In the previous article, we discussed what the Church is, what the Church is meant to be and how it all started. We also discussed how Protestants can not be assured of unity with the one Church that Our Lord established. Now let us turn toward a few gifts from God which come through the Church.

1) Forgiveness of Sins

Surely Protestants and Catholics can come together in the assurance of God’s forgiveness in some way. Sacred Scripture is rife with promises and examples of God’s forgiveness, but do Protestants think about forgiveness in the same way Catholics do? Let’s take a look at another promise Our Lord gave to his Apostles. 

Once more Jesus said to them, “Peace be upon you; I came upon an errand from my Father, and now I am sending you out in my turn.” With that, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit; when you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven, when you hold them bound, they are held bound.” John 20:23

We know that this forgiveness is offered to us in the Sacrament of Penance (Confession). We know that St. James exhorts us to “confess our sins to one another” (James 5:16) which we obey in approaching the Sacrament of Penance. 

The early Church Fathers almost all contended that priests could forgive sins. St. Ambrose rebukes the Novatianists who “professed to show reverence for the Lord by reserving to him alone the power of forgiving sins. Greater wrong could not be done than what they do in seeking to rescind his commands and fling back the office he bestowed. . .The Church obeys him in both respects, by binding sin and by loosing it; for the Lord willed that for both the power should be equal” (On Penance I.2.6). 

Here St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the 4th century, explains it is false to say that only God has the power to forgive sin, as it denies the office that Our Lord gave to his Apostles, which is in a sense making Jesus out to be a liar. Ambrose goes on to say that this power is given to priests alone, and not just any Christian, saying: “Christ granted this (power) to the Apostles and from the Apostles it has been transmitted to the office of priests” (On Penance II.2.12).

How do Catholics find assurance in this?

  • We can know through simple experience and logic that we are rarely perfectly sorry for our sins. We were given the sacrament of Penance because we are weak. Our Lord said in the garden to his Apostles: “Watch and pray so that you will not enter into temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” (Matthew 26:41). In our souls, we desire the good. However, we so often give into the desire of our flesh. In this sacrament we can be assured that our sins are forgiven. 

Why can’t Protestants find assurance in this?

  • Most Protestants outright deny that priests can forgive sin. Which St. Ambrose and many others have demonstrated is incorrect.
  • Some Protestants do believe their priests or maybe their church can forgive them in some way. You might find this belief amongst Anglicans/Episcopalians and maybe some Lutherans. However, even the most high-church Anglican rarely has access to their own form of Penance. Many rely on the general confession they have at the beginning of their worship services. 

2) The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist

Finally, we can come to the thing that has to do with the source and summit of our faith: The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. More specifically, the Eucharist himself, Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Many of you, when asked “Why be Catholic and not just Christian?” will simply answer: “Well because we have the Eucharist!” Guess what? You’re exactly right.

 “Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.” John 6:53-58 

Look also at what Jesus said when he sent his Apostles off in the Great Commission. Jesus commanded them to baptize, and told them to go, “teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

St. Thomas Aquinas postulates the idea that one might think this promise cannot refer to the Eucharist, but then he denies this objection, saying:

This saying of Augustine, and all others like it, are about Christ’s body as it was seen in its own form. This is what our Lord himself indicates when he says, “You have not always had me.” He is invisibly present in the form of the sacrament wherever it is performed. (ST III, q.75, a.1)

How do Catholics find assurance in this?

  • Simply put, we can know that Jesus Christ did not leave us alone. We can know that he offers himself for us to be our spiritual food; to be our manna in the desert of life. 
  • We know that the Lord who promised to us that his Church would never fail, the Lord who promised us forgiveness through his Church, is the same Lord who told us that he would not leave us without himself to be our daily and supersubstantial bread.

Why can’t Protestants find assurance in this?

  • Most Protestants outright deny the literal interpretation of Our Lord’s words when he speaks of partaking of his flesh and blood. For this reason, while they might seek to have a spiritual intimacy with him, they cannot directly participate in his sacrifice which is made present on the altar. 
  • There are many Protestants who believe that Christ is in some way present on their altars. However, all of Christ’s promises must be held in union with one another, and he made his promises to the Church that he established. If one promise is not fulfilled then there is no unity with God and his words. It is the teaching of the Church, from the beginning, that only the ministers of the Church can confer the sacrament of the altar. Thus, no Christian can have assurance of God’s presence on their altars outside of the Church.