Sin, Confession and Excommunication

What is Sin?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines sin as follows.

sin n.

  1. A transgression of religious or moral law, especially when deliberate.
  2. Deliberate disobedience to the known will of God.
  3. A condition of estrangement from God resulting from such disobedience.
  4. Something regarded as being shameful, deplorable, or utterly wrong.

(1 John 3:4) Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness.

Did Christ die for all our sins: past, present and future?

There are two specific doctrines that are used in some Christian denominations outside of the Catholic Church. They are the doctrines of Eternal Sanctification and Predestination. Eternal Sanctification is a “candy coating” of Christianity. It spreads quickly and is readily accepted because it makes Christianity easy to swallow as followers are no longer accountable for their actions. Then there’s predestination, which takes away all responsibility for salvation from the person. It invokes prejudice by elevating one above another. You often hear followers of these doctrines refer to themselves as “elite,” “chosen,” or “saints.” However, ask anyone who understands the gravity of sin, and they’ll quickly recognize the flaws of these doctrines.

“No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day.” – Martin Luther (Luther’s Works, English Edition 48:281)

(Hebrews 10:2) Otherwise, would not the sacrifices have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, once cleansed, would no longer have had any consciousness of sins?

Christ died for our salvation and the forgiveness of our past sins. His resurrection gives us the New Covenant that we enter into through baptism. When one is baptized into the Christian faith, at that moment, all their sins are washed away. For more information on this, see the FAQ on baptism. Nowhere in the Bible will you find that this action covers all our future sins. You will only find that it affected previous sins.

(2 Peter 1:9) Anyone who lacks them is blind and shortsighted, forgetful of the cleansing of his past sins.

(Romans 3:25) whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed.

What are the levels of sin?
I’ve been in discussions before where the other party believes that there is no “level” to sin. They feel sin is a sin: the smallest sin is equal to the largest sin. They do not agree with the Catholic concept of venial and mortal sin. However, the Bible points out the differences in sin very plainly.

(1 John 5:16-17) “If anyone sees his brother sinning if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God, and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.”

This passage points out that there are differences in the level of sin that a person can commit. John says that there is such a thing as a deadly sin, and he does not tell you to pray for it. This information points out that our prayers alone cannot undo the effects of the mortal sins as they can for venial sins. It is called “deadly sin” because if the sin is left unrepented, that person’s soul, unfortunately, will not be able to achieve eternal salvation.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines both venial and mortal sin.

ve-ni-al adj.

  1. Easily excused or forgiven; pardonable: a venial offense.
  2. Roman Catholic Church. Minor, therefore warranting only temporal punishment.

mortal sin n. Christianity

  1. A sin, such as murder or blasphemy that is so heinous it deprives the soul of sanctifying grace and causes damnation if unpardoned at the time of death.

What constitutes mortal sin?
There are three conditions that must be met to constitute mortal sin:

  1. The object of the sin is a grave matter.
  2. The sin is committed with full knowledge meaning a person must know what they’re doing is a sin.
  3. Deliberate consent.

(Romans 1:32) Although they know the just decree of God that all who practice such things deserve death, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Jesus names the grave sins in the following passage:

(Mark 10:19) “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’”

The grave sins that Jesus lists follow the Ten Commandments given to Moses. Paul gives another list of sins to the Galatians:

(Galations 5:19-21) Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Mortal Sin severs our Baptismal Grace
The effect of mortal (deadly) sin is that the debt of the crime has so much weight it severs the saving grace we received at baptism. Without that grace, we cannot enter Heaven. This fact is why these sins are called deadly. This effect is revealed to us in the Bible.

(Romans 2:25) Circumcision, to be sure, has value if you observe the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.

(Romans 11:22) See, then, the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who fell, but God’s kindness to you, provided you remain in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.

(Hebrews 10:26-27) If we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgment and a flaming fire that is going to consume the adversaries.

(2 Peter 2:20-21) For if they, having escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of [our] Lord and savior Jesus Christ, again become entangled and overcome by them, their last condition is worse than their first. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment handed down to them.

(Romans 8:13) For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

What is confession?

(Luke 24:46-47) And he said unto them, “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

This passage from Luke stresses the importance of penance for all so that their sins may be forgiven. While one may say that baptism forgives your sins, that would be true. Baptism wipes the slate clean up to that point. However, the idea that all your future sins are now “off the record” is a dangerous notion to follow. The Bible points out that one must journey through life battling sin. If I supported the idea that once baptized, all my past, present, and future transgressions are forgiven, and there’s no purification after death, then why, after baptism, would I be further required to follow the Ten Commandments? I could lie, cheat, steal, kill, and fornicate. I’ve been given complete freedom to do what I want with no consequence. One may argue that once baptized, that person became instilled with the Holy Spirit and led to do what is right. While I believe that the Holy Spirit influences our conscience, a person is still solely responsible for their actions. Otherwise, there is no point to free will and no reason for our existence. Take the parable of the unforgiving servant, for instance:

(Matthew 18:23-35) “That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you? Then in anger, his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”

This parable shows that through baptism, God forgives our sins. However, it is our actions the cause us to fall from grace and incur God’s wrath after that point. For the keen eye, there’s another nod towards temporal punishment in this passage: “Then in anger, his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.” This action applies to us as we are God’s servants. If we fail to refrain from sin, we will need to pay for our sins when we come before God. By use of the word torturers, it implies that we’ll pay for our sins through suffering.

(John 20:21-23) Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

In this verse, Jesus precisely and directly institutes the sacrament of confession. The key to seeing this is the part that states, “whose sins you retain are retained.” This phrase shows that the Apostles, and their successors, would not be able to choose which sins to forgive and which sins to retain for a person unless that person confesses their sins.

(James 5:16) Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.

(1 John 1:9) “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sin and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.”

It is through confession that we acknowledge our sins. One cannot only say they are a sinner, and by that acknowledgment, all their sins are forgiven.

(Proverbs 28:13) He who conceals his sins prospers not, but he who confesses and forsakes them obtains mercy.

Why must we confess to a priest?
The tradition of confessing to a priest predates Christianity. Christianity’s fore-bearer, Judaism practiced it.

(Leviticus 5:13) Thus, the priest shall make atonement on the person’s behalf for the wrongs committed in any of the above cases so that the individual may be forgiven.

The New Testament teaches us that if the sin is venial, you can pray directly to God for forgiveness, as we saw in 1 John 5. However, it’s still recommended that you visit a priest for confession of even venial sins for support and guidance on how to avoid sinning in the future. The priest also gives us a penance to perform to expiate the sin. However, if it is a mortal “deadly” sin, you must seek absolution through the Church. The effect of mortal sin not only breaks the baptismal agreement but also causes an automatic excommunication with the Church. As a result, Catholics may still attend mass but aren’t allowed to receive any sacraments if they are guilty of unrepented mortal sin.

We receive sanctifying grace from God through the sacrament of Baptism. Mortal sin severs that baptismal grace. As a result, another sacrament is required to restore that grace. Through the priest, the Holy Spirit absolves the mortal sin, and reunification with the Church is administered. The power to minister reconciliation was granted to the Church, as we can see from Paul’s words below.

(2 Corinthians 5:18-20) And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

To sum it all up, scripture has shown that there is gravity to sin. Baptism doesn’t cover our future sins, so we must confess and pay for our sins to avoid eternal punishment.

What is Excommunication?
Excommunication was a method of discipline used by the apostles and the Church. Immoral members of the Church were sometimes excommunicated in hopes that they’ll see the error of their ways and return to the apostolic teachings of the Church. Authority to excommunicate can be traced back to Christ.

(Matthew 18:15-17) "If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

(John 20:21-23) Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

The contrasting authorities shown here of forgiving and retaining sins shows the origin of Reconciliation and Excommunication. In scripture, the metaphorical phrase for excommunication is to be “handed over to Satan.” We can see an example of this in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul, when hearing of the immorality of a member of the Church at Corinth, instructs the priests there to excommunicate the individual so that he may later be saved.

(1 Corinthians 5:5) you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.

Another time in scripture, Paul identifies two individuals that he, himself, excommunicated so that they may “be taught not to blaspheme.”

(1 Timothy 1:18-20) I entrust this charge to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophetic words once spoken about you. Through them may you fight a good fight by having faith and a good conscience. Some, by rejecting conscience, have made a shipwreck of their faith, among them Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.

Handing over to Satan was considered a disciplinary action. Since Christians believe there to be no salvation outside the Church, delivering a person to Satan, i.e., outside of the Church, has the hope that, with their salvation at stake, they’ll turn from their error and seek atonement in the Church.