Reconciliation and Penance

Roman Catholics that die in a state of mortal sin are condemned to hell. To review, what does Roman Catholicism teach about mortal sin?

“Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1859

“Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1861

So how does a Roman Catholic receive forgiveness of mortal sin? Through the sacrament of penance:

“This sacrament of Penance is necessary for salvation for those who have fallen after Baptism, just as Baptism is necessary for salvation for those who have not yet been reborn.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 980

“‘The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.’ Reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of this sacrament.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1468

The sacrament of penance involves confessing one’s sins to an ordained Roman Catholic priest, receiving absolution, and the assignment of penance:

“In the forgiveness of sins, both priests and sacraments are instruments which our Lord Jesus Christ, the only author and liberal giver of salvation, wills to use in order to efface our sins and give us the grace of justification” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 987

“Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest’s absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same.” – Catholic Encyclopedia, “The Sacrament of Penance”

“the absolution given by the priest to a penitent who confesses his sins with the proper dispositions remits both the guilt and the eternal punishment (of mortal sin).” – Catholic Encyclopedia, “The Sacrament of Penance”

What exactly is penance?

“The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, ‘provided we suffer with him.'” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1460

Rome teaches that the individual must “make satisfaction for” and “expiate” his sins:

“Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance.'” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1459

There are several problems with Rome’s teachings. I’ll address them one at a time.

Can Priests Forgive Sins?

Can a Roman Catholic priest forgive sins? Rome explains that it is not the priest forgiving the sins, but rather Christ through the priest. Is this a biblical concept? One of the highly cited proof texts for this is:

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” – John 20:22-23 KJV

In this passage, is Jesus Christ literally telling His disciples that they can forgive sins? Or is He telling them they can declare that sins have been forgiven? This is a big difference. Is there any evidence throughout Scripture that would substantiate either view?

Surely if the disciples were given the authority to forgive sins, there would be examples or instances in the New Testament where we would find a disciple hearing a confession. There is no evidence in Scripture to suggest that this occurred.

In Mark 2, we find:

“When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee. But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?” – Mark 2:5-7 KJV

The scribes thought to themselves “who can forgive sins but God only?” Jesus, knowing their thoughts, responded:

“Why reason ye these things in your hearts? Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house.” – Mark 2:8b-11 KJV

Jesus did not correct the scribes’ thought that only God can forgive sin, but He affirmed it.

In Luke 24, Jesus is speaking to His disciples:

“Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things. And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.” – Luke 24:45-49 KJV

Jesus is telling His disciples to preach repentance and the remission of sins. What does it mean to preach the remission of sins? The word usage of “remission” in this sentence tends to indicate a past event, not something that will occur in the future. This is corroborated by the Book of Acts and the plethora of epistles in the New Testament. These texts are full of the preaching of salvation through Jesus Christ and the fact that sins have already been forgiven.

Some other verses that shed light on John 20:23:

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” – Matthew 28:19 KJV

“For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” – Acts 1:5-8 KJV

“Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” – Acts 2:38 KJV

From Christ’s instruction to the disciples to teach, preach, and be witnesses, it is apparent that the disciples’ ministries were focused on evangelism and proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, not to hear confessions.

Consider Acts 8:22:

“Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.” – Acts 8:22 KJV

Peter told Simon to “repent” and “pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.” Peter himself told Simon to repent and pray to God for forgiveness. If the teachings of Rome are correct, why don’t we read of Peter hearing Simon’s confession and granting him absolution?

Finally, let’s go to the Book of Hebrews:

“But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” – Hebrews 9:11-14 KJV

“And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” – Hebrews 7:23-25 KJV

The Old Testament priesthood has passed, but is there a new priesthood under the New Covenant? Yes, but there is only one high priest – Jesus Christ, in whom we have direct access as our intercessor and our mediator.

“For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” – 1 Timothy 2:5 KJV

Penance

The other issue that will be discussed is penance. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that individuals must “make satisfaction for” and “expiate” sins (CCC 1459). What is the definition of expiate? Expiate means “to atone for.” In other words, we must make atonement for our own sins. Excuse me for being frank, but this is blasphemy! This is the epitome of works-based salvation, as it implies that the blood atonement of Christ is insufficient to cleanse us from all sin. How could it not be considered works? How can man atone for his own sin? How can Rome teach the blood atonement of Christ, but then teach that man must atone for his own sin as well? What happened to the imputed righteousness of Christ? As with all things, we must consult Scripture to put this to rest.

Are the acts of man able to please God? Look at was Isaiah wrote:

“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” – Isaiah 64:6 KJV

Isaiah wrote that our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. The fact is that man cannot please God with our works or what we do. Even our best good works are filthy rags before God.

Do our works, in the slightest degree, contribute to our salvation? What does the Scripture say?

Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” – Romans 3:20 KJV

“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” – Romans 3:28 KJV

“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” – Romans 4:2-5 KJV

“And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” – Romans 11:6 KJV

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” – Galatians 2:16 KJV

“I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” – Galatians 2:21 KJV

“O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain. He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.” – Galatians 3:1-11 KJV

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” – Ephesians 2:8-9 KJV

“Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” – Philippians 3:8-9 KJV

“Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” – 2 Timothy 1:8-9 KJV

Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” – Titus 3:5 KJV

Scripture overwhelming condemns salvation by works of any kind. However, Rome is quick to point out James 2:24:

“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” – James 2:24 KJV

This is used to substantiate the claim that believers are not justified by faith alone. At the first glance of James 2:24, it seems that this piece of Scripture flies in the face of all of Paul’s writings that teach justification by faith alone. Is there a contraction in God’s Word? Of course not. As with any biblical text, responsible biblical exegesis requires that we look at the context:

“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” – James 2:14-24 KJV

When looking at the context, what is James saying? Notice how he begins with “though a man say he hath faith.” Sure a man can say he has faith, but if nothing changes in his life is his faith alive? It is true that faith without works is dead. Why? True, saving faith results in regeneration, being “born again” (John 3:7). We are made a new creature in Christ (Galatians 6:15). However it is important to understand that works are the result of salvation, not the cause. So James’ statement that a man is justified by works, and not by faith, is true. It is true in the sense that works are a necessary fruit of regeneration/salvation.

I’d like to add that James makes another great point. He says, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” His point is that a superficial knowledge or acknowledgement of Christ will not save a person, as the devil himself acknowledges Christ. But true, saving faith is more than a mere acknowledgement or knowledge of Christ. It is the placing of complete trust in Christ’s finished work on the cross.

Conclusion

This article is quite lengthy, so I will keep the conclusion short. First, Jesus Christ did not leave us with a priesthood in the Old Testament sense. According to Peter, all believers are of a “royal priesthood” that should show forth the praises of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:9). The early disciples of Jesus were instructed to teach, witness, and preach repentance and the remission of sins (Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). The atonement for our sins is not found in the penance assigned by a Roman Catholic priest, but in Jesus Christ. Jesus, our High Priest, entered once into the holy place and made atonement for our sins with His own blood (Hebrews 9:11-12; 10:10-22). There is only one mediator between God and men, and that is the man Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5) “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).