One of the hallmarks of the Lutheran Church is its proper understanding and application of the Bible’s two main teachings—Law and Gospel. Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s seminal work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, is the basis for this two-year series. Note: page numbers given are accurate for the 1929 and 1986 editions of the book.
“Thesis XIX–In the fifteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher speaks of certain sins as if they were not of a damnable, but of venial nature.”
“It’s O.K.” is, sadly, the most common response I hear when I apologize for words or actions which offend. Almost as if the person I’ve hurt doesn’t want me to feel needlessly bad, they dismiss my transgression as something I shouldn’t worry myself about.
But scripturally speaking, sin is never “O.K.” “It’s O.K.” is as shallow an absolution as the equally sad excuse, “I didn’t mean to.”
Such a weakening of sin’s gravity is common among false teachers, almost as if to make their works-righteousness easier than the awful spiritual burden it is.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches a distinction between how venial and mortal sins are to be dealt with. They define venial sins as sinful desires without the conscious intent to harm, and thus in no need of formal absolution. Some Pentecostal churches claim that you can attain a state of holiness in which you no longer truly sin, and similarly explain away any mistake you do make as no serious matter.
This false category was one of many errors that plagued Luther’s days in the monastery. Luther would spend hours each day rattling off sins to his confessors, which they considered venial, frivolous matters. All the exhausted priest could offer was an exasperated “It’s O.K.” But in the Scriptures, Luther found an actual remedy: “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (I John 1:7)
Thus, in the Lutheran church, we are committed to preach the Law in all its sternness and the Gospel in all its sweetness. To hold back on one inevitably leads to a weakening of the other. In the end, the full Word of life is withheld from the soul in dire need of God’s saving counsel: “A preacher who does not preach both does not deserve the name of an evangelical minister, but is a false leader and is sowing the Gospel as if he were casting wheat into the ocean, where no crop can be raised.” (p. 326)
There certainly is a distinction to be made between the sins of weakness committed by any repentant soul (venial) and the willful desire to continue in a sin without repentance. The latter is called “mortal” sin because of its result—such a refusal to repent results in eternal death. But this distinction is a matter of the heart that no man can see.
Additionally, Walther warns that any sin, left unrepented, can be mortal: “there is no sin venial in itself.” (p. 237) The most seemingly minor transgression is an offense against God: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” ( James 2:10) Even unintentional slips fall short of the perfect love God requires: “For every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.” (Matthew 12:36)
The Savior offered only one remedy to sin: “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” (Luke 5:20)
The Scriptures present only one path to reconciliation between sinners: “You ought rather to forgive and comfort him.” (II Corinthians 2:7)
When speaking of sin,“It’s O.K.” is never O.K.
Whether you mean it or not, sin is sin. So, instead of ignoring or dismissing, exercise that peculiar authority given you as member of Christ’s Church: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” ( John 20:23)
Tell it like it is, both Law and Gospel. This life-giving conversation between you and your God is both the key to effective Christian communication and the fount of His kingdom come.
is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.