How are sins forgiven?
PETER KREEFT: We cannot be forgiven while we are planning to sin again…
Objectively, by Christ’s death. That paid sin’s price.
Subjectively, by our repentance and faith. That
appropriates Christ’s payment. That is applied to
us as individuals publicly in Baptism, which forgives
original sin, and the sacrament of Penance, which forgives all actual sins that are confessed and repented of.
Sincere repentance is a condition of receiving forgiveness. We cannot be forgiven while we are planning to sin again. But our repentance does not cause forgiveness. All of the sacraments, including Penance, work ex opere operato, that is, objectively, from the power and presence of Christ in them, not from the power of our souls’ right subjective dispositions.
God has given this power to his Church: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (Jn 20:23).” “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19).
How does God’s forgiveness work? Theologians have different explanations. The Church does not dogmatically assert any one of them to the exclusion of others. As with electricity or gravity, we do not need to know how it works, we just need to know that it works.
Some explanations, or human analogies, given by Scripture are: the legal: Christ satisfied the demands of the law; the financial: Christ paid the price; the military: Christ defeated the devil; the mathematical: Christ restored the balance sheet; emancipation: Christ released us from the slavery into which we had sold ourselves; laundry: Christ washed us clean in his blood; scapegoat: Christ become our substitute; and shield: Christ endured God’s just wrath and shielded us from it.
What we know is not the spiritual technology, so to speak, the theory of how it works. What we know is something much more practical: what God did and what we must do. What did God do? He died. Christ’s death caused our sins to be forgiven. That is our divinely revealed data. How it worked is theological theory.
What God did was to become a man and suffer the hell we deserved in our place, for us. God got us off the hook by putting himself on the hook, on the Cross. The price of our soul was his body.
What must we do receive the forgiveness of sins? To the world’s most practical question —“What must I do to be saved?” — God has given us a clear answer: Repent, believe, and live in charity. These three requirements for salvation correspond to the three “theological virtues,” faith, hope and charity (1 Cor 13:13). Repentance involves hope in Christ, seeking God’s forgiveness. Baptism involves faith in Christ, accepting God’s forgiveness. Charity involves love of Christ and the members of his Body, loving the forgiven ones.
PETER KREEFT is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (Ignatius Press, 2001).
The Apostles’ Creed associates faith in the forgiveness of sins not only with faith in the Holy Spirit, but also with faith in the Church and in the communion of saints. It was when he gave the Holy Spirit to his apostles that the risen Christ conferred on them his own divine power to forgive sins: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #976