Evangelicals would certainly agree that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3.23) and that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6.23). Jesus, the Son of God, came "to save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1.21), and died "once for all" (Hebrew 9.12, 26) on the cross, and "it is finished" (John 19.30).
The grace has been won. How can this grace be applied to our lives?
Faith is certainly a requirement, since "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11.6). In two previous posts (here and here), I have explained how baptism was instituted by Jesus Himself as the ordinary means of applying the grace of Christ to us for, among other things, the washing away of Original Sin as well as sins that we have personally committed, and is therefore necessary for salvation.
But what of sins that we commit after baptism? What if, after having been washed with the blood of Christ, we again stain ourselves with sin? God must have known that Christians would continue to sin after their baptism. Keep in mind that as sin separates us from God, it also separates us from Christ's Body, the Church. How are we to deal with sin among members of the Church?
Did Jesus provide a means for the grace that he won on the cross to be applied to us for the forgiveness of sins we commit after baptism?
This is exactly what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is for, as the Council of Trent explains:
If such, in all the regenerate, were their gratitude towards God, as that they constantly preserved the justice received in baptism by His bounty and grace; there would not have been need for another sacrament, besides that of baptism itself, to be instituted for the remission of sins. But because God, rich in mercy, knows our frame, He hath bestowed a remedy of life even on those who may, after baptism, have delivered themselves up to the servitude of sin and the power of the devil, --the sacrament to wit of Penance, by which the benefit of the death of Christ is applied to those who have fallen after baptism. (Trent, session 14, ch 1)And, as we all know, this Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as Penance or Confession) involves a person confessing their sins to a priest who then absolves the person of his or her sins. The question (or accusation) most evangelicals have next is:
19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20.19-23, my emphasis)We see a similar power granted elsewhere by Jesus first to Peter (Matthew 16.19) and then to all the Apostles (Matthew 18.18) when he tells them that "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
Of course, no human being, by himself, has the power to forgive a person's sins. A priest has the power to forgive sins only because he forgives in Christ's name and has received this authority from Jesus himself (as we just saw above), as passed down from the apostles through the succession of bishops. In other words, when one confesses to and receives absolution from a priest, one is confessing to and receiving absolution from God. Lest anyone accuse the Catholic Church of teaching otherwise, the Catechism is clear:
Only God forgives sins. Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, "The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" and exercises this divine power: "Your sins are forgiven." Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name.
Christ has willed that in her prayer and life and action his whole Church should be the sign and instrument of the forgiveness and reconciliation that he acquired for us at the price of his blood. But he entrusted the exercise of the power of absolution to the apostolic ministry which he charged with the "ministry of reconciliation." (2 Cor 5.18) The apostle is sent out "on behalf of Christ" with "God making his appeal" through him and pleading: "Be reconciled to God." (2 Cor 5.20) (CCC 1441-1442)Does a person really have to confess every single little sin? No. The Catholic Church follows the Bible (cf. 1 John 5.16-17) in making a distinction between sin that merely wounds our relationship with God (which we call venial) and sin that severs our relationship with God (which we call mortal).
- A venial sin comes from everyday weakness and may be confessed in prayer without going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
- A mortal sin is any sin we did on purpose (full intentionality), we knew was wrong when we did it (full knowledge), and is regarding a grave matter (not petty, but something serious). A mortal sin can only be forgiven through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (or, if one is impeded from receiving the sacrament, the desire thereof - explicit or implicit - accompanied by perfect contrition or sorrow for one's sin out of love for God and not simply threat of punishment).
But then can an evangelical who committed a mortal sin but wasn't reconciled with the Catholic Church, and thereby receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, before their death be saved? Only if they meet those criteria above: that they were truly sorry for their sins out of love for God and not simply the threat of hell, and that were disposed towards God such that if they had known that God instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation they would have received it. Nonetheless, it is much better for a person to come into full communion with the Catholic Church and actually receive the sacrament.
Although it has developed in its form over time, the Sacrament of Reconciliation was not a late medieval corruption of the faith, but instead dates back to the early Church. We all can be challenged by this exhortation given by St Cyprian of Carthage in the mid-3rd century:
"Moreover, how much are they both greater in faith and better in their fear...with grief and simplicity confess this very thing to God's priests...I entreat you, beloved brethren, that each one should confess his own sin, while he who has sinned is still in this world, while his confession may be received, while the satisfaction and remission made by the priests are pleasing to the Lord." (On the Lapsed, 28-29)When a person, through sin, has cut himself off from God, and thereby also Christ's Body the Church, that person will not be saved. The person must repent and again receive the grace of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, thereby reuniting them with God and Christ's Body the Church. Jesus, in his wisdom, provided us with a means for doing just that: the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Since it is the means established by Christ for the forgiveness of sins after baptism, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is thereby "necessary for salvation" for those who have sinned mortally after their baptism. (Trent, session 14, ch 2)
All Christians, Catholics and evangelicals, continue to sin after their baptism and are in regular need of the grace of Christ, and thus are in need of confessing their sins to a priest.