Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Sin and the Meritum Mortis

I wrote the following in response in a recent discussion elsewhere on this post from last October regarding mortal and venial sin in Niels Hemmingsen’s Enchiridion Theologicum. It got a little long–long enough, I decided, for a blog post. I include it here in case it is of any use as a further exposition and/or clarification. In what follows, I try to read the passage first discussed in the previous post consistently with Hemmingsen himself in his own discussion more broadly, and also with what I take to be the evangelical Grundmotiv of Holy Scripture, particularly (but not exclusively) in the Apostle Paul.

Sin, Death, and Forgiveness

Hemmingsen attempts to track with the Pauline, apostolic, and in general biblical schema of sin. Let us stipulate for the sake of argument (we could look at passages for this, but I’m trying to keep this concise, in outline form) that the most basic sin is unbelief, and that unbelief is also the mater peccatorum. Every sin by definition deserves death (“the wages of sin,” etc.), so *in that respect* all sins are qualitatively equal.

Thus we turn to look at Hemmingsen’s three categories. The first category, “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” is committed by those who persist in unbelief until death, and is therefore not remissible, because those who have committed it have not been washed in the blood of Jesus and are outside of Christ and His forgiveness.

The sins in the second category also deserve death, but are remissible “if you should wholly cease to sin that sin”; Hemmingsen cites Galatians 5 here vis-a-vis “inheriting the Kingdom of God” (n.b. the eschatological language). In Gal. 5, Paul contrasts the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit.” But note what he says there: “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified [past] the flesh with its passions and desires.” It is in principle and in fact true already. In the believer, it is not merely hypothetical, but such fruit-bearing will actually occur because that person is possessed by God and recreated by God for that purpose (“God is faithful,” etc.). The Spirit makes no misbegotten children, and all believers are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” But such fruit-bearing does not occur apart from human action; thus Paul then turns to the exhortation: “let us also keep in step with the Spirit,” i.e. bear His fruit. From the divine perspective, however, its result is not in doubt; it is the outworking of the divine recreating action of the Holy Spirit who will accomplish His purposes. So I think it is important to see that, for Hemmingsen, the condition is something like a “necessary subsequent condition,” and not in any sense causative or meritorious (thus he says “if,” not “since” or “on the basis of”), and that this seems to me to be perfectly consonant with what Paul and Scripture in general teach. The gift of God’s Spirit brings with Himself the gifts of mortification and sanctification, giving the fruit unto holiness, that believers may have the end, eternal life. There is in fact nothing “that will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Similarly, God in His kindness forgives the sins that are not listed in Paul’s “works of the flesh” in those “who fight by faith” (category 3)–not *because* they fight, but because they belong to Jesus (by faith) and His Father is their Father (note the use of “Father” language here–they have already been adopted into God’s family in Christ). But the *sins themselves* deserve death and, for Hemmingsen, the only reason some people do not receive death is because of God’s grace to them in Christ Jesus, which they receive sola fide (he is clear on this throughout his treatment).

Viewed from this perspective, his position doesn’t seem to me at all incoherent, albeit he is obviously recasting the traditional terminology from an evangelical point of view, which presupposes that God’s undeserved favor is the beginning and end of the Christian life. But that seems to me part of the point: the traditional terminology is conventional and in principle dispensable (hence his concern to say that all sins properly speaking are mortal in their nature); the evangelical point of view is not.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.