The Only Unforgivable Sin

This article is on the topic of sin and salvation. According to the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, there is only one unforgivable sin, and therefore there is only one way to end up in Hell. All other sins will be forgiven, except that one unforgivable sin, final impenitence, which is the refusal, through the last moment of life, to repent from actual mortal sin. This sin is called blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, since it is to the Spirit that we account repentance and the forgiveness of sin.

[Matthew]
{12:30} Whoever is not with me, is against me. And whoever does not gather with me, scatters.
{12:31} For this reason, I say to you: Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.
{12:32} And anyone who will have spoken a word against the Son of man shall be forgiven. But whoever will have spoken against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven, neither in this age, nor in the future age.

There are many different sins that are proximate to final impenitence, that is to say, sins that lead in the direction of dying unrepentant from grave sin. And these proximate sins are sometimes called blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. These sins include obstinacy in mortal sin, despairing of the mercy of God, malice toward God or neighbor, hatred of religion, etc. But all these sins are forgivable with repentance, and repentance is always available, by the grace of God, to everyone in this life at all times. Even in the midst of committing a grave sin, the grace to repent is available. Therefore, strictly speaking, the only sin that is per se the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the only sin that is unforgivable, is final impenitence. But no one alive has yet committed that unforgivable sin, for it consists in persisting in actual mortal sin through the last moment of life.

The Lord’s teaching is in accord with the teaching of His Church. Many different magisterial sources can be cited on the topic of sin and salvation. But the ordinary and universal Magisterium has always taught that only mortal sin deserves eternal punishment in Hell, that venial sins deserve only temporal punishment, that God wills all persons to be saved (this is called ‘the universal salvific will of God’), and that all sins are forgivable in this life.

Pope John Paul II: “For this reason venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity and therefore eternal happiness, whereas just such a deprivation is precisely the consequence of mortal sin.” (Reconciliation and Penance, n. 17, para. 9; see also CCC 1863.)

If a person is in a state of grace, and has only venial sins on his conscience, he is united in love with God. When he dies, he will certainly have eternal life in Heaven, though perhaps after a temporary stay in Purgatory. Only actual mortal sin deprives a person of the state of grace.

Pope John Paul II: “Furthermore, when sin is considered from the point of view of the punishment it merits, for St. Thomas and other doctors mortal sin is the sin which, if unforgiven, leads to eternal punishment; whereas venial sin is the sin that merits merely temporal punishment (that is, a partial punishment which can be expiated on earth or in purgatory).” (Reconciliation and Penance, n. 17, para. 10.)

Venial sin does not merit eternal punishment, but only temporal punishment. Therefore, the baptized Christian (and anyone who has received a baptism of desire or of blood) who dies with only venial sins on his conscience, dies in a state of grace. He received grace at baptism, he either held that grace continually unto death, or, if he lost it by actual mortal sin, then he regained it by contrition and confession (or by perfect contrition alone in the case of someone without access to Confession). Only unrepentant actual mortal sin deserves eternal punishment in Hell. And when someone is forgiven by God for an actual mortal sin, the punishment due is reduced from eternal to temporal. Repented actual mortal sin does not deserve punishment in Hell.

“For venial sins, whereby we are not excluded from the grace of God, and into which we fall more frequently, although they be rightly and profitably, and without any presumption declared in confession, as the custom of pious persons demonstrates, yet may they be omitted without guilt, and be expiated by many other remedies.” (Council of Trent, 14th Session, On the Most Holy Sacraments of Penance and Extreme Unction, Chapter V.)

No one is sent to Hell for venial sins, no matter how many they might be, no matter how obstinate the person is in those venial sins. For venial sins do not exclude us from the grace of God. Venial sins are to some extent contrary to the theological virtue of love, but never to such an extent that any venial sin, nor any set of venial sins, would deprive us of the state of grace and eternal life in Heaven.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.” (CCC 1037)

No one is predestined to Hell. Therefore, prenatals, infants, and little children, who die at that young age without formal Baptism, must necessarily be given a non-formal Baptism by God prior to death. To say otherwise is in effect to assert that some persons are predestined to Hell, and this is especially true in the case of prenatals, who cannot receive a formal baptism.

No one is sent to Hell unless they are unrepentant from actual mortal sin. To say otherwise is to contradict the teaching of Christ that there is only one unforgivable sin: final impenitence. “Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.” (Mt 12:31). The above quote from the CCC expresses the same teaching: only blasphemy against the Spirit, i.e. final impenitence, is unforgivable. No one is sent to Hell unless he commits an actual mortal sin and persists in that sin through the last moment of life.

“Hell consists in the eternal damnation of those who die in mortal sin through their own free choice.” (Compendium, n. 212)

“How can one reconcile the existence of hell with the infinite goodness of God? God, while desiring ‘all to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9), nevertheless has created the human person to be free and responsible; and he respects our decisions. Therefore, it is the human person who freely excludes himself from communion with God if at the moment of death he persists in mortal sin and refuses the merciful love of God.” (Compendium, n. 213)

The Compendium of the Catechism also teaches that eternal damnation occurs only by persistence in actual mortal sin unto death. Therefore, anyone who has not excluded himself from Heaven by his own deliberate and knowing choice of actual mortal sin without repentance will have eternal life in Heaven. The universal salvific will of God only condemns to Hell those who have in effect chosen Hell by actual mortal sin with final impenitence.

“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (Jn 3:16-17). In the New Testament, the universal salvific will of God is closely connected to the sole mediation of Christ: ‘[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all’ ” (1 Tim 2:4-6). (Cardinal Ratzinger, CDF, Dominus Jesus, n. 13.)

God wills that all persons be saved. Christ, the one mediator between God and man, offers salvation to all human persons without exception. Therefore, those persons only are sent to Hell, without any exception, who choose to commit a grave sin, with full knowledge of its grave immorality and with full deliberation, AND who never repent even through the last moment of life. Only by our own full and knowing choice of evil in the sin of final impenitence can we have eternal punishment in Hell, despite the universal offer of salvation.

If final impenitence is the only unforgivable sin, the only path to Hell, then why did the Councils of Lyons II and Florence teach that persons who die in a state of ‘original sin alone’ are also sent to Hell?

Council of Florence: “But the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.” (Florence, Sixth Session, 6 July 1439.)

Does the CCC teach heresy by contradicting the infallible teaching of an Ecumenical Council? Not at all. The two teachings are easily reconciled. Every human person who dies unrepentant from one or more actual mortal sins is sent to Hell because he has committed the only unforgivable sin: final impenitence. The sin of dying in ‘original sin alone’ is nothing other than the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found sanctifying grace in this life, despite ample opportunity. Without ample opportunity, the sin would not be an actual mortal sin, and therefore would not deserve eternal punishment. Therefore, prenatals, infants, and little children never die in a state of original sin alone; if they are unbaptized, they are given a non-formal baptism (either of desire or of blood), sometime prior to death, from Jesus Christ on the Cross. The only unforgivable sin is final impenitence. The only sin that merits eternal punishment in Hell is final impenitence.

The claim that a person can be sent to Hell for some sin other than final impenitence, such as original sin (absent an actual mortal sin of omission) or such as an unrepentant venial sin, is contrary to the teaching of our Lord and the teaching of His Church. Actual mortal sin is the only path to Hell, and then only by refusal to repent through the last moment of life.

Pope Benedict XII: “By this Constitution which is to remain in force for ever, we, with apostolic authority, define the following…. Moreover, we define that according to the general disposition of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down into hell immediately after death and there suffer the pain of hell.” (On the Beatific Vision of God)

The Magisterium infallibly teaches that only unrepentant actual mortal sin deserves punishment in Hell. If persons could go to Hell for either actual mortal sin or actual venial sin, or for mortal sin regardless of whether it was actual or merely objective, then the teaching of Pope Benedict XII would be false, or at the very least it would be null and void, which is not possible for an infallible teaching. Therefore, if someone were to claim that any unrepentant sin, even a venial sin, would somehow condemn us to Hell, such a claim would be a particularly dangerous heresy, since it pertains directly to the eternal salvation of souls.

Doctrinal Errors on Salvation

Unfortunately, I now feel obliged once again to warn the faithful, who are seeking salvation for their own souls and for the souls of others, about a grave danger to that path of salvation: the doctrinal errors of Fr. Ryan Erlenbush.

From the comments after the post For Divine Mercy Sunday, How to make a good confession at the New Theological Movement blog:

hilaron:
“But let’s say we have no mortal sins on our soul when we die but nonetheless unrepented venial sin, we would go to Purgatory to be purged of our unrepented venial sin, no? But how does this relate to what you are saying here?

“Basically, would we go to Hell if we obstinately hold on to even to one venial sin, let’s say deliberate idle talk, in our moment of death? But if that is not the case if we are in a state of grace at death, why would it be the case that we have to be truly contrite for venial sin, even if implicitly and potentially, in order to receive valid absolution of mortal sins committed?”

The question asked by ‘hilaron’ is a legitimate one, essentially asking: how do venial sins relate to contrition and salvation?

Fr. Ryan Erlenbush:
“The point about contrition is that, by its very nature, it either extends to all sin or to none — even imperfect contrition is sorry for all sin, since all sin has merited hell (even venial sin, though not directly). Especially perfect contrition is sorry for all sin.

“Hence, it would seem to me that if a person died without any contrition (even imperfect) for venial sin — he would be thereby failing in final perseverance, and would be committing a mortal sin.

“However, the general, implicit, potential, and imperfect contrition for all sin is enough to get to purgatory — where contrition is perfected.

“You see, God just won’t forgive our sins if we are not sorry for them. And he won’t forgive mortal sin without forgiving venial sin. Therefore, it seems to me that we simply have to have some level of contrition for venial sin (at least generally).

“So, to the question ‘would we go to Hell if we obstinately hold on to even on venial sin?’ — It seems to me that obstinately holding on to sin (actively turning from God toward sin, even venial sin) becomes a mortal sin at the moment of death, when we are meant to turn to the Lord with particular love and devotion.
Now, I am not saying we need to be perfect — I’m only saying that, at the moment of death, we need to at least desire to be saints (this means desiring to be free of all venial sin, even idle talk). Simply that general desire to be a saint, to go to heaven, to become perfect in the Lord — this is already that imperfect, general, implicit contrition for each and every venial sin.”

The answer given by Fr. Ryan contradicts the clear and definitive teaching of the Roman Catholic Faith on sin and salvation. These doctrinal errors are several:

1. the claim that venial sin indirectly merits Hell
2. the claim that a person in a state of grace, who has only venial sins on his conscience, commits a mortal sin by dying unrepentant from that venial sin
3. the claim that God sends persons to Hell who have no mortal sins on their conscience, other than the claimed mortal sin of not repenting from venial sin prior to death
4. the claim that in order to go to Heaven, we need to at least desire to be saints, i.e. to be free from all venial sin

In other posts, Fr. Ryan has taught further errors on the topic of sin and salvation:

5. the claim that if a penitent is contrite and makes a good confession, receiving absolution, he is not forgiven and the Sacrament is invalid, unless he intends to do the particular penance assigned by his confessor
6. the claim that prenatals who die in the womb cannot be saved by the Church, and must be sent to Hell
7. the claim that millions of souls in Hell are very happy and perfectly fulfilled, with no punishment, in the incorrectly named ‘Limbo of children’
8. the claim that most non-baptized children commit a mortal sin as their first rational act, about the age of seven
9. the claim that all wealthy persons are thieves who are guilty of mortal sin

See the full list of his errors here. (If you would like to ask Fr. Ryan about any of these topics, see this section of his site.) The sum total of these errors is to close the gates of Heaven (seemingly) to many millions of souls, who have not died unrepentant from one or more actual mortal sins.

His teachings are like the teachings of the Pharisees, about which Christ emphatically warned us:

[Matthew]
{23:4} For they bind up heavy and unbearable burdens, and they impose them on men’s shoulders. But they are not willing to move them with even a finger of their own.

{23:13} So then: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you close the kingdom of heaven before men. For you yourselves do not enter, and those who are entering, you would not permit to enter.

Now let’s briefly consider each doctrinal error.

1. the claim that venial sin indirectly merits Hell

The Church teaches that only mortal sin merits (deserves) eternal punishment in Hell. Pope John Paul II: “venial sin is the sin that merits merely temporal punishment….” (Reconciliation and Penance, n. 17, para. 10.). No venial sin, and no set of venial sins, deserve punishment in Hell.

The Lord Jesus Christ taught that there is only one unforgivable sin: final impenitence. The Magisterium has always taught that final impenitence pertains to actual mortal sin, not to venial sin, not to an objective mortal sin that was committed without full knowledge or without full deliberation. No venial sin merits Hell, not even ‘indirectly’.

2. the claim that a person in a state of grace, who has only venial sins on his conscience, commits a mortal sin by dying unrepentant from that venial sin

This claim contradicts the teaching of the Church, explained at length in the first section of this article, on mortal sin and final impenitence. But it is also an absurd claim. Suppose that a person is in a state of grace, and has only venial sins on his conscience. He then dies in his sleep, or he dies suddenly, without warning, in some other way. When did he commit this supposed mortal sin of not repenting from venial sin? Did he commit that sin in his sleep? When did he lose the state of grace by that sin? The Magisterium teaches that only by actual mortal sin, which is done with full knowledge and full deliberation, can we lose the state of grace. So when did such a person commit that fully deliberate act of not having repented from venial sin? There was no fully deliberate choice made with full knowledge.

The situation is very different for a person who commits an actual mortal sin. Such a person is not in a state of grace, and remains without sanctifying grace unless he repents. If he dies unrepentant, then he dies without the state of grace: “Above all, the state of grace is absolutely necessary at the moment of death; without it, salvation and supernatural happiness — the beatific vision of God — are impossible.” (Pope Pius XII, Address to Midwives)

Furthermore, every mortal sin must have grave matter. A venial sin is by definition not grave, and so the failure to repent from venial sin is also not grave. Therefore, even if one supposes the case of a person who chooses not to repent from a venial sin, with full knowledge and with full deliberation, the matter is not grave, and so the sin is not mortal.

This claim by Fr. Ryan Erlenbush constitutes an utter rejection of the teaching of the Church on the distinction between venial sin and mortal sin. He conflates venial sin so that it seems to become, not only a mortal sin, but the only unforgivable mortal sin: final impenitence. But this type of claim is entirely incompatible with magisterial teaching, and it endangers the eternal salvation of souls.

3. the claim that God sends persons to Hell who have no mortal sins on their conscience (other than the absurd claim that it is a mortal sin not to repent from venial sin prior to death)

The ordinary and universal Magisterium has always taught that only actual mortal sin deprives one of the state of grace, and that only final impenitence deserves eternal punishment in Hell. The claim that a person can be sent to Hell for refusing to repent from venial sin is a heresy. And, as far as I know, Fr. Ryan is the first person to assert this particular heresy — it is a new heresy that he himself has invented.

4. the claim that in order to go to Heaven, we need to at least desire to be saints, i.e. to be free from all venial sin

This false claim is essentially the same as the previously discussed claims. The Magisterium infallibly teaches that God wills all persons to be saved, and that only unrepentant actual mortal sin deserves eternal punishment. The universal salvific will of God and the universal offer of salvation through Christ brings all persons into Heaven, other than those who have in effect chosen Hell by choosing to persist unrepentant from actual mortal sin. The idea that, in order to enter Heaven, one must at least desire to be a saint, that is to say, one must as a minimum desire to be free from all venial sin — such an idea is not found in the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. This idea presumes to raise the minimum standard for entrance to Heaven so high that many persons would not be able to enter. It is as if only those who die with no sins at all on their conscience can enter Heaven.

This idea contradicts the teaching of Sacred Scripture that both saints and sinners enter the kingdom of Heaven. The Gospel parable expresses this truth well:

[Matthew]
{22:8} Then he said to his servants: ‘The wedding, indeed, has been prepared. But those who were invited were not worthy.
{22:9} Therefore, go out to the ways, and call whomever you will find to the wedding.’
{22:10} And his servants, departing into the ways, gathered all those whom they found, bad and good, and the wedding was filled with guests.
{22:11} Then the king entered to see the guests. And he saw a man there who was not clothed in a wedding garment.
{22:12} And he said to him, ‘Friend, how is it that you have entered here without having a wedding garment?’ But he was dumbstruck.
{22:13} Then the king said to the ministers: ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The king accepts into his wedding feast the good and the bad, not the good alone. Only those who lack a wedding garment, the state of grace, are kept from the wedding feast of Heaven, and instead are sent to the outer darkness of Hell. That even the bad are able to enter the wedding feast, if in a state of grace, contradicts the claim that one must be contrite or repentant from all venial sins, or that one must desire to be a saint, or desire to be free from all venial sin, in order to enter Heaven. In truth, those who die in a state of grace, but who have venial sins (or temporal punishment for any sin) still unforgiven are sent to Purgatory, and then to Heaven. No one is sent to Hell for obstinately persisting in venial sin. Final impenitence is obstinacy in actual mortal sin, not in mere venial sin.

5. the claim that if a penitent is contrite and makes a good confession, receiving absolution, he is not forgiven and the Sacrament is invalid, unless he intends to do the particular penance assigned by his confessor

This claim is also a heresy, since the Universal Magisterium has always taught that contrition and confession are sufficient to forgive all sins. The third component of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, satisfaction, is found in the preeminent satisfaction of Christ suffering on the Cross, and also in the acts of contrition and confession of the penitent. So when the priest says: “I absolve you from all your sins,” these absolving words are really spoken by Christ, the Divine Physician, who also says: “your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:5). The priest in the confessional is speaking and acting ‘in persona Christi Capitis’. Therefore, at the moment of absolution, the contrite penitent’s sins are forgiven. To say otherwise is to claim that Christ is lying when He says “I absolve you from all your sins.”

The claim that you are not forgiven, despite these words spoken in effect by Christ himself, unless you also resolve to do the particular penance assigned by the confessor, is also contrary to the constant teaching of Tradition and Scripture and the Magisterium. This Sacrament cannot become invalid by the refusal of the penitent to accept the particular penance assigned by his confessor. This claim is a type of severe Pharisaism, which would deny salvation to someone, by denying them a valid Sacrament of Reconciliation, merely for not following the rule that says you should do the assigned penance.

6. the claim that prenatals who die in the womb cannot be saved by the Church, and must be sent to Hell

The Lord Jesus Christ taught that there is only one unforgivable sin: final impenitence. If prenatals are sent to Hell for the sin of original sin, without any actual mortal sin and therefore without any final impenitence from mortal sin, then there would be two unforgivable sins. This claim also implies that the Church is unable to save certain persons, not because of their own sins and refusal to repent, but as if the Church were unable, as if the Church were not given sufficient gifts from God to save everyone. And this contradicts the teaching on the universal salvific will of God and on Christ’s universal mediation, which are expressed through the Church. It is as if Christ cannot mediate for these little souls.

7. the claim that millions of souls in Hell are very happy and perfectly fulfilled, with no punishment, in the so-called Limbo of children

Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium have always taught that Hell is a place of eternal punishment and of eternal unhappiness. The claim that it might be possible for some souls in Hell, or in the fringe of Hell called the limbo of children, to be happy or to have no punishment at all is a heresy.

8. the claim that most non-baptized children commit a mortal sin as their first rational act, about the age of seven

There is no basis in any teaching of Tradition or Scripture or the Magisterium for this grave accusation against innumerable little children. “Amen I say to you, unless you change and become like little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18:3).

And it is a false accusation of grave sin. “You shall not speak false testimony against your neighbor.” (Ex 20:16).

9. the claim that all wealthy persons are thieves who are guilty of mortal sin

This claim is also a false accusation of grave sin. “You shall not give false testimony.” (Mt 19:18).

This claim directly contradicts Sacred Scripture, which describes Joseph of Arimathea as a wealthy man and a just man. It is a grave doctrinal error on a matter of morals, to claim that merely being wealthy, while others are poor, constitutes the mortal sin of theft. This false teaching in effect accuses all the wealthy benefactors of the Church, throughout the world and throughout history, of being thieves guilty of mortal sin, despite their generous donations to the Church and to various charitable causes.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Mt 7:15).

Fr. Ryan Erlenbush is a teacher of heresy and serious doctrinal error, and he falsely accuses numerous persons of mortal sin. Those persons who assist him, specifically in spreading his grave errors, commit the sin of formal cooperation. Those persons who believe and live his heretical teachings have departed from the path of salvation.

May God correct this errant priest and his adherents.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Biblical scholar

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