April 3, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Only God could atone for sins

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series of columns)

Last week, I wrote that it isn’t sufficient for Christians to follow Christ just because he was a great man. He claimed to be God, forgave sins (which only God can do), and performed healing miracles to show that he had the power to forgive sins.

But why is the divinity of Christ so important for Catholics? After all, many people who call themselves Christians believe that he was simply a great moral teacher without acknowledging him as God. It’s almost like they forget that Jesus accepted death by crucifixion to atone for our sins and to redeem humankind.

Atonement and redemption are at the very core of Catholicism. As Catholics, we believe that Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, became human in order to die for our sins. Our faith is as simple as that.

I guess most Christian religions teach that, but they differ on exactly what that means. Through the centuries of Christianity, people have questioned why atonement and redemption were necessary. Various Churches have answered that question differently, but the Catholic Church maintains the traditional doctrine of original sin.

Although Churches differ on the doctrine of original sin, most Christians accept the fact that human nature was in a fallen state prior to Christ’s death. Most Christians accept the words of the

Nicene Creed, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried.” They also accept the words of St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3).

And that’s why the divinity of Christ is so important. How could any mere man, even the holiest, die for our sins? How could a mere man be crucified “for our sake”? Our redemption had to be accomplished by God.

But God chose to involve us in it by redeeming us through suffering and death. Since he chose this way, God couldn’t do it by himself since it is not in God’s nature to suffer and die. So first he had to assume our human nature; he had to become a human who could suffer and die. And that’s what he did. God the Son became a man while remaining God and, in the person of Jesus, was able to make the perfect sacrifice that atoned for our sins.

St. Paul told us, “Just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19).

St. Peter wrote: “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pt 2:24).

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults puts it this way: “On the Cross, Jesus freely gave his life as a sacrifice. His sacrifice was an act of atonement, that is, it makes us one again with God by the power of divine mercy extending to us the Father’s forgiveness of our sins” (p. 92). †

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