Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.
Martin Luther was a heretic. I should have figured that out two decades ago, but I didn't. I believed Martin Luther and even doubled down on the error by embracing the teachings of John Calvin who took Luther's madness even further. Their common error was the error of sola fide or faith alone. This teaching holds that our actions really don't matter. We love to sin, and Christ loves to forgive. We can be total sinners and just sweep all our bad actions under the blood of Jesus. The problem with this teaching is that it is not biblical. It is a perversion of what is in the Bible. It also poisons our relationships with what I call "cheap forgiveness."
When I used to read the Bible as a Protestant, I would stumble and trip over so many passages I couldn't understand. When I had a question, I would turn to my Protestant teachers who would confuse me even further and placate me. Eventually, this questioning and seeking would lead me to a Protestant seminary to try and get some real answers. It was one of the worst years of my life as I drank deeply from the poisoned well of Luther and Calvin. I would watch as a friend allowed those same teachings to push him to suicide, and I fell away from the faith to embrace atheism. Religion was a poison.
You know you are in the clutches of a heresy when the nihilism of atheism seems like a relief. As I reflect on my time and journey as a Protestant, I see it now for what it was. It was asking the right question and getting the wrong answer. The question dealt with how to deal with the fact that I was a sinner. How do I deal with my guilty conscience? The Lutheran answer which is basically the evangelical Christian answer today is to ignore one's conscience and presume upon God's forgiveness. We can see the fruit of those people in their practice of cheap forgiveness. The Protestant gospel does not teach salvation from God's just punishment so much as salvation from one's own conscience. Good works don't matter because they can't save you, and bad works don't matter because they can't damn you. Calvinism took this teaching even further by denying free will completely as the last vestigial trace of works salvation. Yet, I challenge anyone to read the New Testament and tell me that the Christian religion teaches any of this. The reality is that you have free will, a conscience, the duty to obey that conscience, and the expectation that you will be judged according to your actions. Does God forgive our sins? Yes, He does. If He didn't, Heaven would be empty. But this forgiveness is not a cheap forgiveness which is the primary difference in the Protestant and Catholic doctrines of salvation.
In the Protestant world, nothing you do counts for anything. In the Catholic world, everything counts. Protestantism is merely about erasing the past. They skip over the forgiving part and get straight to the forgetting part. The Catholic view is about the future and preparing for it. This is why Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 to lay up treasure in Heaven. If works didn't matter, wouldn't Jesus simply say that treasure was waiting up there in Heaven? Why be active about something that is already ours? The answer is obvious. It isn't ours. The treasures of Heaven belong to the saints. This means we are obligated to become saints. This is not the simple forensic declaration that Luther preached. This is the reality of changed hearts and lives. Or as James put it,
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
JAMES 2:14-26 NASBNeedless to say, Martin Luther was not happy with the Epistle of James. He wanted it excluded from the canon of scripture and referred to it as "an epistle of straw." The reality is that the heretic could not abide the truth that salvation is not by faith alone.
I was always taught as a Protestant that Catholics believed in works for salvation. I know this is as a lie as well. The reality of Catholic teaching is that faith alone does not save and works alone do not save. The reality is that it is both faith and works that save. Salvation is not merely God letting us off the hook but also working through grace to make us into saints. The life of a Christian is not one of presumption. Presumption is what those who believe in works alone or faith alone believe. Either God owes us something, or we owe God nothing. Stop for a moment and reflect upon that. Let it sink in. Now, let me correct those presumptions. God owes us nothing. We owe God everything. That is the truth. That is the path of righteousness.
The life of the true Christian is marked by penance, remorse, the forgiveness of others, the patient enduring of suffering, and acts of mercy and charity done for others without expectation of reward. This is real forgiveness. It cost Christ everything He had. But here's the clincher. It also costs everything you have as well. Read the New Testament in the light of this truth, and it will make perfect sense to you. And it also bankrupts Martin Luther's proclamation to go and sin boldly. Christ did not die to make us into presumptuous sinners. He died to make us into saints.
I can go into a much larger and deeper discussion on the errors of the sola fide doctrine, and I will. But the focus of this essay is on that thing I call "cheap forgiveness." Cheap forgiveness is simply forgiveness given without remorse, repentance, or penance. It is a one sided affair with all of the effort on the side of the offended with no effort on the side of the offender. Protestants love cheap forgiveness. It literally means never having to say you're sorry.
I remember having a conversation with a serial adulterer, and I asked him what he thought his wife should do if she ever discovered his infidelity. His response was that she would have to forgive him. When I asked what he would do if he discovered that his wife was cheating on him, his face took on a dark tone. He muttered something about putting her ass in the street but admitted he would probably have to forgive her, too. The sad thing is that this man is a Christian who goes to church on the regular and his wife is an ordained minister in whatever sham Protestant denomination they belong to. This is cheap forgiveness. There is no sorrow, remorse, or repentance. There is only presumption and not so much as "I'm sorry" to help salve the hurt. Needless to say, this is an abomination to the Christian religion and to simple human decency.
Cheap forgiveness is not forgiveness. It is a counterfeit. Because God let them off the hook, Protestants have a vague idea that they should go around letting other people off the hook. But the reality is that it merely lets them off the hook while they simmer in quiet rage at all the people who have done them wrong. There is no forgiveness without repentance. As Christians, we should always be willing to forgive the offenses against us. The problem is that the transaction is incomplete until the offender seeks the forgiveness. This requires humility and contrition which people can't muster.
I used to practice cheap forgiveness as a Protestant. Basically, I put up with a lot of crap and just let it go. The result was that no one became better including me. When I lost my faith and became an atheist, I didn't forgive anyone anything. In fact, I would tell people the only thing keeping them alive was my desire to not go to jail. But if I ever got diagnosed with a terminal illness, they better run and hide because I had nothing to lose then. I can only attribute the grace of my baptism from keeping me from becoming a complete monster.
As a Catholic, I practice unilateral forgiveness. I do this everytime I pray the Our Father and ask God to forgive me my trespasses as I forgive those who trespass against me. I even pray and ask for God's forgiveness for those who have wronged me. Here is a nice Catholic prayer for this:
Jesus, Prince of Peace,you have asked us to love our enemiesand pray for those who persecute us.We pray for our enemies and those who oppose us.With the help of the Holy Spirit,may all people learn to work togetherfor that justice which brings true and lasting peace.To you be glory and honor for ever and ever.
This prayer for enemies can be a hard thing at first, but it softens the heart the more you do it. Whenever I think of the wrongs done to me, I find relief in this prayer and in praying for those who have wronged me. I believe God allowed these things to happen to me, so I might better understand the many offenses I have committed against Him and against others. It produces a greater contrition in myself and a deeper sorrow for the things I have done.
I can only work on my side of forgiveness. The sad thing is that many of the people I encounter in life who are my enemies cannot even muster the words, "I am sorry." They want that cheap forgiveness, but I won't give it. This is because it doesn't do them any good. I know because the people who have received my cheap forgiveness have never been sorry for anything done to me or anyone else. So, I demand something in return for my forgiveness. I demand a deep and severe act of contrition and repentance on their part. What is this severe act? I demand that people look me in the eye and say, "I am sorry. Please forgive me."
This is all I ask. I don't ask for my sake because I have already forgiven these people. I ask it for their sake. Here is the most beautiful story of forgiveness that I know:
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”
Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.”
Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep."
JOHN 21:17 NASB
Peter denied the Lord three times. This is why Jesus asks him three times if Peter loved him. And His command is the same. "Feed my sheep." In this, we see confrontation, contrition, and penance. This is what it is like in the confessional. You confess your sins. The priest talks with you to see if you are truly contrite and may even point out sins you might not realize or care to admit. Then, you leave with forgiveness and a penance to perform. For St. Peter, his penance was to be a faithful shepherd to the new church. He would go on to become a saint. This is real forgiveness.
Cheap forgiveness doesn't want change. It wants a fresh line of credit on the card. It says, "Forgive me, so I can stick it to you again." It is like closing up a wound without cleaning out the infection. It would be better to let it bleed out than allow the infection to turn it to gangrene. But this is why cheap forgiveness isn't forgiveness in much the same way that Protestant salvation isn't salvation.
The goal of the Christian religion is to stop being a black hearted sinner. Similarly, human relationships should be about love and support not seething resentments. The bad fruit of Luther's heresy is the belief that you don't have to change at all, and everything will be just fine. This is a lie from Hell itself. Anyone or anything who teaches you to ignore your conscience is evil. Your conscience is your guardian angel telling you to stop being bad and start being good. The problem with Protestants is that they spend all their theology on being let off the hook and none on becoming better people. The result is that there are no Protestant saints. To be a saint is to have acute self-awareness, and cheap forgiveness is about comfortable self-delusion.
True forgiveness requires remorse, repentance, and penance. The belief in the heart of the sinner is that these actions are degrading. They are assaults on personal dignity, but they are really assaults on pride. The sinner loses his dignity in his sin. He only regains it in his repentance. This is why no one can be satisfied with cheap forgiveness. It isn't love at all but letting people wallow in the mire of their own sin. True forgiveness brings that sinner out of that mire and puts his feet on a firmer foundation. We are brought to love God, to love others, and to hate sin. This is what true dignity is about.
Forgiveness waits for everyone. In the end, it is pride that keeps them imprisoned. No one wants to be forgiven. They want to hold on to that self-delusion that will pull them like an anchor into the abyss of Hell. But for those who humble themselves and sincerely seek forgiveness, they find themselves on the higher path to Heaven. This path is a hard path, but it is the right path. My prayer is that we would all seek this higher path of true forgiveness.