Hello Adam, I was hoping you could help me. I work with a gentleman who is Protestant. He always asks me questions about the faith. This coworker is asking me what do we Catholics believe in terms of atonement? Is Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross adequate for us? If so, why do we believe in reparation, penance for sins? Purgatory? He is also asking questions about merit and how our sacraments work. And finally, he asked does Christ’s death only give us hope for salvation and not secure it? Can you help in any way? God bless!
You are right that the theology of atonement and salvation can get really complicated. I don’t think you need to have all the answers to be able to respond fruitfully. It’s easy to get into the theological weeds with this stuff. You’ve shared a lot of different questions that he’s asking you about, so I’ll try to tackle each one very briefly.
Some Thoughts: I think it helps to simply define what we mean. Protestants and Catholics use the same words for different things. By atonement (“to make one” or “to reconcile”), we mean the act of making the satisfaction of a demand. If you commit a fault against someone, like breaking their window, you atone for it by paying for a new window to be installed. Satisfaction has been met for the fault. It’s atoned for. Payment has been received in full.
Catholics (and all Christians) believe in vicarious atonement. Christ stood in our place (the offender) to make full atonement to God the Father (the offended). Jesus’ act of atonement was complete. There was nothing lacking in it. He completely fulfilled the demands of justice for our sins and the sins of the whole world. And that’s it. That’s the teaching. It’s in line with Matthew 20:28: “Even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Now your Protestant friend has some more questions to clarify this teaching on atonement. If it was a full atonement, and satisfaction has been made, why do we believe in penance, reparations for sins, and purgatory?
The key here is that Catholics are not trying to earn their salvation or do what Christ already did — atone for our sins and give us eternal life. No more payment is needed, or even possible. Jesus’ merits on the cross were superabundant: “By suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race” (St. Thomas Aquinas).
Why do penance then? Not for eternal punishment, but for temporal (time-bound) punishment. After committing adultery, David’s relationship with God is restored yet his infant son still dies as a temporal punishment for sins (2 Sam 12:13-14 and following). Scripture is filled with these examples. Moses did not believe God and was not allowed in the Promised Land before he died. And this is not limited to the Old Testament. For example, Jesus warned of punishment for sin that would be completed when we have “paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:26). So, it’s punishment that ends; and that’s what we call “temporal punishment.”
Even more obvious in our own lives: though the penalty for original sin was paid by Jesus, we still suffer bodily death. Saint Paul explains this: “Although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10). We might do the same thing with our own children who have seriously severed our trust. We may forgive them and let them move back home, but there’s still a certain satisfaction to be made to fully restore trust in the relationship. Or if someone commits adultery today like King David, the spouse might forgive the offending partner, but there’s still a penance to be done. Groveling, flowers, humility, counseling, earning trust back, … doing dishes every day for the rest of their life!
What about purgatory? Same idea. Nothing unclean enters Heaven. We do not go to Heaven and sin. What changes between now and then? Grace perfects nature. Either we experience God’s purifying, perfecting grace here in this life, or before we enter into Heaven. We don’t know exactly what shape or form Purgatory will take since it is outside of our space and time, but we know those who die as friends of Jesus will never sin again in Heaven.
And the point in all this is not that there is something that Jesus’s death can’t or didn’t atone for, but that his grace ‘leaves us room,’ so to speak, to begin to do what we couldn’t do without grace: to do His will, to please Him, which includes doing penance for our sins. And that gift of empowering grace extends even to sharing in the merits of Christ so that by our actions we can in some limited way have merit of our own for the increase of grace and salvation and glory for ourselves and others. A key scriptural text for this is Colossians 1:24.
How do Sacraments work? Jesus’ Passion and death won for us super-abundant graces. How are those graces applied to us? Jesus established the Sacraments as supernatural means of receiving those graces. Each of them is in the Bible. Jesus commanded them.
If Christ died for our salvation, how can we lose it? Well, we can’t save ourselves, but we can reject the grace of salvation. This is basically the story of the Prodigal Son. The son was an heir to his father’s fortune. He told his father “You are dead to me, give me my inheritance.” The son received it, left his home, squandered it, and lived in filth with the pigs. He went back to the father and begged for forgiveness, not even thinking he would be treated as a son, but as a hired hand on his father’s farm. The father was always looking for the son to return, killed the fatted calf, threw a party, and embraced the son, immediately forgiving all debts. This is a perfect analogy to the spiritual life. We are family members in God’s family. When we commit a mortal sin, we tell the Father that he is “dead to us” and we demand our inheritance (eternal life) and then squander it on filth. We hopefully come back to the Father and beg for forgiveness, which He easily and willingly gives because he loves us. But as the Scriptures show repeatedly, it is possible to not return to God — to reject his grace.
I know that’s a lot, but it was a lot of topics! Please ask for clarification if you need more help on these topics.