I was discussing Penance, purgatory, and indulgences (among many other topics) with a friend, and the topic of temporal punishment came up. Temporal punishment happens to be closely linked to indulgences, which happen to be linked to the effects of Sacramental Penance, so it was only natural that it be next in line for discussion.
In case you aren't familiar with what I'm talking about: "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven..." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1471, emphasis mine. Learn more about Indulgences here.) Anyone not familiar with that might respond with, "Whoa! Hold up there on the 'temporal punishment'! What's that all about?" I'll explain what it's all about, but you can also get a good idea by reading the very short Catechism paragraphs 1471-1473, especially in light of the three paragraphs immediately preceding those, and 1478-79. ( HERE's that link.) Anyway, my friend actually read those, and asked me a question I had never really thought about before. “Why is there temporal punishment for sin?” He immediately followed it with another question: "If Jesus paid the price for our sins, and forgave the sins of people in the Bible without mentioning temporal punishment remaining, how do we know that temporal punishment remains after the forgiveness of sins?" I really didn't have an answer to those. On one hand, I wasn't sure how Jesus paying the price for our sins meant that there was no temporal consequence for sins we commit. I also wasn't so sure that Christ didn't mention it. But on the other hand, I didn't know how to address his real concern: "Why is there temporal punishment for sin?" This is the moment when Christians can truly shine. In a moment of ignorance about a topic, Christians have great tools that we all too often fail to use. One of those tools sound like this, "I don't know how to answer that. But, I will research it, find the answer, and get back to you soon." Thanks be to God, He gave me the grace to say exactly that, and then I started taking the questions to other folks who might have more insight than I had. In the meantime, I offered him a few questions that might help us both find the answer that we BOTH were now seeking:
Do some (any, most) Christians still have an unhealthy attachment to worldly things, even after being saved? Do we still tend to sin despite accepting Christ as our Savior?
If salvation had come to Zaccheus' house, why was he still going to recompense the victims of his wrong-doings? (Lk 19:1-9)
If the Judge will have died for our sins and forgiven us all our debts, why would He still expect us to recompense our adversaries? (Lk 12:58-59; Mt 5:25-26)
If I break my neighbor's window, and ask his forgiveness, isn't his window still broken until someone fixes it? Whose responsibility is it to fix the window?
As I should have predicted, he was more studious than I was and, before I had an answer, he had already let me know that he had studied it more and could see the relevance of the real world examples. But there was a follow-up question regarding private/personal sins which don't have the immediate appearance of harming anyone. "[A person] thinking impure thoughts", for example, which don't appear to harm anyone. "What punishment would remain to right the wrong (after Jesus had paid the debt for our sins)?" And that is when it hit me. Having just asked several helpful folks who gave me several pieces of helpful insight, it finally made sense to me. The consequences of sin don't simply go away when we are forgiven. Yes, our life with Christ is healed, but other real consequences remain and must be addressed. First, I think it is helpful to understand “temporal punishment” as a “consequence of sin”. The need to fix a broken window, for example: though it has been forgiven, there still exists a consequence, or punishment. There is a need to make reparation (fix the window).
This consequence is what is left over after the apology; it is the fixing of the effects of the sin, so to speak. These effects can be material, but are also spiritual -- every action in this world affects the spiritual world as well. EVERY sin is a sin against God, even if no other person is involved. A man lusting by himself DOES act against someone else - GOD, against whom the sin is being committed. It also harms the man, spiritually. And, according to Christ, the man is committing adultery. So he is sinning against his spouse (if he is married) and against the woman who is occupying his mind. We cannot sin without affecting our relationship with God, because sin is a choice to act against God’s Will. And we cannot sin without affecting the other members of the Body of Christ (each other) because we are all intimately connected in that One Body. A hurt back doesn't just affect the back, right? No, it affects balance, the ability to walk straight, the nerves stemming from the back to other parts of the body, our ability to tolerate annoyances (when dealing with severe pain), etc. There is no such thing as a sin “which does not harm anyone”. It ALWAYS harms, at the very least, the spirit of the person committing it, and is ALWAYS an act against God’s Will. Doesn't this put a whole new perspective on Christ's question to Paul: "Why do you persecute ME?", Christ asked. He didn't ask why Paul persecuted His Church. Paul's actions were against Christ's very Person. Christ paid a debt we cannot pay. He died for our sins so that we might be saved. But the effects of sin against brother and sister, or even self, still need to be repaired. And discipline is needed so that we learn to avoid sin in the future. If there was no need for this, why did Paul say,
"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church ..." (Colossians 1:24)?
What was “lacking”? And why is Paul “suffering for [our] sake” if Christ paid the debt for our sins? When we commit a sin and we seek forgiveness, we may be forgiven. But that doesn't erase the consequences of what we've done. “Why is there temporal punishment for sin?” Because our sins have real consequences, and punishment teaches us discipline to avoid future sins. Even “saved” Christians struggle with temptations to sin (cff. Rom 7:15; 2Cor 12:7). Read Hebrews 12, the whole chapter, but especially v. 4-6:
“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—‘My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts’”. Check out Psalm 118: 17-19, the whole book of Wisdom, the [how many?!] accounts of the Israelites making reparations for their evildoings against God. God is quick to forgive when asked, but there is always reparation to be made to right the wrong. Lv 5:5-6 and Num 5:5-10 show this really well. In 2Sam 12 and 24, we see David sinning, repenting, being forgiven, having a penance to make reparation, and offering a sacrifice to God. Remember, Christ came to fulfill, not abolish, the Old Covenant and Prophets. Today, the sacrifice we offer to God is that once-for-all Sacrifice which Christ offered for us.
But why should that mean that we no longer have to do the other penitential acts of repenting, asking forgiveness, and making reparation? In the NT we see St. Paul taking vows, shaving his head, and buffeting his body (Acts 18:18, 21:17-24; 1Cor 9:25-27).
Why? Doesn’t Paul know that Christ paid the debt for his sin? Why is Paul doing these acts? But more than that, Christ, Himself, teaches us to make amends before approaching the Altar (Lk 12:58-59; Mt 5:25-26; Lk 19:1-9).
Why? If Jesus paid the price for our sins, and forgave sins of people in the Bible, why is He teaching us to make reparations? Why is Zaccheus still going to recompense his victims if “salvation has come to [his] house”? "If Jesus paid the price for our sins, and forgave sins of people in the Bible without mentioning temporal punishment remaining, how do we know that temporal punishment remains after the forgiveness of sins?" According to Scripture, it looks like Jesus DID mention temporal punishment (consequences) remaining (Lk 12 and Mt 5). The OT certainly shows this to us, and we know that the OT was not abolished, but fulfilled, and that Paul carried on the penitential acts on behalf of the Church via his own body, for what was “lacking in the afflictions of Christ”.
"What punishment would remain to right the wrong [even a private one] after Jesus had paid the debt for our sins?" The real consequences of that sin, whether physical or spiritual, remain. Whether it be a broken window that must now be repaired; or someone’s reputation that we wrongfully tarnished and needs to be restored; or the teens who fornicated and were forgiven, but the girl is still pregnant with a baby who will need parents to raise it; or the wounded spirit of a man who committed a sin all by himself and now has a damaged relationship with God, Whose Will the man willingly acted against; the real consequences of his forgiven sin remain and need to be repaired. Here is what the Church has always taught:
[It is for the purpose of making one an image of Christ, which requires detachment from sin, and to help us remain free from sin. ]
The Baltimore Catechism Part 3
Q. 629. What punishments are due to actual sins?
A. Two punishments are due to actual sins: one, called the eternal, is inflicted in hell; and the other, called the temporal, is inflicted in this world or in purgatory. The Sacrament of Penance remits or frees us from the eternal punishment and generally only from part of the temporal. Prayer, good works and indulgences in this world and the sufferings of purgatory in the next remit the remainder of the temporal punishment.
Q. 804. Why does God require a temporal punishment as a satisfaction for sin?
A. God requires a temporal punishment as a satisfaction for sin to teach us the great evil of sin and to prevent us from falling again.
Q. 805. Which are the chief means by which we satisfy God for the temporal punishment due to sin?
A. The chief means by which we satisfy God for the temporal punishment due to sin are: Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving; all spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and the patient suffering of the ills of life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The punishments of sin
1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.
1473 The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the "old man" and to put on the "new man"(Eph 4:22,24).
I would like to thank Dr. David Anders of the “Called to Communion” radio show (1pm-2pm central time on EWTN Radio) and the folks from the Bible Christian Society facebook page, and the folks on the Catholic Answers forums who helped me understand temporal punishment, and how to give an answer to a friend that he and I both needed.