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How to Answer Protestants Forum: Penance and Confession

by Catherine Frakas 29 Aug 2002

Penance and Confession QUESTION from Elizabeth August 11, 2001 I converted to Catholicism in March of 2000. My mother, however, has remained in my old faith, Fundamental Protestantism. She says that it is an insult to Jesus when we try to pay for our own sins, in reference to Penance and Confession. How would I be able to explain the importance of these Sacraments?

ANSWER by Mr. Troy Martz on August 15, 2001 Dear Elizabeth:
Welcome home to the Church! Two weeks ago was my 13 anniversary of becoming Catholic and I am a more full Christian than I ever could have imagined in my Fundamentalist/Pentecostal faith.
That being said, I have to agree with your mother -- we in no way can ever pay the debts for our sins. Redemption is only possible by the Grace of God poured out on his Church through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This has always been the consistant teaching of the Catholic Church since the time of the Apostles.
The problem with the Fundamentalist position is that it stops there. Though Christ paid a debt he didn't owe because we owed a debt we couldn't pay, does not mean that we have no role to play in our Redemption. Penance (after Sacramental Confession) is our effort to make amends for the wrongs which we have done and from which we have been forgiven. Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say:

Satisfaction 1459 Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. [emphasis mine] Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must make satisfaction for or expiate his sins. This satisfaction is also called penance. 1460 The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent's personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. [again, emphasis mine] They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, provided we suffer with him.

So you see, the teaching of the Church, as proclaimed officially and authoritatively in the Catechism of the Catholic Church , clearly states that Jesus alone expiated our sins. Our job, as St. Paul reminds us, is to join ourselves to Christ:

But if we are children, we are heirs, as well: heirs of God, heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so as to be glorified with him. Romans 8:17
My suggestion is for you to spend time with both God's Word in Scripture and the authoritative interpretation of God's Word in the Catechism.
One last thing: Ask you mother if we are not supposed to DO anything with ourselves accept passively accept salvation, how do you explain St. Paul's claim to fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ in Colossians 3:24 and St. James' discussion on Faith and Works in James 2. That should keep her thinking for a while.
Pax Christi, Troy Martz

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