To succeed in accomplishing the goal of keeping oneself free from all sin – including all sinful thoughts, words, desires, deeds, omissions, etc. – represents no small challenge. This article explains that although the answer to the question “Is it possible to live a life without sin?” is affirmative, those who live their entire lives without committing sin are the exception.
This paragraph explains briefly how this article came about. As I was conducting a series of classes on the cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, and temperance, I came across a text from Saint Thomas Aquinas which says “While prudence remains in a person, that person does not commit sin” (“De Virtutibus,” question 1, article 6, ad 1: “Prudentia manente homo non peccat”). The quotation prompted me to ask the students to answer the question “Is it possible to live a life without sin?” All students answered in the affirmative and agreed that the answer required explanation. It was mainly from this teaching experience that I structured the following reflections. I paraphrase some segments of the students’ reports.
The way human beings ought to live their lives here on earth has been decided by God the creator of us all. Imprinted on our nature is the way we ought to behave. This code of proper human behavior is known as the natural law. It provides – for better or for worse – the basic principles that govern all human actions. But to always and in all circumstances choose courses of action which do not violate these principles is hard.
Sin can thus be defined as doing what one ought not to do. Sin is a transgression of the divine law.
Jesus lived here on earth without sin
According to divine revelation, Jesus lived here on earth without sin. Jesus was always true God, one in Being with the Father. Jesus was the perfect incarnation of goodness. So, in all moments and in all circumstances, Jesus’ life expressed a complete rejection of sin.
Apart from Jesus’ life on earth, there were other three humans who came into being without sin, namely, Adam, Eve, and Mary. Each was endowed with special graces, but Adam and Eve failed to exercise the fullness of virtue and allowed the “yes” or “no” of their will to cloud their decisions, and so they sinned.
Adam and Eve were the first transgressors of the divine law.
Adam and Eve’s sin is called “original sin” since it gave rise to the present condition of human nature. After Adam and Eve all human beings are born into the world in the state of original sin.
The Roman Catholic faith teaches that Mary, on the other hand, in addition to being preserved by God from all stain of sin, even original sin, lived a life full of grace and remained faithful throughout her entire earthly life to the exceptional privileges that had been granted to her. Mary was destined to be the Mother of Jesus and it is on account of this role that she was granted a particular fullness of grace which she never stained with the defects of concupiscence or sin.
Every other human being is a sinner because every human being is born into original sin. And most likely, to original sin, every human being adds personal transgressions to the divine precepts of the will of God.
Can one possibly live a life without sin?
It is possible that by God’s grace some humans have lived lives free of sin. But judging about the state of one’s soul in regards to whether or not one has preserved the state of having committed no sin is beyond human competence. All the saints are very cautious about judging themselves in this matter. Saint Paul, for example, wrote that “I do not even pass judgment on myself. I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted. The one who judges me is the Lord” (1 Cor 4: 3-4). And Saint John, the beloved disciple, remarks that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8).
As mentioned above, prudence is the virtue that keeps a person from sin. But the question remains: Does prudence keep us from all sin?
Christians are cleansed from original sin through the sacrament of Baptism.
This sacrament endows the Christian with sanctifying grace and other gifts such as supernatural prudence and the theological virtue of charity. If Christians are faithful to sanctifying grace and to the gifts granted to them in Baptism, they can avoid all mortal sin, that is to say, all serious transgression to the divine law. Minor interruptions in the exercise of prudence and charity, in choice and action, will constitute venial sins or minor transgressions.
These minor faults do not destroy – as mortal sin does – the gift of sanctifying grace or the other supernatural dispositions present in the soul of the baptized. It is a truth of faith (stressed in the Council of Trent, session 6, canon 23) that in the state of grace one can avoid all mortal sin with the help of actual graces, but one cannot avoid all venial sin without special graces from God.
As in the case of Adam and Eve, the fact is that even with special graces it is possible to fall into committing sinful actions. The human condition is such that, without special grace – and even with it – weakness will manifest itself. This lack of perfection in the practice of virtue is in part due to lapses of attention to the divine law. These lapses of attention are almost imperceptible and lead the soul to the imprudent decision of acting without considering the divine norm that needs to be applied in choice and action. Even in the soul of the baptized, this and other weaknesses remain. Saint Augustine says that “had no weakness remained after Baptism, we would live without sin in this life” (“In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus,” 41, 10: CCL 36, 363).
The answer to the question “Is it possible to live a life without sin?” is affirmative. It is possible to live a life without committing any serious transgression against the divine law if one is prudent and faithful to grace. However, an extraordinary intervention of God’s grace is needed if one is to avoid all non-serious transgression to the divine law.