Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a valiant Lutheran Pastor who was a theologian and an ardent opponent of Hitler and the Nazis. He paid for this with his life toward the end of World War II when he was executed by the Regime as it was careening to a final crash.
In his book “The Cost of Discipleship”, he bemoaned Christianity’s slow decline into a comfortable gospel for the well-heeled and the lax. He felt that Christians in Germany felt that for the forgiveness of their sins it was just necessary to say to God “I’m sorry” and then continue living like everyone else: that is, comfortably and without much concern for the poor and the downtrodden. He called this ‘Cheap Grace’. In contrast, he felt the call of Christ involved making a radical commitment to worship, to witness and to suffer for one’s beliefs. Christian Faith was called to be prophetic.
Unfortunately, we in America have developed a similar system of false expectations which do not agree with either Biblical teaching nor with the Church’s Magisterium. For instance, it is an uncontested belief that when one goes to confession and one fulfills the requirements (sorrow for sin, confession to a priest, firm purpose of amendment and carrying out one’s penance in a spirit of reparation) all sins can be forgiven. This is true, to a point; just as Original Sin left weaknesses and flaws that have to be worked on because of the need to grow in holiness (teaching on concupiscence), so also actual sins do their damage and that damage must be healed through Penance and Reparation.
But, the problem in the modern world is this: we presume on God’s mercy and do not even ask for forgiveness nor make the necessary amendments of life. We just assume that God has already forgiven us so why go through the difficulties of the process of Confession? In addition, when someone does enter this process, it is not with a firm purpose of amendment and the penance often given, even for serious sins, are a couple of Hail Marys’! Easy and cheap grace. But that is not the teaching of the Church. It a vein quest to find the easy way out and get in God’s good graces without the anguish of repentance.
In the Medieval debates regarding the necessity of the atoning death of Christ, St. Anselm highlighted a deficiency in the thinking of his opponents when they said that the Incarnation and the death of Christ were not necessary but were gratuitous acts of love for each of us. Even in the absence of Original Sin, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity would become human, simply to manifest His love for us (the position of Duns Scotus and the Franciscan School). St. Anselm (and after him the Dominican School of St. Thomas Aquinas) emphasized the necessary nature of these miraculous acts of God. St. Anselm’s contribution centered on the gravity of sin. He said that people do not reckon with how serious any sin is and how it upsets the balance of the Justice of God. Original Sin and the accumulated actual sins of mankind are an enormous attack on the sovereignty and justice of God. This sense of the gravity of even the smallest venial sin is completely lost on us who like our forgiveness fast and cheap.
The process of repentance is a long and difficult process. It is not something I should leave to my death bed. While a last-minute conversion is always possible, the process of repentance must be continued in the next life. Hence the importance of the doctrine of purgatory.
While going to Confession and receiving absolution for a life time of sin or even for one sin must always be maintained as a desirable thing, one can never lay aside the difficult and arduous reshaping that must accompany our act of confession. This reshaping involves repeated attempts at amendment of life without which no true repentance is ever possible.
It is easy to conceive of the Sacrament of Confession, (because of how common and available it is) as a sort of ‘dispenser’. We go to Confession, do our Penance and Poof! All is forgiven and we can go back to our lives, often knowing that we will be back again in Confession, calmly confessing the same sins. No effort. No growth. No struggle. No change.
While it is true that the struggle is very long and it often feels like we are stuck in the same sins, the passivity that I am describing is much more pernicious. There are habitual sins that do take a long time to conquer, even with Sacramental assistance. But what I am speaking about is the total abandonment of efforts to resist the sin in the knowledge that all one has to do is go to confession again and all is ok. Nothing more needs to be done. This risks playing a game with God. Not something to be encouraged!
No, the term: ‘Firm Purpose of Amendment’ is a commitment to struggle against temptation and a refusal to see in Confession a license to rely on ‘cheap grace’ to solve the problems of intense and real moral struggle.