First Sunday of Lent
Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God (Mt. 4.7)
“On the Number of Sins Beyond Which God Pardons No More”
A Sermon of St. Alphonsus Liguori (Bishop, Doctor of the Church, and Founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer)
IN this day’s Gospel we read that, having gone into the desert, Jesus Christ permitted the devil to set Him upon the pinnacle of the temple and say to Him: “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down; for the angels shall preserve thee from all injury.” But the Lord answered that, in the Sacred Scriptures it is written: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. The sinner who abandons himself to sin without striving to resist temptations, or without at least asking God’s help to conquer them, and hopes that the Lord will one day draw him from the precipice, tempts God to work miracles, or rather to show to him an extraordinary mercy not extended to the generality of Christians. God, as the Apostle says, will have all men to be saved (1 Tim. ii. 4); but he also wishes us all to labour for our own salvation, work out your salvation (Phil. ii.12) at least by adopting the means of overcoming our enemies, and of obeying him when he calls us to repentance. Sinners hear the calls of God, but they forget them, and continue to offend Him. But God does not forget them. He numbers the graces which He dispenses, as well as the sins which we commit. Hence, when the time which He has fixed arrives, God deprives us of his graces, and begins to inflict chastisement. I intend to show, in this discourse, that, when sins reach a certain number, God pardons no more. Be attentive.
St. Basil, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, and other fathers, teach that, as God (according to the words of Scripture, Thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight (Wis. xi. 21), has fixed for each person the number of the days of his life, and the degrees of health and talent which he will give him, so he has also determined for each the number of sins which he will pardon; and when this number is completed, he will pardon no more.
The Lord hath sent me to heal the contrite of heart. (Isa. Ixi. 1.) God is ready to heal those who sincerely wish to amend their lives, but cannot take pity on the obstinate sinner [cf., the Neo-Catholic Theology]. The Lord pardons sins, but he cannot pardon those who are determined to offend him. Nor can we demand from God a reason why he pardons one a hundred sins, and takes others out of life, and sends them to hell, after three or four sins. By his Prophet Amos, God has said: For three crimes of Damascus, and for four, I will not convert it. (i. 3.) In this we must adore the judgments of God, and say with the Apostle: the depth of the riches, of the wisdom, and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are His judgments (Rom. xi. 33.) He who receives pardon, says St. Augustine, is pardoned through the pure mercy of God; and they who are chastised are justly punished. How many has God sent to hell for the first offence? St. Gregory relates, that a child of five years, who had arrived at the use of reason, for having uttered a blasphemy, was seized by the devil and carried to hell. The divine mother revealed to that great servant of God, Benedicta of Florence, that a boy of twelve years was damned after the first sin. Another boy of eight years died after his first sin and was lost. You say: I am young: there are many who have committed more sins than I have. But is God on that account obliged to wait for your repentance if you offend Him? In the gospel of St. Matthew (xxi. 19) we read, that the Saviour cursed a fig tree the first time he saw it without fruit. May no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And immediately the fig tree withered away. You must, then, tremble at the thought of committing a single mortal sin, particularly if you have already been guilty of mortal sins.
Be not without fear about sins forgiven, and add not sin to sin (Eccl. v. 5.) Say not then, O sinner; As God has forgiven me other sins, so He will pardon me this one if I commit it. Say not this; for, if to the sin which has been forgiven you add another, you have reason to fear that this new sin shall be united to your former guilt, and that thus the number will be completed, and that you shall be abandoned. Behold how the Scripture unfolds this truth more clearly in another place. The Lord patiently expecteth, that when the day of judgment shall come, He may punish them in the fullness of sins (2 Mac. vi. 14). God waits with patience until a certain number of sins is committed, but, when the measure of guilt is filled up, He waits no longer, but chastises the sinner. Thou hast sealed up my offences as it were in a bag (Job xiv. 17). Sinners multiply their sins without keeping any account of them; but God numbers them that, when the harvest is ripe, that is, when the number of sins is completed, he may take vengeance on them. Put ye in the sickles, for the harvest is ripe (Joel iii. 13.)
Of this there are many examples in the Scriptures. Speaking of the Hebrews, the Lord in one place says: All the men that have tempted Me now ten times. . . . shall not see the land (Num. xiv. 22, 23.) In another place he says, that he restrained his vengeance against the Amorrhites, because the number of their sins was not completed. For as yet the iniquities of the Amorrhites are not at the full (Gen. xv. 16). We have again the example of Saul, who, after having disobeyed God a second time, was abandoned. He entreated Samuel to interpose before the Lord in his behalf. Bear, I beseech thee, my sin, and return with me, that I may adore the Lord, (1 Kings xv. 25.) But, knowing that God had abandoned Saul, Samuel answered: I will not return with thee; because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee, etc. (v. 26.) Saul, you have abandoned God, and He has abandoned you. We have another example in Balthassar, who, after having profaned the vessels of the temple, saw a hand writing on the wall, Mane, Thecel, Phares. Daniel was requested to expound the meaning of these words. In explaining the word Thecel, he said to the king: Thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting (Dan. v 27.) By this explanation he gave the king to understand that the weight of his sins in the balance of divine justice had made the scale descend. The same night, Balthassar, the Chaldean king, was killed (Dan. v. 30.) Oh! how many sinners have met with a similar fate! Continuing to offend God till their sins amounted to a certain number they have been struck dead and sent to hell. They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment they go down to hell (Job xxi. 13.) Tremble, brethren, lest, if you commit another mortal sin, God should cast you into hell.
If God chastised sinners the moment they insult Him, we should not see Him so much despised. But, because He does not instantly punish their transgressions, and because, through mercy, He restrains His anger and waits for their return, they are encouraged to continue to offend Him. For, because sentence is not speedily pronounced against the evil, the children of men commit evil without any fear (Eccles. viii. 11). But it is necessary to be persuaded that, though God bears with us, He does not wait, nor bear with us for ever. Expecting, as on former occasions, to escape from the snares of the Philistines, Samson continued to allow himself to be deluded by Delilah. I will go out as I did before, and shake myself (Judges xvi. 20). But the Lord was departed from him. Samson was at length taken by his enemies, and lost his life. The Lord warns you not to say: “I have committed so many sins, and God has not chastised me. Say not: I have sinned, and what harm hath befallen me? for the Most High is a patient rewarder (Eccl. v. 4). God has patience for a certain term, after which He punishes the first and last sins. And the greater has been His patience, the more severe His vengeance.
Hence, according to St. John Chrysostom, God is more to be feared when He bears with sinners than when He instantly punishes their sins. And why? Because, says St. Gregory, they to whom God has shown most mercy, shall, if they do not cease to offend Him, be chastised with the greatest rigour. The Saint adds that God often punishes such sinners with a sudden death, and does not allow them time for repentance. And the greater the light which God gives to certain sinners for their correction, the greater is their blindness and obstinacy in sin. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of justice, than, after they had known it, to turn back (2 Pet. ii. 21). Miserable the sinners who, after having been enlightened, return to the vomit. St Paul says, that it is morally impossible for them to be again converted. For it is impossible for those who were once illuminated have tasted also the heavenly gifts, … and are fallen away, to be renewed again to penance (Heb. vi. 4, 6).
Listen, then, sinner, to the admonition of the Lord: My son, hast thou sinned? Do so no more, but for thy former sins pray that they may be forgiven thee (Eccl. xxi. 1). Son, add not sins to those which you have already committed, but be careful to pray for the pardon of your past transgressions; otherwise, if you commit another mortal sin, the gates of the divine mercy may be closed against you, and your soul may be lost forever. When, then, beloved brethren, the devil tempts you again to yield to sin, say to yourself: If God pardons me no more, what shall become of me for all eternity? Should the Devil, in reply, say: ”Fear not, God is merciful ;” answer him by saying: What certainty or what probability have I, that, if I return again to sin, God will show me mercy or grant me pardon? Because the threat of the Lord against all who despise his calls: Behold I have called and you refused. . . I also will laugh in your destruction, and will mock when that shall come to you which you feared (Prov. i. 24, 26). Mark the words I also; they mean that, as you have mocked the Lord by betraying Him again after your confession and promises of amendment, so He will mock you at the hour of death. I will laugh and will mock. But God is not mocked (Gal. vi. 7). As a dog, says the Wise Man, that returneth to his vomit, so is the fool that repeateth his folly (Prov. xxvi. 11.). B. Denis the Carthusian gives an excellent exposition of this text. He says that, as a dog that eats what he has just vomited, is an object of disgust and abomination, so the sinner who returns to the sins which he has detested and confessed, becomes hateful in the sight of God.
O folly of sinners! If you purchase a house, you spare no pains to get all the securities necessary to guard against the loss of your money; if you take medicine, you are careful to assure yourself that it cannot injure you; if you pass over a river, you cautiously avoid all danger of falling into it; and for a transitory enjoyment, for the gratification of revenge, for a beastly pleasure, which lasts but a moment, you risk your eternal salvation, saying: “I will go to confession after I commit this sin.” And when, I ask, are you to go to confession? You say: ”On tomorrow.” But who promises you tomorrow? Who assures you that you shall have time for confession, and that God will not deprive you of life, as he has deprived so many others, in the act of sin? You cannot be certain of living for another hour, and you say: ”I will go to confession to-morrow.” Listen to the words of St. Gregory: ”He who has promised pardon to penitents, has not promised tomorrow to sinners.” (Hom. xii. in Evan). God has promised pardon to all who repent; but he has not promised to wait till tomorrow for those who insult him. Perhaps God will give you time for repentance, perhaps he will not. But, should he not give it, what shall become of your soul? In the meantime, for the sake of a miserable pleasure, you lose the grace of God, and expose yourself to the danger of being lost for ever.
Would you, for such transient enjoyments, risk your money, your honour, your possessions, your liberty, and your life? No, you would not. How then does it happen that, for a miserable gratification, you lose your soul, heaven, and God? Tell me: do you believe that heaven, hell, eternity, are truths of faith? Do you believe that, if you die in sin, you are lost for ever? Oh! what temerity, what folly is it, to condemn yourself voluntarily to an eternity of torments with the hope of afterwards reversing the sentence of your condemnation! No one can be found so foolish as to take poison with the hope of preventing its deadly effects by adopting the ordinary remedies. And you will condemn yourself to hell, saying that you expect to be afterwards preserved from it. Folly! which, in conformity with the divine threats, has brought, and brings every day, so many to hell. Thou hast trusted in thy wickedness, and evil shall come upon thee, and thou shalt not know the rising thereof (Isa. xlvii. 10, 11). You have sinned, trusting rashly in the divine mercy: the punishment of your guilt shall fall suddenly upon you, and you shall not know from whence it comes. What do you say? What resolution do you make? If, after this sermon, you do not firmly resolve to give yourself to God, I weep over you, and regard you as lost.