Category Archives: forgiveness

Understanding Indulgences

To say there is confusion and misrepresentation among non-Catholics on the topic of Indulgences may well qualify as the proverbial “understatement of the year.” In this post,  we are going to consider four of these misapprehensions. But first, we need to understand the truth concerning Indulgences. CCC 1471 gives a succinct definition:

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.

An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.

The theology of Indulgences is rooted in four very biblical notions.

1. Sins that are forgiven by God may still require temporal punishment. This is a matter of common sense as well as it is a matter of Public Revelation. For example, if one of my sons were to put a rock through the window of our house, I would forgive him of this transgression as soon as he expresses sorrow. However, in justice, and for my son’s good, I would require him to repay the cost of the damage. This would serve to teach him of the serious nature of his actions as well as the damage that disobedience causes. Moreover, in the process of working to earn the money to pay for what he has done and in giving up some of that hard-earned cash, he will become a more virtuous person.

I use the analogy of my relationship with my sons for a reason. In Scripture, we find that God is revealed to be our Father who disciplines us—his children.

[God, the Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10-11).

The Greek text indicates that this discipline of God, the Father, leads to the fruit of justification (Gr.—dikaiosunes). This suffering imposed by God is part of the very process of justification where the believer is finally made just and worthy of heaven.

King David is perhaps the classic example of just what we are talking about. In II Samuel 11-12, we read the sad tale of how David committed the sins of murder and adultery, but then later acknowledges his sin and repents. In 12:13, the prophet Nathan declares to David:

The Lord has put away your sin, you shall not die.

Notice, David’s sins were forgiven, yet that same prophet also declared:

Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife… Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun… because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die (II Sam. 12:10-14).

This is some pretty severe punishment to be sure, but you’ll notice it is temporal by nature, not eternal.

Later in his life, after having reflected upon all that happened to him, this same King David would write in Psalm 119:71: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes.” The temporal punishment imposed by God upon him, he knew, was for his own growth in virtue—for his own good.

2. The People of God have always been understood in Scripture to be able and responsible to make atonement for the temporal punishment due not only to their own sins, but they can also aid others in this purification process as well. Proverbs 16:6 says, “By loyalty and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for…” That text could hardly be clearer. Moreover, St. Paul says, in Colossians 1:24,

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…

The “iniquity” mentioned as being able to be atoned for cannot be mortal sin. Even one mortal sin against an infinitely holy God requires an infinite expiation. Only the infinitely meritorious sacrifice of Christ can expiate this sin. The implication here is temporal punishment can be atoned for, with God’s help, by our own prayers and sacrifices, or as Proverbs 16:6 said, “by loyalty and faithfulness…”

Colossians 1:24 adds our sufferings as efficacious in remitting punishment due for sins in the lives of others as well. This is an important factor in the doctrine of the Communion of Saints that underlies the Catholic and biblical notion of Indulgences. As members of the body of Christ, we have the power to effect healing in one another when it comes to sins and faults that are not mortal.

I John 5:16-17 explains it this way:

If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.

Notice, St. John says one Christian can ask and God will communicate “life” (Gr.—zo-ay, which refers to the divine life of God communicated to the believer through grace) to the one who sinned as long as the sin was not mortal. This is true because the one who sins mortally would be cut off from the body of Christ and there would be no way to communicate healing directly to the one who sinned mortally.

This really makes sense when we consider the metaphor of the “body” St. Paul uses for the People of God in both I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. If one member of a body, let’s say a hand, is wounded, the rest of the body will immediately and organically affect healing in the wounded part. So it is by analogy with the “Body of Christ.” If one member is wounded the rest of the body can affect healing by virtue of the fact that “the body” is organically linked, so to speak, as members of the same body. St. John says we, as members of Christ, can communicate “life” or healing to the wounded member through our prayers.

But notice, St. John also says if the person commits mortal sin, “I do not say that one is to pray for that.” St. John would hardly be commanding non-prayer in any sense. Jesus tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” in Matt. 5:44. St. Paul tells us to “pray for all men” in I Tim. 2:1. His point is we cannot pray for and directly affect healing in the one who is in mortal sin because he is cut off from the divine life that flows from member to member in the Body of Christ. Of course, we can pray the one cut off from Christ in mortal sin be restored to Christ through the particular grace of repentance.

3. There is nothing in Scripture indicating this communication of divine life between members of the Body of Christ ceases at the end of life on earth. Indeed, if there is need for purification at the time of death, this purification must occur in order for the Christian to attain heaven (see Matt. 5:48; Heb. 12:14). II Maccabees 12:46 is a great example from the Old Testament that this purification can in fact continue in the next life:

Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead that they might be delivered from their sin.

Many Protestants will respond claiming this text is meaningless because they do not accept II Maccabees as Scripture. But really, that is beside the point. Even if one does not accept its canonicity, as an historical document, it provides accurate information about the life and faith of the Jewish people shortly before the advent of Christ, and specifically, that they already believed they could pray for the dead to be forgiven. Or, as II Maccabess 12:39-46 says it,

Judas and his men… turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… [Judas Maccabeus] also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering…

The Jews believed that the sacrificial offerings of members of the People of God could “wholly blot out” the sins of those who had died. This makes all the more significant Jesus words in Matt. 12:32:

And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Not only do we simply have nothing in Scripture that condemns this common practice of ancient Jews—a practice, by the way, that continues to this day in Orthodox Jewish circles—but Jesus himself implies this to be a good and pious practice.

4. The Church, through the ministry of the forgiveness of sins communicated to her by Jesus Christ himself, has the power to remit not only the eternal consequences of sin through the Sacrament of Confession, but also the temporal punishment due for sin through Indulgences. In John 20:21-23, in the plainest of terms, Jesus communicated his power to forgive sins to the apostles:

Jesus said to [the apostles] again, “Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

In Matt. 16:18-19, Jesus promised the authority of the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter as well as the authority to “bind and loose.” Two chapters later, in Matt. 18:18, he promised the power to “bind and loose” to all of the apostles in union with Peter. This authority of “binding and loosing” involves not only a declatory power in defining the faith of Christians, but it also involves restoring the fallen to full communion with God and the Church in the forgiveness of sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares:

(1444) In imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church. This ecclesial dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ’s solemn words to Simon Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” “The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head.”
(1445) The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.

One way to understand the Church’s authority to remit temporal punishment due to sin is via a fortiori argumentation. This is an argument that says, “If X is true, then how much more is Y also true.” Both Jesus and St. Paul use this type of argumentation (see Matt. 6:25-34; Luke 11:13; Romans 5:8-10; 8:31-32; 11:22, etc.).

Thus, if Jesus Christ gave his Church the power to forgive mortal sins and the eternal punishment due to these sins, how much more would that same Church be able to forgive the merely temporal punishments due to sin.

The Misconceptions

1. The Catholic Church teaches (or has taught) Indulgences not only remit sins, but they can remit sins before the fact. And for a price, of course! Thus, this first point really covers two misconceptions: 1) Indulgences remit sins before the sin is committed. 2) You can buy Indulgences.

Several years ago, my wife and I watched a video put out by “New Liberty Videos” called “The Forbidden Book,” a hit-piece targeting the Catholic Church, wherein the narrator presents a document allegedly written by Pope Leo X cataloguing various prices the Roman Pontiff declared one had to pay to the Church for Indulgences so that one could freely sin without guilt! For a price, you could (among other things, I just jotted down a few of them):

• Ravish a Virgin – $2
• Kill a man – $1.75
• If a priest, keep a mistress or concubine – $2.75

Or, how about this one?

• To be absolved of all sins whatsoever – $12.00

What a deal!

Of course, this list is a complete fraud. The folks at www.apologetica.org have several articles in English (it’s a Spanish-language site, but these articles are in English) that do an excellent job in exposing this fraud:

http://www.apologetica.org/site/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=461&Itemid=5)

Unfortunately, these lies are found peppered across the board among anti-Catholic literature. So what is the truth of the matter?

First off, Indulgences do not even remit sins at all; they remit the temporal punishment due for sin. And, of course, this is only so after the sin has been committed and one has been forgiven of the guilt of that sin in Confession!

And just for the record: the Catholic Church does not teach and has never taught that one can “buy” Indulgences.

The confusion here is at least partially rooted in the fact that the Church used to grant what are referred to as “alms-Indulgences.” There is nothing inherently wrong with the practice; in fact, it is very much rooted in the Scriptures inasmuch as almsgiving has always been considered a meritorious and salvific act. It’s mentioned by Jesus himself in Luke 11:41:

But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you.

Jesus is here emphasizing alms must be given out of the right motivation in order to truly be meritorious before God.

In Acts 10:3-4, and 34-35, both the angel Gabriel and St. Peter combine to tell us that Cornelius’ alms were instruments whereby he merited from the Lord:

About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius”… “What is it, Lord?”… “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God…”

(34) And Peter opened his mouth and said: [with regard to Cornelius] “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Thus, almsgiving is still, as a matter of Faith, taught to be meritorious if done with the proper motives. However, there was confusion among some of the Catholic faithful in the late 15th and early 16th centuries with regard to Indulgences in relation to alms. The perception was, among some, that the act was a mere mechanical process. You give this, and you get this (the remission of temporal punishment due for sins), apart from the necessary predispositions that must be present. As a result, Pope St. Pius V eliminated “alms-Indulgences” in 1567. That discipline of the Church remains in force.

But this in no way means the Church once used to “sell” indulgences. That is a non-sequitur.

3. This misconception goes straight back to Martin Luther who, in his notorious “95 Theses,” no. 82, famously asked:

Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there…?

The question itself shows a rather childish understanding of Purgatory and Indulgences. That would be like saying, “If the Church can remit the eternal consequences of sin though the Sacrament of Penance, why doesn’t she just declare everyone in the world to be forgiven?”

The Church cannot do either because there are divinely mandated prerequisites that must be fulfilled before the Church can remit either sins or temporal punishment due for sins that have been forgiven.

In the case of Confession, one has to be sorry for his sins, confess his sins with a firm purpose of amendment to avoid sin in the future, and be absolved by a validly ordained priest, in order to have his sins forgiven.

In the case of Indulgences, one must perform whatever God through his Church prescribes as being necessary to gain an Indulgence. With regard to a plenary Indulgence, he must be detached from all sins both mortal and venial, pray for the intentions of the Pope, make a good Confession, and receive communion within about a week of performing the requirement for the Indulgence. If all of these requirements are not met, he would receive a partial Indulgence, in accord with his disposition at the time he performs the required works. So the Church just can’t say “whammo” and it’s done!

4. There is much confusion over the idea of numbers of “days” with regard to Indulgences. Jimmy Akin clears up the difficulty in his new book, The Drama of Salvation, (p. 74):

… in the past, a certain number of “days” were attached to many indulgences. These were not days off in Purgatory. Instead, they expressed the value of an indulgence by analogizing it to the number of days’ penance one would have done on Earth under the penitential practices of the early Church.

Moderns had lost touch with the ancient system, which made the reckoning of such “days” confusing. The practice was abolished in 1967 in Pope Paul VI’s constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina.

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There is No Salvation Apart From the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church teaches infallibly, “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” or, “outside the Church there is no salvation.” But as with all dogmas of the Faith, this has to be qualified and understood properly. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lays out the truth of the matter succinctly in paragraphs 846-848, but I would recommend backing up to CCC 830 for a context that will help in understanding these three essential points concerning this teaching:

1. There is no salvation apart from Christ and his One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Again, this is an infallible teaching and not up for debate among Catholics.

2. Those who are “invincibly” ignorant concerning the truth of #1 above will not be culpable for this lack of knowledge before God.

3. Those in the category of #2 have the real possibility of salvation even if they never come to an explicit knowledge of Christ and/or his Church.

As we will see below, “invincibly ignorant” does not mean just because a person is “ignorant” of the truth, they will automatically be saved. Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous. There are other criteria beyond being “invincibly ignorant” that must be met as well before one can finally be saved. But it does mean that they have the possibility of salvation.

Now, before we get too far into the weeds here, let me quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 846-48, which—as is so often the case no matter the doctrine with the CCC—presents this teaching clearly and to the point under the heading: “Outside the Church there is no Salvation.”

How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it (CCC here quotes The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “Lumen Gentium,” 14, from the documents of Vatican II).

The Church is very clear here. There is no salvation apart from a salvific union with the Catholic Church. However, the Catechism continues:

This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation” (quoting, Lumen Gentium, 16).

“Although in ways known to himself God can lead those, who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men” (quoting Ad Gentes, 7, another document from Vatican II).

I recommend a careful reading of the texts represented by the footnotes in paragraph 16 of Lumen Gentium (nos. 17 and 18) which reference St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica III q. 8 a. 3 ad 1, and the Instruction of the Holy Office of Dec. 20, 1949 that I will reference below. These make very clear that anyone who is ever saved is not saved by his or her false religious beliefs (i.e. Judaism that rejects Christ, Islam that denies Jesus is the Son of God, etc.); rather, they can be saved in spite of them. If they are ignorant of the truth through no fault of their own (they have never had the opportunity to either hear or understand the truth), then the limited amount of truth that they do have “among shadows and images,” and “all goodness and truth found in these religions [serve] as ‘a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life’ (CCC 843).”

A Catholic Contradiction?

Perhaps the one paragraph in the CCC used more than any other to “prove” Catholics contradict themselves with regard to this the doctrine “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” is paragraph 841, which is given to us under the heading: “The Church’s Relationship with the Muslims”:

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.

“See? Here the Church says Muslims can be saved. What up with that?”

Well, this has to be understood in the context of what the Catechism says elsewhere, and as I quoted it above: Those Muslims (and as we will see in more detail, anyone of any religion, or even the non-religious could be included here) who are not responsible for their ignorance of the Catholic Faith can indeed be saved.

Now, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, CCC 841 is not saying “anyone who is a good Joe will go to heaven.” A Jewish person will not make it to heaven by being a good Jew, or a Muslim by being a good Muslim, a Protestant by being a good Protestant, etc. In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no man can come to the Father except by me.” He seems to be quite plain in this text that he is essential to the equation. And not only is Christ essential to the equation, but also Christ speaking through his Church. “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). The Church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). The Church is Christ in the world. It is almighty God who willed “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” (Ephesians 3:10). To reject the Church is to reject Christ because it was Christ who gave authority to the Church and declared:

If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. 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” (Matt. 18:17-18).

In a nutshell, you cannot separate rejecting the Church with rejecting Christ according to Scripture and the teaching of the Catholic Church. In other words, one cannot just create his own religion and follow the “Jesus” of his own creation and choosing without there being eternal consequences.

Breaking it Down

As an apologist, I find the real issue here among those who reject this teaching to be a conceptual disconnect between the dogma—extra ecclesiam nulla salus—and the idea that some people who are not formally Catholic can be saved. And this is understandable. One way I have found some success in helping folks to bridge this divide is to note what I mentioned in brief before, i.e., the Church teaches the possibility of salvation for people who do not have what we call a formal relationship with the Church, i.e., they are not on the registry at a local Catholic parish, yet they do indeed have a salvific relationship with the Church.

So then, the question is: “What does this mean?”

To get a clear picture, let’s begin with the necessity of salvation in Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of St. John, and in the very next chapter after Jesus makes his famous statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6), which I quoted above, this same Jesus also said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22; see also John 9:41). Jesus presents a very important principle here. A person is not responsible for what they could not have known. The implication is it is possible to have a salvific link with Christ without knowing him formally. If this is so, and it is, according to Scripture, then it stands to reason that in the same way, one can have a salvific relationship with the Church without knowing the truth that the Church is the fullness of Christ on this earth (see also the case of Cornelius the centurion in Acts 10:1-4, 34-35).

What I mean by a “formal relationship” with the Church is that a person has been formally baptized into Christ and has made a profession of faith in the one, true faith of the Catholic Church (assuming he has reached the age of accountability). However, a person can possibly have a salvific link with Christ and his Church in various ways some of which are known to God alone. This can be via the valid sacraments they may have, e.g., all seven with the Orthodox, or two with Protestants (baptism and matrimony). Or, it may be via what the Council fathers called “the images and shadows” of truth that the various world religions possess. Indeed, even “those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to lead a good life” will not be denied by Divine Providence what the Council fathers called “the helps necessary for salvation” (Lumen Gentium,16).

Thus, the Council fathers are here unequivocal on the possibility of salvation for the invincibly ignorant, but we must also note they balance this message with a stern warning:

But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

With St. Paul, we leave the judging of who is invincibly ignorant and who is not to God (I Cor. 4:3-6). We evangelize everyone!

So Why Preach the Gospel at All?

In some quarters the possibility of salvation for those who are not formally Catholic has been taken to such an extreme that it has led to a religious indifferentism—one religion, even Catholicism, is no better than another—that is condemned by the Church. This is extremely dangerous for the salvation of souls.

Now, James 1:17 assures us: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Truth is truth anywhere it is found and, ultimately, Jesus Christ is the truth. So, if folks outside of the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church are truly seeking the truth and have not rejected the fullness of the truth found only in the Catholic Church, they can be saved by cooperating with the grace and truth they have where they are. However, Lumen Gentium 14 also emphasizes the fact that the truth of the Catholic Faith is not simply a nice option. It is binding on those who see its veracity. “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it, or to remain in it.”

Moreover, I must emphasize again, because someone is “invincibly ignorant” of the truth, this does not mean they will be saved. It means they have the possibility of salvation. Perhaps Pope Pius XII explains best the necessary balance between membership in the Church Jesus established and the possibility of salvation to those who are not formal members in his Encyclical of June 29, 1943, Mystici Corporis:

Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed. “For in one spirit” says the Apostle, “were we all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free.” As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith. And therefore, if a man refuse to hear the [Catholic] Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican (22).

Simple.

But his Holiness then goes on to say that others outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church can be “related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by a certain unconscious yearning and desire” (para. 103). He makes clear that these can be saved, but “they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church,” and are, unfortunately, in a “state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation.”

The bottom line is: the straight and narrow road that leads to heaven is not an easy road to begin with, even for those gifted with the fullness of truth found in the Catholic Church alone (see Matt. 7:13; I Peter 4:18). But without the Church and sacraments Christ has provided as the ordinary means for our sanctification, it is even more difficult. In fact, beyond the obvious advantages for the overcoming of the “sin which does so easily beset us” that Catholics enjoy in the sacraments, the Church has also taught there must be three things present in order for salvation to be possible for those who are not in a formal relationship with the Church. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a letter of August 8, 1949, by direction of Pope Pius XII, said in this regard:

But it must not be thought that any kind of desire of entering the Church suffices that one may be saved. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be animated by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire produce its effect, unless a person has supernatural faith: “For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrew 11:6).

One can never know if he has attained to “perfect charity” in this life. That is a high standard. It is possible to be sure, but it is a high standard. This should make very clear that we must evangelize everyone so that they can have the certainty of hope that only comes to us fully via the sacraments and union with the Church Jesus founded, the Catholic Church.

In Summary:

There are six key points that I believe we need to remember here:

1. No one who knowingly and deliberately rejects the truth will be saved. It doesn’t matter how good of a Muslim, Jew, Baptist, or anything else he may be. If anyone rejects the truth of Christ and his Church—even one definitive teaching—they will be lost.

2. Religions that have as tenants of their respective faiths the rejection of Jesus and his Church have no power to save anyone. It is “the truth that makes us free” (cf. John 8:32), not falsehood.

3. In the case of one who is ignorant of the truth of the Catholic Faith, “through no fault of [his] own,” he can be saved, if he is truly “invincibly ignorant, [is] given the supernatural virtue of faith and [has] perfect charity in [his heart]” (cf. Instruction of Holy Office of Dec. 20, 1949).

4. We must remember that we are not the judges of salvation. God is the sole and final judge. We do not know who is truly “invincibly ignorant” and who is not. Therefore, we must be careful to “evangelize all men” as the Catechism commands us and leave the judging to God.

5. “Whatever good or truth is found amongst [other world religions] is considered by the Church to be ‘a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life’” (Lumen Gentium 16). And if they seek the true God given the light they have received, they have the possibility of salvation.

6. This does not mean they are not in need of the Eucharist! Without the grace that comes from the sacraments, one is at a decided disadvantage to get to heaven. And if one has rejected the truth, then there is no way he can merit heaven apart from repentance and the acceptance of the truth. The Church makes very clear: “The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God” (CCC 1445).

If anyone makes it to heaven apart from what the Church refers to as “the ordinary means of sanctification that comes through the sacraments,” or a “formal union with the Church,” they will only do so through a salvific link with the Church that comes via extraordinary means.

Some Final Questions:

I often get two very poignant questions that will most often come from people who have a profound personal interest in the answer. That “personal interest” is usually rooted in their having had loved ones leave the true Faith.

1. “What about Catholics who have left the Faith? Are they okay, or are they lost?”

Anyone who knowingly and deliberately rejects the Church will be lost, as I said above. So it would be the height of presumption to say that someone who has left the Faith “is okay.” Now, it may well be that a person who left the Faith may have had such a distorted notion of what the Church truly is and what she teaches that there may not be culpability. Again, we don’t know. However, it may well be that they are culpable. And no amount of “church” attendance or prayer apart from the Church Jesus established, the Catholic Church, will get them to heaven if that is the case. One might even “deliver [one’s] body to be burned” (I Cor. 13:3), but it will “profit nothing” apart from union with Christ and his Church because it is only the divine life and charity of Christ in us that can save us. So we must take extremely serious anyone who has left the faith or anyone who is not in union with the Church because objectively speaking, (barring invincible ignorance, etc.) souls are on the line!   2. “What about the question of those who are in the process of converting to the Catholic Faith? If only the sacraments can take away the sins of those who are fully aware of their efficacy, what about these?”

The Council of Trent declared that either the actual sacraments or a “desire thereof” is sufficient to take away sins. In Session Seven, “On the Sacraments in General,” canon 4, the Council declared:

If any one saith that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification;-though all (the sacraments) are not indeed necessary for every individual; let him be anathema.

Similarly, the Council of Trent declared, specifically concerning baptism, in Session Six, Chapter 4:

By which words, a description of the Justification of the impious is indicated,-as being a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior. And this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.

And with regard to the Sacrament of Confession, in Chapter 14 of that same Session Six, the Council declared:

Whence it is to be taught, that the penitence of a Christian, after his fall, is very different from that at (his) baptism; and that therein are included not only a cessation from sins, and a detestation thereof, or, a contrite and humble heart, but also the sacramental confession of the said sins,-at least in desire, and to be made in its season,-and sacerdotal absolution; and likewise satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers, and the other pious exercises of a spiritual life; not indeed for the eternal punishment,-which is, together with the guilt, remitted, either by the sacrament, or by the desire of the sacrament…

Thus, the desire for the Sacraments of catechumens suffices until such a time as they can actually receive them.

Are There Ministerial Priests in the New Covenant?

I can’t recount how many times I have been told by various brands of non-Catholics, “The Bible clearly teaches that we only have one priest and that is Jesus Christ, so how can Catholics claim a New Testament priesthood?”

The biblical texts usually begin with Heb. 7:22-25:

This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (emphasis added).

The argument goes like this:

1. Jesus is our one intercessor. A synonym for intercessor is mediator.

2. The definition of a priest is a mediator between God and men.

3. Most importantly, I Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Therefore, there can be no New Testament “priesthood” as we see in the Catholic Church. The New Testament, it is said, rejects this notion.

These texts are often followed by I Peter 2:5-9, which tells us:

… like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…

“We are all priests in the New Testament,” is quite often the refrain.

Stating the Obvious

It is almost painful to point out the obvious contradiction here that often comes from the same person and in the same conversation. How can someone claim there can only be “one priest” in the New Covenant based on Heb. 7:22-25 and I Tim. 2:5, Jesus Christ, but then turn right around and claim “all Christians are priests?”

Houston, we have a problem.

The answer is simple. Often, these folks have never been challenged to think about what it is they are actually saying. The fact is, it is not a contradiction to say Christ is our one, unique priest/mediator/intercessor, and yet see Christians playing the role of priest/mediator/intercessor in the New Testament because: 1. That is what the Bible says. 2. Each Christian acts as members of Christ’s body; thus, each is Jesus Christ extended into this world by the power and direction of Christ.

Understanding the Obvious

The key to understanding what is obviously and clearly stated in Scripture is to understand the nature of the body of Christ. Christians do not usurp or diminish the priesthood of Christ when they are referred to as priests; they participate in that unique priesthood. So intimate is the union of the baptized with Christ that St. Paul describes this mystical union as a body (cf. I Cor. 12:12-27, Rom. 12:5) with Christ as its head (cf. Eph. 1:22-23). What can be attributed to a hand in the body does not somehow take away from the head or the body as a whole.

It is obvious Heb. 7:22-25 and I Tim. 2:5 are not saying Christians cannot act as mediators or intercessors in any sense. In I Tim. 2:1-4, St. Paul says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions… This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who desires all men to be saved…”

Then, in I Tim. 5:7, St. Paul goes on to say, “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle.” What is an apostle but “one sent” with the authority of the one who sent him. That is a mediator, folks!

The text urges Christians to act as mediators or intercessors for the salvation of souls because Christ is the one mediator of salvation to the world. And for this reason, St. Paul was sent to act as a mediator of Christ’s love to the world (in particular, to the gentiles).

The bottom line here: We must understand that Christians—and St. Paul—can only accomplish this because they are in the one true mediator and act as members of his body.

But What About Ministerial Priests?

After admitting the truth of the above, the next question is normally worded something like this:

Even if we were to accept the notion of Christians being priests as you say, and accept your interpretation of I Tim. 2:5 and Heb. 7:22-25, this in no way shows that there is a distinct ordained priesthood. I Pet. 2 teaches all Christians are priests. And, in fact, the ordained ministers of the New Covenant are called apostles (cf. Eph. 4:11), presbyters (cf. Js. 5:14), and bishops (cf. Acts 1:20, I Tim. 3:1). They are not called priests, which is hiereus in Greek.

Well, one thing is clear. We’ve made progress. We now know it is possible to have priests within the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. And this is not a contradiction when the priests are understood as participating in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. Now we must prove the existence of a specially called out and ordained priesthood—a ministerial priesthood—within the universal priesthood.

We Will Do So in Three Points

1. I Peter 2:5-9, which speak of a universal priesthood, refers back to Ex. 19:6: “… and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The Scripture here indicates a universal priesthood in the Old Covenant. And yet, in that same Ex. 19, and verse 22, we read, “And also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves….” There was already a universal priesthood in existence in the Old Covenant, but this did not mean there could not be a distinct ministerial priesthood as well. So it is in the New Covenant.

2. As far as the term “priest” is concerned: it is not surprising that the Christians of the first century would not use the term “priest” (Gr. hiereus) in describing their ministers. This was the same term being used by the more numerous Jewish (cf. Lk. 1:8-9) and even pagan (cf. Acts 14:13) priests. Christians most likely used language to distinguish their priests from the Jewish and pagan priests of their day.

3. One of the largest obstacles for many to accepting a New Testament priesthood is the idea of needing any mediation whatsoever in the New Covenant. “Isn’t this the whole point of the New Covenant?” they will ask. “We don’t have to go to a mediator on earth anymore. We can go directly to God through Christ.”

In one sense, this is true. We can go directly to God through Jesus Christ in offering our prayers and sacrifices in union with Him. But this is not an either/or proposition. We do not either go to God or go to his representatives on this earth when we have needs. The Catholic Church, and the Bible I might add, says we do both. For example, Phil. 4:6-7 says:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Here we see St. Paul encouraging all Christians to exercise their universal, “royal priesthood” before God. However, analogous to what we saw in the Old Testament, we also have a special group of men called by Christ to a specific priestly ministry within the body of Christ in the New Testament. In fact, each of the three ministers I mentioned above—apostles, presbyters (or “elders”), and bishops—is clearly presented as priestly in nature in the New Testament.

Apostles

In Scripture, we see our Lord definitively choosing and sending apostles to act as mediators between God and men (in Christ, of course). This, again, is the definition of a priest. For example, after the resurrection, our Lord appears to the apostles in the upper room and says to them:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I 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, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:21-23).

Here, Jesus communicates the power to forgive and retain sins to the apostles. This is clearly a priestly ministry (see also Lev. 19:21-22). In II Cor. 2:10, St. Paul says to the Corinthians:

…if I have pardoned anything for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ (Douay Rheims).

St. Paul evidently heard confessions in Corinth carrying out this priestly commission of the apostle.

Jesus not only gives the authority to forgive sins to the apostles, but he gives them divine, infallible authority to proclaim the gospel as well. “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt. 10:40). In II Cor. 2:17 we see St. Paul carrying out this priestly ministry. “For we are not as many, adulterating the word of God; but with sincerity, as from God, before God, in Christ we speak” (Douay Rheims).

Or, in II Cor. 5:18:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.

If Jesus Christ is a priest–and he is–then so are the apostles.

Bishops (Gr. episkopoi)

According to Scripture and Tradition, bishops are successors of the apostles. In Acts 1:20, for example, when the apostles were choosing a replacement for Judas, the text reads, “… And his bishopric (Gr. episkopee) let another man take.” Thus, the “bishopric,” by nature, carries on the apostolic ministry in their same priestly function.

Presbyters, or “Elders” (Gr. presbyteroi)

These too are most definitely seen as priests. James 5:14 puts it quite plainly:

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders (Gr. presbyteroi) of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

Notice, the Scripture does not say we should go to just anyone if we’re sick because we are all priests. It singles out the presbyters and once again they are seen acting as mediators in the forgiveness of sins and healing.

St. Paul tells us the presbyter has been given the ministry of reconciliation just as the apostles and bishops, in II Cor. 5:20:

So we are ambassadors (Gr. presbeuomen) for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

A Priestly Bias

I know from my own experience as a former Protestant that the word “priest” brought with it all sorts of anti-Catholic bias in my mind. What I came to discover, however, is New Testament ministers are, in fact, priests, even though the noun is not found referring to them. Whether you call these New Covenant ministers apostles, bishops, or presbyters, their function is clearly priestly. A great example of this can be found in how St. Paul refers to his own apostolic ministry as a “priestly service.”

… because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God… (Romans 15:15b-16a)

I think people can easily fall into the same trap of those who would reject the Trinity because the word “Trinity” is not found in Scripture. The reality of the Trinity is there. The Church uses this word to define the mystery of three divine persons existing in one essence, or nature. So it is with the priesthood. The noun, hiereus, is not there. But the fact that apostles, bishops, and elders function as priests is very clear.

Denying the Obvious

Attempts to deny the priestly character of the above-mentioned texts are always, shall we say, interesting. One example of this is found in the attempt to interpret away Jesus’ clear words imparting the power to forgive sins to the apostles in John 20:21-23. Many will claim, “The perfect tense, passive voice, of the verb ‘to forgive’ makes clear that when Jesus said, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven,’ it actually means whoever sins you forgive have already been forgiven. Not through any instrumentality of the apostle, but by God.”

While it is true perfect passive forms of the verbs both “to forgive” and “to retain” are employed in the text, this same text plainly tells us when the sins were “already forgiven.” When “you” (the apostles) forgive them!

The Catholic Church is not saying the apostles are doing this by some magical powers or by their own power. Jesus “breathed on them” and gave them the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins. But the fact is the apostles are the revealed instruments of God’s forgiveness. If this is not a priest, then what is a priest?

There are many more texts of Scripture we could use to demonstrate a New Covenant ministerial priesthood. But I suppose I could sum it up with the old saying, “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck… it’s a duck.”

When we examine the New Testament and particularly the function of its ministers… if they talk like priests, forgive sins like priests, mediate grace like priests…

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The Trouble With Calvin – Pt. 5

The reformed “Westminster Confession,” ratified in 1647, gives us a pithy statement that sums up well what is meant by “the perseverance of the saints,” or “once saved, always saved,” the fifth and final of the five points of Calvinism’s TULIP (the “P” stands for “perseverance”):

God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified, and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure; and in that condition they have not usually the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance (Westminster Confession, Ch. XI, “Of Justification,” Paragraph V).

Here we have to do some mental gymnastics to understand Calvinism. The confession above states that true believers can never fall from the state of justification. Yet, it also says their sins need to be forgiven or else they can “fall under God’s fatherly displeasure.” But they would still go to heaven even if they die in this state of “God’s fatherly displeasure.” So, are the sins already forgiven… before they are forgiven again when they are confessed? Or, are they really “forgiven” when they are confessed? The answer is “yes…and, no.” James White, a Calvinist apologist writes:

This remission of all sins is not limited to past sins only, but to all sins, past, present, and future…The problem with accepting this fact is easy to see: how can we speak of sins being forgiven when they haven’t even been committed as yet? And why do we read that we as believers are to confess our sins? Yet, on the other hand, it seems far more difficult to understand how Christ’s death is insufficient to bring about full pardon of all sins, but has to be “re-applied” repeatedly (White, The God Who Justifies: A Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of Justification, p. 98-99).

I don’t find it hard in the least to understand how Christ’s sacrifice as to be “re-applied” to our lives “repeatedly.” This doesn’t mean it is “insufficient” to take away sins. Let’s take a look at this:

First of all, it is quite easy to understand the biblical teaching found in I John 2:2: “[Jesus Christ] is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also the sins of the whole world.” This means Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to take away all sins. Catholics understand this and have taught it for 2,000 years. But what White and Calvinists in general do not understand is the blood must be applied to our lives repeatedly through faith and obedience to the word of God. I John 1:7-9 says:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

For the life of me, I cannot understand what part of this is so hard to understand. According to St. John, the fact that the blood of Christ must indeed be “re-applied” to our lives “again and again” does not mean it is “insufficient.” It simply means that the objectively all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ must be applied subjectively to each of the faithful through their willing cooperation.

Among the errors we could consider at this point, perhaps the central misstep is found in Mr. White’s assertion that all sins are forgiven, “past, present and future.” Not only does the Bible never teach this, but on the very next page of Mr. White’s book, he quotes the famous Calvinist theologian, Charles Hodge, who says:

So that it would perhaps be a more correct statement to say that in justification the believer receives the promise that God will not deal with him according to his transgressions, rather than to say that sins are forgiven before they are committed (The God Who Justifies, p. 100).

So which is it? Are all sins forgiven, or are they just “not dealt with?” And this is not to mention that either of these two scenarios still have to deal with I John 1:8-9: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Why do our sins have to be forgiven if they have already been forgiven?

The Calvinist must explain that the forgiveness is not really forgiveness in relation to eternity before God, but only in relation to temporal benefits. God, in one sense, has already forgiven them. But in another sense… Or, perhaps St. John uses the word “forgive,” but he really means, “will not deal with…”

Huh?

The confusion and desperate attempt to circumvent the plain words of Scripture all stem from the presupposition of “once saved, always saved.” Our recommendation is to do away with the human tradition of “the perseverance of the saints,” and then you can just believe I John 1:8-9 as it is written.

For the Catholic it’s simple. We believe that we must confess our sins in order to be forgiven of them as the Bible says. Period. And if we do not confess our sins (or desire to do so), then we will not be forgiven. Period.

CLEARING UP THE DIFFICULTY

There are two crucial texts that we must deal with briefly to understand this notion of “once saved, always saved:” Romans 4:8 and I John 5:13. These are not the only two, but they are perhaps the most important.

1. Romans 4:7-8 – “Blessed are those who iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”

In Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 3, chapter 11, John Calvin begins his section on “Justification by Faith.” One of the first texts he uses (in paragraph 4) is the above-cited section of Romans. Charles Hodge, quoted above, was referring to this text as well when he claimed that God “will not deal with [the justified] according to his [future] transgressions.” So, then, according to Hodge, the “forgiveness” of I John 1:9, is not really “forgiveness.” It is really meaning that God just doesn’t deal with the Christian’s sins? Really? Is this what St. John is saying? I can’t believe a thinking person could say this. But is this what St. Paul is saying in Romans 4? If, for example, a man who is justified commits adultery, he is as just after committing this sin as he was before? According to Calvin and true Calvinists, yes he is!

At the risk of sounding redundant, I must say here we have another human tradition that nullifies the word of God. Romans chapter 4 says nothing of what Calvin taught. If you look at the text that St. Paul quoted in Romans 4:7-8, you find that he quotes Psalm 32:1-2. David wrote this Psalm in the context of his confession of his sins of murder and adultery. The reason God would not reckon David’s sins against him was because David had confessed his sin and had been forgiven! Psalm 32:5 says:

I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.

This text does not even come close to saying that sins David’s sins were forgiven (or they are not reckoned as sin) before they were confessed! According to the inspired author, David “acknowledged [his] sin,” and “then [God forgave] the guilt of [his] sin.”

St. Paul makes very clear to Christians in Ephesians 5:3-7, that God will not simply “not deal with” their sins:

But immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not associate with them (emphasis added).

St. Paul here eliminates any possibility of getting around the fact that if believers commit these sins and do not repent, they will not go to heaven. The human tradition of Calvin (and Luther, I might add) attempt to thwart the plain words of sacred Scripture, but for those who love God and his word, these are empty words of deception. They are hollow and lifeless. St. Thomas Aquinas quite prophetically preempted Calvin’s “once saved, always saved” deception, when he said of the above text:

Notice that only in reference to carnal vices does he teach them to avoid being deceived. For from the beginning men have rationalized to find reasons why fornication and other venereal sins were not really sins so that they might indulge their cupidity without restraint. Hence he states vain words since words that claim these are not sins and do not exclude one from the kingdom of God and of Christ are irrational. “Beware lest any man cheat you by prophecy and vain deceit” (Col. 2:8).

According to John Calvin, and the Westminster Confession, these sins that St. Paul says will exclude someone from the kingdom of heaven will not do so if that someone is a Christian. That is why, again, according to the Westminster Confession, these sins will only bring about God’s “fatherly displeasure” in a temporal sense. The fornicator (by that I mean the Christian who falls and commits the sin of fornication) who is a Christian is just as “saved” as the saint in heaven.

Now, I know the Calvinist will say of the one who falls into an adulterous affair, “He was never saved to begin with.” But I find it interesting that so often the “other guy” who falls “was probably never saved to begin with,” but when the Calvinist you are talking to falls, he is just under “God’s fatherly displeasure.” Heaven? Oh, that’s been take care of.

This is a good segue to:

2. I John 5:13 – “These things I write to you, that you may know you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God” (emphasis added).

Rooted in this text and others, the Westminster Confession claims that believers can have:

An infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God (Westminster Confession, Chapter XVIII, ”Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation,” Para. 2).

The fact is: one cannot have infallible certainty without an infallible teacher. None of the authors of the Calvinist creeds—or Calvin himself—ever even claimed the charism of infallibility. A thinking person would then have a real problem with the Calvinist use of the term “infallible” in the first place. The truth of this supposed “certainty” would be closer to the “burning in the bosom” of a Mormon, then true “infallible” certainty. But what about I John 5:13 and the claim that we may know that we have eternal life?

The Greek word for knowledge (from the root – “oida”) in I John 5:13 does not necessarily mean an absolute certainty is being expressed. We use the verb “to know” similarly in English. For example, I may say I know I am going to get an A on my Greek exam tomorrow. Does that mean I have metaphysical certainty of this? No! I may in fact get a B or worse. Ever freeze up during an exam? What I mean and what the verb “to know” can be used to mean is that I have confident assurance that I will get an A on my test tomorrow because I have studied the material thoroughly and I know it very well.

The context of I John makes it abundantly clear that this is how oida is being used in I John 5:13. In the very next verses (14-15), St. John says:

And we have this confidence in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us, and if he hears us we know (again, a derivative of oida) that what we have asked him for is ours.

Do we have absolute certainty that we will receive everything we ask of the Lord? No, we do not. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” I John 3:22 says, “And whatsoever we ask, we shall receive of him: because we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” We cannot be absolutely certain that we have not “cherished iniquity” in our hearts or that we have not done a thing or two that has displeased the Lord. But most importantly, we must acknowledge that God is sovereign. In the end, we must trust God as his children. We must trust that he will grant what is best for us. Sometimes what we just know is best for us just isn’t. Or, as the unrighteous discover at the last judgment, according to Matthew 25:41-46, what they just knew was just for them actually was not. ”Lord, when…?” A humbling and sobering thought to be sure! We must remember that God is our judge, not us!

“IF”—JUST TWO LETTERS BUT ONE LARGE WORD!

St. Augustine wrote, some 1,600 years ago:

In that one [Adam], as the apostles says, all have sinned. Let, then, the damnable source be rebuked, that from the mortification of rebuke may spring the will of regeneration,—if, indeed, he who is rebuked is a child of promise,—in order that, by the noise of the rebuke sounding and lashing from without…God may by His hidden inspiration work in him from within to will also. If, however, being already regenerate and justified, he relapses of his own will into an evil life, assuredly he cannot say, “I have not received,” because of his own free choice to evil he has lost the grace of God that he had received (St. Augustine of Hippo, On Rebuke and Grace, Ch. 9).

The word “if” is the biggest little word in human discourse. St. John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity” (emphasis added). Notice, St. John includes himself in that “we!” What happens if we do not confess our sins? Or, if we are not sorry for them? Will God forgive them anyway? Not according to Scripture. Unrepented sin will not be forgiven (see Matt. 5:14; Matt. 12:31-32; I John 1:9, etc.), and the Bible is very clear that no sin can enter into heaven (see Hab. 1:13; Rev. 21:8-9, 27).

St. John goes on to say, “As for you, let that which you have heard from the beginning abide in you. If that abide in you, which you have heard from the beginning, you also shall abide in the Son, and in the Father” (I John 2:24, emphasis added). Can we choose not “to abide” in him? Yes! St. John tells us that “whosoever abides in him, sins not; and whoever sins, has not seen him, nor known him. Little children, let no man deceive you. He that does justice is just, even as he is just. He that commits sin is of the devil…Who ever is born of God, commits not sin…”(I John 3:6-9, emphasis added)

This text seems strange on the surface. St. John has already said that everyone who is born of God does sin in I John 1:1-8. We all sin, including St. John! Yet, now he says whoever is born of God does not sin? Is St. John contradicting himself? No! St. John makes a distinction between mortal and venial sins in this same epistle. In I John 5:16-17, John gives us definitions of both mortal (he calls them “sins unto death”) and venial sins (“sins not unto death”). The one who is born of God does not commit mortal sin. If he does, he is “cut off” from the body of Christ and needs to be restored via confession to fellowship with God (see Romans 11:22; Gal. 5:4, II Peter 2:20-22).

We are not talking about a few isolated examples of our salvation being contingent upon our actions. There are “if” and various other forms of contingency clauses all over the New Testament used in the context of our salvation. Colossians 1:22-23:

And you, whereas you were…enemies…now he has reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unspotted, and blameless before him: If you continue in the faith, grounded and settled and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard.

I Cor. 15:1-2:

Now I make known unto you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you have received, and wherein you stand; By which you are saved, if you hold fast after what manner I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain.

BUT DID THEY REALLY KNOW HIM?

In the discussion of the perseverance of the saints it is inevitable: The point will eventually be made that whenever the Scripture talks about people falling away from grace and from God, the people “falling away” never really knew him to start with! Let’s take a look at two texts that are usually used in this regard.

1. I John 2:19—“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.”

“You see? If they were truly Christians, ‘born again,’ and if they really knew Jesus, they would endure until the end. God will not allow anything else.”

Is that what this text says? Absolutely not! St. John is simply saying that folks who leave the Church bodily, have already left in their hearts long before they actually depart. The text does not say anything about whether or not these people ever knew the Lord. It says that at the time they left, they were not true and obedient believers.

2. Matthew 7:21-23—“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’”

“You see? Jesus plainly says; he never knew them! They were never Christians to begin with!”

I believe it was C.S. Lewis who once said that Christ here was saying he never knew the people that these had become, not that he ever knew them at all. This is analogous to a woman who leaves her husband after years of marriage and says, “I never knew you!” It is not that she never loved her husband nor is she saying she never had an intimate relationship with her husband. She does not know the man with whom she is parting ways. This is certainly a valid interpretation of this text.

However, my take on this text is different. I like to point out here that Jesus said many people. He did not say all people. There will be “many people” who will be lost who never even heard of Jesus at all, or those who were indifferent to Christ and certainly never “prophesied in [his] name,”  or, “cast out demons in [his] name.” For the Calvinist, this text at very best only tells us that some people who parade around and proclaim the name of Christ are not true and obedient believers.

The bottom line is this: the Scriptures may well indicate that many who will be lost will have never known the Lord. That is to be expected. But Scripture also indicates to us that there are at least some who will have known Christ and then fall away from him. II Peter 2:20-22 is an example of this:

For if, flying from the pollutions of the world, through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they be again entangled in them and overcome: their latter state is become worse than the former…For, that of the true proverb has happened to them: The dog is returned to his vomit: and, the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire.

This text hardly needs comment. The Greek word here for knowledge is epignosei. As Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines it: “… an opinion can be correct [or possess the aleitheia, or “truth”], but only the ginoskon has the certainty that he grasps the aleitheia” (truth). Moreover, “It relates to the knowledge acquired in experiences both good and bad” (Vol. 1, p. 690.).

A literal translation of the word, epignosei,  in this text would be “a thorough, experiential knowledge.” And when we consider the persons in the text have “escaped (Greek: apophugontes) the pollutions of the world” (Greek: tou kosmou) through this “thorough, experiential knowledge” of Jesus, we would have to conclude that only a personal relationship with the Lord could have the effect that is being described. Knowing about Jesus doesn’t cut it. And note the image Peter uses in verse 22: the sow that had been washed in water. Water is the symbol St. Peter uses for baptism in I Peter 3:20-21. The connection seems obvious. The sow, or female pig, which was cleansed represents the person cleansed from sin; the sow returns to the mud as the penitent may return to her sin later in life. Her “last state has become worse… than the first” (II Peter 2:20).

Moreover, when we back up in the text to II Peter 1:2-4 to establish an even better context for II Peter 2:20-22, we note how Peter begins his epistle with a description of believers:

Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge (the Greek word is epignosei, the same word used in 2:20) of God, and of Jesus our Lord…that…ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped (the Greek word for having escaped is apophugontes, the same word used in 2:20) the corruption that is in the world (Greek: en to kosmo, the same word used in a different form in 2:20) through lust.

The same words used to describe what Christians have been freed from in chapter 1 are used to describe the person in chapter 2 just before he goes back to his old state and ends worse than he was before he ever knew Jesus. I don’t see how St. Peter could be any clearer on this point.

The truth is: St. Peter knew nothing of “once saved, always saved.”

The Bible Really is Clear

There are literally scores of biblical texts we could use to demonstrate the fallacy of “the perseverance of the saints,” or “once saved, always saved.” We don’t have that kind of space here. But here are a smattering of texts.

1. In Matthew 6:15 Jesus tells us that “if you do not forgive men, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your offenses.” I don’t care how “born-again” you are or how many experiences you may have had, if you don’t forgive others, you will not be forgiven according to the text. And remember, no sin can enter into heaven (see Rev. 21:27 and Hab. 1:13), as we said above.

2. Galatians 5:4 says Christians can “fall from grace.” You have to be in a state of grace in order to “fall from it.”

3. In John 15:1-6 Jesus uses the metaphors of a vine and branches for himself (the vine) and Christians (the branches). And yet, he would then say if a Christian “does not abide” in the vine, he will be “cast forth as a branch… gathered, [and] thrown into the fire” (vs. 6).

4. Romans 11:18-22 tells us we can be “cut off” from Christ and be lost. Verse 22 says:

Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.

5. Rev. 22:18-19 warns us that God can “take away [our] share in the tree of life (eternal life) and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

6. The sacred text assures us over and over again that if we commit certain sins and we do not repent of them, we will not go to heaven (see Matt. 5:44-45; 10:32-33; Eph. 5:3-5; I Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; Rev. 21:6-8). It makes no sense, if we are justified by faith alone, that what we do would be so plainly said to be the cause of eternal damnation.

7. Heb. 12:14-16 tells us we can “sell [our] birthright,” or our “inheritance” in the image of Esau. Romans 8:14-17 teaches our “inheritance” to be eternal life.

When it comes to believing in the T-U-L-I-P of the Calvinists, the question is ultimately simple: Are we going to believe the tradition of Calvin or are we going to believe the Scriptures. You can’t have it both ways.

Purgatory is in the Bible

This may well be the most common single question I receive concerning our Catholic Faith whether it be at conferences, via email, snail mail, or any other venue. In fact, I’ve answered it twice today already, so I thought I might just blog about it.

We’ll begin by making clear just what we mean by “Purgatory.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

All who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven (1030).

This seems so simple. Its common sense. Scripture is very clear when it says, “But nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]” (Rev. 21:27). Hab. 1:13 says, “You [God]… are of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look on wrong…” How many of us will be perfectly sanctified at the time of our deaths? I dare say most of us will be in need of further purification in order to enter the gates of heaven after we die, if, please God, we die in a state of grace.

In light of this, the truth about Purgatory is almost self-evident to Catholics. However, to many Protestants this is one of the most repugnant of all Catholic teachings. It represents “a medieval invention nowhere to be found in the Bible.” It’s often called “a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice.” It is said to represent “a second-chance theology that is abominable.” And most often the inquiries come from Catholics who are asking for help to explain Purgatory to a friend, family member, or co-worker.

A Very Good Place to Start

Perhaps the best place to start is with the most overt reference to a “Purgatory” of sorts in the Old Testament. I say a “Purgatory of sorts” because Purgatory is a teaching fully revealed in the New Testament and defined by the Catholic Church. The Old Testament people of God would not have called it “Purgatory,” but they did clearly believe that the sins of the dead could be atoned for by the living as I will now prove. This is a constitutive element of what Catholics call “Purgatory.”

In II Maccabees 12:39-46, we discover Judas Maccabeus and members of his Jewish military forces collecting the bodies of some fallen comrades who had been killed in battle. When they discovered these men were carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear” (vs. 40), Judas and his companions discerned they had died as a punishment for sin. Therefore, Judas and his men,

“… turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… He also took up a collection… and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably… Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”

There are usually two immediate objections to the use of this text when talking with Protestants. First, they will dismiss any evidence presented in II Maccabees because they do not accept its inspiration. And second, they will claim these men in Maccabees committed the sin of idolatry, which would be a mortal sin in Catholic theology. According to the Catholic Church, they would be in Hell where there is no possibility of atonement. Thus, and ironically so, they will say, Purgatory must be eliminated as a possible interpretation of this text if you’re Catholic.

The Catholic Response:

Rejecting the inspiration and canonicity of II Maccabees does not negate its historical value. Maccabees aids us in knowing, purely from an historical perspective at the very least, the Jews believed in praying and making atonement for the dead shortly before the advent of Christ. This is the faith in which Jesus and the apostles were raised. And it is in this context Jesus declares in the New Testament:

And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:32, emphasis added).

This declaration of our Lord implies there are at least some sins that can be forgiven in the next life to a people who already believed it. If Jesus wanted to condemn this teaching commonly taught in Israel, he was not doing a very good job of it according to St. Matthew’s Gospel.

The next objection presents a more complex problem. The punishment for mortal sin is, in fact, definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed (the definition of Hell)  according to Catholic teaching (see CCC 1030). But it is a non-sequitur to conclude from this teaching that II Maccabees could not be referring to a type of Purgatory.

First of all, a careful reading of the text reveals the sin of these men to be carrying small amulets “or sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia” under their tunics as they were going in to battle. This would be closer to a Christian baseball player believing there is some kind of power in his performing superstitious rituals before going to bat than it would be to the mortal sin of idolatry. This was, most likely, a venial sin for them. But even if what they did would have been objectively grave matter, good Jews in ancient times—just like good Catholics today—believed they should always pray for the souls of those who have died “for thou [O Lord], thou only knowest the hearts of the children of men” (II Chr. 6:30). God alone knows the degree of culpability of these “sinners.” Moreover, some or all of them may have repented before they died. Both the ancient Jews and Catholic Christians always retain hope for the salvation of the deceased this side of heaven; thus, we always pray for those who have died.

A Plainer Text

In Matthew 5:25-26, Jesus is even more explicit about Purgatory.

Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.

For Catholics, Tertullian for example, in De Anima 58, written in ca. AD 208, this teaching is parabolic, using the well-known example of “prison” and the necessary penitence it represents, as a metaphor for Purgatorial suffering that will be required for lesser transgressions, represented by the “kodrantes” or “penny” of verse 26. But for many Protestants, our Lord is here giving simple instructions to his followers concerning this life exclusively. This has nothing to do with Purgatory.

This traditional Protestant interpretation is very weak contextually. These verses are found in the midst of the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” where our Lord teaches about heaven (vs. 20), hell (vs. 29-30), and both mortal (vs. 22) and venial sins (vs. 19), in a context that presents “the Kingdom of Heaven” as the ultimate goal (see verses 3-12). Our Lord goes on to say if you do not love your enemies, “what reward have you” (verse 46)? And he makes very clear these “rewards” are not of this world. They are “rewards from your Father who is in heaven” (6:1) or “treasures in heaven” (6:19).

Further, as St. John points out in John 20:31, all Scripture is written “that believing, you may have [eternal] life in his name.” Scripture must always be viewed in the context of our full realization of the divine life in the world to come. Our present life is presented “as a vapor which appears for a little while, and afterwards shall vanish away” (James 1:17). It would seem odd to see the deeper and even “other worldly” emphasis throughout the Sermon of the Mount, excepting these two verses.

When we add to this the fact that the Greek word for prison, phulake, is the same word used by St. Peter, in I Peter 3:19, to describe the “holding place” into which Jesus descended after his death to liberate the detained spirits of Old Testament believers, the Catholic position makes even more sense. Phulake is demonstrably used in the New Testament to refer to a temporary holding place and not exclusively in this life.

The Plainest Text

I Corinthians 3:11-15 may well be the most straightforward text in all of Sacred Scripture when it comes to Purgatory:

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

No Christian sect I know of even attempts to deny this text speaks of the judgment of God where the works of the faithful will be tested after death. It says our works will go through “fire,” figuratively speaking. In Scripture, “fire” is used metaphorically in two ways: as a purifying agent (Mal. 3:2-3; Matt. 3:11; Mark 9:49); and as that which consumes (Matt. 3:12; 2 Thess. 1:7-8). So it is a fitting symbol here for God’s judgment. Some of the “works” represented are being burned up and some are being purified. These works survive or burn according to their essential “quality” (Gr. hopoiov – of what sort).

What is being referred to cannot be heaven because there are imperfections that need to be “burned up” (see again, Rev. 21:27, Hab. 1:13). It cannot be hell because souls are being saved. So what is it? The Protestant calls it “the Judgment” and we Catholics agree. We Catholics simply specify the part of the judgment of the saved where imperfections are purged as “Purgatory.”

Objection!

The Protestant respondent will immediately spotlight the fact that there is no mention, at least explicitly, of “the cleansing of sin” anywhere in the text. There is only the testing of works. The focus is on the rewards believers will receive for their service, not on how their character is cleansed from sin or imperfection. And the believers here watch their works go through the fire, but they escape it!

First, what are sins, but bad or wicked works (see Matthew 7:21-23, John 8:40, Galatians 5:19-21)? If these “works” do not represent sins and imperfections, why would they need to be eliminated? Second, it is impossible for a “work” to be cleansed apart from the human being who performed it. We are, in a certain sense, what we do when it comes to our moral choices. There is no such thing as a “work” floating around somewhere detached from a human being that could be cleansed apart from that human being. The idea of works being separate from persons does not make sense.

Most importantly, however, this idea of “works” being “burned up” apart from the soul that performed the work contradicts the text itself. The text does say the works will be tested by fire, but “if the work survives… he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss.” And, “he will be saved, but only as through fire” (Gr. dia puros). The truth is: both the works of the individual and the individual will go through the cleansing “fire” described by St. Paul in order that “he” might finally be saved and enter into the joy of the Lord. Sounds an awful lot like Purgatory.

If you’d like to dive deeper into this topic, click here.

Is Confession Biblical?

The Lord declares in Isaiah 43:25:

I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

Psalm 103:2-3 adds:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases…

Many will use these verses against the idea of confession to a priest. God forgiving sins, they will claim, precludes the possibility of there being a priest who forgives sins. Further, Hebrews 3:1 and 7:22-27 tell us Jesus is, “the… high priest of our confession” and that there are not “many priests,” but one in the New Testament—Jesus Christ. Moreover, if Jesus is the “one mediator between God and men” (I Tim. 2:5), how can Catholics reasonably claim priests act in the role of mediator in the Sacrament of Confession?

BEGINNING WITH THE OLD

The Catholic Church acknowledges what Scripture unequivocally declares: it is God who forgives our sins. But that is not the end of the story. Leviticus 19:20-22 is equally unequivocal:

If a man lies carnally with a woman… they shall not be put to death… But he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord… And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin which he has committed; and the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven him.

Apparently, a priest being used as God’s instrument of forgiveness did not somehow take away from the fact that it was God who did the forgiving. God was the first cause of the forgiveness; the priest was the secondary, or instrumental cause. Thus, God being the forgiver of sins in Isaiah 43:25 and Psalm 103:3 in no way eliminates the possibility of there being a ministerial priesthood established by God to communicate his forgiveness.

OUT WITH THE OLD

Many Protestants will concede the point of priests acting as mediators of forgiveness in the Old Testament. “However,” they will claim, “The people of God had priests in the Old Testament. Jesus is our only priest in the New Testament.” The question is: could it be that “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13) did something similar to that which he did, as God, in the Old Testament? Could he have established a priesthood to mediate his forgiveness in the New Testament?

IN WITH THE NEW

Just as God empowered his priests to be instruments of forgiveness in the Old Testament, the God/man Jesus Christ delegated authority to his New Testament ministers to act as mediators of reconciliation as well. Jesus made this remarkably clear in John 20:21-23:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I 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, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Having been raised from the dead, our Lord was here commissioning his apostles to carry on with his work just before he was to ascend to heaven. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” What did the Father send Jesus to do? All Christians agree he sent Christ to be the one true mediator between God and men. As such, Christ was to infallibly proclaim the Gospel (cf. Luke 4:16-21), reign supreme as King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. Rev. 19:16); and especially, he was to redeem the world through the forgiveness of sins (cf. I Peter 2:21-25, Mark 2:5-10).

The New Testament makes very clear that Christ sent the apostles and their successors to carry on this same mission. To proclaim the gospel with the authority of Christ (cf. Matthew 28:18-20), to govern the Church in His stead (cf. Luke 22:29-30), and to sanctify her through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist (cf. John 6:54, I Cor. 11:24-29) and for our purpose here, Confession.

John 20:22-23 is nothing more than Jesus emphasizing one essential aspect of the priestly ministry of the apostles: To Forgive men’s sins in the person of Christ— “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained.” Moreover, auricular confession is strongly implied here. The only way the apostles could either forgive or retain sins is by first hearing those sins confessed, and then making a judgment whether or not the penitent should be absolved.

TO FORGIVE OR TO PROCLAIM?

Many Fundamentalists claim John 20:23 must be viewed as Christ simply repeating “the great commission” of Matthew 28:19 and Luke 24:47 using different words that mean the same thing:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

… and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations…

Commenting on John 20:23 in his book, Romanism—The Relentless Roman Catholic Assault on the Gospel of Jesus Christ! (White Horse Publications, Huntsville Alabama, 1995), p. 100, Protestant Apologist Robert Zins writes:

It is apparent that the commission to evangelize is tightly woven into the commission to proclaim forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus Christ.

Mr. Zin’s claim is that John 20:23 is not saying the apostles would forgive sins; rather, that they would merely proclaim the forgiveness of sins. The only problem with this theory is it runs head-on into the text of John 20. “If you forgive the sins of any… if you retain the sins of any.” The text cannot say it any clearer: this is more than a mere proclamation of the forgiveness of sins—this “commission” of the Lord communicates the power to actually forgive the sins themselves.

FREQUENT CONFESSION

The next question for many upon seeing the plain words of St. John is, “Why don’t we hear any more about Confession to a priest in the rest of the New Testament?” The fact is: we don’t need to. How many times does God have to tell us something before we’ll believe it? He only gave us the proper form for baptism once (Matt. 28:19), and yet all Christians accept this teaching.

But be that as it may, there are multiple texts that deal with Confession and the forgiveness of sins through the New Covenant minister. I will cite just a few of them:

II Cor. 2:10:

 And to whom you have pardoned anything, I also.  For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ (DRV).

Many may respond to this text by quoting modern Bible translations, e.g., the RSVCE:

What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ (emphasis added).

St. Paul, it is argued, is simply forgiving someone in the way any layperson can forgive someone for wrongs committed against him. The Greek word—prosopon—can be translated either way. And I should note here that good Catholics will argue this point as well. This is an understandable and valid objection. However, I do not concur with it for four reasons:

1. Not only the Douay-Rheims, but the King James Version of the Bible—which no one would accuse of being a Catholic translation—translates prosopon as “person.”

2. The early Christians, who spoke and wrote in Koine Greek, at the Councils of Ephesus (AD 431) and Chalcedon (AD 451), used prosopon to refer to the “person” of Jesus Christ.

3. Even if one translates the text as St. Paul pardoning “in the presence of Christ,” the context still seems to indicate that he forgave the sins of others. And notice: St. Paul specifically said he was not forgiving anyone for offenses committed against him (see II Cor. 2:5). Any Christian can and must do this. He said he did the forgiving “for [the Corinthian’s] sakes” and “in the person (or presence) of Christ.” The context seems to indicate he is forgiving sins that do not involve him personally.

4. Just three chapters later, St. Paul gives us the reason why he could forgive the sins of others: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:18). Some will argue that “the ministry of reconciliation” of verse 18 is identical to “the message of reconciliation” in verse 19. In other words, St. Paul is simply referring to a declarative power here. I don’t agree. I argue St. Paul uses distinct terms precisely because he is referring to more than just “the message of reconciliation,” but the same ministry of reconciliation that was Christ’s. Christ did more than just preach a message; he also forgave sins.

James 5:14-17:

Is any one among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain… and… it did not rain…

When it comes to one “suffering;” St. James says, “Let him pray.” “Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise.” But when it comes to sickness and personal sins, he tells his readers they must go to the “elders”—not just anyone—in order to receive this “anointing” and the forgiveness of sins.

Some will object and point out that verse 16 says to confess our sins “to one another” and pray “for one another.” Is not James just encouraging us to confess our sins to a close friend so we can help one another to overcome our faults?

The context seems to disagree with this interpretation for two main reasons:

1. St. James had just told us to go to the presbyter in verse 14 for healing and the forgiveness of sins. Then, verse 16 begins with the word therefore—a conjunction that would seem to connect verse 16 back to verses 14 and 15. The context seems to point to the “elder” as the one to whom we confess our sins.

2. Ephesians 5:21 employs this same phrase. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” But the context limits the meaning of “to one another” specifically to a man and wife—not just anyone. Similarly, the context of James 5 would seem to limit the confession of faults “to one another” to the specific relationship between “anyone” and the “elder” or “priest” (Gr.—presbuteros).

ONE PRIEST OR MANY?

A major obstacle to Confession for many Protestants (me included when I was Protestant) is that it presupposes a priesthood. As I said above, Jesus is referred to in Scripture as “the apostle and high priest of our confession.” The former priests were many in number, as Hebrews 7:23 says, now we have one priest—Jesus Christ. The question is: how does the idea of priests and confession fit in here? Is there one priest or are there many?

I Peter 2:5-9 gives us some insight:

… and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…

If Jesus is the one and only priest in the New Testament in a strict sense, then we have a contradiction in Sacred Scripture. This, of course, is absurd.  I Peter plainly teaches all believers to be members of a holy priesthood. Priest/believers do not take away from Christ’s unique priesthood, rather, as members of his body they establish it on earth.

FULL AND ACTIVE PARTICIPATIO

If one understands the very Catholic and very biblical notion of participatio, these problematic texts and others become relatively easy to understand. Yes, Jesus Christ is the “one mediator between God and men” just as I Tim. 2:5 says. The Bible is clear. Yet, Christians are also called to be mediators in Christ. When we intercede for one another or share the Gospel with someone, we act as mediators of God’s love and grace in the one true mediator, Christ Jesus, via the gift of participatio in Christ, the sole mediator between God and men (see I Timothy 2:1-7, I Timothy 4:16, Romans 10:9-14). All Christians, in some sense, can say with St.   Paul, “…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…” (Gal. 2:20)

PRIESTS AMONG PRIESTS

If all Christians are priests, then why do Catholics claim a ministerial priesthood essentially distinct from the universal priesthood? The answer is: God willed to call out a special priesthood among the universal priesthood to minister to his people. This concept is literally as old as Moses.

When St. Peter taught us about the universal priesthood of all believers, he specifically referred to Exodus 19:6 where God alluded to ancient Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” St. Peter reminds us that there was a universal priesthood among the Old Testament people of God just as in the New Testament. But this did not preclude the existence of a ministerial priesthood within that universal priesthood (see Exodus 19:22, Exodus 28, and Numbers 3:1-12).

In an analogous way, we have a universal “Royal Priesthood” in the New Testament, but we also have an ordained clergy who have priestly authority given to them by Christ to carry out his ministry of reconciliation as we have seen.

TRULY AWESOME AUTHORITY

A final couple of texts we will consider are Matt. 16:19 and 18:18. Specifically, we’ll examine the words of Christ to Peter and the apostles: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” As CCC 553 says, Christ here communicated not only authority “to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church,” but also “the authority to absolve sins” to the apostles.

These words are unsettling, even disturbing, to many. And understandably so. How could God give such authority to men? And yet he does. Jesus Christ, who alone has the power to open and shut heaven to men, clearly communicated this authority to the apostles and their successors. This is what the forgiveness of sins is all about: to reconcile men and women with their heavenly Father. CCC 1445 puts it succinctly:

The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.

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Catholic, Are You Born Again?

Have you been born again, my friend?” Thousands of Catholics have been asked this question by well-meaning Fundamentalists or Evangelicals. Of course, by “born again” the Protestant usually means: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior through the recitation of ‘the sinner’s prayer?’” How is a Catholic to respond?

The simple Catholic response is: “Yes, I have been born again—when I was baptized.” In fact, Jesus’ famous “born again” discourse of John 3:3-5, which is where we find the words “born again” (or “born anew”) in Scripture, teaches us about the essential nature of baptism:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

At this point, a Fundamentalist or Evangelical will respond almost predictably: “Baptism does not save you, brother; John 3:5 says we must be born of water and the Spirit.” The Catholic will then be told the “water” of John 3:5 has nothing to do with baptism. Depending on the preference of the one to whom the Catholic is speaking, the “water” will either be interpreted as man’s natural birth (the “water” being amniotic fluid), and “the Spirit” would then represent the new birth, or the water would represent the word of God through which one is born again when he accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior.

Amniotic Fluid vs. Baptismal Water

To claim the “water” of John 3:5 is amniotic fluid is to stretch the context just a smidgen! When we consider the actual words and surrounding context of John 3, the waters of baptism seem to be the more reasonable—and biblical—interpretation. Consider these surrounding texts:

John 1:31-34: Jesus was baptized. If you compare the parallel passage in St. Matthew’s gospel (3:16), you find that when Jesus was baptized, “the heavens were opened” and the Spirit descended upon him. Obviously, this was not because Jesus needed to be baptized. In fact, St. John the Baptist noted that he needed to be baptized by Jesus (see Matthew 3:14)! Jesus was baptized in order “fulfill all righteousness” and “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,” according to Scripture (cf. Matt. 3:15; Luke 1:77). In other words, Jesus demonstrably showed us the way the heavens would be opened to us so that the Holy Spirit would descend upon us… through baptism.

John 2:1-11: Jesus performed his first miracle. He transformed water into wine. Notice, Jesus used water from “six stone jars … for the Jewish rites of purification.” According to the Septuagint as well as the New Testament these purification waters were called baptismoi (see LXX, Numbers 19:9-19; cf. Mark 7:4). We know that Old Testament rites, sacrifices, etc. were only “a shadow of the good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1). They could never take away sins. This may well be why “six” stone jars are specified by St. John—to denote imperfection, or “a human number” (cf. Rev. 13:18). It is interesting to note that Jesus transformed these Old Testament baptismal waters into wine—a symbol of New Covenant perfection (see Joel 3:18; Matthew 9:17).

John 3:22: Immediately after Jesus’ “born again” discourse to Nicodemus, what does He do? “… Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized.” It appears he baptized folks. This is the only time in Scripture we find Jesus apparently actually baptizing.

John 4:1-2: Jesus’ disciples then begin to baptize at Jesus’ command. It appears from the text, Jesus most likely only baptized his disciples and then they baptized everyone else.

In summary, Jesus was baptized, transformed the “baptismal” waters, and then gave his famous “born again” discourse. He then baptized before commissioning the apostles to go out and baptize. To deny Jesus was teaching us about baptism in John 3:3-5 is to ignore the clear biblical context.

Moreover, John 3:5 is not describing two events; it describes one event. The text does not say “unless one is born of water and then born again of the Spirit…” It says “unless one is born of water and Spirit…” If we hearken back to the Lord’s own baptism in John 1 and Matt. 3, we notice when our Lord was baptized the Holy Spirit descended simultaneously upon him. This was one event, involving both water and the Spirit. And so it is with our baptism. If we obey God in being baptized—that’s our part of the deal—we can count on God to concurrently “open the heavens” for us and give us the Holy Spirit.

And finally, it would be anachronistic to read into Jesus’ use of “water” to mean physical birth in John’s gospel. In fact, St. John had just used a word to refer to physical birth in John 1:12-13, but it wasn’t “water:”

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

St. John here tells us we are not made children of God by birth (“of blood”), or by our own attempts whether they be through our lower nature (“of the flesh”) or even through the higher powers of our soul (“the will of man”); rather, we must be born of God, or by God’s power. Notice, St. John refers to natural birth colloquially as “of blood,” not “of water.”

Washing of Water by the Word

It is perhaps an even greater stretch to attempt to claim the “water” of John 3:3-5 represents the word of God. At least with the amniotic fluid argument, you have mention of “birth” in the immediate context. However, the Protestant will sometimes refer to Ephesians 5:25-26 and a few other texts to make this point:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word…

“See?” a Protestant may say, “The ‘washing of water’ is here equated to ‘the word’ that cleanses us.” If you couple this text with Jesus’ words in John 15:3, “You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you,” the claim is made, that “the water” of John 3:5 would actually refer to the word of God rather than baptism.

The Catholic Response

Beyond the obvious fact that there is nothing in the context of John’s gospel to even remotely point to “water” as referring to ”the word,” we can point out immediately a point of agreement. Both Catholics and Protestants agree that Jesus’ words—unless one is born anew (or, again)—speak of man’s initial entrance into the body of Christ through God’s grace. Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to ask what the New Testament writers saw as the instrument whereby one first enters into Christ. This would be precisely what we are talking about when we speak of being “born again.”

I Peter 3:20-21: “… in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Romans 6:3-4: “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were indeed buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”

Galatians 3:27: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

I Cor. 12:13: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit (See also Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16 and Col. 2:11-13).

If baptism is the way the unsaved are brought into Christ, no wonder Christ spoke of being “born of water and spirit.” Baptism is the instrument of new birth according to the New Testament.

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Forgiveness II – A Response to Objections

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In an earlier blog post, I posited the idea that a Christian is not required to forgive someone of an offense who shows no sign of being sorry for that offence. Jesus himself said it like this in Luke 17:3-4:

Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, “I repent,” you must forgive him.

Jesus seems quite clear here.

Scripture also reveals to us our calling to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave [us]” (Eph. 4:32; cf. CCC 2842). So it seems God should be our model of forgiveness, and yet we see God does not simply forgive everyone. Those who do not confess their sins will not be forgiven of their sins (I John 1:8-9). In fact, Jesus says those who “speak against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32). The Catholic Church understands this to mean those who continue to reject the forgiveness that God offers to all through the prompting of the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven (see CCC 1864). No Christian, it seems to me, is required to do more than God does.

To say I’ve had some folks disagree with me on this point is an understatement. I have not been called a heretic this many times since my journey to the Catholic Church!

Some of the Responses I’ve Received

1. “You are encouraging a spirit of unforgiveness that is dangerous to souls.”

Actually, I am not. Would anyone say God is “encouraging a spirit of unforgiveness” because he does not forgive those who are not sorry for their sins? I take “a spirit of unforgiveness” to mean someone is refusing to forgive. God does not refuse to forgive anyone who expresses remorse. No Christian should either. That would be grave sin.

Or, I’ll go a step further. One who refuses to offer forgiveness in a spirit of charity would also be sinning. If, for example, he were to hold resentment in his heart toward his offender that would keep him from forgiving that offender if he should express sorrow that would be sinful. God offers forgiveness to all, including his enemies, and so must we. But the actual forgiveness does not take place until there is sorrow on the part of the offender. That’s the point.

2. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches ‘Christian prayer extends to the forgiveness of enemies’ (CCC 2844). That means it doesn’t matter if the ‘enemy’ is sorry or not. We must forgive regardless.” 

It really depends upon how one defines “forgiveness” here. CCC 2842 had already used God as our model for forgiveness citing Ephesians 4:32 that we cited above, “’… forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave’ us.’” Thus, the Catechism seems to make clear that forgiveness is a two-way street because, as we’ve said, God does not forgive us until we express sorrow for our sins.

With this in mind, I would respond to this point by saying Christians must forgive everyone, just as God does, whether they are friends or enemies. But forgiveness involves both the offer of forgiveness in charity on the part of the offended, and contrition on the part of the offender for it to take effect.

3. “Forgiveness is a matter of the heart first and foremost. In the Our Father we say, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.’ This does not say anything about waiting for the other person to be sorry. In fact, in the parable of the merciless servant, Our Lord declared, ‘So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart’ (Matt. 18:23-35). ‘In your heart’ means in spite of the disposition of the other, right?”

I would agree that forgiveness must be “from the heart.” It cannot be a mere show. In that sense it must flow out of a heart filled with the love of Christ. But the context of Matt. 18 seems to make clear that forgiveness is, indeed, a two-way street. Notice, in the parable, “… his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him” before the unmerciful servant refused to forgive him (29-30).

4. “Jesus said, ‘And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’ Jesus here says you forgive even if the other person who nowhere around for you to even know if they are sorry or not.”

This is a very good point. And I can truly understand how a simple reading of this text would lead someone to conclude forgiving is a one-way street. But I would argue that in order for someone to “have [something] against anyone” that he must forgive, he would have to be guilty of refusing forgiveness to someone who is contrite like the unmerciful servant that we saw in Matthew 18. In that sense, you would not have to be in the presence of the other in order to forgive them. You forgive them “from the heart” and then later let that person know that you have forgiven them.

It is important for us to make the distinction at this point between the Christian calling to “love” and the calling to “forgive.” The two are closely related, but they are not the same. In Matthew 5:44-45, Jesus said:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your heavenly Father who is in heaven.

God loves everyone—and offers forgiveness to everyone out of his unconditional love—but he only forgives those who express some sense of contrition. The same, it seems, must be said for Christians. And this is not optional. We are commanded to love and offer forgiveness to all, but we can only actually forgive those who are sorry. At least, that is my reading of Scripture on this.

5. Didn’t Jesus forgive everyone from the cross, including those who tortured and would eventually kill him when he said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)?

He actually didn’t. He petitioned the Father to forgive “those who tortured and would eventually kill him.” Notice, he did not say, “I forgive them;” he said, “Father, forgive them.” There is a significant difference.

Some may say that the Father could never deny a petition from his own Son so this text implies the people of whom Christ refers would have, necessarily, been forgiven.

Not necessarily. We know the Father will not forgive them unless they confess their sins (or, have at least an implicit desire to do so) as we saw in I John 1:9. And because Jesus was petitioning for their forgiveness, their ignorance must not have been completely invincible. They had at least some culpability here that would require contrition and forgiveness; otherwise, Christ would not have made the petition to begin with.

The context of Jesus’ petition really brings its meaning into focus. He prayed “Father, forgive them…” in the context of his sacrifice on the cross—the ultimate prayer. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was offered for every person who has or will ever be born to be in order that they may be forgiven and saved from damnation. But that does not mean every person will be saved. It means Jesus prays that everyone will be.

We have to consider here the antecedent and consequent nature of the will of God. Both the human and divine wills of Christ will all to be forgiven and that is precisely what Jesus was expressing in his prayer to the Father to forgive those who tortured and crucified him. But it is also the consequent will of Christ for those who reject his antecedent will to die in their sins and spend eternity in Hell. In other words, God wills for us to have free will, which enables us to either accept or reject his will for us to be saved.

6. “You fail to distinguish between ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation.’ Christians must forgive everyone regardless, but that does not mean reconciliation will have occurred.”

Considering the objections to my earlier post, when it boils down to it, I think the main difference I have with those who say we must “forgive” even those who are not sorry for their offense is essentially rooted in semantics. I would argue the above objector who would say he “forgives” those who are not sorry while only being “reconciled” with the one who expresses sorrow, is, in actuality, offering forgiveness out of the unconditional love to which all Christians are called, but that the actual forgiveness does not take place until there is contrition on the part of the offender.
In short, what my objector calls “forgiveness” and “reconciliation,” I call “the offer of forgiveness,” and “actual forgiveness.”

When Jesus said we are to love everyone, including our enemies, I believe this is truly a one-way street. We are commanded to love as God loves… unconditionally. That means loving even those who persecute and hate us–even where there is not even an attempt at forgiveness and reconciliation from the other side. What does “loving our enemies” really mean?

Loving as Christ loves means letting go of resentment, truly willing the good for the other, as well as praying for him. This kind of love is not within our power, but it is also not an option for us; It is a commandment. But this is not forgiveness. Now, to the one who believes we forgive as on a “one-way street,” I’ve just described what they would call “forgiveness.” I call it loving as Christ loves.

As far as the distinction between “forgiveness” and reconciliation, I agree there is a distinction. But I argue that where there is “forgiveness,” there is always reconciliation, at least of some sort. There may not be complete reconciliation, but by definition, there would be reconciliation at least with regard to the particular matter that has been forgiven. It doesn’t mean you want to have the offender over for dinner, or that you even like him. It does not mean there may not still be unresolved matters of justice. But it does mean you’ve reconciled at least with regard to the offense that has been forgiven.

The bottom line here is this: We are commanded to love and to extend forgiveness to all. If we love then we hold nothing against those who have harmed us so that forgiveness flows out of that love. But to say that forgiveness can be a one-way street seems to fail to distinguish between love and forgiveness. But I will say this. I am not dogmatic on this point. There is no problem with using the term “forgiveness” by accommodation for that which, in actuality, is the offer of forgiveness. If it aids the person extending the forgiveness to truly love the offender, have at it. But I would still say that until there is sorrow on the part of the offender actual forgiveness does not take place. The offended is extending forgiveness and loving the offender as Christ loves and extends forgiveness to us.

To Forgive or Not to Forgive — That Is the Question

A man–I’ll call him Robert–wrote to me recently telling me a horror story about his ex-wife. To say she acted uncharitably during and after their separation and divorce would be an understatement. Of course, I am only hearing one side of the story, but his question boiled down to this: “Am I required to forgive her, even though she is not sorry for anything she has done, and then to forget about what she has done because God ‘forgets’ when he forgives and calls us to do the same? I must confess to you that I just cannot live this because I believe she is dangerous to both me and our children.”

Unfortunately, scenarios like this are not rare. But they do end up raising some very important questions about the nature of forgiveness. There are at least five points to be considered for clarifying the issues at hand:

1. We are not called to go beyond what God himself does when it comes to forgiveness. Many Christians believe with Robert that they are obliged to forgive even those who are not in the least bit sorry for their offenses against them. And on the surface this sounds really . . . Christian. But is it true? God himself doesn’t do it. He only forgives those who repent of their sins. II Cor. 7:10 says, “[G]odly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation.”  I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he . . . will forgive our sins.”

Our Lord obviously has not and will not forgive the souls in hell right now for the simple reason that they did not ask for forgiveness. This seems as clear as clear can be. The question is, are we required to do more than God does when it comes to forgiveness?

Jesus seems to answer this question for us in Luke 17:3-4:

[I]f your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.

According to this text, and as we would suspect, Jesus requires his followers to forgive only those who are sorry for their offenses, just as God does. And this only make sense. Colossians 3:13 says we are to called to forgive each other “as the Lord has forgiven [us].”

Some will say at this point, “Didn’t Jesus forgive everyone from the cross when he said, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’ in Luke 23:34?” Actually, he didn’t. He petitioned the Father for those who had beaten and crucified him to be forgiven, revealing his will that “all men . . . be saved” (I Tim. 2:4). But this was not a declaration that even these men were actually forgiven, much less a declaration that he was forgiving everyone for all time.

2. We have to distinguish between our calling to forgive those who are sorry and ask for forgiveness and our call to love everyone without exception, including those who have wronged us and are not sorry that they did. Sometimes these two concepts are conflated.

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us love is “willing the good of the other” selflessly (cf. I Cor. 13:5). In a sense, this is all God can do, because “God is love” (I John 4:8). God can do nothing other than will to share the infinite good of himself with every single person ever created or conceived—even the souls who reject his love and forgiveness, because a God not loving would be a God contradicting his own essence, which is absurd.

Thus God’s love is unconditional, because in one sense it has nothing to do with the other. It comes from within, regardless of what happens outside of the godhead. This brings profound meaning to Jesus’ words: ”Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). In essence, Jesus is calling us to love with that same unconditional love with which he loves as the God-Man. Regardless of varying situations and relationships in our lives, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5) empowering us to “will the good of the other” regardless of what “the other” may bring our way.

On the other hand, forgiveness, as we’ve said, is not unconditional. It’s a two-way street. God offers his forgiveness to all out of his unconditional love and, therefore, so must all Christians. But here’s the rub. Because forgiveness is dependent upon the other, it cannot actually take place until there are willing partners on both sides of the divide.

3. But God says, “I am He who blots out your transgression for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins,” in Isaiah 25:23. Shouldn’t we do the same?

This was Robert’s point. “When God forgives, he forgets. So if we must forgive, we must forget as well, right?”

First of all, in Robert’s case, there is no imperative to forgive in the first place, because there is no evidence of contrition. But even if there were to be forgiveness here, forgiveness must be properly understood.

There is no such thing as divine amnesia. Jesus will not be forever in heaven asking, “How did these holes get in my hands and feet?” ”I will not remember” is an anthropomorphic way of saying God will not forever hold sins against us that have been forgiven. This is not to say there are not temporal consequences for sin. Purgatory is a stark reminder of this.

I must interject here that Robert was actually very relieved when he discovered he did not have to turn his brain off and endanger his children in order to be a good Catholic. Poor Robert was thinking he had to forget everything his ex-wife did and act as though she didn’t do anything wrong. And that is why he thought he just could not live the faith any longer. The truth is, God does not “forget” in that sense, and neither should we. Not only should Robert remember what his ex-wife had done, but he should act with precaution in order to protect himself and his children.

4. Jesus said “love your enemies” in Matthew 5:44. He did not say we have to “like” our enemies and he did not say we don’t have enemies. If you proclaim and live truth contradicting a world receiving its marching orders from ”the father of lies,” you are promised to have enemies. We could start with the guys who want to kill us. Put them down in the “enemies” column.

Jesus calls us to “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us], so that [we] may be sons of [our] Father who is in heaven.” That means love is not an option, it is a commandment. But loving enemies does not mean you necessarily want to have them over to the house for supper. “Love” doesn’t necessarily mean “like.” Indeed, it may be unhealthy or even dangerous to even be around your enemy, as may well be true in Robert’s case.

5. So what do we do if we find ourselves in a situation like Robert’s? 

The first step to loving and forgiving as God does is to recognize that we cannot do it apart from Christ. It is essential to meditate upon what Christ did for us on the cross and the fact that he loves us infinitely and forgives us over and over again. Ultimately, we have to get to the place where we acknowledge our powerlessness so that we can allow Christ to love and forgive in us and through us.

I recommended to Robert specifically that he ask God to help him to truly will the good for his ex-wife—and a telling sign of whether this is so would be when he could sincerely pray to God for good to come to his ex-wife—then he could rest assured that he is loving her as Christ commanded.