The Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins. Christians believe that firmly and deeply. But what does that mean? There is still evil in the world. People continue to sin and commit “sins.” During Mass, Catholics pray “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” The priest lifts up the Body of Christ at Mass and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world.” To what are we referring?
As I continue my catechesis on the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation / Confession, I would like to give some attention to “sin” since that is what we confess in the sacrament.
Students of the scriptures tell us that the notion of “sin” appears in the Bible about 450 times although there are many different Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) words for it. I am not a lexicographer nor am I particularly well versed in ancient languages so I have to accept in faith what scholars tell us. Such study is their life’s work. It is my responsibility to learn from them and share what I learn with the faithful. Let me summarize briefly.
The notion of sin, presented in these different expressions, basically describes any deliberate (willful) choice to act contrary to the will of God as it has been manifested to us. Sin is not simply considered an innocent mistake or omission. Sin involves willfully choosing and doing something evil or wrong. In the Old Testament, such a deliberate or willful choice expresses rebellion against God. In the New Testament, sin describes choices and actions that reveal contempt for God and his revealed will and a deliberate refusal to accept and follow his will.
God created us. We believe that as a starting point. If we do not believe that, then none of this matters much. God created us in his image and likeness, again an assertion of our faith born of the Holy Scriptures. What God created, therefore, is good, as the Book of Genesis states clearly. God also gave us an intellect and a free will. At some point in time the human being, gifted with intellect and free will, chose to be “different” from what God created and chose to act “differently” from what God intended. That moment was the beginning of human evil — the opposite of the good that God created, the “original sin” — and it changed human existence in the world.
But, how did that happen? If God created us as good, how could we choose otherwise? The Book of Genesis tells the story of Adam and Eve, the first human beings created by God, in the Garden of Eden. There are different versions of the story and people will debate them for as long as human beings continue to exist. Nevertheless, to choose something other than what God created and intended implies that human beings were not the “only beings” that God created, that evil already existed. The Book of Genesis talks about the presence of a “serpent” in the Garden who had knowledge of “good and evil.” This serpent was also a creation of God, and is a symbol of another order of being likewise gifted with intellect and free will. We refer to him as a “fallen angel,” one of another order of beings whose choice to be other than God intended introduced “evil” into the created world. Somehow that “fallen angel” influenced the human being to seek knowledge of “existence other than God intended,” making a choice for that knowledge and existence possible. The “fallen angel” tempted the human being to know (intellect), to want (desire) and to choose (act upon) that knowledge and, as a result, “sin” entered the world. The whole of creation was affected by that choice and human life in this world as God intended it was disturbed, distorted and disrupted permanently. There was no turning back at that point. The human being could now know, desire and choose something other than “good.” Evil and sin became an option for humanity. And everything in life was affected by it from that moment on.
It is important to note that God did not create evil and sin. Likewise, it is important to note that God did not create the effects of sin and evil within the world. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed:
It is your crimes that separate you from God, it is your sins that make him hide his face from you … for our offenses before you are many, our sins bear witness against us (Isaiah 59: 2; 12).
Despite sin, good continued and continues to exist. Humans beings continued and continue to choose good. But alongside of good, because of “original sin,” now evil continued and continues to exist. And human beings, using the gifts of intellect and free will, could now and can choose that option. The “original sin” of our first parents tainted all humanity to follow with more sins to hold us down.
God, however, did not abandon humanity as a result of human rebellion. Again, we read in the prophet Isaiah “Though I have struck you in my wrath, yet in my good will I have shown you mercy (Isaiah 60: 10).” The Holy Scriptures unfold the story of God’s continued outreach or covenant to draw us back to him. Despite the presence of evil and sin, the scriptures describe the history of human salvation, leading up to the birth, life, mission and ministry, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah and Savior.
Even before he was born, Jesus’ mission was revealed when the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream predicting his birth and saying “you are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1: 21).”
The Gospels present Jesus frequently showing mercy through the forgiveness of sin. The ultimate act of forgiveness was his death on the cross, which the prophets predicted and Jesus himself foretold. “Behold the wood of the cross,” we chant on Good Friday, “on which has hung our salvation.” It was necessary that he die, the sinless One for the sinner, in order that humanity could gain access to salvation. The “gates of paradise” were closed by “original sin” and only God could open them again. This was the “new covenant” that Christ initiated.
Again, the expectations of the prophet Isaiah, uttered long before the Gospels were written, come to mind:
Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. …But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed. … But the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all. … My servant, the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear. Therefore I will give him his portion among the many, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty, because he surrendered himself to death, was counted among the transgressors, bore the sins of many, and interceded for the transgressors (Isaiah 53: 4-13).
Turning to the New Testament, we read in the Letter of Paul to the Romans:
… God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life … For if by that one person’s transgression the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one person Jesus Christ overflow for the many. … For after one sin there was the judgment that brought condemnation; but the gift, after many transgressions, brought acquittal. For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ. In conclusion, just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all. For just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one the many will be made righteous (Romans 5: 8-19).
The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians summarizes our salvation from sin by Jesus even more succinctly: “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15: 21-22).” Hence, we are saved from our sins. Although there is so much more that has been and can be written and taught than I could ever present in so brief an article, hopefully, the preceding commentary has helped to answer the questions posed in the beginning of this catechesis.
But, even after the saving death of Christ, human beings continue to sin. How does the Catholic Church understand and address sin(s) other than and after “original sin”? Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation/Confession to continue his saving work of mercy and forgiveness. I will consider this Sacrament in some detail in the second part of my catechesis. For now, let’s stay with the idea of sins committed after the “original sin” washed away in the Sacrament of Baptism.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says this about sin:
1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”
1850 Sin is an offense against God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.” Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become “like gods,” knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus “love of oneself even to contempt of God.” In this proud self-exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation.
It is important to remember that sin involves serious matter considered evil, for example a deliberate violation of one or more of the Ten Commandments, a deliberate transgression of the natural moral law (those aspects of being human and good human living present within us as God’s creation, objective right and wrong “written within our hearts,” as we read in the Letter to the Romans 2:15), a deliberate violation of the Church’s own law and moral teaching, and so forth. If the matter is serious enough or most grave, the sin is called “mortal.” CCC states:
1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.
1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us - that is, charity - necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation:
When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery.
1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”
1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.” The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.
1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.
1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.
1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.
Mortal sins must be mentioned in sacramental confession.
Sin always involves evil. When the evil is not so grave as to be considered “mortal,” the Church labels the transgression “venial.” CCC states:
1855 Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.
1856 But when the sinner’s will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.
1862 One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.
1863 Venial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However venial sin does not set us in direct opposition to the will and friendship of God; it does not break the covenant with God. With God’s grace it is humanly reparable. “Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness.”
Although not technically required to do so, one should mention venial sins in sacramental confession as well. We should repent and seek forgiveness of all sins. It does not make much sense to do otherwise.
Again, CCC provides guidance in discerning the different kinds of sins:
1852 There are a great many kinds of sins. Scripture provides several lists of them. The Letter to the Galatians contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit: “Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5: 19-21).”
1853 Sins can be distinguished according to their objects, as can every human act; or according to the virtues they oppose, by excess or defect; or according to the commandments they violate. They can also be classed according to whether they concern God, neighbor, or oneself; they can be divided into spiritual and carnal sins, or again as sins in thought, word, deed, or omission. The root of sin is in the heart of man, in his free will, according to the teaching of the Lord: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man (Matthew 15: 19-20).” But in the heart also resides charity, the source of the good and pure works, which sin wounds.
The above citations are by no means exhaustive. When examining one’s conscience in preparation for sacramental confession, any questions or doubts that might arise regarding sins should be mentioned to the priest for his advice and counsel.
(In my next catechesis, I will write about "how to make a good confession.")