Sin, Guilt, Forgiveness, and Punishment

Guilt, forgiveness

Have you ever heard someone say that God’s forgiveness removes the guilt of sin? And have you ever wondered why God punishes a person from whom He has removed guilt? In other words, if God forgives me, thereby declaring me not guilty and removing sin from my soul, why am I punished? This article will elucidate the reasons why punishment following God’s forgiveness is necessary. We’ll begin with sin.

Sin

What is sin? Sin is a transgression of moral law. It offends God and others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (par. 1849) states,

Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a 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.’

Simply put, sin is a word, deed, thought, or omitted act that is contrary to grace and separates us from God (CCC 1853).

Sin results in numerous consequences. First and foremost, it separates us from God. If I steal, regardless of the amount, the very act of stealing separates me from God. In the firm choice to steal and in the act itself, I choose to reject God’s grace and put myself at enmity with Him.

Sin also estranges us from the neighbor we harm and the body of Christ, His Catholic Church. It creates disorder in ourselves and in the world. When we sin, we make ourselves guilty of causing each of these defects. And we make ourselves responsible for repairing them.

Please note that the above definition refers to mortal sin. However, even venial sins create disorder by inclining us to commit mortal sins. To read about the distinction between mortal and venial sin, click here.

Guilt

What is guilt? According to the Catholic Dictionary, guilt is the “condition of a person who has done moral wrong, who is therefore more or less estranged from the one he offended, and who is liable for punishment before he has been pardoned and has made atonement.”

In other words, guilt for sin is the condition of separation from God.

As I mentioned above, when we sin, we intentionally commit an act that is objectively evil, thereby transgressing God’s law and rejecting His grace. This act severs our relationship with Him. By rejecting the eternal God who made us for eternity in Heaven, we embrace eternal punishment in Hell. We make ourselves guilty of exchanging friendship with God for enmity, Heaven for Hell. But this is not the only thing of which we make ourselves guilty.

We also make ourselves guilty of inordinately turning toward a created good that is finite and temporal, and of harming others. If I steal, I not only turn away from God, I also turn toward theft and the thing I stole. By my actions, I deprive the rightful owner of their property, create distrust in the community, harm the common good, and separate myself from the body of Christ.

Thus, sin creates both eternal and temporal disorders. God’s forgiveness restores the eternal order by putting us back in friendship with Him. But then we must remedy the temporal disorders in the interest of justice and holiness. Forgiveness alone does not accomplish this, but it is the beginning of the process.

For more on guilt, see Summa Theologiae III, q. 86, a. 4, 5 and all answers to the objections in these two articles.

Forgiveness

What is forgiveness? The Catholic Dictionary defines forgiveness as “[p]ardon or remission of an offense. The Catholic Church believes that sins forgiven are actually removed from the soul and not merely covered over by the merits of Christ.” Put another way, forgiveness is the removal of guilt by the infusion of grace that reunites us to God.

For more on grace and how it works, please read these two articles: How God Moves Us Without Destroying Our Free Will and Grace and Our Response To It.

When God forgives us, we are no longer guilty of destroying our relationship with Him. This is because He repaired the relationship with His forgiveness and the infusion of grace. Because of God’s mercy and because He makes us in His image and likeness, we have a duty to then forgive others and correct the wrongs we have committed against them.

Therefore, instead of removing our responsibility to correct what we have disordered, God’s forgiveness makes us more responsible for forgiving others who have sinned against us and for correcting disorders we introduce through sinning.

In other words, God’s grace makes us more like God. Therefore, we must reflect God by showing mercy and restoring order through love just as God does. Jesus tells us what will happen if we do not do this.

In Matthew 18:23-35 (The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant), Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a servant who begged his master for forgiveness. The master then forgave all that the servant owed him. After receiving forgiveness, the servant approached a fellow servant who owned him money and demanded payment. When the man begged him for mercy, the servant threw him in prison.

After other servants related the man’s actions to their master, the master said to the servant, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you?” The master then threw the servant in jail. Jesus then tells us, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

So, forgiveness removes guilt, but it does not remove responsibility. And it does not immediately or automatically reorder everything that sin disorders. Reordering occurs when we cooperate with the grace that proceeds from God’s mercy and accept God’s punishments as disciplines that reform our souls and the world around us.

By refusing to show mercy after God forgives us, we reject the grace that helps us to show mercy out of love for God and neighbor. We also put ourselves back into a state of enmity against God, just as the unmerciful servant did.

Punishment

What is punishment? The Catholic Dictionary defines punishment as,

Any ill suffered in consequence of wrongdoing. It has three functions, which ideally should be retributive as serving the offended person, corrective for the offender, and deterrent for the community at large. Punishment is retributive because it pays back the offender for his crime and re-establishes the balance of justice, which has been outraged. It is corrective when directed to improving the offender and rehabilitating him as a member of society. It is deterrent as a means of forestalling similar wrongdoing by others.

In addition to contritely apologizing to the person we harmed by sinning, temporal punishments include restoring the thing taken, repairing the disorder we created, and detaching ourselves from the sinful object. The Catholic Church teaches that punishment redresses a disorder caused by an offense. When a person undergoes this punishment voluntarily, it takes on the value of expiation (CCC 2266), also known as satisfaction.

But the question asked at the beginning of this article still needs a fuller answer. And the answer lies in the purpose of God’s punishment. God intends punishments to heal us, to discipline us, to sanctify us, to make us “perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.” Hebrews 12 provides a solid explanation for punishment’s purpose:

And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—‘My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by Him; for the Lord disciplines those whom He loves, and chastises every child whom He accepts.’ Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not His children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

This passage teaches us that God disciplines/chastises “every child whom He accepts,” which is every person in a state of sanctifying grace. When a person has grace in their soul, God has received them, justified them, and made them His friend.

Discipline for sin is simply punishment directed at our sanctification and the restoration of the common good. God may have forgiven and justified us, but that does not mean He morally perfected us, at least not yet.

Therefore, God gives us the discipline needed to make us perfect. God who is Justice, justifies us in grace that we may reflect His justice by justly executing His will and repairing the damage we caused by sinning.

Notice, too, that discipline yields righteousness to those whom God has “trained” by it. Training takes time and cooperation. So, this passage is telling us that God’s children, those whom He has justified, must continue in and cooperate with disciplinary training designed to morally perfect them.

Next, if we reject God’s post-justification discipline, we make ourselves illegitimate children. This is why the Church and Scripture teach that we must willingly undergo discipline that we may “share His holiness” and yield the “peaceful fruit of righteousness.” We call this full sharing in God’s holiness sanctification.

So, even though we escape the eternal punishment of Hell by grace through which we become God’s legitimate children, we must accept any kind of temporal punishment as discipline ordered toward moral perfection and sanctification. This is because sin disfigures our souls by configuring them toward sin. Grace puts us back in right relationship with God, but it does not immediately reconfigure us without discipline and our cooperation with it.

Similarly, a pill may destroy cancer, but the person must recover from the toll the cancer has taken on his/her body. Although forgiveness destroys sin in the soul, we must still repair the toll sin takes on the body of Christ (the Church), the community at large, and our own souls. Discipline and cooperating with grace are how God and we accomplish this.

More About Discipline

In addition to Hebrews 12, Genesis 3:16-19 teaches us that when man fell from grace, God punished him with spiritual and physical death, an increase in labor pangs for women, and working by the sweat of the brow for men. Restoration of grace through forgiveness provides an immediate remedy to spiritual death alone. However, physical death, labor pangs, and difficult work continue even after God forgives us. In other words, punishments remain after God forgives us.

Additionally, after King David had an affair with Bathsheba and sent her husband to the front lines of battle to meet his death, God punished David after He forgave him. In 2 Samuel 12:13-14, the prophet Nathan says to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”

David chose this punishment the moment he had the affair with Bathsheba and sent her husband to his death. Consequently, God struck with death the fruit of their adulteress relationship.

God designed this punishment to 1) fit the crime and 2) to help David reform himself and enter Heaven. And David must have entered Heaven because Hebrews 11:32 and 12:1 say as much. So, God disciplined David for his sins because David needed and chose God’s discipline the moment he sinned.

Earthly Punishment for Sin

What do we make of earthly punishments handed down by human authorities to those whom God has forgiven? Although God forgives those who turn to Him with contrition, the state will not typically forgive actions against it or its citizens. Even the individual whom we wrong may not forgive us.

By committing a sin against an individual, we create enmity between the individual and ourselves. If this sin is also a crime, we create enmity between the state and ourselves as well. God’s forgiveness does not remove the enmity we created against the individual and/or state.

So, one must accept any punishment the state inflicts against one whom God has forgiven as discipline directed toward sanctification. As a matter of prudence, we should ask God to accept this punishment as discipline for our sins. This discipline is also known as penance (CCC 1459-1460).

Pulling This All Together

From the above, we see the following:

  • Sin is a word, deed, thought, or omitted act that is contrary to grace and separates us from God.
  • Guilt for sin is the condition of separation from God.
  • Forgiveness is the removal of guilt by the infusion of grace that reunites us to God.
  • Discipline for forgiven sin is simply punishment directed at our sanctification and the restoration of the common good.

Sin makes us guilty of creating enmity between ourselves and God by rejecting the grace that makes us friends with God. Forgiveness restores that friendship with God by the infusion of grace, thereby making us not guilty of rejecting grace and creating enmity with God. However, by rejecting grace, albeit restored through God’s forgiveness, disorder remains in ourselves, the Church, and the community at large.

For an article on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, please click here.

Since God gives us the grace to be His friends and to function as those made in His image and likeness, grace makes us responsible for repairing the disorder our sins create. This is because God’s forgiveness and grace begin the process of reordering, and we, whom He makes in His image, must reflect His grace by restoring what we disfigured.

Therefore, according to Hebrews 12 above, “[God] disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

As you can see, God’s not-guilty declaration does not immediately repair all the disorders we introduce through sin. Therefore, in the interest of justice, justification begins reordering the disorders we have caused, and we whom God made in His image and likeness must reflect this justice by repairing that which we have harmed.

A Future Article

But what happens if I am not perfectly disciplined (i.e., morally perfect) when I physically die? Or what if I did not have the opportunity to repair the damage I caused by sin? I will answer this question in a future article titled Why Purgatory Is Real and Necessary.

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This article first appeared at Catholic Stand.