Book 3 Chapter 4 Section 1-39
In seeking to understand the vital topic of forgiveness of sins, Calvin addresses two areas that he sharply disagrees with Rome in the next two chapters. The issue at stake is real forgiveness – firstly, how can one be sure that someone is really repentant? and, secondly, does the forgiveness of our sins require satisfaction (in particular regard to the teaching on indulgences and purgatory)?
The Catholic theologians had defined repentance in three parts: contrition of the heart, confession of the mouth and satisfaction of works.
- Contrition of the heart. They taught that forgiveness of sins is “merited by a full and complete contrition” for all sins committed. That is a recounting of all the sins we have committed. But they have no way of knowing when this has been done. Indeed, it is impossible to ever exhaust the depths of our corruption and provide a full account of our sinful ways. Calvin rightly points out that this can only lead to despair or pretended contrition. Moreover, Calvin argues “that repentance cannot be the cause of forgiveness of sins”, it is not the purity and depth of our repentance that enables forgiveness, but the blood of Christ covering all who look to Him, however feebly we may look.
- Confession of the mouth. Here Calvin addresses the teaching that every person must once a year confess his sins to his own priest. He quickly covers the history of the confessional within the Catholic church. He deals with the various passages put forward to support the practice and concludes that it is without scriptural authority or historical grounding. Calvin is all for private confession, and even, when appropriate, private confession to a pastor. But always with the aim of applying the remedy of Christ’s forgiveness to the individual circumstances of the repentant believer.
- Satisfaction of works. This is the subject of Chapter 5.
While Calvin recognises that the motivation of the Catholic church in imposing these rituals was to exhort penitents not to fall into sin, forgiveness for Calvin is not something that can be produced or monitored by the observance of religious ceremonies. It is an affair of the heart. We cannot remember all our faults and outward rituals only numb the conscience and give false confidence if not accompanied with an inward reality.
But isn’t there a danger of licentiousness in leaving this a personal matter for believers and God? Surely only those who are really penitent and serious about changing should be forgiven, surely the church should make sure that people keep their promises? Surely not monitoring the people will lead to them abusing His grace and forgiveness and taking it for granted? Perhaps so.
Is God too generous? Is He more willing to allow us greater freedom than we are comfortable with? The answer appears to be yes. The bible is full of examples of God’s extravagant grace & forgiveness and our inability to deal with it – witness Jonah’s exasperation at God’s forgiveness of the people of Nineveh (Jonah 4.11), or Judas’ bitterness at Jesus’ acceptance of a sinful woman (compare Mark 14.4 & 10) and the grumbling of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20.12-15) at the landowner’s generosity.
Whether we like it or not, the truth is that God is more willing to forgive than we are. Our natural inclination is to try and control forgiveness and contain it within reasonable limits, so we can understand it. But God’s forgiveness is the real thing. He promises immediate, complete and free forgiveness and He delivers it – guaranteed! No strings attached. Then He tells us to go and live in the light of that forgiveness with a thankful, joyful heart and by His Spirit to walk in purity and holiness.
“What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Romans 6.1+2
Father, thank you for opening your heart to us and pouring your grace and forgiveness into our lives. How we need to learn to be as gracious as you are. We all too easily forgive ourselves anything but hold the least offence against our brother or sister. Transform us to be as self-giving and grace-filled as you are, Amen.