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Sin, Pardon, and the Kingdom of a Merciful God

By David Morrison

For if we commit a sin deliberately after having received the knowledge of the Truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins but only a terrifying expectation of judgment...Hebrews 10:26

I remember the chill that went through me the first time I read this verse. A deliberate sin? I'd committed innumerable sins and quite deliberately. But, maybe there was hope...I mean...didn't the Apostles' Creed teach that we believed in "the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins"? And didn't the priest at our Episcopal parish lead us every Sunday in confession and then pronounce the Absolution?

Still, here was this verse in Hebrews quite clearly promising eternal damnation to anyone who, after Baptism, dared commit a willful sin. It was an awesome, agonizing thought to my sixteen-year-old, hormone laden, already angst-ridden brain. Happily, some kindly counseling from our priest helped get me through my first real crisis of faith and led to further Bible reading and an adult commitment to Christ three years later when I entered college. Still, that verse in Hebrews (and others like it in the New Testament and the early Christian writings) continued to bother me precisely because of the vast difference in the way post baptismal sin was dealt with in the Early Church compared to present practice.Had the Church become too lenient?  Was the opinion expressed in Hebrews right and the Church promising false hope to sinners who are beyond God's mercy? 

As I progressed in religious studies (both at the university and privately) I learned that the Early Church was even sterner than I'd imagined concerning willful sin committed after baptism.  Quite simply, it was considered unforgivable and that attitude is all through the New Testament (outside the Gospels). Remember Ananias and his wife Sapphira (Acts 5: 1-11), struck dead by the Lord (through Peter) because they held back money that they'd promised to the Church?  Or the First Letter of John (5: 1-17), which pretty well says not to bother praying for someone in "mortal" sin? Or the 6th Chapter of Hebrews that says that those who "fall away" cannot be restored to repentance? Although there was some leeway, depending on the local church and bishop, and some mitigation as time went on, this "hardcore" attitude toward sin committed by Christians remained the basic norm. Then something happened.

In AD 217 the deacon Callistus became Pope and Bishop of Rome. To the horror and shock of many "puritans" of the day, Callistus proclaimed that the Church had power on earth to forgive any and all sins, even the worst ones of apostasy, murder, and sexual sin. There were recriminations, violent protests, even schism, and the same results when almost half a century later the priest, Cornelius of Rome, taught the same thing. These two men, Pope Callistus and Father Cornelius, believed that if the Church was to continue to grow and thrive, it had to be realistic.  People sin and the Church could no longer be seen as a club for perfected saints but rather as a school for sinners being saved. Of course, sinners had to do penance, make confession both to God and His Church, and receive absolution (and this could at times be a rigorous undertaking lasting months or years), but the doors of mercy had been thrown open and, in the Church Catholic at least (Western or Eastern), would never again be shut.

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Although most Protestant churches hold to the merciful attitude espoused by Pope Callistus there have been those groups and sects who believe the Church erred by leaving behind the rigorist, unforgiving position of the Epistles and writers such as Tertullian and the Shepherd of Hermas. There are some even today who would return to the "sin after baptism and you're damned" position.  (Not many, thank Heaven, but they exist.)  Those that would hold to such rigor do so because "Scripture teaches it." And that brings me to the main point of my little thesis: Yes, some of the letters in the New Testament do teach that there is no pardon for sins after baptism; however, Jesus, if the Gospel portrayal of Him is to be believed (and we'd better believe it or close the doors to the churches!), taught an unlimited Divine Mercy.  The One who was and is God-with-us, and who told Peter to forgive seventy times seven (that is, without end) surely displays even greater mercy than He expects of His children.

Did the writers of the Epistles forget the great mercy Jesus had shown them and others? The largeness of His Kingdom? The depth of His grace? No, I don't think anyone "forgot;" I don't think they ever really fully understood. The Message and Event of Christ was simply too big for them given their backgrounds and historical context. It was for the Holy Spirit gradually to reveal to ready hearts and minds just how great the Mercy and Grace of God-in-Christ was and is.

When I first grasped those many years ago that the Church really did have the "Power of the Keys", the authority of Christ to forgive even the worst sinner repeatedly, I was relieved beyond measure...a burden and fear lifted. I then took up the practice of frequent Confession before God's priest so I could hear those glorious words, "I absolve thee from all thy sins in the +Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

It is, naturally, a practice I have continued these past few years as an Orthodox Christian believer.  But as my practice of confession to a priest has continued, so has spiritual growth and insight into the nature of what I am doing, of what forgiveness in Christ is all about.  First though, I must tell you what Confession is NOT.

Confession of sins before a presbyter of Christ's Church is not some kind of Divine "exchange program" where pardon for sin comes because we've listed them precisely and exactly.  I used to make my confessions that way, by reciting my list of sins: "...and I said a bad word 4 times...lusted 8 times...had uncharitable thoughts 20 times...oh, yeah, and forgot my prayers 2 times..." It was the best I could do at that place in my Christian growth, but a wise priest helped me to see that the better way to confess, one that leads to a deeper walk with Christ, is to be open about my spiritual state. Is my basic orientation towards or away from Christ and how does this show in my daily life?  You see, I found that sometimes, reciting my "list of sins" was actually a way of not being in touch with what was truly happening inside.

Confession is also not a "ticket to Communion."  Unfortunately, some clergy have given the impression it is (and in the past that idea has predominated at various times), but that is still a variation on the "exchange" idea, that we somehow "buy" our way to the privilege of receiving Holy Communion by a good confession. We can't, however, "buy" anything from God...we just don't have the right currency. That is what Christianity means by asserting quite vehemently that everything is by "Grace." We cannot buy what has is being freely offered.

Having come to the end of my words, I will let a wiser, holier one speak. Please let these words of Father Alexander Schmemann (now at home with his Lord) speak to you about what Confession and forgiveness really mean. May they help you as much as they have countless others.

To believe in Jesus Christ is to repent - to change radically the very 'mind' of our life, to see it as sin and death.  And to believe in Him is to accept the joyful revelation that in Him forgiveness and reconciliation have been given...In Christ all sins are forgiven once and for all, for He is Himself the forgiveness of sins, and there is no need for any 'new' absolution.  But there is indeed the need for us who constantly leave Christ...to return to Him, to receive again and again the gift that in Him has been given once and for all. And the absolution is the sign that this return has taken place and been fulfilled....the sacrament of penance is not a repetition of baptism, but our return to the 'newness of life' which God gave us once and for all (from For the Life of the World, Chapter 4, pages 78-79 excerpted).

In one sense the author of Hebrews was right, there is not more sacrifice for sins...because the One Sacrifice still avails, grace is greater than any sin.  Let's praise Him who taught the Church over the centuries what that really means. Amen

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