah episode. A prolonged, willful, deliberate sin of stealing a pack of gum would also be a mortal sin in effect because it too "drives away the Holy Ghost." So it's not the objective magnitude of the sin, but the active, willful, choosing of the sin against better knowledge that is the antithesis of repentant faith and thus mortal sin.

To learn more about mortal sin, the possibility of the loss of salvation, and how this should inform our preaching you can do no better than reading that Thesis X by Walther. To delve more deeply, see the sources collected by Schmid in his Doctrinal Theology (Section 41 I bracketed numbers 15 and 16. Page 421ff if you have the print edition) Schmid collects all the classic Lutheran theological sources from the Book of Concord down through Chemnitz, Gerhard, Hollaz, etc., and arranges them all by topic. So it's very handy on any topic you want to explore and sends you ad fontes.



  1. Thank you for such a thought-provoking post in Christian wisdom. I suspect that this problem also manifests itself when the law is presented in a degrading manner. That is to say, the law is forsaken "for the sake of the gospel," thus giving us anti-law arguments against the use of the law which instructs against what is evil, while at the same time instructing us to what is good. Among other things, it results in disparaging the use of texts such as 1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 3; 1 Tim. 2:11-14 just because they are law and have no use in instructing the new man.

    It also manifests itself in either the misuse or no use of Romans 6:1-4 as the teaching that we died to sin in baptism and are no longer living in it...that is, sin no longer has dominion over those who are in Christ Jesus. Paul is not asking a question, but is giving the answer that we "are" dead to sin and "are not" living in sin. The struggle against sin manifests itself in the life that is lived, and itself bears witness that it is not "coexisting with mortal sin."

  2. I've never understood how something so clearly confessed in our Symbols could be "forgotten." Sigh.

  3. Far be it from me to deny the seriousness of sin or the “Sin Against the Holy Spirit.” But with regard to faith and the Holy Spirit leaving David, I have some questions:
    1. Where in Scripture does it say that faith and the Holy Spirit left David?
    2. In Psalm 51, A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba, David says, v. 11, “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.” Therefore, just before Nathan said, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die,” David deemed himself to “have” the Holy Spirit.
    3. How could the Holy Spirit inspire David to write this Psalm, if the Holy Spirit had left him?
    4. Presumably, because we know that David “returned to faith”, this is not an example of the “Sin Against the Holy Spirit.” Inasmuch as we know that “I cannot by my own reason or strength …” how did David repent of his sin, or, for that matter, how can anyone else in the same situation return to faith without the Holy Spirit?
    5. Does habitual exceeding of the speed limit drive away faith and the Holy Spirit?
    You might want to tell me that as a layman I have no business discoursing with called and ordained preachers of the word, and that I should ask my pastor about this. But as many pastors as I have had, none have been able to answer these question except by suggesting that Luther and the Confessions could be wrong on this point.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

    1. Discussing the Word of God is open to all the children of God, George.

      Luther and the Confessions are not wrong on this point. They are right on this point and that's why I subscribe to the Confessions.

      The example of David and its particulars is less important than the doctrine in regard to mortal sin itself. Luther uses David's sin as an example the possibility of having true faith and then driving it away. We are not necessarily bound to the hermeneutical decisions of the Confessions, only to the doctrine confessed (see Walther's famous essay on this point). But I must say that I find Luther's interpretation of the David episode compelling when compared to things like I Cor 6, Gal. 6, etc. "such will not inherit the Kingdom of God."

      I don't think your questions pose any hardship for the Confessional doctrine. David wrote Ps 51 after his repentance, not while committing adultery with Bathsheba and conniving to murder her husband. So it makes all the more sense that David would pray then not to lose the Spirit since he recently had driven Him away and came to repentance.

      David lost faith and was reconverted. He did not persist in his unbelief unto death, but was reconverted.

      As to habitual exceeding of the speed limit - remember that we are dealing with sinning against conscience and better knowledge. Do you think it's a sin to break the speed limit? That you are offending God if you so? Then you had better not. Breaking your conscience is always sinful, even if your conscience is ill informed. Koehler has a great discussion of this distilled from Pieper.

      Remember that in the Lutheran (and I'd say Biblical teaching) mortal sin is subjective in that it occurs within a subject. The issue is not one of magnitude of sin, but of willfully pushing away God through persistance in what one believes to be sin.


    2. Dear Rev. Curtis. Thank you for your most gracious response.
      I mentioned exceeding the speed limit, because you wrote of the “prolonged, willful, deliberate sin of stealing a pack of gum.” Is there anyone who does not know that speeding is a sin? Romans 13:2, “Therefore whoever resists authority resist what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” It is just that we do not think about it. So if we don’t think about it, the Holy Spirit stays, but if we do, He leaves?
      But more importantly, it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Holy Spirit under the New Covenant to compare what happened to David with what may happen to a Christian. John 14: 16, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because HE ABIDES WITH YOU AND HE WILL BE IN YOU.” The Holy Spirit dwells in every Christian, but He did not dwell in every Israelite. John 7: 37, “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. Also, Romans 8: 9, “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
      Scripture teaches that there are only two kinds of people under the New Covenant: those who are in the Kingdom of God, and those who are not; i.e. the world. Those who are in the Kingdom of God have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them; those who are not, do not. So if “faith and the Spirit” leave, you are back in the world, an enemy of God. I cannot find a single instance mentioned in the entire Bible which shows that the Holy Spirit left someone and then returned. Surely there would be mention of it if it were such an important doctrine. But, on the contrary, Hebrews 6:4, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened … and then have fallen away.”
      My conclusion is that what we call mortal sin is actually the “Sin Against the Holy Spirit.” But no man is entitled to make the judgement that another person has fallen into this sin and thereby forfeited their place in the Kingdom. We cannot begin to comprehend the mercy of God and the diligence of the Good Shepherd as He searches for the lost and finds them.
      Peace and Joy!
      George A. Marquart

  4. A usefully edifying and provocative dialogue. Thank you, to all participants.

    Re: Is there anyone who does not know that speeding is a sin? Romans 13:2, “Therefore whoever resists authority resist what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” It is just that we do not think about it. So if we don’t think about it, the Holy Spirit stays, but if we do, He leaves?

    Perhaps our conceptions are dependent, at least in part, on how broadly the phenomenon of "thinking" is defined. The oxygen-consuming brain is never entirely at rest, as EEG recordings establish; and the divinely inspired writer memorably confesses to haunting concerns about "secret faults" ... those flaws unable to be elaborated, even to the self's critical (or dismissing) eye. The unconscious, the pre-conscious and memory itself are real entities, and in knitted unity, are all too human as to their predicament.

    An individual may say it is possible to not "know" when we speed (after having come to learn, the existence of authoritative law governing roadway behavior); I suggest that within the created marvel of the central nervous system ... it is impossible, somewhere, at some level, not to. The clinical and laboratory testimonies are that strong.

    Postscript: In Ps 51, King and poet David bar-Jesse may be plaintively begging for the Holy Spirit to return to him, after the fact of departure; much as a child on the playground desperately calls after the successful and fleeing bully-of -a-bandit: "Don't take my candy!"

  5. Dear Dr. Anderson: Part of the problem here is that even we Lutherans have created myths around the concept of sin that are not to be found in Scripture. Whether we think about it or not, whether we know it is sin or not, whether we do it willfully or accidentally, Scripture makes no distinction. The whole idea of “mortal” sin is first, part of our inheritance from the church of Rome, and secondly a misinterpretation of the only passage in Scripture that mentions “mortal sin”, 1 John 5:16.
    When the Roman church divorced itself from Luther, Luther did not become a Lutheran immediately. He did not oppose everything he had learned, nor did he consider everything he had learned earlier in light of his new understanding of the Gospel. And so we have the idea of “mortal sin”, a strictly Roman Catholic notion, and the idea of receiving forgiveness when we receive the Eucharist, a Roman Catholic tradition not mentioned in Scripture. There are others.
    As to 1 John 15, John’s suggestion, v16, “There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that,” clearly indicates that this covers a situation from which there is not return. But David did repent, and therefore his sin was not the type “one should not pray about.”
    Making up different types of sin only muddles up the very fundamental postulate of our faith, Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God …” We have been saved from judgement for sin – every sin, and every kind of sin (Except the Sin against the Holy Spirit – the mortal sin), so that we can say with confidence, Romans 5:1. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God….”
    As Lutherans we are also not clear about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, as even Hermann Sasse recognized. We have Him coming in, going out, leaking out and being refilled – none of this found in Scripture. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell with us once, when we are baptized, and never leaves or is diminished, or needs to be refilled. But if we commit the Sin Against Him, that is final – He leaves and never comes back.
    As to your PS, sorry. The text is clear. But as I wrote earlier, the relationship of the Holy Spirit to believers in the New Testament is entirely different from that of the Old. Our Lord made that clear when he said, Matthew 11:11, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  6. Dear Dr. Anderson: There is a much simpler response to your concerns, that did not occur to me last night – but should have: sin has nothing to do with our perceptions. It is, objectively, a violation of the will of God. He determines what is sin, even when we go through all kinds of rationalizations about it trying to justify ourselves. But we have forgiveness through our Lord Jesus Christ, even for that sin.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart


Comments are moderated. Neither spam, vulgarity, comments that are insulting, slanderous or otherwise unbefitting of Christian dignity nor anonymous posts will be published.