Following Part I in my new series of presentations, Finding Peace and Healing in a Troubled World, I was asked about the following. As Catholics, we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation to receive God’s forgiveness, Since Protestants and other religions do not, it would seem they must carry their sins throughout their lives on earth hoping they are forgiven.
First, I would like to offer a clarification. The Episcopal Church does have seven sacraments, including a sacrament of reconciliation. From what I am told, it is not often used but they do have it as an option as part of their beliefs. I do not know if any other Protestant denominations or non-Christian have anything paralleling confession as a formal ritual.
So, what do Protestants do for forgiveness? It is my understanding that Protestants have at least two perspectives on the forgiveness of sins. (Please note that I have not studied this in any formal way so I speak only in very general terms.) In the first perspective, in accepting Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior, one’s sins are completely “covered” up. Jesus died for their sins and they will be forgiven. In faith, they trust in God’s forgiveness, knowing that Jesus died for them. In this perspective, I don’t think there is any ritual for forgiveness (beyond what is included in their understanding of baptism). It is a matter of faith.
In the second perspective, Protestants say they confess their sins directly to God. They believe there is no need for a human intermediary. Forgiveness comes from God alone. As I said in Part I of my current series, Finding Peace and Healing in a Troubled World, the Old Testament understanding was that God alone forgives sins. However, in Matthew 9:1-8, Jesus teaches us that He has the power to forgive sins (cf. Mark 2:1-12). Then, in John 20:23, Jesus gives this power to the Apostles. Why does Jesus give the power to forgive sins to priests today? Because He knows that in our humanness, we need a tangible way to experience receiving the forgiveness.
For Protestants who confess their sins directly to God, it is a matter of faith. I leave this in God’s hands.
The person who offered the comment about Protestants carrying their guilt with them also asked about Catholics who do not go to confession. I think there at least a couple of perspectives to consider here.
First, there are Catholics who do not practice their faith and, hence, do not go to confession. The issue here really is not practicing their faith. So, this is beyond the scope of this article.
Secondly, there are Catholics who think going to Mass is enough. Regarding the forgiveness of sins, in our participation in celebrating the Eucharist, we are celebrating the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. In our celebration of the Eucharist, our venial sins are forgiven. Here one can reflect on the meaning of the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass (Lord have mercy…) and the prayer just before Communion, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” However, if one has committed mortal sin, one needs to go the Sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Communion.
For mortal sin, there are Catholics who say that they confess their sins directly to God. I think some people do this not understanding what the Catholic Church teaches and what is offered in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They do not mean to reject church teaching. They simply do not have a proper understanding. We leave them to the mercy of God.
For those who more consciously reject the idea of confessing their sins to a priest, I suspect their belief is not in defiance of church teaching. It is still rooted in an incomplete understanding of the Sacraments. In both of these cases, we need to pray for the people to open their hearts and receive teaching to help them understand what our faith teaches.
While perhaps not in the scope of the person’s question, I feel it appropriate to mention here Catholics who regularly practice their faith but do not go to Confession because they believe they have committed no sins. We pray that this be true. However, I think many have lost the sense of what sin is. Pre-Vatican many Catholics went to confession at least monthly, if not weekly. Those who didn’t go to Confession regularly, didn’t receive Communion. With the Second Vatican Council, the pendulum swung. Unfortunately it swung too far and now many people seldom go, if at all, because they see very little as mortal sin. So, they don’t think about it. I offer the same advice to them that I offer to anyone who asks how often they should go to Confession. You should regularly examine your conscience for sins. Ask God to help you see “wooden beam” in your own eye (see Luke 6:42). If you find you have committed sin, then go to confession. (You can find a printable Examination of Conscience on my website at http://nebula.wsimg.com/1f230be8589f626f0a601a60e3944af6?AccessKeyId=F465FCE598BCE1CD661B&disposition=0&alloworigin=1.)
Lastly, I would like to briefly mention those who do truly seek God’s forgiveness but struggle to feel forgiven. Know that God loves you and eagerly forgives you when you ask. I will attempt to address why one might not feel forgiven in Part II in my series, Finding Peace and Healing in a Troubled World, on March 24th. You can register for this webinar at https://us06web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_XWi3eGc2T3-20MoxwqaY6w .