Common Ground? Forgiveness of Sins

How much common ground is there between Protestants and Catholics on the subject of the forgiveness of sins? Sad to say, not a whole heck of a lot. It’s an awkward, unwieldy topic, basically because all the many and various Protestant denominations have failed to get their act together and find common ground amongst themselves on this subject! It is impossible to discuss “the Protestant view” on the forgiveness of sins, since there really isn’t one – there are many. Your beliefs as a Protestant on the subject of the forgiveness of sins basically hinge on what you personally have chosen to believe.

So, let’s begin by talking about what Protestants rejected in order to get themselves into this state of disarray. First of all, they rejected the pretty obvious sense of John 20:19-23

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

Hmm…. Jesus was making His first appearance to His assembled apostles after His Resurrection. Speaking to them, the first thing He says is, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What is Jesus doing here? According to Catholics, He is instituting a sacrament. He is giving His Spirit-filled apostles the authority to hear confessions and declare those sins either forgiven or not forgiven. “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” In rejecting this pretty obvious understanding of the text, most Protestant denominations have been forced to claim that Jesus is breathing the Holy Spirit upon His disciples and telling them to preach the Good News of forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – a great thing to preach, clearly, but just as clearly NOT what Jesus is saying here: “”If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” This dovetails with Jesus’ earlier promise to the apostles: “”Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18). While we have no New Testament examples of Christians making their confession to a priest, we do have St. Paul’s declaration that “”All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Quite clearly, from the beginning, Christians understood the importance of the confession of sins. The 1st-century “church manual” known as the Didache instructed believers:

Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.

If first-century Christians believed that confession to a priest was not necessary, why the instruction to “confess your sins in church?” Christians were following the command of St. James to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” We see in the book of Acts that believers made public confessions: “Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.” Sins were confessed publicly in the early Church, with absolution given by a priest only after a period of penance. This caused repentant sinners a great deal of discomfort, as one would imagine. The Catholic bishop of Lyons, St. Irenaeus, wrote in 180 A.D. about a practice long established, one which a heretically-influenced group of women neglected to their peril:

Some of these women make a public confession, but others are ashamed to do this, and in silence, as if withdrawing themselves from the hope of the life of God, they either apostatize entirely or hesitate between the two courses.

Tertullian describes a 2nd-century process of confession so unpleasantly public that many avoided it, yet he deemed it necessary in order to obtain absolution:

This act, which is more usually expressed and commonly spoken of under a Greek name, is ἐξομολόγησις, whereby we confess our sins to the Lord, not indeed as if He were ignorant of them, but inasmuch as by confession satisfaction is settled, of confession repentance is born; by repentance God is appeased. And thus exomologesis (confession) is a discipline for man’s prostration and humiliation, enjoining a demeanor calculated to move mercy. With regard also to the very dress and food, it commands (the penitent) to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover his body in mourning, to lay his spirit low in sorrows, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he has committed; moreover, to know no food and drink but such as is plain—not for the stomach’s sake, to wit, but the soul’s; for the most part, however, to feed prayers on fastings, to groan, to weep and make outcries unto the Lord your God; to bow before the feet of the presbyters, and kneel to God’s dear ones; to enjoin on all the brethren to be ambassadors to bear his deprecatory supplication (before God). All this exomologesis (does), that it may enhance repentance; may honor God by its fear of the (incurred) danger; may, by itself pronouncing against the sinner, stand in the stead of God’s indignation, and by temporal mortification (I will not say frustrate, but) expunge eternal punishments. Therefore, while it abases the man, it raises him; while it covers him with squalor, it renders him more clean; while it accuses, it excuses; while it condemns, it absolves. The less quarter you give yourself, the more (believe me) will God give you.

Yet most men either shun this work, as being a public exposure of themselves, or else defer it from day to day. I presume (as being) more mindful of modesty than of salvation; just like men who, having contracted some malady in the more private parts of the body, avoid the privity of physicians, and so perish with their own bashfulness. It is intolerable, forsooth, to modesty to make satisfaction to the offended Lord! To be restored to its forfeited salvation! Truly you are honorable in your modesty; bearing an open forehead for sinning, but an abashed one for deprecating! I give no place to bashfulness when I am a gainer by its loss; when itself in some son exhorts the man, saying, Respect not me; it is better that I perish through you, i.e. than you through me. At all events, the time when (if ever) its danger is serious, is when it is a butt for jeering speech in the presence of insulters, where one man raises himself on his neighbor’s ruin, where there is upward clambering over the prostrate. But among brethren and fellow-servants, where there is common hope, fear, joy, grief, suffering, because there is a common Spirit from a common Lord and Father, why do you think these brothers to be anything other than yourself? Why flee from the partners of your own mischances, as from such as will derisively cheer them? The body cannot feel gladness at the trouble of any one member, (1 Cor 12:26) it must necessarily join with one consent in the grief, and in laboring for the remedy. In a company of two is the church; but the church is Christ. When, then, you cast yourself at the brethren’s knees, you are handling Christ, you are entreating Christ. In like manner, when they shed tears over you, it is Christ who suffers, Christ who prays the Father for mercy. What a son asks is ever easily obtained. Grand indeed is the reward of modesty, which the concealment of our fault promises us! To wit, if we do hide somewhat from the knowledge of man, shall we equally conceal it from God? Are the judgment of men and the knowledge of God so put upon a par? Is it better to be damned in secret than absolved in public? But you say, It is a miserable thing thus to come to exomologesis: yes, for evil does bring to misery; but where repentance is to be made, the misery ceases, because it is turned into something salutary. Miserable it is to be cut, and cauterized, and racked with the pungency of some (medicinal) powder: still, the things which heal by unpleasant means do, by the benefit of the cure, excuse their own offensiveness, and make present injury bearable for the sake of the advantage to supervene.

Early bishops write along the same lines – there is no doubt in their minds that sins must be confessed to the Church and that priests have the authority to forgive or refuse to forgive sins:

God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . pour forth now that power which comes from you, from your Royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy apostles. . . and grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command. St. Hippolytus of Rome, 215 A.D.

The Apostle [Paul] likewise bears witness and says: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord “[I Cor. 11:27]. But [the impenitent] spurn and despise all these warnings; before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest . . . they do violence to his body and blood, and with their hands and mouth they sin against the Lord more than when they denied him. … Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . I beseech you, brethren; let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord. St. Cyprian of Carthage, 251 A.D.

Just as a man is enlightened by the Holy Spirit when he is baptized by a priest, so he who confesses his sins with a repentant heart obtains their remission from the priest. St. Athanasius, c. 350 A.D.

It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries [i.e. the Sacraments] is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Mt 3:6]; but in Acts they confessed to the Apostles, by whom also all were baptized [Acts 19:18]. St. Basil the Great, c. 370 A.D.

But what was impossible was made possible by God, who gave us so great a grace. It seemed likewise impossible for sins to be forgiven through penance; yet Christ granted even this to His Apostles, and by His Apostles it has been transmitted to the offices of priest. St. Ambrose, c. 380 A.D.

Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.” Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding: but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? “Whose sins you shall forgive,” he says, “they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Mt 10:40; Jn 20:21-23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven. St. John Chrysostom, 387 A.D.

Let this be in the heart of the penitent: when you hear a man confessing his sins, he has already come to life again; when you hear a man lay bare his conscience in confessing, he has already come forth from the sepulchre; but he is not yet unbound. When is he unbound? By whom is he unbound? “Whatever you loose on earth,” He says, “shall be loosed also in heaven” [Mt 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23]. Rightly is the loosing of sins able to be given by the Church… St. Augustine of Hippo, c. 420 A.D.

As any Protestant who’s tried it will tell you, the problems associated with public confession of sins in a church setting are legion. Yet it is impossible to make the case that the early Christians believed that when they confessed their sins, it was between them and God – the Church was meant to be involved. Gradually, private confession to one member of the Body, the priest, became the norm – understandable, since he was the one who could give absolution. That certainly made confession a whole lot less scary. Yet, the children of the Reformation still objected to the arrangement. They were a very independent lot, and had no intention of confessing their sins to any human being. They insisted that the Church butt out. Having rejected the pretty obvious sense of John 20:19-23, Protestants went on to come up with their own definitions of sin – which only compounded the problem. The prevailing Protestant understanding of sin is expressed in the Westminster Confession:

As there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.

For most Protestants, all sins are equal, and equally deserving of damnation – put in Catholic terms, they view all sins as mortal. There are, however, Christians who have decided that all sins committed after placing one’s faith in Christ are pretty much venial and of no real consequence in the grand scheme of things. In other words, the concept of mortal versus venial sin has been lost in the Protestant world. Both the view that all sins “deserve damnation,” and the view that no sins do, are a departure from the teaching of Scripture and from the understanding of the early Christians. The Catholic Church derives its theology of mortal vs. venial sin from 1 John 5:16-17:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and He shall give life to him, to those committing sin not leading to death.
There is a sin leading to death. I am not saying he should ask for that kind. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin that does not lead to death.

The Catholic understanding of these verses helps to make sense of several remarks St. John makes in that same letter, remarks which, taken out of context, have spawned some pretty weird theologies of sin. In 1 John 3:9 and in 5:18, the saint makes the bold claim that “no one who is born of God sins.” However, in 1 John 1:8 and 1:10, he appears to contradict himself by suggesting that “if we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and making God a liar”! Why the confusion? St. John is referring on the one hand to mortal sins and to the fact that those in a state of grace avoid them, and on the other hand to venial sins which no person alive can claim that he or she does not commit. In 1 John 5:16-17, St. John discusses the case of a Christian who has committed a venial sin; his fellow Christians can effectively pray that God will forgive this sin. John makes a point, however, of calling attention to the other kind of sin – mortal sin. Don’t expect that God will forgive your brother’s mortal sins simply because you have prayed for him, John writes. The forgiveness of mortal sins comes through the sacrament of penance. St. Augustine elaborated on this teaching:

I do not tell you that you will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of light sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What has the Prayer? “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which you must needs be separated from Christ’s body: which be far from you! For those whom you have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice. In three ways then are sins remitted in the Church; by Baptism, by prayer, by the greater humility of penance; yet God does not remit sins but to the baptized. The very sins which He remits first, He remits not but to the baptized. When? When they are baptized. The sins which are after remitted upon prayer, upon penance, to whom He remits, it is to the baptized that He remits. St. Augustine of Hippo

Having rejected the doctrine of mortal vs. venial sins, Protestants have wandered into a morass of their own making. The belief that all sin is equally grave makes many of the Protestant aberrations in doctrine not only possible, but theologically necessary – imputed righteousness and the forgiveness of all sins, past, present and future upon a one-time declaration of faith come to mind. Evangelicals such as I once was tend to take sin quite lightly. Many other Protestants, however, groan under the weight of their sins – not because they believe that God cannot forgive sin, but because they fear that these besetting sins are proof that they are not among the “elect,” that they never were “saved” to begin with. To use a familiar example, the Protestant approach to sin is a lot like the American approach to health insurance – just pick the plan that you can afford, the one that seems to suit your situation, and hope for the best.

God wants something better for His children.

At Jesus’ first appearance to His assembled disciples after His Resurrection, He was manifesting Himself to some pretty frightened men. They were frightened for a very good reason; all except John had abandoned Jesus in His hour of need. Had He risen from the dead to have His revenge? Quite the opposite – He came to forgive them. “Peace be with you!” was His greeting. Jesus conferred upon those forgiven men the priestly ministry of reconciliation, and they of all people could say that they understood the importance of certainty regarding the forgiveness of sins. Through the Church’s certain understanding of the reality and the gravity of sin, her clear teaching, and her God-given ability to offer of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, she passes on that certainty to her children. Because of Jesus’ promise in John 20:23, she teaches our hearts to rejoice at the words of the Prayer of Absolution: “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of Your Son, You have reconciled the world to Yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Rightly is the loosing of sins able to be given by the Church.


On the memorial of St. John Bosco

Deo omnis gloria!

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