The history of salvation is also the history of sin. From the very beginning, as the Book of Genesis teaches, God’s good creation has been infected by sin — the sin of Adam and Eve, which is inherited by every human being, as well as the actual sins of all those descended from those first parents.
However, no sooner had Adam and Eve sinned than God promised that he would send a Messiah and Redeemer (cf. Gen. 3:9,15). This promise was fulfilled in the Father’s sending of his own Son, who would die and rise that we might be freed from the power of sin and death. The first words of Jesus’ public ministry were a call to conversion and repentance: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Reform your lives and believe in the gospel!” (Mk.1:15; cf. Mt. 4:17). These words, in fact, constitute the theme of all of Jesus’ preaching. Without genuine conversion — turning away from sin with true repentance, — there could be no forgiveness.
Through Baptism all our sins, both original and actual, are forgiven and washed away. Baptism constitutes every Christian a new creation whose life has been taken up into God’s own life. It is no wonder that St. Paul preached so forcefully that sin simply must have no place in the life of a baptized Christian: “We know that Christ, once raised from the dead, will never die again; death has no more power over him. His death was death to sin, once for all; his life is life for God. In the same way, you must consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:9-11).
As repugnant as the notion of a “sinful Christian” was to St. Paul, no one knew better than Paul that even the baptized continue to be prone to sin: “I cannot even understand my own actions. I do not do what I want to do but what I hate . . . I know that no good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; the desire to do right is there but not the power. What happens is that I do, not the good I will to do, but the evil I do not intend” (Rom. 7:15,18-19). Is this not the experience of every Christian? We know that we have been washed clean in baptism, and yet we continue to sin. Every sin damages the life of God in us, and mortal sin destroys it. Will God continue to be merciful to us even though we have been untrue to our baptismal commitment?
The answer, of course, is a resounding YES. God’s mercy is boundless. Whenever we repent of the sins committed after baptism and seek the Lord’s forgiveness, he is there to restore us to union with himself. This God does in the great Easter sacrament of penance (reconciliation). This is the sacrament of God’s mercy, the Risen Christ’s first gift to his Church on Easter day. Without this sacrament we would be doomed to damnation if we committed a mortal sin after baptism.
Why, then, is the sacrament of penance ignored by so many Catholics? As I have often said before, one of the most unfortunate occurrences in the Church over the past several decades is the drastic decline in the number of those who seek the forgiveness of their sins in the sacrament of penance. One of the reasons for the decline in the appreciation of the sacrament of penance was noted by Pope St. John Paul II in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, “On Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church Today.” In that document, the pope writes about what he sees as a loss of the sense of sin.
“It happens not infrequently in history, for more or less lengthy periods and under the influence of many different factors, that the moral conscience of many people becomes seriously clouded . . . It is inevitable therefore that in this situation there is an obscuring also of the sense of sin, which is closely connected with the moral conscience, the search for truth and the desire to make a responsible use of freedom” (#18).
Among the several remedies for this loss of the sense of sin that the Holy Father mentions in that same document is precisely a return to frequent confession. The renewed celebration of the sacrament will, in and of itself, remind us that we stand always in need of God’s forgiveness even as it takes our sins away. Conversely, the longer we stay away from confession, the more we are numbed to sin in our lives and in the world.
During Lent, especially, the Church calls each of her children to return to confession. There can be no real conversion without the grace of the sacrament. We delude ourselves if we think that we can somehow forgive our own sins and grow in holiness without the grace of God and the sacraments. Were that the case, there would have been no need for a Redeemer.
We should also remember that the sacraments of penance and the Holy Eucharist are inextricably bound up with each other. The reception of Holy Communion in the state of mortal sin constitutes sacrilege. Even the reception of the Body and Blood of the Lord with only venial sins on one’s soul constitutes a far less than appropriate encounter with our Eucharistic Savior. The sacrament of penance is still, as it always has been, the best preparation for a worthy and fruitful reception of the Eucharist.
As we move toward the great Feast of Easter I make the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians my own: “We implore you, in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor. 5:20b).