The latest in a series of “Grappling with Protestant Theology,” a path in my ongoing conversion story, dealing with how, in my life growing up, Protestant theology prepared the path for my coming to the Catholic Church.
So yes, I struggled for a long time with sin and fell into complacency on account of the thought, picked up secondhand from Evangelical teaching, that because I was a believer, “all my sins were already forgiven,” that I was “covered by God’s grace” no matter what I did. In some sense this is a misapprehension of Evangelical thought, but it is nonetheless what I took from it. I found far more comfort in the assurance that I couldn’t be judged for my sins than in what was supposed to be the good news, that God’s grace could set me free from those sins.
I clung to this thought desperately, like a drowning man clings to the mast of his ship in a storm. Though it became, in a sense, a “license to sin,” it was never a justification for licentiousness. I hated who I was and what I was doing, what I couldn’t stop doing. I knew it wasn’t the life I was called to as a Christian. But it was, I was convinced, who I was; and believing above all else that God loved me, that I was His child, I resigned that God must love me the way I was.
Did this ever, in my mind, justify the behavior? Did this make the sin “okay” in God’s eyes? Though in some ways I think I approached this, if pushed, I never would have claimed that any of it was a good: at most, it was a necessary evil, the wages of being a sinful human being. Though I made excuses, that it was “natural” and “normal”; though I numbed my conscience to the point that I didn’t feel much guilt — that guilt was, after all, the pain I wanted to escape more than anything — I still knew it was wrong.
And in this acknowledgement there was something else buried deeper: I knew that I wasn’t right with God. With guilt, there was also shame: I knew that how I was living was against God’s commands and against His will. I knew that every time I consciously chose my sin, I was consciously choosing to disobey God and reject Him. And the real reason, more than any other, why I stopped going to church, why I stopped reading Scripture, why I stopped regularly praying, was that I couldn’t face this contradiction. No matter what I told myself in private, I couldn’t pretend in public that everything was “all right” in my relationship with God.
Certain schools of Evangelicals speak of being “positionally righteous” before God, no matter if they be practically sinful; “God doesn’t see your sin,” I’ve commonly heard, and this is part and parcel of the penal substitutionary view of the Atonement, the essential Protestant view that justification is a purely forensic act by which Christ’s righteousness is exchanged for our sinfulness such that His righteousness is the only thing God sees. In this view, shame for our sin makes no sense, and I’ve even heard Evangelicals decry shame as a lie. But this sounds to me like exactly the kind of conscience-deadening self-delusion that I tried to practice for years. Deep down, I knew: As a spiritual being, as a partaker of the Holy Spirit, I knew, from the very beginning and always, that when I willingly sinned, I was choosing to turn away from God; and I felt a loss, a wound, a gaping hole in my heart, that no amount of complacency or assurance could assuage.
I do understand the Evangelical reasoning for rejecting shame. Shame can be a crushing burden and a tie that binds, locking people in a cycle of sin and guilt, feeling that they’ve failed and are therefore failures. I believe, though, that it is precisely this Evangelical misunderstanding of sin and of grace that facilitates this cycle. In the Evangelical view of justification, the grace of God is primarily seen as a change in God’s disposition toward the sinner: God, rather than seeing a sinner and his sin, overlooks this and sees only the righteousness of Christ. All a believer’s sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven, even before they are conceived, committed, or confessed; since the blood of the Cross was given once and for all, all sins forever are forgiven once and for all. Therefore there is no reason for a believer to ask for forgiveness for sins committed after he became a believer; in fact I’ve even heard the very notion of doing so decried, as a second-guessing of the power of God’s grace and the completeness of Christ’s work on the cross. But — and this is the key — this circumvents an essential human spiritual response, the way God created us to react to sin, the way the Holy Spirit convicts us and compels us, the natural outlet for these feelings of guilt and shame: to repent, to feel contrition, to confess, and to be forgiven and healed.
Cutting off this outlet — denying its necessity — leads to a kind of spiritual constipation: the state of not being able to release the natural feelings of guilt and shame we feel when we sin, and so to obtain relief. To pretend that these are not natural feelings, that we have no reason to feel shameful, is like suppressing or ignoring the spirit’s natural urges: it is to deny the conviction of the Holy Spirit. It has exactly the opposite of its intended effect: by insisting that all forgiveness has already been given, it denies that any forgiveness is available in the present as a salve for our spiritual wounds. It is contrary to Scripture, which again and again, presents a model of regular repentance and promised forgiveness and healing: In Jesus’s model prayer, the daily petition to the Father to “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). The constant promise to believers: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The essential connection between confession of sins, forgiveness, and healing: “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:15-16).
In the golden words of St. John Chrysostom, which I discovered this morning so opportunely:
Do not be ashamed to enter again into the Church. Be ashamed when you sin. Do not be ashamed when you repent. Pay attention to what the devil did to you. These are two things: sin and repentance. Sin is a wound; repentance is a medicine. Just as there are for the body wounds and medicines, so for the soul are sins and repentance. However, sin has the shame and repentance possesses the courage. (Homily 8, On Repentance and Almsgiving)