Thinking about Sin

As I’ve been pondering theology lately, it occurred to me: All this time I’ve been charging that theology is human, man-made, artificial; that it is only man’s attempt to comprehend the mysteries of God in his own feeble, limited, human mind. And we cannot possibly fully comprehend God. And that is true. But that doesn’t mean that theology is unimportant. Because it can profoundly affect the way we live our lives, the way we approach the world, and the way we approach God.

The past week or two I’ve been reading about Calvinist and Arminian and Catholic soteriology — views of sin, and grace, and justification. I’m trying to get a full, balanced view, by reading all sides of the matter, and sometimes that’s a lot of work. I’m realizing how fully and how very different the Catholic and Protestant views really are. It is a lot to wrap my head around.

Catholics charge — and I’ve read this several places, most recently here — that Protestant theology doesn’t truly believe in the eradication of sin from our lives: that when we are forgiven and justified, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, despite our own inherent sinfulness, and God declares us righteous before Him. Though I was never formally taught that, this seems to be consistent with my Protestant way of thinking.

There is a quote from Luther that I’ve seen and heard many places, and I wish I could find the original context — but the only thing I can find when I google is Catholics criticizing the doctrine. Perhaps my Lutheran friend can help? Luther is said to have taught that justification is like a cloak or a white sheet thrown over the putrid, rotting sin of the human soul: that we are only declared righteous before God while remaining sinners; that we are not truly washed clean, only our sins and our shame are covered. Is this true? I know Protestant theology makes a distinction between justification and sanctification. Hopefully, after this covering, there would be some actual purification and cleansing through God’s grace?

Catholic theology, on the other hand, doesn’t make the distinction between justification and sanctification. The two are inseparable, part of the same process, practically synonymous. When our sins are washed away through Baptism, they are really washed away. When we are forgiven and absolved through Reconciliation, our sins are really taken away, blotted out. This gives a much more satisfying and clean feeling.

But the difference is this: Protestants believe that the experience of justification is a once-and-for-all legal declaration; that when we are justified, Christ throws the white sheet and all our sins are covered; that when Christ’s righteousness has been imputed, no sin we could ever do can be held against us; that Christ paid the price for all our sins for all time. Catholics, on the other hand, believe that justification is a continuing, lifelong process. That though Christ paid the price for all our sins, we have to go back again and again to be forgiven when we fall, to receive that justification again. That when we sin again after our baptismal regeneration, the sin actually sullies our soul, damages our connection with God and with the Church — in the case of grave, mortal sin, even severs it. There is no white sheet protecting us, covering our shame: we are naked, and when we sin, filthy. Reconciliation is not just a formality; it is a sacrament of actual, spiritual healing. Through the grace of Penance, God washes us clean again, heals our wounds, and restores our damaged connection.

And this can have profound consequences for the way we think about sin. For years and years as a Protestant, I struggled with the same sin (I still do, only now I am actually struggling). I assuaged myself, told myself that God knew I was sinful, knew I was a wretch, and that He’d already forgiven me; that nothing I could ever do could take away my salvation. There was never any impetus to truly repent, to truly strive for holiness. And so I didn’t. For a long time I would pray and ask for forgiveness, say I was sorry; but then go right back to doing the same thing. After a while, I stopped even pretending to repent, believing that God “understood” and had it covered.

That’s not a Christian way to live. I hope and believe that that’s not the way most Protestants live, that most Protestants do indeed strive after repentance and holiness as the Bible teaches — but I know that it was an easy fallacy for me to fall into, believing what I did about justification. Now, as a Catholic, I am realizing more and more vividly that sin is something severely harmful and menacing — that not only does it harm me temporally, make me miserable, but it harms my relationship with God; it causes me to fall from grace; it threatens my immortal soul. More than ever before — where I have not had it before — I feel the drive to repentance and to holiness.

10 thoughts on “Thinking about Sin

  1. Glad to hear that you are willing to make the effort and study the differences between protestant and roman catholic theology.

    I would encourage you to check out the Westminster Confession of Faith. It’s a very good summary of protestant (Calvinist) beliefs and it explains our view of justification, sanctification, good works, etc.

    Also, the book of Romans is a good place to read about justification. Justification is through faith alone and all whom God justifies, He glorifies.

    God bless you with your study!

    • Hi, thanks for the comment! Yes, I have been reading a good bit about Calvinism lately. You might want to look back at my last few posts, and especially at one I hope will be coming up soon. I read the Westminster Confession a few years ago, but I should read it again. I’ll make that a task. As well as some of the other Protestant statements of faith.

      And, you know, the interpretation of Romans is one of the fundamental disagreements between Catholics and Protestants and even between Calvinists and other Protestants. Catholics and Protestants have significantly different understandings of justification. Would you say that the way I’ve described it above — more as a cloak covering sin than an actual purgation of sin; a legal declaration that one is righteous before God, having been imputed with Christ’s righteousness — agrees with your understanding?

      • The way I understand it is that justification refers to the legal declaration that one is pardoned from their sins, while sanctification refers to 1) Christ’s obedience imputed to us (our holy status before God) and 2) our progression towards holiness while still on earth.

        Sometimes people include the 1st point of sanctification within justification.

        Also, it’s important to note that justification and sanctification never occur alone and they are always part of salvation.

        • Thanks. Catholics agree that justification and sanctification and both part of the same process. Does the “white sheet” metaphor fit with your understanding of justification? Is one actually cleansed of the stain of sins having been committed, or are they only covered? Is there ever a washing away? Or, perhaps, you don’t think of sin so much as a “stain”?

          I know many of my favorite evangelical hymns had imagery of the washing away of sins. That’s very common language. “What can wash away my sin? / Nothing but the Blood of Jesus.” “He plunged me to victory / Beneath the cleansing flood.”

      • Hmm, the white sheet metaphor could work as long as the cleansing of sin is included in it. I haven’t read much of Luther himself, but knowing a bit about him I assume he wasn’t saying that we are covered with righteousness but who we really are inside stays the same.

        • Thanks. I did some extensive, hard-core googling, and found that many Protestants affirm the “washing away of sins in the blood of the Lamb,” as implied in Revelation 7:14. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) — the Greek word αἴρωv (as the Latin tollis) entails a taking up, a taking upon oneself, a taking away, a removing, a destruction or cancellation. I think it’s Luther in particular who had a negative opinion of sinful human nature.

  2. I think you may be referring to the Saint/Sinner dilemma. Early Lutheran theologians wrestled with the reality that, though we are washed clean of our sin, we still sin. How is that possible? I looked through the Augsburg Confession, but there’s not much on continuing sin. I found this remark in the rather colorful Smalcald Articles (sort of an angry Luther’s theological “last will”):

    “I cannot change at all what I have consistently taught about this until now, namely, that ‘through faith’ (as St. Peter says) we receive a different, new, clean heart and that, for the sake of Christ our mediator, God will and does regard us as completely righteous and holy. Although sin in the flesh is still not completely gone or dead, God will nevertheless not count it or consider it.”
    -Smalcald Articles, III 13.

    The Formula of Concord goes into this matter in detail, though:

    “However, when we teach that through the activity of the Holy Spirit we are born anew and become righteous, this does not mean that after rebirth unrighteousness no longer clings to the essence and life of the justified and reborn. Instead, it means that with his perfect obedience Christ has covered all their sins, which inhere in human nature during this life. These sins are not taken into account; instead, even though the justified and reborn and and remain sinners to the grave because of their corrupted nature, they are regarded as upright and are pronounced righteous through faith, because of this obedience (which Christ performed on our behalf for his Father, from his birth to his most shameful death on the cross). This does not mean, on the other hand, that we may or should pursue sinning or remain and continue in sin without repentance, conversion, and improvement.”
    -Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article III: Righteousness

    I believe this is where the “sheet” image comes from. This is how I understand it.

    Humans are born with original sin. Baptism washes away that sin. Human beings continue to sin and are forgiven again and again, as the process repeats over and over (but original sin is only washed/forgiven once and is gone for good). Through this whole process of constant sinning and forgiveness, the righteousness of God is cast over us so that at all times we are counted as righteous, though we are not always righteous in our actions. So we are both declared righteous once-and-for-all, but undergo a continuing process of sanctification.I may be wrong in my interpretation.

    You bring up a very good point about people choosing to sin because they “know” they are forgiven. That has been the Protestant struggle from the very beginning. The conclusion that because we are justified we can do whatever we want is firmly denied by Protestant theologians as an abuse, just as salvation-through-works is an abuse of Roman Catholic doctrine. Protestants teach that, although good works don’t justify, we still do them because 1) we love God and don’t want to do something that would hurt God, and 2) people need them. One who does not believe that his or her actions are important to God does not understand the grace and love of God.

    • Thanks for the explanation and quotes. I’m beginning to think the actual quote I’m looking for doesn’t exist. I’m now the top hit for it when I google words I think ought to be in it…

      I think this may be a case (one of many) of Catholics not fully understanding Protestant doctrine, and not waiting for the other party to finish their sentence. The issue at hand seems to be a difference between the Protestant doctrine of imputed grace and the Catholic doctrine of infused grace. And I don’t fully understand those yet. But I believe in the Protestant one, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer, making him blameless before God, despite his sins; whereas infused grace in Catholic doctrine actually cleanses and purifies and makes the believer holy. Since Catholics don’t make a distinction between justification and sanctification, whoever started this rumor (that’s what it seems to be, since nothing I find has a source citation attached to it; it’s possible that this Catholic Encyclopedia article itself is to blame) that Protestants don’t believe in being cleansed of sins may not have understood that sanctification is the process, in Protestant doctrine, by which a believer becomes holy.

      • We both have a long history of not fully understanding each other. I have actually not heard of the distinction between Imputed and Infused grace–an interesting pair of ideas that, through different means, ultimately arrive at the same conclusion: righteousness before God.

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