A Reflection on the Modern Error of Preaching Mercy without Repentance

111413There are of course many ways of describing the pastoral, liturgical and theological struggles of our day. But one very simple way of describing current problems that touches on all these areas is simply this:  that a presumptive attitude of mercy without repentance is both taught and widely held by far too many modern Catholics, and other Christians.

There is much talk of how God loves us, is rich in mercy, is kind and forgiving. And all of these things are true. But another essential truth is that these gifts, these essential attributes of God, are accessed by repentance. It is repentance that opens the door to mercy, forgiveness, and kindness.

Perhaps an analogy will help. Consider a man who is in very poor health. Perhaps he has  a host of problems that surround obesity such as hypertension, cholesterol, diabetes etc. Now modern medicine has a lot to offer people who are struggling with poor health. The healing help includes everything from medicine to surgery, to information on nutrition etc. But in order for this man to access that healing help, a number of things are first necessary:

  1. He may need others to testify to him some concern for his health, for many exhibit various levels of denial as to their condition especially when it involves things like overeating, smoking, or drinking.
  2. He then needs to accept that his condition is serious enough that needs both help and change.
  3. He needs to decide to seek the help of the medical profession and follow through on that decision by scheduling and keeping an appointment with a doctor.

Now, when he does this, AND ONLY when he does this, will the healing help of the medical profession unfold for him. It is not enough for him to say, “Well isn’t it great that there are doctors, medical professionals, information, and medicine that can help me! It’s just wonderful that there are so many caring and professional people out there who can help and save me!” No,  that is not enough. He has to make a change and actually reach out and develop a relationship with the medical community. He has to actually take the medicine. It is not enough to praise the medicine, he has to take it. It is not enough to feel reassured that there are people out there, he actually has to go to them, interact with them, and set a new course.

And this is an analogy for the spiritual life and repentance. God’s offer of mercy and healing love stand, and are offered to everyone. But these magnificent gifts must be accessed through repentance. That is to say, we must come to understand the seriousness of our condition, turn to God, call upon his mercy, and begin to receive the glorious medicine he offers: the medicine of his Word, of the Sacraments, of prayer, and walking in fellowship with the Church, which he established as his ongoing presence and voice in the world (cf Acts 2:42).

The Greek word that is usually translated as repentance or repent is metanoia and it means more than simply to clean up our act. Most literally it means to come to a new mind, or a new way of thinking. This is why God’s word, the teachings of the Church, and preaching are so essential for all of us. Whereas perverse councils separate us from God, (Wisdom 1:3), God’s truth proclaimed in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church summon us back to him, summon us to a new mind, a new way of thinking. It convicts us of error and sin, but also announces the Savior who is the saving Truth who sets us free.

But of course it is not enough for us simply to hear of this new way of thinking, we must actually come to it, decide for it. Repentance is to actually embrace this new mind, and this unlocks all the blessings the healings, the mercy, and the salvation that is promised. We must allow the grace of God, interacting with our freedom to effect an actual change, a decision in our life that changes the way we think, the way we act, and puts us into a saving relationship with the Divine Physician Jesus.

Like the patient above, we must be brought to understand the seriousness of our condition, come to know that there is saving help available, and then by positive decision, rooted in grace, actually reach out to lay hold of that help.

Repentance is the door, is the key that unlocks mercy.

Yet too often today mercy is preached without reference to repentance. Too many who preach and too many who hear have come to see mercy as granted without any human engagement. One simply has it automatically, no matter what.

Yet that is not what Scripture teaches. Most notably, Simon Peter on Day One of Pentecot and the going for of the gospel preached a sermon laying out who Jesus is, and how we, in our sin and rebellion killed the very author of life. The text from Acts says,

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:37-38)

Thus, when asked what they are to do, Peter does not say, “Don’t worry, all is well, God is mercy. He says, “Repent and baptized.” In other words, come to a new mind, come to your senses, reject your sins, be washed clean and come to Jesus. And this will unlock the supreme blessing of the Holy Spirit of God, who is the mercy of God, the love of God the very life and grace of God!

And how is this accessed? Repentance.

Isaiah had said, The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD (Is 59:20).

And to the Disciples in Emmaus Jesus said, This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:46-48)

And thus preachers and teachers in the Church, who are Christ’s witnesses, must proclaim repentance that unlocks the forgiveness and mercy of God.

St. Paul warns, In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).

Thus those who preach and teach mercy without repentance are deceivers and likely themselves deceived. And those who think of mercy without reference to repentance are deceived.

Faith and repentance are the supernaturally transformed and assisted human element that is necessary to unlock mercy and the graces of God. To ignore or deny this amounts to a denial of human freedom and does not help God’s people. Rather it hinders them, for mercy is accessed through repentance, and without it, the door cannot open. Repentance must be preached to all the nations because repentance, by God’s grace opens the door.

54 Replies to “A Reflection on the Modern Error of Preaching Mercy without Repentance”

  1. Your karma will run over your dogma if you’re a bad driver. Be true to your dogma and He will be your best friend for life..

    1. We must ask ourselves this question: Do we abide in His love?

      Here is the answer:

      “If you keep my commandments, you shall abide in my love; as I also have kept my Father’s commandments, and do abide in his love.” – John 15:10

      And here we have the Protestants’ heresy of “once saved always saved.”
      I can sin and I’ll still be saved because of God’s mercy. Isn’t that the tragedy, clowns (bad teachers, false prophets) show up and no one bothers to open up the Bible to read and argue against their erroneous interpretations. People are so lazy they don’t even care about saving their own souls.

      1. Robertlifelongcatholic: As a United Methodist pastor who was raised in the RCC, I must respectfully say I take as much exception to your generalized notion that all Protestants (assuming you mean all non-Catholics) subscribe to that careless, Calvinist doctrine of “once in grace, always in grace” as I do to non-Catholics who unilaterally reject, for instance, the doctrine of purgatory without first fully understanding what the doctrine actually teaches. And for the record, the properly understood Calvinist doctrine implies that this grace is not cheap (that is, there is no blanket overlooking the sin committed even by the faithful) but supports the faithful who will inevitably stumble. Neither doctrine is heretical; only misunderstood by those who overgeneralize. Both attest to the faithfulness of the Lord.

  2. Thank you, Monsignor. I’m humbly grateful to have realized in time that just being “nice” was not enough to offer God. I’ve gone through a profound conversion in the last years. People who said I was just fine the way I was helped me to stay in denial. I now see that I have to work hard to overcome my sinful nature. And I have to help bring my children to Christ, not just have them look good and behave when we go to church. Your blog provides spiritual direction. 🙂

    1. …and besides, enough people get hurt and get wounded, thanks to the “politics of nice,” anyway. Anyone who has ever fallen afoul of a clique already knows this for being on the receiving end of passive-aggressive manipulation in the name of “being nice.”

      So no: “nice” is not enough. A lot of times, it’s not even good.

  3. Oh my. Msgr. Pope’s teaching is so consistently excellent – let’s keep praying for his work and thanking God for his ministry. pGfWabf

  4. This is a much needed reminder. It also raises the question of how repentance relates to the constant advice we hear to forgive people who hurt us — especially people who show no sign of repentance nor or reforming their behavior.

    1. Well, forgiveness isn’t the same as mercy. To forgive is to let go of the need to change the past and of our desire for revenge, anger or the harm and misfortune of the offender. Frankly, forgiveness is more for us than the offender. Mercy on the other hand it the active work of God to bring us love and healing. But since he will not force on us what we do not want, we must repent to open the door.

      1. With all due respect, I believe Neil is right, for in Luke 17: 3-4 it is stated:

        “…If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.”

        Thus, in both cases Sacred Scripture teaches that forgiveness is conditioned on the wrongdoer’s repentence.

        How can forgiveness be more for us than for the offender? That doesn’t touch upon the fact that there is a wounded relationship between two souls that needs to be made right through the repentance of one and the forgiveness of the other.

        Forgiveness is love that is given and received, but how can it be received without repentance? I would think it can and should be given conditionally.

        1. I did not see anyone repenting when our Lord said from the cross, “Father,forgive them for they know not what they do.” That is (ideally) my prayer when someone hurts me.

          1. That the Lord offers mercy is unquestioned, the point is that it is accessed through repentance. Again consider the analogy. The doctor and whole medical world stand ready to help the man, but until he changes, repents, the door to that cannot open.

        2. Forgiveness is more for us, even in your example, the other cannot be made to move, but we move anyway and don’t stay in the poison. It is nice of the other moves, but that may of may not happen, hence forgiveness is more for us than the other since we can change even if the other does not.

          Not sure where you got the phrase “Forgiveness is love that is given and received” I have never heard this, where did you get it? It doesn’t really seem to have much to do with it. Forgiveness is ultimately a decision to let go of the need to change the past.

          Anyway this post isn’t about forgiveness anyway. It is about mercy and how we access it.

          1. I meant that repentance is necessary if someone does know what he is doing. “Forgive them for they do now know what they are doing” could mean that those cruxifying Jesus does not know they were commiting deicide. Or perhaps it means that no one who sins ever knows what they are doing, which in some sense is true, because who is crazy enough to offend God intentionally.

            According to a footnote on the New American bible posted on the USCCB website, that prayer by Jesus in Luker 23:34 “does not occur in the oldest papyrus manuscript of Luke and in other early Greek manuscripts and ancient versions of wide geographical distribution.” That of course does not mean He did not say it or that it will not appear in still undiscovered and earlier manuscripts.

          2. I did not write any examples and do not know if you were referring to my post. But the sentence “Forgiveness is love that is given and received” was written by me and somewhat expresses my understanding of forgiveness. I would add that repentance is also an act of love, but of the offender towards the offended.

            I don’t believe scripture portrays forgiveness as a merely psychological self help tactic, but as transcendent and essential to being a Christian. After all, it is one of the few concepts in the Lord’s prayer! When Jesus tells us to ask the Father forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us, I take that to also imply that we would only ask for forgiveness for that for which we have repented, and likewise for others. That doesn’t mean that forgiveness does not also help us psychologically, but that is just an effect and not the end in itself.

            I would add that since an offended party might not even know that an offender has repented (i.e. at the moment of death), one should always forgive conditioned on their repentance, and one should pray very much for the offender that he or she may receive that grace.

            The connection with your post is that one needs forgiveness from God in order to access His mercy after an offense. And one needs forgiveness from an offended person (if any) in order to access their mercy after an offense, don’t you think? That’s why I believe it is related.

          3. This weekend I had further thoughts on this whole topic. Because I do not want to mislead anyone with my comments, I must add that in my personal case God’s abundant mercy preceded an examination of my conscience, let alone my repentance. His mercy came when I sought his help, and even when I (repeatedly) told Him that I was reaching out just in case He existed. So He loved me even while I was a sinner, and even when I thought I was good. I believe God’s mercy is beyond anything imaginable, and can not be controlled by us. And Jesus has commanded us to love others as He has loved us, which must therefore be possible.

          4. Dear Msgr. Pope,

            I do understand that this post was not about forgiveness, but I do have a question on the topic of forgiveness that I very much hope you will take the time to answer.

            Without going into details I can say that my parents have objectively mistreated me as an adult. They have attempted to control my life decisions and when I have not agreed to “obey” them they have attempted to force my hand through harassment and emotional abuse. The details are horrific, but not relevant here. As a result of their treatment towards me I have decided not to be in contact with them.

            I have forgiven them in the ways you have outlined above: “To forgive is to let go of the need to change the past and of our desire for revenge, anger or the harm and misfortune of the offender.” I pray for my parents every day and I wish them well. However, they refuse to even admit that they have done a single thing wrong. I do not wish to have contact with them, because it is always harmful to me and my husband (and now baby).

            My parents accuse me of breaking the fourth commandment because (a) I do not obey them and (b) I refuse to communicate with them. They say I will go to hell. Other family members have also accused me of being “unforgiving”.

            What can we do when people refuse to accept our forgiveness (insist that they have done no wrong)?

  5. Sorry to be an engineer but it comes naturally. What would be the point of Mercy without repentance? A spoiled child doesn’t really care if their parents forgive them just that they get what they want. Christ is hanging on a Cross after being whipped and beaten. In His moment of greatest suffering He asks the Father to forgive us! The Mercy is freely given but it only seems logical that we can mess up and lose it by not seeing the truth of our actions and acknowledging the Truth. Follow it out…what kind of child would you end up with as a parent if you no matter what your child does you just say “that’s okay go ahead do that again there are no consequences”. No disrespect to Msgr. Pope intended but this one is so obvious that it scares me a little than so many people can’t see it.

    1. Well, like so many things modern, people and preachers often deal in abstraction rather than reality. There are many unexamined premises that are bandied about today, most notably and egregiously “choice” which then begs the question to an engineer like you or me, “Choice to do what?” But most moderns and inheritors of the Cartesian world are content to speak in abstractions and actually think they have communicated coherent truth when they say they are “pro-choice.” It is the same with this issue which is related to the problem of universalism (=all are saved). Many people think it is enough to say “God is love, God is merciful” and are basically saying we have mercy no matter what. This is a deception and, as you point out a meaningless thing. But with abstractions, who really cares about concrete meanings, better to let things float out there as ideas and abstractions…or so the mentality goes.

  6. Self-control is so difficult! The temptations are all around us to entice us to keep the status quo. I’m reading George Weigel’s Witness to Hope about Blessed Pope John Paul II. Stories about heroes like him inspires the reader to be heroic. On p. 221 the pope, then a cardinal, said, “the saints were the best catechists,” and Weigel goes on, “because effective religious education took place not simply through the transmission of ideas, but through the example of heroic virtue.” We *do* need to be heroic to overcome ourselves and to cooperate with grace, and we need the saints to show us it’s possible. This book reminded me that I need to read the lives of the saints more often. Repentance and reform are tough, and society tells us, ain’t nobody got time for that.

  7. Msgr. Pope – your style of presentation is great, especially for a blog format, a format that is all too frequently abused and used as a club. It is refreshing to see you thoughtfully and logically present your case, and to leave us readers with something uplifting at the end – usually some chant or music. Much, though I would argue most, of the greatest music ever laid down has been in honor of God. Thank you for a bright spot in the morning. I recall when I first learned the true meaning of repentance, and have ever since listened to news reports with a different ear. Now, when some report hypes the “repentance” of some transgressor immediately following some transgression, it is clear that the reporter misspoke, and should have used a term like “expressed sorrow for the deed”. Because repentance remains to be seen in the life that follows. Words are not repentance, a complete change of action is required.

  8. Further to Steve M. above: If God’s love for us is unconditional, then we can do whatever the hell we want and God will save us no matter what. Somehow this conundrum evaporates when we say “if we love God unconditionally, then He’ll save us no matter what.” Sacred Scripture is riddled with God saying “if you will do this for me, then I’ll do that for you.” Would it be accurate, Msgr. Pope, to say God’s love for us is perfect but with conditions? Is that not, however, the same as saying God does not love us unconditionally?

    1. God’s love is unconditional. The line of reasoning that you propose is like a parent who loves their child but tells them that if they do something that they will be grounded. Now, if the child does it and is grounded, is the parent’s love conditional? No, it is not. It is out of love that the child is grounded. Ever hear of “tough-love”? I think what you are getting at is about mercy and not love. Mercy and love are not the same. Mercy is conditional, love is not. God never rejects us, it is us who reject God. We are the one’s who are conditional. We are the one’s telling God, love us and be merciful with us even if we reject your goodness. So, who is being conditional?

    2. The love is unconditional argument (ironically) gets very nasty. Lots of string opinions. I am not so sure I see the conflict between unconditional love and judgment and hell. What God offers, unconditionally, must be accessed by us through repentance for the reasons stated in the analogy. A doctor might offer services free of charge. But that still doesn’t change the fact that the man in the example has to come to senses and seek out the help. This is an article about our side of the equation, not God’s. Repentance is necessary so that we can open the door on a gift freely given.

  9. I was reflecting yesterday as I saw commercials for various shows on zombies how that is a perfect metaphor for today’s society. We are living in the time of the walking dead most of whom don’t even know. So few are in a state of grace, so few have any semblance of a prayer life…I wondered what will happen to them all. Especially in the area of Fairfax County where so many lead comfortable lives in which it is so easy to forget about God. Short of catastrophe…how will the turn to God?

    1. In God’s mercy he will allow something “big” to happen to the US because He cannot allow all of the challenges to His authority and creation to continue. Is it not merciful to shake people out of their sinful states.

  10. Good analogy, Monsignor. I work with such persons daily and their choice to treat themselves, eg, healthy eating, relies on coming to the appointment and learning…Like coming to Christ in the confessional, do your penance, and start to change.

  11. I think universalism is ultimately based on the premise that it is impossible to hate God. I recall, and even if it is a false memory the idea is worthy of consideration, Blessed John Paul II saying that the truest way that we are in the image of God is that we have consciences and that it is possible annihilate one’s conscience.

  12. Someone referred to the Protestant heresy of “Once saved always saved,” These are usually the people who claim to believe the Bible. Just refer them to Romans 11:17-22, and Colossians 1:21-23.

  13. “It is repentance that opens the door to mercy, forgiveness, and kindness.”

    A better summary of one of the most essential both/ands of Christianity would be hard to find.

  14. From your lips to Pope Francis’ ears. The world does not hear him say “mercy requires repentance” because he doesn’t say it. Pray for him!

      1. A key thing that separates this article’s topic from Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy, is that this article is talking about what we need to do to receive God’s mercy–but Pope Francis is almost always talking about what we need to do to SHOW God’s mercy. He’s not exhorting non-Christians (or even Christians) about how to turn to God. He’s telling Christians how to turn to our fellow men. We’re not supposed to make the Judgment happen now–now, we’re supposed to love. That involves being clear-sighted, that involves telling the truth: but it always involves “speaking the truth in love,” Caritas in Veritate. Those of us of a more intellectual or doctrinal bent enjoy the part about “speaking the truth,” but we so easily forget the reason we speak it: love. Truth spoken without love is very rarely helpful to anyone. It’s better than lying, of course; but it’s not better than loving. Love is the deepest part of truth, and all truth is a kind of lie without it.

        That’s what Pope Francis means by mercy: seeing people as people, who need to be saved, for whom Christ died, and treating them like that. Judgment (in the Biblical sense) happens later, and it’s not our job. We’re supposed to “create a culture of encounter”; we’re supposed to “go out to the peripheries.” Jesus ate with sinners before they repented. (See Zacchaeus.)

        Those of us who know theology and love the Church, who have been well-catechized, must walk with Pope Francis. If we don’t, who will? We know what he means. As Benedict XVI would say, we have the proper hermeneutic. Instead of talking about how other people misunderstand him, let’s please understand him ourselves–and do what he asks. By all means, let us explain his words when they need explaining–but let’s explain them in a spirit of love, and in a spirit of submission. Let’s explain them with mercy. Then, maybe, people will begin to repent.

        1. Please, please remember that every second of every hour of every day, thousands of people are dying. At that moment their spiritual fate is sealed. If we are not imminently and strongly emphasizing how to turn to God and how His mercy requires repentance, how many of these souls will die in mortal sin and be lost. Helping the poor is very important — saving the soul who may die in mortal sin tomorrow is more important!

  15. Thank you for a very clear message. I hope and pray that many priests and laity will read this. Many have fallen into the devils trap that hell does not exist.

  16. Dear Msgr. Pope,
    You really had to defend your statements today. Most interesting comments and your replies.
    I have been bothered for a long time by hearing homilies of mercy and forgiveness and no mentioning of repentance which I always feel is necessary. Also I’m so glad you explained that forgiveness is more for us than
    the other. I’ve struggled with that.
    Thank you!

  17. Thank you Monsignor, it is befitting answer to the growing proclamation of ‘God’s Mercy sans repentance’.

  18. In Catholic school and all through most of my adulthood, i’ve been to Confession, yet came nowhere near repentance. We were taught to confess, receive a penance and our sins were absolved. Repentance was not mentioned. In fact, in discussing this with other “boomer” Catholics, they too never gave repentance a thought. Metanoia? What’s that? we most likely would have asked. A new Greek dish?:)

    When i first began hearing the phrases “born again” and being “saved” i became increasingly uneasy. Something in my catechesis was missing. I’d ask a priest and they’d say to a man, “Don’t worry, we have the Sacraments”. Finally the Holy Spirit led me to where i found out about repentance and metanoia. And then, not only did i change radically, but my relationship with Jesus Christ deepened into something so deep so profound, i still weep in gratitude for being saved. Now in my FB and offline ministries, i preach the same, bringing others through the Holy Spirit to Christ. Alleluia! God is so very good. Deo Gratias!

    1. <>

      Dear Candida!

      Perhaps one of your priests had you make an act of contrition? If you meant one word of the prayer promising- in so many words – to ‘sin no more and avoid the near occasion of sin’, and then you got up out of the confessional and attempted to amend your life accordingly, then well, my dear, YOU REPENTED.

      It’s that simple. The Church doesn’t teach that you have to know magic terms like ‘metanoia’ or even ‘born-again’ to make it into heaven! you must only forsake sin(repent) and receive the sanctifying Grace Christ purchased for us in his sorrowful Passion by getting baptized(if someone is not already), going to Confession, receiving the Holy Eucharist (and thru personal prayer, and three other means Christ has given us laity–Confirmation, Matrimony, Extreme Unction).

      BTW, you were born-again when your parents had you baptized.

      I apologize if this was never been explained to you.

  19. The Church’s teaching of the existence of antecedent grace and its necessity for the achieving of justification was defined at the Council of Trent. Defined as a supernatural intervention of God in the faculties of the soul, which precedes the free act of the will. (De fide.) – from Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Dr. Ludwig Ott.

    Msgr., do you see antecedent grace as the first cause of the act of repentance? If so can it be said that repentance comes from God and is not something we sinners can conjure up for ourselves apart from God’s grace? What if repentance does not come to a sinner? Is this where the mystery of Reprobation comes into the equation?

    Thanks for all your authentic Catholic teaching Msgr.

  20. Hello MSGR!

    please reassure me!

    I suspect, intuit, feel and fear that universalism lurks beneath the modern preaching mercy without repentance.

    Father/Cardinal Balthasar has enjoyed praise by our two previous popes and hence his ’empty hell’ speculation has been given credence.

    I really wish the/a Holy Father would someday clarify:

    1) the ‘last four things’ are real.

    2) each Christian’s risk of damnation is real.

    3) holding out the hope that God’s Mercy may either keep hell empty or empty it, must be anathematized. It is the greatest encouragement to the sin of presumption ever concocted. Advocating it encourages souls to remain in mortal sin, hence advocating it is perse a mortal sin.

    Modern homilists don’t need to affirm universalism to promote it. As you point out, they only need to preach Mercy in the absence of repentance. And never talk about the 4-last-things. I think that they reason that you can’t be hauled before an inquisition for things you don’t say. Such an underhanded approach also fits well with deceivers and cowards.

  21. Greetings and salutations MSGR!

    I love this article but I am concerned that the whole idea of “sin” has been relegated to the Dark Ages in most places in the Church! The whole idea of personal sin and how it effects us and our relationship with God and the whole world is rarely ever spoken of. We have been lulled into thinking that if we participate in many humanitarian enterprises it is fine to allow our souls to rot from the inside. Who has the guts to tell us that our hearts are corrupt and the stench of sin is within us and not outside ourselves? I have been praying that the Lord intervene soon so that we come to our senses!

  22. Repentance is saying Yes to God. It is a change of heart. Without it a person is not saying Yes to God; he or she is rather simply playing a game with him- or herself and God.

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