Almost every disorder of soul imaginable – from lying to groping, from envy to spite, has been practiced, encouraged, or deplored in the public order of late. We have heard from the spiritual side mostly mercy, anticipated forgiveness, and corporate sins. Paul warned the Galatians about the “works of the flesh.” They read like our press or media.
In long-ago Galatia, Paul found, no surprise, “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissension, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.” (Gal 5:19-21) In other passages, Paul adds a few more zingers with which we have become quite familiar.
Paul did not leave it at that. In case we naively might miss his point, he sketched consequences: “Those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” Paul was a realist. He knew that people did these things, often frequently. Christianity is initially presented to us because we are sinners who “do such things.”
The context was that those who did them should come themselves to recognized their heinousness. Only then would they want to do something about it. But what?
Sinners quickly found out from Paul that the evil involved in such acts – whether they be called “sins” or “rights” – will not go away by itself. Sinners, those who do these things, will not enter the Kingdom of God. This “no-entry” is simply a fact if those involved in them did not admit their problem and change their ways.
It is good to tell them of God’s mercy. But this information could also lull them to sleep if they did not first acknowledge that what they did was wrong. God first comes to us as a judge and upholder of His own right order. Only then does He come as forgiving. Mercy without judgment bypasses free will. It makes the whole human drama unintelligible.
Once sins were personally acknowledged, a further problem arose. How do we find out whether anyone can forgive sins? Their evil involves more than just ourselves. It does little good to tell people that their sins are already forgiven by God if we do not tell them also what God expects on our part. He expects men first to acknowledge that what they did was an aberration. Moreover, sins were not forgiven in just any old way, but in the manner laid down by Christ through the Church.
It is true that if we are repentant and drop dead before we have a chance to confess our sins, we are no doubt forgiven. And it is also possible, sometimes honestly, not to recognize that a particular act is a sin. In such a case, if it exists, there would be no need of redemption or repentance.
Christ came to teach the world of its sins, but also why and how to repent of them. Mixed up in all sin is free will, which, if not present, no sin takes place. But lack of free will would make our acts insignificant and of no consequence to us as persons. If we take Paul’s list of sins and deny that they are sins but either acts of virtue or deeds done necessarily, we have made ourselves over into automata whose transcendent significance is exactly zero. The Kingdom of God is not composed of moral zeros.
In one sense, the highlight of the recent campaign was when we witnessed the “horror” at the revelations of Mr. Trump’s indelicate talk about women. Suddenly, we discovered that people did think that such activities were wrong. Even Mr. Trump admitted it. But there was no forgiveness. It was more important not to forgive because that was the only way to keep the fault permanent. No incident in the campaign better revealed the Christian understanding of sin.
In some sense, it is almost unbearable to find out that lewd talking is a horror but nothing is made of abortion advocacy. The comparative gravity of sins is not something to be overlooked. We can, no doubt, lose our souls for one sin and we can lose it for a whole lifetime of horrendous ones, such as we read of in our times. If there is a “seamless garment” whereby we can trade off social justice for abortion, so there must by the same argument be one where we can trade off killing fetuses for vulgar language and unwanted gropings.
Those who do such things and justify doing them will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. God’s mercy begins when the sins stop and they are judged by the sinner and by God for what they are. Sins, even the worst, can be forgiven. But nothing unacknowledged and not properly repented is forgiven. Were this not so, we could never in grace be fit for the Kingdom of God.