For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this First Sunday of Lent, I want to do some teaching on the Sacrament of Reconciliation -- otherwise known as confession or penance. In my experience, confession is not something that tends to get a lot of attention among Episcopalians, even though it’s right there in the middle of our Prayer Book. And even when it does come up, it’s often explained by the well-known cliché that some of you perhaps have heard before: that confession is an “all may, some should, and none must” sort of affair. It’s catchy, for sure, and it’s true enough on its own. The point is that while confession is “available for all who desire it” , there are also probably some whose sins are of such a serious nature that making an explicit confession to a priest would at least be highly recommended. But in practice, I’ve found that it’s the “none must” part that actually determines our popular opinion on the matter, effectively crowding out the other two. As a result, the unspoken assumption is often that the most important thing to know about confession is that you don’t have to do it. So it’s hardly a surprise that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is often neglected by Episcopalians. Because things that are thought to be unnecessary are soon considered superfluous, and things that are superfluous are ultimately dispensable.
So, to begin with a standard definition, the purpose for which the sacrament of penance was ordained by God is “the forgiveness of mortal sin [committed by a Christian] after Baptism” . That may not clear things up very much by itself, but we’ll unpack it as we go. To put it more simply for the moment, confession is the means by which a Christian is restored to the state of grace -- that is, brought back into the newness of the divine life -- after falling from that state by committing a mortal sin. There are benefits to confession that go beyond that, but that’s the principal purpose.
But even this standard definition by itself already presents a number of complexities and potential problems. As heirs of the Protestant Reformation -- at least as it was developed in the Anglican Tradition -- we’re all familiar with the insistence that the forgiveness of our sins is an free gift from God; an act of God’s sheer grace and mercy towards us. Nothing we can do can “earn” God’s forgiveness or our salvation or anything whatsoever. All of this is true; it’s the essence of the Gospel itself. So, in order to make sense of sacramental confession in light of this truth, we’ll first need to consider the nature of God’s forgiveness. What does it mean for God to forgive us of our sins?
It is a basic principle of Christian theology that God does not and cannot change. God is eternally and completely who he is: there is no development in God, no movement from one condition to another. Which means that when God forgives us of our sins, it’s not that God has “changed his mind” about us, but rather that our minds are changed about God . God’s forgiveness is a change that happens in us, not in God. And this makes God’s forgiveness very different from human forgiveness. Consider that when someone offends you, the most ideal scenario is that the offender realizes that they hurt you and then apologizes and asks for your forgiveness. But in human relationships, it’s not at all necessary for the offender to ask for forgiveness in order for you to forgive them anyway. The offender doesn’t necessarily even need to change at all in order for the offended to forgive them. You can make that change for yourself as the one who was hurt, regardless of whether they will ever apologize or change themselves . Because we’re dealing with fellow human beings, it’s not up to us to redeem those who hurt us -- we couldn’t do so if we tried -- and this works out, actually, because it allows us to forgive our enemies even if they remain our enemies .
But God’s forgiveness doesn’t work like that. Recall that sin is first and foremost an offense against God, because when we sin, we are turning ourselves and our wills away from God and towards some lesser thing that is not God. All sin is a form of idolatry. As our creator, God is entitled to our full and complete devotion and obedience, which means that sin is a failure to give God what is due to him as God. But -- and this is key -- the fact that God is entitled to our obedience as our creator does not mean that our sin affects God, as though God were hurt or damaged by it. Sin is not like backing into God’s bumper and then having to pay for the appropriate restitution. Not only does God not have a bumper to begin with, God doesn’t exist as just one being among others as someone we could potentially injure. Rather, as Herbert McCabe puts it, “all the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone” ; when we sin against God, it changes us. We become disordered, degraded, and damaged at the very heart of our being.
This is one reason why God’s forgiveness differs from human forgiveness. While it’s possible for us to forgive each other without the offender’s repentance -- without their change -- it doesn’t make sense to think of God’s forgiveness in those terms; that is, to imagine that God forgives the sinner without changing the sinner, such that they turn away from their sins and to God in repentance . Now, by that, I don’t mean to say that God only forgives sinners if they repent -- as though our repentance were a necessary precondition for God’s forgiveness. I can’t stress enough that God’s forgiveness and our whole salvation is given to us unconditionally. Rather, what I mean is, to quote McCabe again, that “God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner” . Unlike with human forgiveness, there is no distinction -- there is no difference -- between God’s forgiveness of the sinner and God’s transformation of the sinner. God’s forgiveness is necessarily redemptive: our repentance simply is God’s forgiveness in action.
So let’s return to the sacrament of penance. Remember what I said about the nature of sin: that sin actually damages us and reduces us to a degraded form of life. It is, in a word, death; “for the wages of sin is death,” says St. Paul (Romans 6:23). Now, baptism is the first act whereby God raises from the death of sin into newness of life; baptism is our entrance into participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. But this newness of divine life that we have received from God is still a life that must be lived, which means that it’s also a life that can be forfeited. It is possible for us to forsake the newness of life given to us by God and fall back into the death in which we once lived. This is where we get the idea of “mortal sin” -- the kind of sin that cannot coexist in the soul alongside the divine life of grace at the same time any more than someone can be both dead and alive at the same time. “Mortal sin is [a] transgression of the known will of God” that is committed “with full knowledge and consent,” in other words, “and its effect is to cut the soul off from sanctifying grace and to turn it away from God” . And once the soul is so cut off from grace, the person in question “has no power whatever to return to life” , any more than a corpse does. It is the spiritual death of the soul, and thus only a divine intervention of grace is capable of restoring the soul to the newness of life again. This divine intervention of grace is precisely what is given to the penitent when they confess their sins and receive absolution. Confession is the “sacrament of return”; it is the means by which God inspires within us the grace of repentance, convicting us of our sins and inducing a holy sorrow for them.
Let me be clear, then, that we don’t make our confessions out of a fear that God has abandoned us or that we are left alone. For our contrition itself is already a sign of God’s gracious work within us; contrition is not something that we gin up from within ourselves by our own efforts. To see our sins from God’s perspective requires that God actually gives us that perspective: repentance is thus the first sign that God is already calling us back to the divine life. The step that we take in repentance, by turning away from our sins and back to God, “is already situated within grace”; indeed, “the mere existence of this step is itself grace,” as Adrienne von Speyr puts it . Despite all of the negative connotations that confession has acquired in the minds of many Christians -- many of which are quite understandable -- it is ultimately a gift to the Christian life.
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit….” This passage from our Epistle today sums up both the nature of God’s forgiveness and the sacrament of penance. Christ died for sins once for all -- there is no other death left to die for sins, either for Christ or for us. Through the Cross -- through Christ’s “one oblation of himself once offered” -- he has brought us to God, the unrighteous to the righteous. But he does not bring us to God merely by changing our status before God; the forgiveness that he accomplishes for us is not just an abstract statement about us, while we remain exactly the same as we were before. No, Christ brings us to God -- and this language of movement implies that we are thereby changed in the process. For Christ brings us to God through himself; Christ dies for our sins by putting us to death in the flesh with him -- we are “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20) -- so that we too can be made alive in the spirit with him. Repentance thus defines the entirety of the Christian life; for it is the means by which we are put to death in the flesh until all that remains is the life of the spirit in which we live by grace. And thus confession is an integral practice of the Christian life, as it aids us in answering this call to repentance.
While confession is principally ordained for the absolution of mortal sin, it is also available for all manner of lesser faults and failures that plague our consciences from time to time: the so-called “venial sins.” These sins are not so grave that they cut the soul off from grace -- which is why they’re not called mortal sins -- and can thus be repented of simply by engaging in the ordinary means of grace: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and especially the Eucharist. However, even these venial sins they still disturb us and inhibit us from progressing towards perfection, which makes them eligible to bring into confession. I wholeheartedly recommend it!
Now, this has been a lot, so I’ll just close with a reminder that I am available to hear confessions every Thursday in Lent from 4:00-4:45pm -- just before Evening Prayer -- over here in the Columbarium Chapel. And if that time doesn’t work, I’m also available by appointment -- just shoot me an email and we’ll get something scheduled. Finally, know that Christians have nothing to lose and nothing to fear with the sacrament of penance, for it can only be the return into the divine life of grace or the further growth into it. For Christ has died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, and he has brought us to God. Amen.
 The Book of Common Prayer. 446.
 A.H. Baverstock. “The Theology of Penance.” The Theory and Practice of Penance: By Priests of the Anglican Communion. 1.
 Herbert McCabe. The New Creation. 73.
 Herbert McCabe. “The Forgiveness of God,” God, Christ and Us. 122.
 Ibid. 121.
 Ibid. 121.
 Ibid. 122.
 Ibid. 122.
 F.P. Harton. The Elements of the Spiritual Life. 134.
 Herbert McCabe. The New Creation. 72.
 Adrienne von Speyr. Confession. 88.