True Repentance - (Inferno Meditation 6)

Guido da Montefeltro was a leader of the Ghibellines, the political faction that opposed the growing territorial claims of the Pope and backed the Holy Roman Emperor against the Pope. The Ghibellines favored a more aristocratic society as opposed to the Guelfs who favored a more republican society and supported the Pope against the Emperor. Guido spent most of his life stirring up dissention between the parties and leading the Ghibellines in battle. However, in 1296, at the age of 73, he decided it was time to start thinking about spiritual things. He submitted to the Church and became a Franciscan monk.

Two years later, Pope Boniface VIII comes to Guido for advice on how to defeat a rival family which does not accept his claim as Pope. Guido is loathe to offer him advice, for, as Dante writes, “…every foe he had was Christian,” and Guido doesn’t want to be responsible for counseling the Pope on how best to exterminate a Christian family. The Pope reassures him that, as he holds the keys of the kingdom of heaven, he will absolve Guido ahead of time for any sin he may commit in counseling the Pope in such a course of action.

Guido dies almost immediately thereafter, and, to his surprise, finds himself escorted to hell by a couple of demons. Apparently the Pope’s pardon isn’t worth as much as he’d thought. Only too late does he realize the meaning of true repentance:

“Absolved uncontrite means no absolution;
Nor can one will at once sin and contrition,
The contradiction bars the false conclusion.”
Inferno, Canto XXVII, Lines 118-130

In other words, if you still desire to commit a certain sin, then you are not repentant for that sin. You can’t simultaneously pray for God’s forgiveness and cling to the sin with no intention of letting it go. Even the pope himself cannot absolve a sinner who is determined to continue sinning.

This is an important lesson to learn in an age when many churches preach salvation as a sort of fire insurance. Walk the aisle, say the prayer, and you’re good to go. It’s an easy, two-step method of salvation. However, just as James points out that true faith is not present where there are no works (James 2:14-17), so true repentance is not present where there is no desire to change and cast off sin altogether (Acts 26:19-20). This doesn’t mean that Christians live perfect lives. Far from it. Almost all of the sins found in Inferno will also be found among the people in Purgatory who are destined for heaven. The difference is that someone who is truly repentant struggles against sin nature and wrestles with it (Romans 7:14-20). In short, you can’t repent of a sin in your heart, while fully intending to commit that sin again. God wants your whole heart, and you can’t hold a part of it back, reserved for that special sin you love so much.

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