Say you’ve done something wrong, and you feel bad about it. As a Christian, you have the solace of knowing that your sins are forgiven if you repent. Each denomination has its own policies and procedures for handling those who stray from the straight and narrow. Roman Catholics have private confession with absolution by a priest and penances for infractions. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther, himself a former monk, did away with confession, absolution and penances. Forgiveness was obtainable through faith alone, without the need for other remedies. Anglicans, true to form, found a middle ground, which Episcopalians retained after they broke away from the mother church. When I was growing up in the Episcopal Church in the 1950s, the congregation got down on its knees during the service and recited the General Confession, acknowledging their “manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed.” The condemnatory language, composed by Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century for the original Book of Common Prayer, has been toned down considerably since the 1950s. Still, the prayer is meant to cover a multitude of sins “in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
Confessing everything we have done and left undone leaves plenty of room for interpretation, which is just as well. Start with a list of “abominations unto the Lord” from the Old Testament, and you will find numerous items that would be regarded as trifling now, if not downright perplexing. The abomination that religious fundamentalists seize upon is the one dealing with homosexual acts in the Book of Leviticus. Yet it is no less an abomination to eat meat from an animal that chews its cud but does not have a cloven hoof, or alternately from an animal that has a cloven hoof but does not chew its cud. The same goes for lending money at interest, wearing clothing of the opposite sex and making animal sacrifices with an ox or sheep that is blemished. To be fair, some abominations are no less abominable today than in biblical times, including lying, cheating, stealing, murder and adultery. However, you do not run the risk of being stoned to death for adultery or blasphemy nowadays, even if they are still frowned upon.
Jesus had declared that “not one jot or one tittle” of Jewish law would be changed before heaven and earth had passed away. Within a generation, however, mandatory circumcision and observance of dietary laws had been dropped for Gentile converts. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem soon thereafter meant the end of obligatory ritual sacrifices to atone for sin. Offering up a sheep or ox (without blemish) was gradually replaced by a system of penances in the early days of the church. There was no saying a few “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers” and thinking you were off the hook. Backsliding was regarded as a grave matter, and serious infractions could require public confession of wrongdoing and excommunication for years. This was not something that could be done over and over again, at least not at first. The regular practice of private confessions to a priest originated in the Celtic Church during the early Middle Ages, and with it penitential books prescribing specific penances for various sins. These could be quite onerous and might extend well beyond one’s lifetime, requiring the penitent to do a long stretch in purgatory. Prostrations, fasting, the wearing of sackcloth or hair shirts, even self-flagellation might be performed to demonstrate contrition for sin. It all got to be a bit much. Not long after, however, indulgences were introduced, enabling penitents to escape punishment or to buy their loved ones out of purgatory. The excesses of the indulgence system were what prompted Martin Luther to pull the plug on the whole enterprise, at least in German principalities that backed the Protestant Reformation.
Luther may have streamlined the process, but he did not solve the problem of backsliding. The Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer warned against “cheap grace,” the notion that there can be forgiveness without true repentance. True repentance is supposed to involve real sorrow or contrition for sin, followed by amendment of life. This is a term of art covering what my father meant when he demanded that his wayward offspring should “straighten up and fly right.” Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, put it this way: “Where there is no amendment, repentance is of necessity vain, for it lacks the fruit for which God sowed it; that is, man's salvation.”
So what are we to make of people who troop to church week after week to once again beg forgiveness for their manifold sins and wickedness? Exactly when are they going to straighten up and fly right, as my father used to say? He never did get a satisfactory answer to that question from his own brood. As St. Paul lamented, "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" – those same things done and left undone that church-going Episcopalians have been dutifully confessing week in and week out. If even the redoubtable St. Paul falls short, what chance do the rest of us have?
Can there be salvation without amendment of life? Well before Jesus died on the cross, John the Baptist was telling those who flocked into the wilderness to hear him preach to “bear fruit that befits repentance.” Roman Catholics would call this doing “good works,” which Martin Luther had ruled out as a pathway to salvation. But Luther was aware of the reverse problem, a tendency he called antinomianism, which regarded forgiveness by faith alone as a virtual license to sin. Just how often can God be expected to forgive our backsliding? Theologians have been debating this point for centuries. But there seems to be no practical way to put a limit on God’s mercy; otherwise, those created in his image would be lost forever.