Many Catholics directly associate forgiveness with the Lord’s Supper, the prayers of the clergy, prayers of rededication, and other things similar. Many Christians generally associate forgiveness with the work of Christ, yet they perpetuate traditions and perceptions that can condemn God’s people to anxiety and a self-destructive conscience. Burdened by the teaching and traditions of their leaders many carry a load of guilt from one service or experience to the next. I know that I myself have been burdened with guilt in years past in a similar way.
The message of Hebrews was authored to a similar audience. And its message should be pretty liberating for many. The writers’ original audience underestimated Jesus, much like we may do also. They hadn’t come to the startling reality that the death of Jesus offered full and final forgiveness, both now and forever. They couldn’t grasp that Jesus had opened up perfect access to the Father. They couldn’t grasp the fact that they now needed no other priest.
The book of Hebrews was written in response to the temptation to turn back from Christ to Jewish tradition—the temptation to regard the temple cult as more effective than Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s well worth a read, because I think that this is a temptation that many within Catholicism have succumbed to.
If you’re a sincere Catholic I don’t doubt that you hope in Christ and continue to pray for strength and direction. Even if you don’t think that I am correct about Catholicism, I strongly recommend you give Hebrews a good read. It’s a real thesis, but it is the life giving truth of God that we need; we all need his Word directly illuminating us. If you pray for understanding, God is ready to give it to you through his Word.
I also don’t doubt if you are a sincere Catholic that you try to apply his commandments to every aspect of my life. Sometimes you fail, of course like us all, but you really do try. You may also be sure that your faith is strong.
This is commendable; though you need to be careful you don’t fall into the trap of confusing belief in yourself with belief in Christ. Your faith is strong if you believe that Christ’s finished Work on the cross applies irreversibly and directly to your sin:
““Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more”. And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Hebrews 10:17-18).
And so it matters not so much the degree to which you try, but the degree to which the sacrifice for sin is or is not complete. And the message of Hebrews and in fact the New Testament generally, is that ‘it is [in fact] finished!’
It says that when Jesus “had offered one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:12-14).
Christ’s people have been made perfect forever; already. And so you mustn’t confuse what you know about your sin with what the Bible says about Christ’s work to make you holy and perfect in his sight even now. You are perfect in the sight of God because of what Christ has done for you.
Now it is one hundred per cent clear that God's purpose for his people in their lives, in the way they do actually live, does centres on holiness and avoiding sin:
Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: “Finally, brother, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you should be sanctified [or ‘made holy’]: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8)”.
I find that remarkably challenging but also reassuring. God’s will for me and you is not hidden, and it is not complicated. Now that he has made us perfect in the sight of God, his will is that we live up to what we have already attained (Philippians 3:16): It is God’s will that we should be sanctified. He has called us to live a holy life.
But the reassurance is that we are not on our own. At the same time that we are putting one hundred per cent of our energy into “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12), we are told that “it is God who works in us, to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).
As it says: “he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14).
God’s people are also being ‘made’ holy. And the very evidence of his ownership of is is the working out of godliness in our life. And the evidence of this is not a ‘sinless’ life, but a life splattered with blood. It’s a battle; a conflict (Galatians 5:16-17). We are in a war fighting a real enemy – and we struggle and take many blows as we seek to “put to death the misdeeds of the body”, and as we “crucify the sinful nature with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). It is our very struggle against sin that marks us as His (Romans 7:7-8:17), in a world that follows willingly their own sinful nature (Ephesians 2:1-3). This is the work of the Spirit of God.
And how about 1 John 3:19-24:
“This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.”
And this command is one command: The vertical component is our action towards God; to trust and rely on his Son for our salvation. The horizontal component comes secondly and is our response to his salvation for us; to love each other as he has loved us.
Our hearts can be free in his presence. And whenever our hearts condemn us we can set them at rest by this truth.
The question I encourage you to carefully consider is: Is this the message you received from Catholicism? Is this the trust you’re holding to in all sincerity as a practicing catholic?