Sin and Punishment

Tonight I’m struggling with Purgatory.

I guess I haven’t really thought much about it before. Like Mary did, it came upon me rather suddenly. Father Joe mentioned Purgatory briefly at RCIA on Sunday. I’ve been thinking lately about the nature of salvation, and the differences between the Catholic and evangelical Protestant conceptions of it. I’ve been reading Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and today read the chapters on salvation and Purgatory. It’s been a helpful book. It has drawn my attention to Catholic doctrines with which I still have questions and issues, and has helped me through grasping several of them.

The trouble with Keating is that sometimes I’m not sure he understands the fundamentalist position (or evangelical — his “fundamentalists” sound like every Southern evangelical I’ve ever known) any better than fundamentalists understand the Catholic one. For that matter, I’m not sure I understand the evangelical position very well either. I come from a theologically impoverished background; I have my own “feelings” about things, that aren’t always very rational or consistent. I have been saying for years, and still maintain, that theology is only man’s feeble attempt to grasp the mysteries of God that are ultimately beyond his comprehension. Grace and salvation may themselves be mysteries we will never fully understand. Scholasticism (at least, my prejudiced conception of it) deeply bothered me for a long time; I felt that it tried to regiment and reason away even the mysteries of faith. But the further I delve into Catholicism, the more I admire its consistency. The more I study, the more I find that many Protestant doctrines aren’t baked all the way through.

This is an awfully big bear to wrestle with in one post — I know I will be making many — so let me limit myself to the topic at hand: sin and punishment. This, if I’m not careful, multiplies into redemption, justification, salvation, and lots of other things. But what I really want to talk about is Purgatory.

I bought a worship CD a year or two ago, from a band I’d never heard of before called Branch. I bought it specifically because I was looking for a cover of the Gospel hymn “Nothing But the Blood,” and liked theirs. I was struggling with sin and those beautiful, powerful words kept echoing in my head:

O precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know;
nothing but the blood of Jesus.

I liked the CD. They had some really moving, impassioned songs about redemption and forgiveness. But one day I was listening to one of them, and it struck me in a way I hadn’t anticipated:

This is redemption written in his blood
This is forgiveness, the guilty go free
This is redemption, sinners get heaven 
This is a love song for those who believe

The guilty go free? Unexpectedly, these words troubled me deeply. Is that really what my religion espouses? Murderers, rapists, thieves, liars, and con men, getting off scot-free? Is that right? Is that just? Is that really what Christ’s redemption equates to? Criminals walking out of a courtroom unpunished?

Last night, Isaiah 53 came up in my Bible reading, entirely by random coincidence (though the older I get, the less I believe there’s any such thing). This is one of my dearest, most cherished passages of Scripture in the Bible. He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. Jesus suffered and died so our sins could be forgiven. I’ve always believed as a Protestant that one drop of His blood was enough to atone for a lifetime of my sins; that no matter what I did, His blood had purchased my forgiveness.

Covering. Keating writes of Luther’s conception of grace as a cloak:

[In the fundamentalist view,] accepting Christ accomplishes one thing and one thing only. It makes God cover one’s sinfulness. It makes him turn a blind eye to it. It is as though he hides the soul under a cloak. Any soul under this cloak is admitted to heaven, no matter how putrescent the reality beneath; no one without the cloak, no matter how pristine, can enter the pearly gates (Catholicism and Fundamentalism, 167).

Is this really what I believed? No, I don’t think it is. I have never accepted that I was “putrescent” or “totally depraved.” I have acknowledged that the sinful nature of my flesh was hopelessly sinful and flawed, that I could never be holy through my own power; but I maintained that there was a lot of good in me, by God’s grace. I never believed that I would go to Heaven as a rotting, putrid mass of sin; I had faith that Christ had cleansed me by His blood. There is power in the blood to wash away sins.

There is power, power, wonder working power
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

The blood, I believed, had washed me white as snow. Sometimes, after repenting and asking for God’s forgiveness, I would truly feel in a state of grace. But then I would turn right around and sin again. Was I “white as snow”? What part of me had been washed clean?

The guilty go free. On this earth, it’s a great travesty of justice for the guilty to go free. No matter how contrite the person is; no matter if they ask, and are forgiven, by the people they have wronged; crime demands punishment. I’ve never been a great proponent of the death penalty, but it always bothered me when death row convicts would argue that they deserved to be spared because they had found grace through Christ and changed their lives. Perhaps so; but nonetheless, they committed a crime; Christ may have paid their eternal debt, but they still owed one on this earth.

“Having one’s sins forgiven is not the same thing as having the punishment for them wiped out,” writes Keating (195). Certainly in my case above this holds true. It is not just for the guilty to go free. God is a just God; it was for our guilt that Christ had to suffer. But that wasn’t enough? “It is not contrary to the Redemption to say we must suffer for our sins; it is a matter of justice” (194).

I have believed, as do Catholics, and as do the (Protestant) composers of the hymns above, that Christ washes away our sins; that he washes us clean. Maybe it’s not as instantaneous a process as I thought. But nonetheless, I will be washed clean. Perhaps Christ’s Redemption is analogous to him taking my death penalty for me: he died for my sins so I wouldn’t have to die spiritually; so I wouldn’t have to suffer eternal torment; instead, I only have to go to his prison, where daily I’ll bathe in his cathartic blood, until I really am white as snow.

6 thoughts on “Sin and Punishment

  1. Would you write a post from the perspective of _Catholicus Nascens_ on “sin”, itself? Is it anything and everything we do slightly wrong? Are mortal and venial (genial) sins punished differently? Etc. The Wikipedia article is an impoverished source for wisdom. The best i could get was “While the Roman Catholic tradition has identified particular acts as ‘mortal’ sins, in the Orthodox tradition we see that only a sin for which we don’t repent is ‘mortal.'” -Fr Allyne Smith

  2. “Is it anything and everything we do slightly wrong?” No, not from the Catholic perspective. It’s one of the teachings that springs from “total depravity” (arguably Calvin, and Luther at times said about as much) that human beings in sin (let’s say an “unsaved” person) can’t do ANYTHING good. Even their attempts to do something good aren’t actually good, and are always still counted as bad, because we can’t attain a pure intention. Catholics would maintain that it’s always HARD to act from a pure intention, and outside of grace you can’t grow in what are known as the theological virtues (the specifically Christian acts of faith, hope, and love), but it can be done. Where Luther and Calvin wade into even deeper water is questioning if the “saved” person is able to do good acts. I’m not a Luther scholar, but I’ve read places where he argued that no, even a saved Christian can’t do something good — or if he does, it’s somehow irrelevant to his spiritual state. This was so Luther could preserve his sense of our total dependence on Christ and grace for God’s favor.

    Purgatory, and “meritorious acts,” and all the other things that Catholics talk about that often confuse Protestants are based on a single principle, which is: Although we are dependent on God’s grace, part of being saved involves having our wills and our ability to act redeemed. We fell into sin through disobedience; how could God save us through negating our will completely, or saving us against our will? We don’t initiate the relationship of grace – God does that – but we respond, we cooperate, we act in union with God, we are obedient, and that is full redemption. And we gain that ability to cooperate by the outpouring of God’s mercy and grace, through our death and union with Christ.

    I think ultimately, when it comes to salvation, evangelicals get their math wrong. They think of it in terms of substitutionary atonement, in ways that are too simplistic. It’s always been a part of the Christian tradition on salvation and atonement that Christ died *instead of us*. Don’t get me wrong. But perhaps a more Catholic way to look at it is to say that Christ took on our humanity and took on the penalty we deserved — but for us to join him in the resurrection and redemption of our humanity, it’s not that we need to make an act of intellectual belief and “call on the Name” like we’re cashing a check. It’s that we need to join him in death, and that death is dying to our old selves and “putting on” Christ. It’s obedience and being responsible for our actions and continually asking for forgiveness, because we (most of us anyway) aren’t capable of giving ourselves over to Christ in a single act of will. We’re forgiven, and invited to live in union with Christ, through the sacraments and through prayer, during our time on earth, but to live the FULLEST Christian life we are also called to suffer and labor. That’s what our human nature calls for, and that is the supernatural life that Christ lived on earth. Suffering for Catholics can be redeemed because of Christ’s suffering. The meaningless suffering of punishment, which multiplies pain without contrition and healing, is transformed in the crucifixion into a hopeful redemptive loving act. This kind of teaching about suffering and doing penance for your wrongs (as well as other people’s wrongs) is much, MUCH more common among Catholics, and you can find it in all kinds of books aimed at popular reading audiences — it’s not “edgy” or academic or so on, the way it currently often is in evangelical circles.

    To get back to that other comment, too: the Catholic and Orthodox approach to categorizing sins is a bit different, but much more out of differences in practice than differences in theology. The historical development of penance and confession is a long one. But suffice it to say, mortal sins are sins that keep you from communing, and venial sins are imperfections that don’t. There’s no huge list in the sky, although a mortal sin is (a) about something serious, “grave matter,” that is (b) done in full knowledge that it’s a serious sin, and (c) done willingly. It can be difficult to judge these things for yourself in real life. But that’s why you go to confession and talk to the priest about it. The theology of mortal and venial sins was not developed to be a sort of abstract account book, it was developed for use in confession, and for use in helping to form us into Christians who are more aware of ourselves and of our need to ask for forgiveness. That’s why an Orthodox person might contrast their view of sin with the Catholic one. But Orthodox are still supposed to have repented and confessed their sins (they also have sacramental confession) before receiving communion, so in a way it comes down to the same thing.


  3. I also wanted to say, more personally, that when I moved from thinking of my salvation as “assured, already taken care of, effortlessly cashed in when I said okay, never truly in question, completely wiped away by Christ, not my effort at all” to “in progress, dependent on my actions and on my heart, demanding my cooperation” — it didn’t come easily. At first, while I could accept it intellectually or imaginatively (not sure what word I really mean), it threw me for a loop emotionally. Suddenly I didn’t know how to pray. It didn’t help that I’d never been baptized and so, sacramentally, I felt completely on the outside of grace. (In face, grace is given outside of the sacraments, and grace is necessary for us to feel the desire for the sacraments!) Psychologically speaking, I’d always approached Jesus as someone on “my side.” Now I suddenly felt like he wasn’t; I felt like he was judging me and my sin made him turn away from me. Now, I know that Christ never TRULY turns away from us when we turn away from him, and he’s always on “my side” in a fiercer way, but it really illuminated for me that, for most of my life, I’d basically been presuming that I was “okay.” And not even because I was an “okay person,” although I certainly thought that — no, I just thought, “Jesus died for me and I accepted, so now my sin doesn’t matter to him.” That’s a real degradation of the gospel. Moreover, I’d set up a kind of imaginary “friend Jesus” who was, in reality, more of a psychological extension of myself. (Everyone is susceptible to this, I think, no matter what their theology.) I thought that if Jesus knew my intentions, and if I were already assured to go to heaven, I must be one of the good guys who Jesus just couldn’t have the heart to punish in the end.

    The way I thought actually didn’t measure up to the significance of Christ, and of me and my sins, but also to the dignity of other people, the “unsaved.” On what grounds did I say that Jesus would deal with them with firm justice, but towards me with weak mercy? Actually, he will treat all of us with justice AND mercy. How justice and mercy can meet, the way they do in Christ, is part of the Christian mystery. Catholics articulate this mystery in one way by the practice of penance (and Purgatory is only an extension of penance). There’s a lot to read about it and I definitely don’t understand very much beyond this. You’re completely right, Joseph, that the Catholic tradition has been very focused on coming up with reasoned answers that make sense, and it’s a wonderful relief. (The logic in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, for instance, is a truly beautiful thing to read.) But in face, the source of all this thinking is such a long stream of Christian *practice.* You’d probably never be able to come up with an “answer” for the interplay between justice and mercy in the life of God, if you weren’t already deeply entrenched in “working out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

    And I should also say that, once I got over the emotional feelings of distance and rejection, and reevaluated what I thought Jesus “owed” me, it was still ANOTHER difficulty to actually learn how to start confessing regularly. An evangelical learning to have a sacramentally-based spiritual life is like someone learning to swim. Because I was never, ever trained to think of God as someone who manifested himself in ritual events or actions. Even when we’d go on retreats and they would try and give us “mountain top” experiences, it was all built on the devotional foundation of revivalism and spontaneity. A ritual life is completely different. (And completely better. But. That’s just what I think. 😉 )

    • Thanks so much for your posts. I think the alienation I’ve felt from my evangelical roots, the lack of any depth in my theological understanding to begin with, and the pain and desperation of many of the struggles I’d been having, have all contributed to easing the blow of transitioning my views. As I said in my most recent post, what I was doing clearly wasn’t working. It wasn’t doing what it was promising. It was nice to think of Jesus as a “buddy,” but palling around wasn’t winning any battles for me; I desperately needed some tough love. And it came as a great relief to me. I am very much looking forward to confession; how wonderful it will be to have a trusted figure who knows what I’m going through and is “on my side,” but is there to administer that “tough love” through penance. Audrey says Father Joe’s penances are always thoughtful and not legalistic, concentrated on the healing of the soul; among other things, he makes her read books.

      • That’s great, it sounds like he’ll be a very good confessor! A good confessor is priceless… my priest at home doesn’t necessarily give me very hard penances, but the way he responds to things and talks things through helps me to recover the right amount of shame for my sins with the right amount of relief and gratitude to God for his forgiveness. Not to say that I’ve been malleable clay on the potter’s wheel, or anything – but some things are improving. Sometimes you need the same confessor time after time (and it’s recommended, so they can get to know your situation and your struggles), but sometimes I also like to take the opportunity to confess completely anonymously to a stranger priest, because the psychological effect of that can make me reevalute myself in the eyes of God.

        I was very nervous to confess for the first time — and in fact, after I was baptised, I felt an almost crushing weight of anxiety about the step I’d taken in my spiritual life. It was like, now I’m actually accountable for the things I do, even the things I think. Part of that is probably that I was young — I was only an evangelical until I was 18, and as people mature (hopefully) they start taking their life more seriously. In some ways I had taken things seriously for a long time. But I still always felt like I had an inner sanctum where I could really just let go and not have to account for myself to myself. That changed when I became Catholic, and one reason it felt so heavy was that I knew I would have to reveal parts of that inner sanctum to another living person. God is easier to ignore when he’s not listening to you on the other side of the grate. I understood that, in a very real way, I’d just handed my life over to God, and I couldn’t go back even if I’d wanted to. But thank God, my first confession was painless (I only had one week to account for…) and I walked out with complete joy and hope. I was like, I get it now! The sacraments are great!

        And over four years on, I still love confession and still often get that feeling. But of course the real goal isn’t that feeling, it’s victory over the sin in your life. I can say that, no matter how helpful confession is, and no matter how real the sacraments, if your heart is not in the place where it can receive God’s grace and change, things will just go on as they are. I’m impatient a lot of the time because change doesn’t happen instantly. God works silently, over a long time, but he also sometimes turns things over in a heartbeat and you have to move on from that point. The real battlefield is the human heart — but that battle for me over the past four years has been intimately tied up with my practice of confession and communion. It has a way of externalizing the problem so you can deal with it more easily — and, though you might not be able to feel or see it, it also gives you the grace you need to change. I always feel like urging my evangelical friends and family to just walk into a confessional and start confessing, start talking to the priest (they couldn’t commune, and the priest might not be able to grant absolution in the normal way, but at least they would be getting closer) — but, understandably, they are either too uncomfortable with it, or they think it’d be worthless and they’d rather talk to an accountability partner*. (*Not that many evangelicals seem to actually HAVE and USE accountability partners for any significant length of time.) I understand it, but I still wish for their sake that they could…

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