As we have seen, the two effects of sin are guilt and penalty. God can forgive the guilt while still imposing the penalty, as Scripture frequently shows Him to do. For example, when Moses struck the rock twice because he lacked faith in God’s mercy, God was angry and punished him, saying: “Because you have not believed Me before the children of Israel, you shall not bring these people into the land.” (Numbers 20:12) There is no doubt that God forgave this sin of Moses and yet He still required the penalty from him and did not let him lead the chosen people into the promised land (Numbers 34:4). Again King David sinned grievously by taking the wife of Urias and plotting his death. When Nathan brought home to the King the foulness of his sin, David repented and was forgiven but the penalty was exacted: “The Lord hath taken away thy sin . . . Nevertheless . . . the child that is born to thee shall surely die.” (2nd Kings 12:13,14)
God Punishes Sin
Saint Paul also teaches that God exacts punishments for sin even while forgiving the guilt: “If we recognize our own fault, we should not incur these judgments; as it is, the Lord judges us and chastises us, so that we may not incur, as this world incurs, damnation” (1st Corinthians 11:31,32, Knox translation). Again, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 12 there is this same lesson of paternal punishment for sin, given, not to the unrepentant and unforgiven, but to those whom God treats as His own sons. A father’s correction is both to punish and to correct the wrong-doing of his child.
God Forgives Sin
A soul dead in mortal sin cannot merit the remission of any of the penalty due to sin and therefore the guilt must be forgiven before the penalty. Venial sin, on the other hand, does not destroy all friendship with God, and so we can still merit forgiveness of the penalty due to all the sins of which we have repented, but not of any we have not repented.
First Condition Of Forgiveness Is Sorrow
The first condition of forgiveness of sin is sorrow, or, as we call it, contrition. By mortal sin we turn our will away from God and we declare our refusal to love Him. Before He can restore friendship we must turn our will back to Him by sorrow for having offended Him, and we must resolve to avoid sinning against Him again, with a firm purpose of amendment. Even though venial sin does not make us God’s enemies, it does offend God and, therefore, we must be sorry for it before it can be forgiven. If we have true sorrow we will be determined not to run the risk of sinning by going into dangerous occasions of sin; and we must be willing to make satisfaction to God’s justice by paying the penalty due to our sins.
Sorrow for sin, to be true contrition, must arise from the fact that we have offended God and not from any merely human motive. Hence to rouse this true contritution in our soul we must use supernatural means, such as prayer and pious meditation on the goodness of God, and on all that we owe to Him, and all that we deserve to lose, as a result of our sins, and on His infinite goodness to us. Then we should let our minds dwell on the wonderful love and mercy our Saviour showed us by His sufferings and death. Even the lowest supernatural motive, which acknowledges God’s justice and, therefore, shows a turning of our will back to Him, which is the minimum love required to fulfil His commandments, will be accepted by God as sufficient if we receive sacramental grace. This imperfect contrition arises from fear of punishment.
A far higher motive for our sorrow would be our pure love of God. Our Saviour has promised: “If any one love Me, he will keep My commandments, and My Father will love him, and We will come and make Our abode in him.” (John 14:23) Hence pure love of God is of itself sufficient to merit the immediate forgiveness of all our sins without receiving sacramental grace. The test, however, of this love is readiness to obey all that Christ commands and, as we shall see, one of His commands is that we seek forgiveness from His priests. Therefore Catholics, who know this command, must intend to confess their sins, even though the guilt is already forgiven, but this obligation cannot bind those who are ignorant of this command of Christ through no fault of their own.
Priests Have Power To Forgive Sins
Christ gave the power to forgive sins to His apostles to be handed down in His Church to all priests. They exercise this power by the sacrament of Baptism and, for sins committed after Baptism, by the sacrament of Penance, or, as more commonly called. Confession.
That the apostles and their successors possess the power to forgive sins is quite clear from Our Lord’s words and actions on the first Easter Sunday. First, He gave them the same mission as He Himself had from His Father: “As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you.” Then, with great solemnity, He used the symbol of conveying power to give His power to them: “He breathed on them: and He said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them: whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
These words cannot be interpreted lightly as a kind of general commission to bring forgiveness to the whole world by preaching the Gospel. They convey a definite power, which Christ possessed and attributed to the Holy Ghost, of either forgiving or retaining sins. The possessors of this power must exercise it as judges, deciding which to use, forgiveness or retention. But before they can judge a case they must know what the case is and the only possible way that they can know the state of the penitent’s soul is by the penitent’s own confession of his sins. Hence the necessity of confession is clearly contained in the commission to forgive or retain sin, and, hard though it may seem to some, it is indeed almost trivial compared with what God might have asked as a condition of forgiveness.
The Priest’s Qualifications And Secrecy
We confess our sins to the priest, not as a mere man, but as God’s representative. To ensure that he has the qualifications necessary, not only to forgive, but also to guide and correct his penitents, the priest is trained in the care and cure of souls in the same way as a doctor in the care of bodies. As a guarantee of his fitness he may exercise his power to forgive sins only where he has faculties to do so from a bishop, unless it be in an urgent case of danger of death. He is bound by the strictest secrecy, called the seal of confession, with regard to all that is confided to him in confessions.
Confession brings immense benefits to our souls as well as great sacramental grace. It is humiliating, and, therefore, normally a sign of sincerity and a test of the reality of our sorrow, giving assurance, not only to the priest, but to ourselves that we may confidently hope for forgiveness. It brings home to us vividly the vileness of our sins. It is easy enough to confess our sins to ourselves, or, secretly to God, without realizing how shameful they are. We have only to try telling another person about them to find ourselves tonguetied with confusion and shame. Until Nathan forced a confession from David, the latter seems to have had no realization of what a foul crime he had committed. But as soon as he confessed he was filled with repentance (2nd Kings 12).
Confession Brings Relief To The Soul
Probably a great deal of our modern indifference to sin and lack of realization of its guilt is due to lack of confession. Moreover, nothing brings greater relief to the conscience than a good confession once the shame and humiliation of making it have been overcome. This again is proved by ordinary human experience and was known to Christ and His Church long before Freud and psycho-analysis; and, as the priest is a trained expert, we go to him for guidance with as much confidence as we have for a doctor.
Preparation For Confession
As long as we remain in mortal sin we are at enmity with God and cannot deserve His forgiveness of any sins at all. Hence to refuse to repent of, or to refuse deliberately to confess, one single mortal sin will render the whole confession useless. For this reason great care must be taken to prepare for confession by prayer and examination of conscience. Mortal sin must be confessed in such a way that the priest may know the kind of sin committed, the number of times and any circumstances which might aggravate the guilt, but in no more detail than this requires. It is useful to confess some venial sins, as a rule that should be all there is to confess, but there is no obligation to do so. Therefore, even the deliberate suppression of venial sins would not make our confession useless, and all the sins of which we are repentant would be forgiven, but not the venial sins for which we have no sorrow. Should a mortal sin be accidentally omitted, it must be mentiqned next time we go to confession, but as the omission was not deliberate and the penitent is sorry for it, the guilt is forgiven and there is no need to make a special confession.
The Obligation Of Confession
The obligation of confession begins as soon as sin can be committed – when children reach the use of reason. After that we are strictly bound to go to confession whenever we may fall into mortal sin. By the positive law of the Church we are strictly bound to confess all mortal sins at least once a year. This, however, is the minimum, and on account of the great graces of this sacrament we should receive it much more often even though we have only venial sins to confess. The usual formula, with prayers for preparation, a guide to the examination of conscience and prayers of thanksgiving, will be found in most prayer books. The act of contrition must be learnt by heart and is said in the confessional while the priest exercises the power given to him by Christ to forgive sins by saying the words of absolution in Latin.
On entering the confessional the penitent says, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Then he states how long it is since his last confession, followed by the list of sins, ending with the words, “For these and all my other sins, for which I am heartily sorry, I beg penance and absolution of you.” Father Then he must listen carefully to any questions or advice the priest may ask or give and to the penance which is imposed, after which he says audibly the Act of Contrition, “O my God, I am very sorry that I have sinned against Thee and I promise, by the help of Thy grace, not to sin again.” Finally he waits until the priest tells him to go.
Making Satisfaction Of Our Sins
As well as contrition and confession, one other condition is required on the part of the penitent, satisfaction. The absolution given by God through His priest takes away the guilt of sin and the principal punishment due to the sin, but God leaves us some penance as a token of our right disposition and readiness to pay due honour to His infinite justice. Though the penance imposed by the priest nowadays is little more than nominal, there is a grave obligation to fulfil it when it is imposed for grave sin, and a venial obligation when it is for venial sin. It would not, however, render our confession invalid if it was accidentally forgotten as long as there is the sincere intention of fulfilling it at the time of the absolution. Moreover, it must be remembered that this nominal penance imposed by the priest in confession is not sufficient to pay the whole debt due to sins; voluntary prayer, mortification and good works must be added.
- Father Herbert C Fincham. “How We Are Saved”. , 1951. CatholicSaints.Info. 12 April 2016. Web. 21 January 2017. <>