Does Sin Reside in the Will?

Continuing with an overview of Catholic anthropology, which was introduced in the article, “How to Regulate the Concupiscible vs. Irascible Appetites,” and continued in the article, “What Are the Elements of the Human Soul and of the Body,” we next consider whether sin resides in the will.

As previously mentioned, memory, intellect, and will are faculties (i.e., inherent powers) that are elements of the soul. The will is the faculty of the soul that is responsible for choosing and desiring. It is closely connected to the intellect, as the will is directed by the perceived good presented by the intellect.

Turning to the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, the will is central to the commission of sin. He argues that sin occurs when the will chooses a lesser good over a higher good or when it chooses something contrary to the divine law. He also acknowledges that human beings, because of the consequences of original sin, may have disordered desires and inclinations, which can influence the will toward sinful actions. This is known as concupiscence, which remains in a soul even after it is cleansed in Baptism.

We can sin by thought, word, deed, or omission. In both the sins of commission (where one actively chooses to do evil) and sins of omission (where one fails to do an obligatory good), the will is involved. However, it should be further noted that ignorance or external coercion can mitigate an offense or even make something not a sin under particular circumstances. For example, if someone does not know the Church’s Precepts (e.g., attendance at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, necessity of Friday abstinence, or fasting on prescribed days), then no sin is committed.

A sin does require the deliberate act of the will to rebel against God’s Law either expressed through the Ten Commandments, and the sins which follow from them, or against the Church’s laws, since the Church has legitimate authority over us (cf. Luke 10:16).

What Makes Something a Sin?

Sin is, above all, an offense against God which we will (i.e., freely choose). According to the definition of the Modern Catholic Dictionary by Fr. John Hardon:

“Sin is a deliberate transgression of a law of God … sin is a transgression, since Catholicism holds that grace is resistible and the divine will can be disobeyed. And the transgression is deliberate, which means that a sin is committed whenever a person knows that something is contrary to the law of God and then freely does the action anyway.”

Hence, there are two conditions for something (i.e., a thought, word, deed, or omission) to be a sin:

  1. Knowledge: For an action to be sinful, the person committing the act must have knowledge or awareness that the action is contrary to God’s law or moral principles. This knowledge can be either explicit (knowing the specific moral rule being violated) or implicit (having a general understanding of right and wrong). Hence, murder is always wrong since this basic Commandment is written in the hearts of all mankind, even if someone claims they never heard that it is a sin.
  2. Consent: Sin involves a deliberate choice of the will. The person committing the sinful act must have sufficient freedom and consent to the action without undue coercion or external constraints. In other words, the individual must freely choose to act in a manner contrary to moral law. Thus, sin does reside in the will and no sin is committed if there is no consent. Coercion mitigates culpability according to its forcefulness. (In any specific situation, judgment upon such a matter is best left to God and His representative, the priest in the confessional.) Likewise, committing acts in a dream is not a sin while the same act, willfully entertained by someone while alert and in control, could be a serious sin.

The Difference Between Mortal and Venial Sin

An additional condition distinguishes sins into mortal sins and venial sins (cf. 1 John 5:16-17):

  1. Grave Matter: Not all actions are considered equally sinful. Some acts are more serious than others, and these are often referred to as “grave matter.” If the violation is not grave matter, it is a venial sin. If the matter is grave, it has the potential to be a mortal sin. When the conditions referenced above are met (namely sufficient knowledge and deliberate consent) the grave matter is mortally sinful.[1]

The Baltimore Catechism #2 (Questions 65-68, 70-73), once widely used by all Catholics in the United States, succinctly explains:

  • “There are two kinds of actual sin: mortal sin and venial sin.”
  • “Mortal sin is a grievous offense against the law of God. … This sin is called mortal or deadly because it deprives the sinner of sanctifying grace, the supernatural life of the soul.”
  • “Besides depriving the sinner of sanctifying grace, mortal sin makes the soul an enemy of God, takes away the merit of all its good actions, deprives it of the right to everlasting happiness in Heaven, and makes it deserving of everlasting punishment in hell.”
  • “A sin can be venial in two ways: first, when the evil done is not seriously wrong; second, when the evil done is seriously wrong, but the sinner sincerely believes it is only slightly wrong or does not give full consent to it.”
  • “Venial sin harms us by making us less fervent in the service of God, by weakening our power to resist mortal sin, and by making us deserving of God’s punishments in this life or in Purgatory.”
  • “We can keep from committing sin by praying and by receiving the sacraments; by remembering that God is always with us; by recalling that our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost; by keeping occupied with work or play; by promptly resisting the sources of sin within us; by avoiding the near occasions of sin.”

Free Will Can Resist Sin

We have it in the power of our will to resist sin. Our Lord declares to us through St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

At times, one may think “My will is too weak to resist this sin.” This may be the case when one willfully chooses temptation and does not exercise his will to avoid a near occasion of sin. There are also situations when one cannot resist sin with natural willpower alone. Yet with actual grace – supernatural power ­­­­­­– one can always resist sin. This is an infallible truth, ‘No matter how hard it seems to resist sin, we can do so by the grace of God.’ This is why it is extremely important to pray, especially when one is assaulted by a temptation.


Even after Lent has ended, we can and should strive to make greater progress at all times so that we become more like Our Lord and hate all sins. Only if we better understand the horror of sin can we further keep it out of our wills.

To this aim, let us consecrate ourselves to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. One can use this prayer composed by St. Maximilian Kolbe:

O IMMACULATA, Queen of Heaven and earth, refuge of sinners and our most loving Mother, God has willed to entrust the entire order of mercy to Thee. I, (name), a repentant sinner, cast myself at Thy feet, humbly imploring Thee to take me with all that I am and have, wholly to Thyself as Thy possession and property. Please make of me, of all my powers of soul and body, of my whole life, death and eternity, whatever most pleases Thee. If it pleases Thee, use all that I am and have without reserve, wholly to accomplish what was said of Thee: “She will crush your head,” and “Thou alone have destroyed all heresies in the whole world.”

Let me be a fit instrument in Thine immaculate and merciful hands for introducing and increasing Thy glory to the maximum in all the many strayed and indifferent souls, and thus help extend as far as possible the blessed kingdom of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus. For wherever Thou enter Thou obtain the grace of conversion and growth in holiness, since it is through Thy hands that all graces come to us from the most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Allow me to praise Thee, O Sacred Virgin! Give me strength against Thine enemies!


[1] Circumstances can also affect the gravity of a sin. For example, stealing a small amount such as ten dollars would be considered venial. Yet if that same amount was stolen from the collection basket at Holy Mass or stolen from someone known to be in dire financial straits, with barely enough money to buy food, then it would be mortally sinful.