With thanks to our readers, the essay Issues with Sodomy, Etc. has been one of our most popular posts to date. It is clear that there is an unfilled hunger for clear and unflinching testimony about God’s Law, and His word on the unnatural vice. We hope the post is helpful even to audiences which have never even heard of Issues, Etc., as it is likely that most Christians are hearing the same message in their respective circles that was preached in that broadcast segment. Critiquing a podcast is not the point. Critiquing the ways in which Satan has nudged out of joint the Christian conceptualization of and vernacular about God’s Law and about sodomy is the point. And this issue of the unnatural vice is emblematic of the overall slide into unwitting antinomianism which has affected the whole Church, and few more slyly and successfully than the Lutherans, who now stand on sinking sand while boasting that we are planted on bedrock.
On that note, a fox-eared reader has brought to my attention a few follow-up statements from Todd Wilken, made during comment-line segments of the show. In the spirit of charity toward the man himself (which some incorrectly dismissed the previous piece as lacking), and of further revealing the ways the modern Lutheran church tries to contort itself to avoid being perceived as speaking too harshly on the matter, I would like to make brief comments on them. There are three in all, and I will take them up in turns in three separate essays.
The first two statements come as responses to rebukes read for the mic from the July 26, 2023 airing of Issues, Etc. Coincidentally, that is the date of the posting of the final draft of my own commentary (link above). It seems that several listeners independently found their own, er, issues with the segment, and put in their own rebukes more directly.
Here is the first rebuke, with the response by Wilken, which I will be responding to in this essay.
Alright, let’s begin with Joe. He said,
“I have a lot of disagreements with Mike Middendorf’s mild opposition to the death penalty for homosexuals. But instead of listing them, I pose this question:
“Can Issues, Etc. examine whether some sins are worse than others, and what those sins are? I think this is the foundational question.”
Thanks for listening. Thanks for the email, Joe.
Well, I think we have. We did an interview sometime back with Pastor Will Weedon, and in the course of some other series where we ended up talking about two categories that theologians use to describe, really, the state of faith with respect to individual sins. And that’s the category of Mortal Vin and Venial Sin. It’s a long established category. It’s one that, while we can define a mortal sin as one that robs someone of faith and a venial sin as a sin that does not rob one of faith, we have to maintain that all sins deserve eternal death and punishment were they not atoned for by the blood of Christ.
But we’re really talking here in these cases of sins, not the sins themselves, like what you did, but the nature of faith, with respect to that sin. Does a sin rob one of saving faith, or can one remain ever repentant? Now, the way the old theologians, especially the Lutherans, have said, they’ve said, well, you know, venial sins are the ones that are unintentional. Not accidental, but unintentional. They are sins of weakness, whereas mortal sins are ones that are done with the full knowledge that this sin is a sin.
Well, if you stop and think about the sins you commit on a daily basis, Christians’ consciences are always testifying against them. And there are times when our conscience says, no, no, no, don’t do that. Don’t say that. Don’t think that. And you just go ahead and do it, don’t you? Am I unique in that respect where I know that something I’m about to say is wrong, and I say it anyway?
These categories really serve more as a constant warning to the Christian that they should avoid sin and struggle against sin at all costs. But we do have to recognize that there are sins Christians commit. Let’s think about this, the sins Christians commit, without even being aware that they’re committing a sin. We can safely say those are the kind of sins that the Christian, being unaware of them, does not rob them of faith necessarily. But these categories are intended to serve as a stern warning against simply taking sin lightly.
Now, that’s the category of mortal and venial, long established. It’s found in the Lutheran confessions. It’s found in the Lutheran Dogmaticians. There’s very little question about that. There are categories that we wholeheartedly accept.
Then there is the question of whether certain sins have greater consequences, both to the neighbor or in one’s own life — and one of those consequences might be to rob someone of saving faith — but temporal consequences. So someone thinks a bad thought in the privacy of their mind about their neighbor. That certainly is a sin. It’s condemned by God’s law. Does it have the same temporal con… it may have grave consequences in the life of that Christian. If that becomes a harbored anger, resentment, a grudge, it can rob one of faith. But the temporal consequences of the private thought — an evil, private thought against your neighbor — not that big. Your neighbor may not even know you’re thinking that they may not even be personally harmed by it. Although in God’s eyes, it is the same as if you were to have murdered your neighbor.
The temporal consequences are insignificant if it’s simply a private thought, no less a sin, no less dangerous to the faith of the Christian committing that sin. But in terms of temporal consequences, not so much. And I think that’s one of the things that we confuse when we talk about sins that have consequences and sins that seem to have no consequence. For a man to go out and physically murder someone has tremendous consequences in both his life and the life of the person he has harmed and their family and everyone else. It does more harm. And that chain of harm is longer and greater and more powerful than if a man just says, “I just hate that guy,” in God’s eyes.
Same thing in terms of temporal consequences; a vast difference. One of those things we punish civilly when someone commits actual murder because of that chain of harm that is done to everyone involved, including the greater society. The other one, we don’t punish civilly. I can stand on the street corner and say, “I hate that guy,” all day long. Guess what? I’m not gonna get arrested. That guy may never know.
And this is the question we were trying to answer when it came to the civil punishment of homosexuals: “Does scripture require a civil punishment for homosexuality?”
I think in a sane world, we would say that there — apart from scripture, even just dealing with natural law — there should be some kind of consequence there. That’s really actually how Western civilization understood this for centuries; for millennia. But it’s a question of prudence, of judgment, of reasonability. Does it rise to the level of… that’s why they will talk about victimless crimes in order to remove the legal stigma from homosexuality. The legal arguments were, “there are no victims, so we should not be punishing them.” They were making the argument from “the chain of harm is really insignificant,” or “they’re only hurting themselves. As long as this is consensual, they’re only hurting themselves. Why should it be a crime?” Those are the actual arguments that were made in my home state of Texas when they overturned sodomy laws.
From God’s perspective, are such sins deserving death? Yes. Are those sins true mortal sins? Absolutely. In the same way that intentionally committing adultery is a true mortal sin. One cannot say, “well, I’m just going to commit adultery, but I’m still Christian. I’m retaining faith.” No.
And in the same way, turning from homosexual to heterosexual sins: it used to be a crime to commit adultery, too, and we dropped that one long before we dropped the sodomy laws. Why was it considered a crime? Why was it punishable in Western civilization? Because it harmed everyone involved. There were consequences that went far beyond the individual acts or the consenting adults.
So I don’t think Doctor Middendorf took a soft opposition to the killing of homosexuals. He was simply answering the question: “does Romans 1:32 single out homosexuality before God as deserving death?” And the answer to that question is: no. If you listen to his argument, it’s very clear that all those sins listed, including homosexual acts, before God are deserving of death. That does not make the case that, in terms of how we civilly punish people, we should be meting out the death penalty.
I would encourage our listener to listen to the introduction of our series with Pastor Will Weedon on the Seven Deadly Sins. You guys covered this whole issue in part one of that series.
Yes, he lost his faith and drove away the Holy Spirit. And he fell from faith and had to be restored by the prophet Nathan. And in that case, they say, look, here’s a really clear example of what… David couldn’t have been doing all this stuff and still retain the Holy Spirit. And that’s the stated conclusion of the Lutheran Confessions.
And I’m not saying that the mortal and venial sin is a cut and dried category, like, “these sins fall into the mortal category, these sins fall into venial.” Because the categories exist, as I said before, to speak to the state of faith of the person committing that sin, rather than to say, “certain sins fit into the mortal, certain sins fit into the venial.”
Don’t they lose their professions? State that David lost his faith…
…when he had an affair with Bathsheba?
Yes, he lost his faith and drove away the Holy Spirit. And he fell from faith and had to be restored by the prophet Nathan. And in that case, they say, look, here’s a really clear example of what David couldn’t have been doing all this stuff and still retain the Holy Spirit. That’s the that’s the stated conclusion of the Lutheran Confessions.
This rebuke goes to the heart of a different matter than the one I addressed in my own critique. I dealt with the matter of the rank confusion of different kinds of Law (moral, ceremonial, and civil) and the results of these category errors employed by both Wilken and Middendorf in terms of doctrine and practice. I also addressed the place of sodomy laws within a nation’s jurisprudence, as informed by proper Biblical exegesis, which Wilken and Middendorf skirted with the aforementioned confusion of civil and ceremonial law.
But this rebuke seeks a cross examination on a separate, though related, issue: is Wilken (and Middendorf) willing to look deeper than the sin/not-sin binary and grant that some sins are worse than others?
Of course, “worse than” is comparative language. Answering this question requires assuming a standard by which A can be judged worse than B. Wilken does very well to answer in the affirmative according to two different classical standards.
First, there is the Mortal vs. Venial distinction, which in the Lutheran parlance essentially means high-handed sin which accomplishes the driving out of the Holy Spirit and the ceasing of His war with the flesh (Mortal) vs. a sin which is one lost battle in the believer’s lifelong, ongoing war with the flesh (Venial). The difference here is simply and solely in how a given sin stands in relation to one’s salvation. Wilken rightly notes that, according to this standard, the mortal sin is the “worse” sin.
Second, Wilken notes well that various sins manifest a wide range of temporal consequences. According to this standard, the sins that come with greater negative ramifications, and affect a greater number of people, are “worse” sins. As Wilken notes, this consequentialism is the basis for contemporary American jurisprudence. I was grateful to hear Wilken affirm the salutary nature of sodomy laws, even though his appeal was strictly to consequentialism and he continues to maintain that God’s Law does not factor into the equation (more on this in part 2). I agree with him that laws against adultery are needful also.
However, despite these salutary examples of standards for identifying which are “worse” sins, Wilken misses what I take to be the intent of the rebuker’s challenge. Let me rephrase the question to be more clear:
“Acknowledging that all sins damn apart from Christ, are there some sins which are worse than others in the eyes of God?”
We will get this sense more with his answer to the next rebuke (which will be taken up in a subsequent essay), but Wilken seems to be very committed to the idea that God sees (and, hence, judges) sin in only one dimension: sin is either there, or it is not. It goes without saying that of course this dimension is truly present: all men go in the sinner column, unless their sins are taken away in Christ, allowing them to be placed in the not-sinner column. No right-believing Christian disputes this dimension.
However, in restricting God’s view of sin to only this dimension, Wilken sets up a paradigm wherein, as far as God is concerned, within the sinner column there is no differentiation or distinction in either quantity or quality from one instance to the next. That is, man may mark a difference between a child predator and a paperclip thief strictly for temporal consequence purposes. God on the other hand, being colorblind and lacking depth perception, only sees identical shades of damnable sin, and deems the one as no worse than the other.
However, Scripture testifies that God does indeed see some sins as worse than others, damning though they all may be. As Martin Luther himself notes,
From [the Fourth] Commandment we learn that after the excellent works of the first three Commandments there are no better works than to obey and serve all those who are set over us as superiors. For this reason also disobedience is a greater sin than murder, unchastity, theft and dishonesty, and all that these may include. For we can in no better way learn how to distinguish between greater and lesser sins than by noting the order of the Commandments of God, although there are distinctions also within the works of each Commandment. For who does not know that to curse is a greater sin than to be angry, to strike than to curse, to strike father and mother more than to strike any one else?Treatise on Good Works, Martin Luther, March 1520; tr. W. A. Lambert, emphasis mine
Luther again references this concept of greater sin in his Small Catechism, which I remind that we are confessionally bound to affirm:
But if any one does not find himself burdened with such [sins as have been mentioned] or greater sins, he should not trouble himself or search for or invent other sins, and thereby make confession a torture, but mention one or two that he knows.The Small Catechism, Martin Luther, Part V: How The Unlearned Should Be Taught To Confess
Against the idea that God is not regardful of the dimension of quantity when it comes to the sins a man commits, we have the words of Christ:
And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
So he said, “Teacher, say it.”
“There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”
Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”
And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”Luke 7:40-48 NKJV
Against the idea that God is not regardful of the dimension of quality when it comes to the sins a man commits, we have the words of Christ:
Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”John 19:11 NKJV
Hence, according to God, within the “sinner” column there is still very much a spectrum of sin, with some cases being markedly worse than others.
But, if it is true that God marks some sins as worse than others, then why do we not see God treating damned sinners — whose sins are still upon them and not on Christ — differently from one another in their damnation, according to the scope and scale of their sins?
According to the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod’s (LCMS) own much vaunted Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR), this is in fact exactly what we see.
In both “body and soul” unbelievers will suffer eternal separation and condemnation in hell (Matt. 18:8 and 25:46; Mark 9:43; John 3:36; 2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 13; Rev. 14:11). Indescribable torment will be experienced consciously, the degree determined by the nature of the sins to be punished (Matt. 11:20-24 and 23:15; Luke 12:47-48).The End Times: A Study of Eschatology and Millennialism, published September 1989, page 32, emphasis mine
In so saying, the CTCR argues the same position of St. Jerome, who contended against Jovinianus in the Fourth Century when the latter claimed that: as all sins are equal in the sight of God, there are no degrees of rewards or punishment in eternity. Indeed, from the premise that all sins are equal in the sight of God, such a conclusion must follow. But St. Jerome wrote these sayings (and many others) against the doctrine of Jovinianus:
If we may not depart a hair’s breadth from virtue, and all sins are equal, and a man who in a fit of hunger steals a piece of bread is no less guilty than he who slays a man: you must, in your turn, be held guilty of the greatest crimes. …
But what are we to think of your assertion, that because there is a division into good and bad, the good, or the bad it may be, are not distinguished one from another, and that it makes no difference whether one is a ram in the flock or a poor little sheep? Whether the sheep have the first or the second fleece? Whether the flock is diseased and covered with the scab, or full of life and vigour? especially when by the authoritative utterances of His own prophet Ezekiel God clearly points out the difference between flock and flock of His rational sheep, saying, Behold I judge between cattle and cattle, and between the rams and the he-goats, and between the fat cattle and the lean. Because you have thrust with side and with shoulder, and pushed all the diseased with your horns, until they were scattered abroad. And that we might know what the cattle were, He immediately added: Ezekiel 34:31 You my flock, the flock of my pasture, are men. Will Paul and that penitent who had lain with his father’s wife be on an equality, because the latter repented and was received into the Church: and shall the offender because he is with him on the right hand shine with the same glory as the Apostle? …
For you admit no difference between sins, and the gratitude of those whom you raise from the mire and set on high will not equal the rage against you of those whom for the trifling offenses of daily life you have thrust into utter darkness.St. Jerome, Against Jovinianus (Book II); I recommend it for further reading from part 18 onward as Jerome absolutely savages Jovinianus’s arguments for a reductionistic sin/not-sin binary such as is advanced by modern Lutherans and critiqued in the present essay
What’s more, the very concept of the 3rd Use of the Law (the guide) is incoherent if all sins are equal before God. Growing in sanctification by virtue of seeking to obey God’s law is predicated upon the notion that a believer will progressively reduce both the scope and the scale of their sinning, replacing such with the fruit of the Spirit. It goes without saying that a Christian’s sinning will not utterly cease this side of eternity; however, if we say that all sinning is equivalent, then it is impossible to maintain that the life of a believer will produce less sin (either in quantity or quality) than that of an unbeliever — and hence Christ’s exhortations would be rendered absurd. Either Wilken affirms a difference in the nature and scale of sins Coram Deo (even while granting that all sins damn apart from Christ), or he has not been truthful when he has claimed that he has left Third Use denialism behind.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, while decidedly not among Lutheran confessional documents, makes a salutary confession on these matters, which can be instructive for us.
Q. 150. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?
A. All transgressions of the law are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.
Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
A. Sins receive their aggravations,
1. From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
2. From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many.
3. From the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.
4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord’s day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.
Q. 152. What doth every sin deserve at the hands of God?Westminster Larger Catechism
A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserveth his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.
Yet I know that many will scoff because, after all, nothing good can come from without the Lutheran tradition. Therefore, I point you back to Luther above. And, to prove that it is possible for a Lutheran to speak on the subject of mortal and venial sin (as Wilken adroitly did above) while also rightly acknowledging that not all sins are the same before God (as Wilken did not do above, and as he explicitly denies in the segment I will take up in the next installment), see the following from Lutheranism’s Second Martin, Martin Chemnitz:
Next we must consider the definition of this matter. What is mortal sin? What is venial sin in the regenerate? The usual definition is that mortal sin is those kinds of actions which cut off those who permit them from the grace of God and thus they cease to be righteous, and as a result they are condemned unless they change their minds. But venial sins are not of this nature, since out of the pure grace and mercy of God they are forgiven for the sake of the Son of God our Mediator to those who repent, and in the case of these sins, their sins are covered.
In another place we have shown that in setting up correct definitions we must keep our eye on two things. The first is that in the main parts of a definition we must include those elements necessary for an understanding of the subject. The second is that they must have the foundations for each part of the definition drawn from the testimonies of Scripture.
Therefore in defining mortal sin we must indicate the chief aspect of this kind of sin, in order to understand it. These are:
I. The difference between mortal and venial sin is derived not from the subject of sin as it is considered in itself in keeping with the Law. For although one kind of sin may be greater or less than another kind, cf. John 19:11, “He who betrays Me has the greater sin”; Luke 12:47–48, “The servant who knew the will of his master and did not prepare himself and did not act in keeping with his will, will be beaten with many stripes, but he who did not know and did commit things worthy of stripes, he shall be beaten with few”; Matt. 11:24, “I say to you that it shall be more tolerable in the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for Capernaum”; yet according to the Law, if God should enter into judgment with sin, all sins in themselves are mortal, guilty of or subject to the wrath of God and worthy of the curse and eternal death.
That is to say, there is no sin, even if it seems to be insignificant, which in itself according to the Law and outside of Christ, if God should enter into judgment with it, that is not worthy of eternal death. Deut. 27:26 and Gal. 3:10, “Cursed is every one who does not continue in all the words of this law, to do them; and all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” Therefore in the definition we must include the concept that “all sins in the unregenerate are mortal.” For “he who does not believe in the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains over him,” John 3:36.
This is what Luther is saying on Galatians 5 [Amer. Ed., 26.76], “Mortal sin and venial sin are distinguished from each other not on the basis of the substance of the deed involved or according to some difference in the sin committed, but on the basis of the person or because of the difference of those who commit the sins.”
We must note this aspect of the matter thoroughly. For the error of the Pharisees in the time of Christ pertained to the matter of big and little sins. This idea, however, is refuted at length in Matthew 5.
On the other side, Jovinian contended that “all sins are equal,” something which Jerome refuted. Likewise in our own day Sebastian Frank, an unlearned and arrogant man, has asserted the same thing. But Luther is correct when he says, “As far as guilt is concerned, all sins are equal unless reconciliation takes place.” Thus those people are in error and need to be corrected who think that certain sins do not deserve death. But it is a certainty that all sins, even those which in our eyes seem minor, are worthy of the eternal curse.
Augustine uses this simile: It is insufficient to make this comparison between these two kinds of sin and simply say that whether a person is on the shore or sinking in the depths of the sea, they are both dead. There will be some difference among those who are saved, just as there is a difference among stars in their brilliance, 1 Cor. 15:41, and there are also degrees among the damned because of the difference in their sins. Yet all are in damnation.Martin Chemnitz, Loci Theologici vol II, part 17 (Locus XVI) “The Difference Between Mortal and Venial Sin,” chapter III “Definition of the Matter”; translated by J.A.O. Preus
Because this subject can be fraught with the terror of the knowledge of guilt, I will end by reminding you that, as great as your sins may be, Jesus Christ is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him. And as small as your sins may be, nothing can make you right with God apart from Him. Do not despair, but rather call on his name and receive the atonement He made with God on your behalf.
See you in the next installment.