MY CATHOLIC FAITH
LXXV. The Forgiveness of Sins
Christ taught about the forgiveness of sins in the parable of the Prodigal Son (1). He instituted the Sacrament of Penance for the forgiveness of sins when He said to the Apostles: (4) “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them: and whose sins you shall retain they are retained.”
(Tenth Article of the Apostles’ Creed.)
What is meant in the Apostles’ Creed by “the forgiveness of sins”? –By “the forgiveness of sins” in the Apostles’ Creed is meant that God has given to the Church, through Jesus Christ, the power to forgive sins, no matter how great or how many they are, if sinners truly repent.
In the Old Law, sins were forgiven through the merits of the Redeemer that was to come. In the New Law they are forgiven through the merits of the Redeemer Who has come.
Pointing to Christ, St. John the Baptist said: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
We can obtain forgiveness of sin, because Christ the Redeemer merited forgiveness for us by His death. The Church has power to remit sins through the merits of Jesus Christ, “in whom we have our redemption, the remission of our sins” (Col. 1:14).
During life, Christ actually forgave sin. For example, He forgave Mary Magdalen, the paralytic, and the good thief. In curing the paralytic, He said, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins -then he said to the paralytic -“Arise, take up thy pallet and go to thy house” (Matt. 9:6).
Christ gave to His Apostles and disciples and their successors power to forgive sins. He said: “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).
This power to forgive sins was not given to the Apostles alone, since men of later ages would need forgiveness as much as men of Apostolic times. The power, therefore, must also remain in the successors of the Apostles.
It is true, as the enemies of the Church assert, that man cannot forgive sins. Man, by his own individual power, can never forgive the smallest sin. But he can forgive all sins, with the power and authority God gave him, as minister of God, acting in God’s place. Or is God limited because man is sinful? “These things I write to you in order that you may not sin. But if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the just” (1 John 2:1).
From the very beginning the Church has exercised this power, through the sacraments of Penance and Baptism, and even through Extreme Unction.
How may sins be remitted or forgiven? –Sins may be remitted or forgiven by various means, according to the kind and gravity of the sin: by Baptism, by Penance, and by good works.
Original sin is remitted through Baptism. When we are baptized, we become children of God, and heirs of heaven.
None but children of God, the baptized, can have a pass to God’s eternal home.
Actual sin is remitted by Baptism, by Penance, by Extreme Unction, and by good works. Such good works are: prayer, fasting, and alms-deeds.
Good works cannot remit grave or mortal sin; they can only dispose a person to the state of mind which leads him to the Sacrament of Penance.
The guilt of forgiven sins never returns. Once forgiven, a sin is forgiven forever. If after our sins have been forgiven we commit a new sin, or sins like the ones already forgiven, we are guilty of new sins.
A man tells five lies. He repents and confessing his sin, obtains forgiveness. After a month he tells five lies again. He is guilty of having told only five lies, not ten.
What is vice? –Vice is a habit of sin formed by repeated acts of sin.
One who makes a practice of stealing has the vice of theft. One who habitually drinks to intoxication has the vice of drunkenness. One who frequently sins against chastity has the vice of impurity.
If one commits robbery and ever after avoids that sin, he has committed the mortal sin of robbery, but he has no vice. Similarly one may be completely intoxicated once, but if he resolves never again to drink, and sticks to his resolution, he has no vice.
A vice is easily acquired. This is one reason why we must be very careful not to commit sin. If we should be so unhappy as to fall into sin, we must at once cut off the possibility of forming vice by contrition, penance, and a resolution not to sin again.
After the first fall, one more readily yields to the next temptation. Each yielding weakens the will for the next. Thus step by step one who starts a sin will soon find himself the slave of a vicious habit. “He that contemneth small things shall fall by little and little” (Ecclus 19:1).
A vice is easy to break off in the beginning, difficult to break when fully formed, but always capable of being overcome by a resolute will with God’s grace.
It is easy enough to uproot a very young tree. But when it has grown into a mighty tree, it becomes extremely difficult. The vice having been firmly formed, it becomes a necessity and is impossible to break without extraordinary grace. This impossibility often leads many vicious persons to despair and to final impenitence. But God can do all things. One therefore who has contracted a habit of sin must have recourse to God, who will strengthen him, so that he can conquer his vice, by patient acts of virtue and a constant exertion of the will.
Can all sins be forgiven? –Yes, all sins, however great, can be forgiven, through the infinite merits of Christ, Who is God.
The repentant sinner is told in Scripture: “If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow” (Is. 1:17)
God is always ready to forgive our sins, no matter how great or how many they are, if we are truly sorry for them. No actual sin can be forgiven without sorrow and repentance on the part of the sinner.
Our Lord said: “I say to you that, even so, there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:7).
The sin against the Holy Ghost which Christ warned us would not be forgiven in heaven or on earth is persistent impenitence, the sin of one who rejects conversion and dies in mortal sin. One guilty of this sin can never obtain forgiveness of God, because at the hour of death he continues to thrust God away from him.
A man mortally wounded cannot have any hope of cure if he not only refuses to listen to his doctors, but shuts his mouth against all medicines, and kicks away all medical instruments and help. Even Judas would have been pardoned if he had asked for forgiveness and made a sincere act of contrition before his death.