Which Comes First, Repentance or Mercy?

On his blog at National Catholic Register, Msgr. Charles Pope teaches that we must repent from our sins, in order to receive the forgiveness of God. If you are not repentant, especially from grave sin, then the Mercy of God does not forgive you.

Msgr. Pope: “Yet too often today mercy is preached in a detached way and is taken by many to mean that our sins aren’t really sins, or are no big deal, and that God doesn’t really care what we do because, after all, he is merciful.”

Good point. God is merciful, by His very nature, but to benefit fully from that Mercy, we must use our free will in cooperation with grace.

However, Msgr. Pope forgot to mention that we cannot repent, or pray for the grace of repentance, or do anything of eternal value without the prevenient grace of God. The grace of God is first, before any good deed by our free will. The prevenient grace of God makes our will truly free and able to choose good, and enlightens our minds to understand the transcendent value of goodness and truth. Only after prevenient grace, in which God operates without any cooperation on our part, can we subsequently choose to freely cooperate with grace.

So the Mercy of God is first, before our repentance, enabling us and prompting us to repent. And then we must freely choose to cooperate with subsequent grace, in order to bring that merciful call from God to a full fruition in forgiveness from sin.

Msgr. Pope says: “It is repentance that opens the door to mercy, forgiveness, and kindness.” and “Repentance is the key that unlocks mercy.” Yes, but mercy is also first, before repentance. For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And while we were yet unrepentant, God’s prevenient grace enabled us and prompted us so that we could next cooperate with grace to repent and complete the path to mercy and love.

This next paragraph by Msgr. Pope is half right: “Repentance is the supernaturally transformed and assisted human element that is necessary to unlock mercy and the graces of God. To ignore or deny this amounts to a denial of human freedom and does not help God’s people. Rather it hinders them, for mercy is accessed through repentance, and without it, the door cannot open.”

Actually, the grace of God is first, prior to repentance. And grace given to sinners, prior to repentance, is certainly one aspect of mercy. Some persons do essentially deny human freedom by speaking as if the merciful love of God were sufficient, absent our repentance. But we must not make the opposite error, that of speaking as if our free choice to cooperate with grace were not preceded by the merciful loving prevenient grace of God.

Grace is before, during, and after every good and holy act of the human person, including repentance from sin.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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