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There seems to be a sense among many Christians that sins are somehow "less bad" if they were accidental. Leaving aside two salient points, namely:

  1. The entire point of grace is that sins are forgiven.
  2. That all sins are equal in the sight of a perfect God

the question is then, how do people get to the place where they look to the intentionality of the sin?

Are there denominational confessions that differentiate? Is there a biblical basis for making intentional sin somehow worse?

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Yes actually quite a few confessions differentiate. –  Caleb Sep 11 '12 at 15:23

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Yes accidental sins are not mortal sins because, and mortal sins have a different effect.

First of all (concerning moral sin):

For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent." - CCC 1857

Then as far as accidents are concerned:

Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin. - CCC 1860

a venial sin, is more-or-less a misdemeanor where a mortal sin is a felony, and in cases of accidental sin:

One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent. - CCC 1862

So... I'm not sure if you commit a venial sin when you commit an accidental pecadillo, but I think this answers the question enough. There is something about accidental sins that lessen the offense. But, the standard Catholic notion of our pathetic lowly state before the grandeur, glory and perfection of God still applies. Any offense is a bad offense, but not every offense takes one out of a state of grace.

Venial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul's progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However venial sin does not break the covenant with God. - CCC 1863


Owing to the CCC references, this is certainly only a Catholic answer, the Catechism says it's specifically appealing to human reason and tradition here, but maybe it makes sense.

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I'm accepting this answer because it adds to my insight as to how categories of sin are derived. Thank you, Peter! –  Affable Geek Sep 11 '12 at 20:32

God's wrath

Paul speaks of certain sins as incurring God's wrath:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

...

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. —Romans 1:18,28–32 (ESV)

According to John Piper, "In Romans 1:18–32 Paul makes his case that all pagan Gentiles are sinners and in need of the salvation God has provided in Christ." We see a most bleak picture of the depths that humanity will descend and might assume that these sins are "worse" than others. Then Paul hits us with a rhetorical left hook:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.—Romans 2:1 (ESV)

Piper comments:

So the first thing to learn about God and his response to hypocrisy is that God is just, and his just judgment is coming not only on the so-called pagan people who live in sin, but also on the moral and religious people who disdain the pagan people, while doing many things that show they don't trust and love God. That list in 1:29-31 includes things like "greed," "envy," "gossip," unloving," "unmerciful." Has any of us been as merciful and loving toward others as he or she ought to be?

So in terms of God's wrath, no, there's no difference between an intentional sin and any other sin. That's actually good news, since God's kindness extends equally to those who are redeemed from "bad" sins, like murder, as it does to any other offense against God.

Human consiquences

But some sins are worse than others in terms of their effects on people. Paul hints at that in Romans 1:32, "they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them." Intuitively, we know that intentional sin is worse because it shows a decided disregard for God and His law. This seems to be the state of humanity that prompted God to destroy it with the deluge:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.—Genesis 6:5 (ESV)

Paul, in Romans 7, labels the "intention of the thoughts of his heart [to do] only evil continually" as "the flesh". Despite intending to do good, he finds himself in a struggle with his own intentions:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.—Romans 7:21–8:8 (ESV)

Whether Paul is speaking of his life before or after conversion is an open question, but either way the answer to this question remains. Intentionally sinning tends to draw us away from God. In that sense, the consequences of sin are worse than unintentional sin.

Summary

Our hearts are deceitful, so we have a strong urge to justify ourselves. ("I didn't mean to hurt her feelings and she's super sensitive anyway. What I did wasn't that bad.") We must remember that in God's eyes sin is sin. We don't get a pass because we sinned unintentionally.

On the other hand, there's no better way to shipwreck our faith than to continue in a life of intentional sin.

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First, I don't think:

That all sins are equal in the sight of a perfect God

is a biblical statement:

Jesus answered him, "You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin." (John 19:11, emphasis mine)

All sin is offensive to our holy God. I don't think the Bible teaches all sin is equally offensive to God.

To answer your question, this parable seems to indicate that intentionality does matter:

And that servant who knew his master's will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. (Luke 12:47-49)

So, what are the implications of the believer? Sin is like an infection, the more you partake of it, the more corruption it works on your soul:

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Gal 6:7-8)

The person who is sinning intentionally is working harder at sowing to the flesh and will therefore reap more corruption.

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All sins are equal, however, in terms of the wages earned (death) –  warren Sep 11 '12 at 14:11
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+1 Hi Randy! This is a great answer (and I'm glad that's it got more votes). I accepted the other more out of a serendipity factor than a content position - either one could have gotten my accept. Thanks! –  Affable Geek Sep 11 '12 at 20:33
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@AffableGeek: glad I could help and thanks for the explanation. –  Randy Syring Sep 11 '12 at 20:37

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