Catholic vs. Protestant Forgiveness

For a while I have been dwelling on this question, and even though I have discussed it and looked for a satisfying answer I still haven’t found one.

It’s this: When I, as a Catholic, go to confession (the sacrament of Penance), my sins are forgiven, by Jesus, through the ministry of the priest. Great.

Now I accept that when a well-meaning Protestant says sincerely to God that he is sorry for his sins and asks for forgiveness, that God forgives.

But the question I have is this: Is there any difference? Is the Protestant totally absolved?
Is the forgiveness in both cases exactly the same?
I feel like there must be SOME difference. Not because I want there to be, but because I know the power of the Sacraments.


I think one difference lies in the concept of penance. The priest gives us absolution but he also gives out penance. It might be 5 Hail Marys or it might be much more substantial. In the Protestant case there is no real penance whatsoever.

For me, I feel different after confession. When I was a protestant, I never knew if God really forgave me when I asked for forgiveness.
Leaving my first confession, I had the same feeling as when I was baptized at 12 years old. This weight was lifted. Every time I leave confession, I have this weight lifted feeling. I never experienced that as a protestant asking for forgiveness.
This may be really simpleminded, acting on feelings, but I can never go back to my old ways of doing things. :slight_smile:

As Catholics, we affirm that God’s plan was for the Church to have the authority to forgive sins. We also affirm that God uses the sacraments to impart His Grace on us and help us reach Heaven. For Protestants, because they do not have the sacrament of Confession, God’s grace is imparted to them in other ways, known only to Him. That doesn’t mean that confession isn’t God’s plan and important. It just means that He works with us where we are.

I think the power of confession and how it really changes your life when your heart is open to God shows that it is God’s true plan for us. :slight_smile:


I believe when a Protestant or a Catholic sincerely confesses his sins directly to God, he is forgiven.
The difference with going to Confession is : 1. when the priest gives you absolution, you know your sins are forgiven,
2. the priest can advise you on how to avoid those sins,
3. you receive the grace from the sacrament.


Unless they take it upon themselves, but where is the motivation to do penance in their scenario?

I watched with fascination and longing every scene in any movie where someone was confessing to a priest. Now I get to do it for real. Nice. Big sigh.

Yes, I agree this is a very important aspect of it. Penance, or reparation, makes us aware that even though we are forgiven, there is repair work to be done. We need to undo, as much as is possible, the harm done by our sin. Protestants generally lack of formal recognition of this, even though many of them may naturally practice it.

The other important aspect of it is the examination of conscience that we do. Whether it is for a specific confession, or more generally, Catholics should be more aware to be constantly examining our conscience and aligning our will with that of God.

The other issue is that confession - the need to keep seeking forgiveness - reminds us that the work of salvation is not yet completed. We keep working out our salvation “with fear and trembling”. Many protestants think they are already saved, which is a great light to do whatever you want because God has already forgiven you.

Which was one of the reasons why I considered my self a ship lost at sea until I became Catholic. Best decision I ever made.

If it it too good to be true… it probably is.

As a Protestant I had no concept of an imposed penance but did have a sense that I needed to make things right. For example, if I had offended someone I needed to apologize. If I had been critical of my husband or children, I needed to 'fess up and make amends.

Although I believed my salvation was secured, I did not want sin to break my communion with God.

KendraDZ1902, my experience was very similar to yours. Leaving my first confession, I felt very much as I did after going to the altar/being baptized at age 11.

A Catholic writer wrote once, in essence, “we are never as hard on ourselves as someone else is when we go to confession.”

I’m not really doing the writer justice, but I agree with what he was getting at, i.e., when we say to God, “I’m sorry,” we tend to leave it at that; but when we confess, someone tells us that there is a price to pay, and that there is value in paying that price.

I think I can offer the other side of the coin on this one coming from a protestant (LCMS) background.

During the [LCMS] liturgy, there is a confession and absolution. In my opinion, this is far more direct and explicit than most times I’ve experienced during mass. However, it is a group thing. Our [RC] liturgy does allow for a more explicit confession ("…through my fault, through my fault…"), but most Catholic churches sort of use the faster “Lord have mercy…”

As such, I was taught [LCMS] we all confess, we’re all forgiven. I was also taught when you go to churches that do not do this, then do not take communion.

I think several here have pointed out how much “better” the sacrament of reconciliation feels to actually have a priest, in persona Christi, forgive you. I think it is human nature to feel better about that than the group thing.

Do I (now converted) still think if you go directly go God [in prayer] and beg for forgiveness you are forgiven? Yes. I do go to confession, but sometimes I just pray as well in between. The concept of “mortal sins” is still new and somewhat foreign (and yes, I can explain the catechism definition, my heart just isn’t there yet), and so I think that goes hand in hand.

edit: clarifications in brackets. :slight_smile:

Second thought: I think JMR_1985 is correct. Confessing and forgiving each other is Biblical. As such my [LCMS] pastor growing up tried to institute confession. In a Lutheran church!!! Scandalous indeed. It sure never caught on.

Why would I confess to him? I’m going to do it, generically and as a group, on Sunday.
And I’d still feel this way in that setting.

This isn’t an argument, and not to speak for all but for the protestant that I was, the harm done is probably to the other party. Maybe to yourself. Ideally, you can make it right with them or forgive and improve yourself, but this concept of repair work beyond that (purgatory) typically doesn’t exist for them. It simply is not in their Bible or beliefs. In fact, this concept about degree of “badness” to sins or “counting” of sins is completely foreign and borderline antithetical as it gets to Luther vs. the ‘sale’ of indulgences. As I mention above, it is something I’m still coming around to understanding.

Not to paint with a broad brush, but maybe on the bolded. It all depends on the end state. Same as us.

I won’t go into the issue of purgatory here. That was not my intention.

And I won’t go into the biblical basis for penance and temporal punishment, though there is plenty.

But I’ll ask you this - if you steal money from someone, do you think it’s required that you return that money in order to be properly forgiven? Or do you just say sorry but keep the money? Returning the money is - in a nutshell - reparation.

Wouldn’t this cover that?

I know your intent wasn’t to get at purgatory, but I do think that concept underlines a spectrum of sins that, in my youth learning, simply didn’t exist. It was just a dichotomy: You either sinned (and any little thing counted and kept you out of heaven), or you didn’t. Obviously no one is the latter, and so all require forgiveness.

For me, this led to another interesting phenomena for me in my transition. In some ways, protestant definition sins are “worse” since all are equal (and the guilt may have been more since you are basically sinning non-stop at every decision point in life where you don’t choose the absolute best option). There was only really one mortal sin that I knew of growing up. In others ways, [some] Catholic definition sins are worse for me now, since this is mortal, that is not. A totally foreign concept.

It’s clear that certain sins lead to death… aka mortal sin… those in which asking for forgiveness by prayer alone just isn’t enough. I think that this is where confession and absolution come into play. ‘Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.’

Thanks everyone for your replies.
So we have some Catholic converts saying that before they became Catholics they never felt the same peace and assurance that confession gives, and also some here are suggesting that the act of Penance actually goes some way towards repairing the effects of sin.
Others suggest that maybe mortal sin cannot be forgiven outside of the sacrament of Penance.

But doctrinally or theologically is there any mention anywhere of an actual difference between the forgiveness granted non-Catholics who sincerely repent and Catholics who sincerely repent and use the Sacrament of Penance?

As a Catholic I can say I absolutely feel a lightness and a real sense of total forgiveness when I leave the confessional.

Maybe it comes down to the act of absolution?

I don’t want to hijack this thread, but it is one of particular interest to me given my own recent conversion. So I do apologize for jumping back in so soon! :slight_smile:

Don’t all sins lead to death without forgiveness?

What is mindblowing to me about CAF is the fascination with masturbation. For so many here, it is a mortal sin, but let’s take any “mortal sin” that is beyond suicide, after which prayer and forgiveness in life is impossible. Suppose someone masturbates [or insert other mortal sin] in the wilderness of Northern Canada, or Alaska or [some extremely remote part of the world]. And they’re up there hunting or homesteading or whatever. And they are truly sorry and pray, but never actually make it back to speak with a priest before death. They can’t pray and ask for forgiveness and make their own hearts right with God if they are truly a hermit who never had the opportunity? Then “forgiveness and prayer alone just isn’t enough?” It might be all they’ve got. Extreme example covering an extremely small number of the world’s population obviously, but a question that I myself asked about during RCIA.

Romans 6: 23 For the wages of sin is death…

I assume not.

1 John 5: 17 Every kind of wickedness is sin, but not all sin leads to death.

John 20: 22-23 After saying this He breathed on them and said: Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.

James 5: 16 So confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another to be cured; the heartfelt prayer of someone upright works very powerfully.

Matthew 6: 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

I believe that what’s in our heart matters too. God is very merciful.

:shrug: I don’t know. If you had no original sin, and maybe 1 tiny little thing your whole life, then you have still sinned and fallen short, etc. On the other hand, no such person exists and anyone remotely close would be pretty well blessed with graces of the Holy Spirit and probably have a humble heart very understanding of the need for mercy and so on.

So, probably an academic discussion only for all of us. I don’t know how much it matters because….

…this is what I arrive at as well. :slight_smile:

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