Divine Forgiveness: Joyful Assurance or False Hope?
By Mike Gendron
Anyone who has read the Bible knows that man's greatest problem is sin. There is a day of judgment coming when God's holy anger will be poured out on unforgiven sinners. Since no one can escape God's justice, man's greatest need is divine forgiveness. Every other human need in this life pales in comparison with our need to be forgiven of the eternal debt for our sins. Without God's forgiveness, we would all be destined for a fiery furnace with absolutely no hope of escape. God created man to exist forever, either eternally separated from Him in hell because of sin, or eternally reconciled to Him in heaven because of His forgiveness. Those who have experienced God's forgiveness are blessed with an everlasting joy and a peace that surpasses all understanding. However there are many who have never been forgiven because they have been deceived about this most important doctrine. There is no excuse for being deceived because God's word sets forth the truth plainly for everyone to see. The Scriptures reveal how God graciously forgives sins completely and forever.
Catholicism - An Extension of Judaism
Many professing Christians believe their sins can not be forgiven until they confess them. This is due in part to the deceptive influence of Roman Catholicism. Catholics are required to confess specific mortal sins to priests and then make satisfaction for them before they can be forgiven (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 1459). In many ways the Roman Catholic religion is an extension of Judaism under the old covenant. Jews were required to confess specific sins and bring guilt offerings to the Lord for them (Lev. 5:56). They depended upon a sacrificial priesthood for the forgiveness of sins. Catholics have the same dependence upon their priesthood. "Only priests can forgive sins in the name of Christ" (CCC, 1495).
Under the Old Covenant, sins were covered by the sacrifice of animals, but the sacrifices could never make Jews perfect. In the same way, the Sacrifice of the Mass can never make Catholics perfect, which is why the Mass must be repeated every day. However, under the New Covenant of Christ's blood, His one sacrifice has made perfect forever those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:14).
Opposition to God's Word
As with so many other Catholic doctrines, Rome's teachings on confession and forgiveness stand in opposition to the Word of God. The following fallacious teachings are found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1423 to 1498. Through the sacrament of Penance, Catholics make "the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin." Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace. The sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. This sacrament is the second plank of salvation after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace. This second conversion is necessary because sin is a rupture of communion with God. Penance is the only ordinary means of reconciliation with God and with the Church. The authority of priests is expressed in Christ's solemn words to Simon Peter: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mat. 16:19). "Bind and loose" means whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his.
God's Promise of Forgiveness
In those few Catholic teachings, we see many denials of God's promises. His Word reveals that those who have been born of God through faith in Jesus Christ will never be separated from the love of God (Rom. 8:3339). At the cross God forgave all the sins of all believers. They are all gone, completely forgiven and forever forgotten: the sins against God, against man, against the body, against the law, the sins of commission and the sins of omission, the sins in the past and the sins in the future (Col. 2:13-14). All are removed as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). This forgiveness is given freely to those who repent and believe the Gospel (Luke 24:47; Acts 10:43). Once sinners have been reconciled to God, future sins can never cause death or separation because God no longer counts sins against them (2 Cor. 5:19). The Bible never speaks of falling in and out of fellowship with God. It never speaks of "a new possibility to convert and recover the grace of justification." Justification is eternal and conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit who, along with Christ, guarantees the relationship will never be broken (Heb. 10:14,13:5; Eph. 1: 13-14).
Satisfaction For Sins
Rome's proclamation that sinners can make satisfaction for their sins is both erroneous and foolish speculation. The sin debt is eternal, no finite man could ever cancel the infinite sin debt. The redemption of his soul is costly, and he should cease trying forever (Psalm 49:8). Nowhere does the Bible say "Penance is the only ordinary means of reconciliation with God." What it does make clear is the only grounds for forgiveness and reconciliation is the precious blood of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:7: 1 Pet. 1:19). At Calvary, the very thorns God used to curse the earth were worn by the one who became a curse for us. God's righteous rage, which had been stored up for over 4000 years of man's sin, exploded upon the spotless, innocent lamb. In an instant God's eternal wrath was poured out on His only Son. Two hearts that have been eternally joined together were torn apart. Divine holiness was forced to repel the bearer of human sin. The all-sufficient Savior made complete satisfaction for sin. To teach otherwise is to blaspheme God and rob Christ of His glory and honor.
Binding and Loosing
Nowhere in the New Testament do we see divine power given to a sacrificial priesthood to bind and loose. Nowhere do we see the need to confess sins to a man in order to be forgiven. The keys which were given to Peter in Matthew 16:19 represent the authority (not the power) to make pronouncements concerning sin. This authority is given to everyone who has received the Spirit, as we see in John 20:22-23. Jesus said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained." Every believer can use the authority of God's word to say to those who believe the Gospel: "Your sins are forgiven." Likewise, believers can say to those who reject the Gospel: "Your sins are retained." During my 37 years in the Roman Catholic Church, no priest ever asked me if I believe the Gospel. Tragically, I left the confessional box hundreds of times with a false hope, believing I was forgiven, but still carrying the eternal debt for sin.
The Origin of Penance
The Catechism gives the following history of how the ungodly practice of penance originated. During the first centuries the reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism, (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to a very rigorous discipline. Accordingly, penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation. During the seventh century, Irish missionaries took to Europe the "private" practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest. This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament. It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration (CCC, 1447).
The Lord's Prayer
Catholics point to the Lord's prayer as the scriptural authority for the sacrament of Penance. When Jesus taught the Jewish disciples how to pray, His prayer included: "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Mat. 6:4). Then Jesus gave this condition: "if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions" (Mat. 6:15). Is forgiveness of sins still conditional today? No! Jesus taught this under the old covenant which was not fulfilled until His death. In the old covenant, blessings and forgiveness were conditional on man's obedience to God. Repeatedly God said: "if you ... then I." One example: "'If .. you do not obey Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins." (Lev. 26:18).
Jesus is now the mediator of a new covenant. At the last supper He said: "this is My blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins" (Mat. 26:28). Now we are called to "forgive each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32). Those who trust the blood of Jesus are forgiven forever, because His sacrifice was perfect, His Father was satisfied, His resurrection was proof, justice was served, death was defeated and the Spirit was sent to guarantee an eternal inheritance!