How sorry do you have to be for God to forgive your sins? This question has been kicking around almost as long as forgiveness has been an option. Dietrich Bonheoffer warned against cheap grace, the notion that there can be forgiveness without true repentance. And yet how can you be sure you are truly sorry, much less sustain even the most heartfelt repentance against the inevitable backsliding? The fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine, perhaps history's most notable deathbed convert, sidestepped the latter problem by deliberately waiting until the very end of his life to be baptized. Even the formidable St. Paul -- hardly a moral slacker -- lamented that "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."
The early church was not yet preoccupied with such mundane concerns as backsliding, since the faithful still looked forward to Christ's imminent return. When he failed to show up as expected, they realized salvation was not a one-time event but a long-term proposition. Church officials worked out an elaborate system of canonical penances designed to enforce moral discipline among the faithful. For non-mortal sins, there were a variety of temporal punishments, which eventually came to include time in purgatory. For serious offenses, such as murder or adultery, public penances might be required. These could be quite onerous, including prolonged fasting, the wearing of sackcloth or exclusion from communion, sometimes for years. Eventually, the church found a lucrative new revenue source by allowing penitents to pay a fine instead. Abuses of this system of indulgences, as it was called, led to the Protestant Reformation.
For Martin Luther, forgiveness of sins, or justification, was obtained through faith alone, and there was no need for confession, absolution or penance. God did all the work, and the only thing required of sinners was repentance. Still, there was the matter of cheap grace. Can there be forgiveness without a heartfelt conviction of sin? The great 19th-century Protestant evangelist Charles Finney addressed this issue by perfecting the use of the "mourner's bench" or "anxious seat" at his revival meetings. He would set aside several rows of seats in the front of the meeting hall and urge sinners to come forward during the service. They would then have an opportunity to reflect on their sinfulness as he exhorted them to seek God's forgiveness.
Heaven knows what Jesus might think of any of the religious practices carried on in his name to blot out sin. Judging by the gospel accounts, he seemed to be the forgiving type, and there were few strings attached. He told a parable about laborers in a vineyard who started work at the eleventh hour and received the same wages as those who had been working all day. He forgave the people who crucified him, and there was no evidence they had repented or showed any signs of remorse. One of the robbers who died with him on the cross at least acknowledged he was a criminal and deserved to be punished. You would think an eleventh-hour conversion like that would merit a long stretch in purgatory. Instead, Jesus told him, "Today you will be with me in Paradise."
Luke 23: 32-43