Penance

The forgiveness of sins belonged essentially to the earthly Jesus' ministry for the kingdom of God. He imparted the divine pardon not only through his words (e.g. Luke 7: 47—50) but also through his action of establishing table fellowship with sinners and reconciling them with God. Jesus responded to those who criticized his ministry of reconciliation by declaring: 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance' (Mark 2: 17). This notable saying summed up a major purpose of the mission of Jesus ('I have come') in terms that supported a post-NT title for him ('doctor'), which remained popular down to the time of St Augustine of Hippo, who preached Christ as the 'humble doctor' (humilis medicus). In what came to be known as the 'Our Father' or 'Lord's Prayer', Jesus asked his followers to keep praying for the forgiveness of their sins (Matt. 6: 12 = Luke 11: 4)—which presupposed that they would continue sinning even after an initial conversion and decision for him and his message. Their receiving forgiveness was conditional on their forgiving others, and so carrying out a mission of reconciliation received from Jesus.

The Gospel of John portrays the risen Jesus communicating the Holy Spirit to his disciples. This gift, which will be passed on to those who, as a result of the disciples' mission, come to believe and join the community, includes essentially the forgiveness of sins (John 20: 22—3). For John, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, and membership in the new community are inseparable. Here John converges with what the Acts of the Apostles reports. Peter and the other apostolic leaders preach Jesus crucified and risen; those who 'repent of their sins', accept the good news, and are baptized will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of their sins (e.g. Acts 2: 37—9).

But what of Christians who commit sins and even revert to a sinful lifestyle they have renounced at their baptism? Here and there the NT alerts us to the fact that some Christians lapse back into sin after entering the community. The Gospels indicate that there are procedures to be followed for the 'brother who does wrong' (Matt. 18: 15—18). Paul too shows his anxious concern over sins committed by Christians in Corinth and prescribes remedies. For instance, a man who is living in concubinage with his stepmother should be expelled from the community, 'so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord' (1 Cor. 5: 5). The apostle also writes of someone who has suffered for some wrongdoing, but now should be forgiven and reconciled with the community (2 Cor. 2: 5—8).

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