So why such great joy over one repentant sinner?
Richard Rohr, O.F.M, among his other deviations from Catholic doctrine firmly asserts his strict belief in the apokastatasis, that is the doctrine condemned by the church long ago that teaches that all men will ultimately be saved. At the same time, Rohr has nothing positive to say about the role of repentance in this process of universal salvation, and indeed he apparently denies that it was the sacrifice of Christ that redeemed mankind. Even Origen did not hold such a radical idea that men could be saved without repentance. And he would’ve considered the idea that Christ’s sacrifice did not redeem the sins of mankind as pure heresy.
One problem with such nonsensical doctrines is that they make it very difficult to read the Scriptures as the church has always understood them. For instance, in today’s gospel Jesus tells us there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s repentance that over 99 men who have no need to repent. He repeats the statement at the end of the gospel, just to emphasize his point that repentance of sinners is a great cause of joy in Heaven. Of course, all men are in need of repentance, with the exception of Mary, but that’s not the point of the statement. But given the theory of universal salvation, it seems rather hard to understand why that would be such great joy of repentance, especially if repentance is not necessary for salvation. I mean why should bring any joy to anyone if the doctrine of universal salvation without repentance is true?
But the statement by Jesus does make a great deal of sense in light of the truth that repentance is a necessary condition for the reception of God’s mercy. Moreover, repentance is no easy matter but requires a great change of heart on the part of the sinner, which can only be accomplished by the prevenient grace of God, and that makes repentance itself an act of glorifying God. For both reasons then, the repentance of a sinner not only brings joy to the Communion of Saints, but is mysteriously connected to the eternal joy that belongs to God, for God foresaw this repentance and made it possible from all eternity. Grave sin always directly and gravely harms the sinner, and only indirectly refers to God by denying glory to God, repentance for such sin not only restores the sinner to God’s grace, but wonderfully glorifies God because, as Aquinas teaches, the forgiveness of sin in a very real sense is a greater work of God than creation itself.
The tragic thing about holding to doctrines like the apokastatasis is that it trivializes the notion of sin itself in the damage that sin does to man, not only to mankind, but especially to the sinner himself or herself. In underestimating the damage of sin, it simultaneously underestimates the dignity of the human person who sins. When one gives proper weight to the evil of sin, the life of the individual takes on weight, and the history of any individual human life is really a drama. Otherwise, human life tends to become a farce.
Interestingly, I think this truth about the drama of human life in the importance of sin and repentance helps to understand and St. Paul’s final words in today’s passage from Philippians: More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. What Paul means by “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” is that he knows the love of Christ which caused him to die for Paul’s sins. “He died for me,” says Paul, and that is why I consider all things rubbish in comparison to this knowledge of Christ. Again, without the forgiveness of sins and the repentance necessary for this gift, life in Christ is just a bit of romanticism, and could apply to anyone else as well. But not for Paul, and hopefully not for us who take sin seriously because we know by faith that Christ died to deliver us from this spiritual death and raised us from death to life. There is no greater drama than that and no greater cause for joy even in this world.