The first thing to note is that forgiveness of a sin is separate from punishment for the sin. Through sacramental confession we obtain forgiveness, but we aren't let off the hook as far as punishment goes.

That's a quote from Catholic Online's article on indulgences. I've never heard forgiveness spoken about in this way. Even the site's tag wiki for forgiveness specifically includes release from punishment. I know this question is similar, but its answers don't cover a Catholic view. The only well-sourced answer explains a Lutheran stance.

If God's forgiveness does not spare one from punishment, then what is it? Does this mean that the sacrament of confession alone does not spare you from punishment? Where does the Catholic Church get this distinction? Is there a biblical basis? Is it part of sacred tradition? Did a council decide it?

On another note, I learned while researching for this question that anyone who has completed the three prerequisites for an indulgence may gain one by participating on Christianity.SE:

  1. Christian Doctrine. Partial indulgence to those who take part in teaching or learning Christian doctrine.
  • 1
    This article does a decent job addressing this issue: catholic.org/featured/headline.php?ID=1302 I have often heard it said that sinning is like driving a nail into the wooden board of your soul, going to confession is like removing it, and then suffering or reparation is like filling the hole
    – J. Tate
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 17:53

2 Answers 2


According to Catholicism, what is the difference between forgiveness and release from punishment?

Indulgences are not feats of magic and in order to gain any indulgence certain rules must be met. It has been the constant teaching of the Church that mortal sins must be confessed in the Sacrament of Penance. Indulgences have never nor could not ever substitute this fact.

Sin has consequences!

"Sin has two consequences, or punishments (CCC 1472). The first is eternal punishment, in which the soul loses heaven and is confined to an eternity in hell. This punishment is remitted through the forgiveness of sins. The second is temporal punishment, in which a person must expiate, or make reparation for his sins. This temporal punishment remains even after sin is forgiven."

"How does one expiate his sins? The Catholic Church has traditionally identified three major ways–prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Any good work or sacrifice expiates sin, as well as patiently bearing our sufferings and offering them up in satisfaction for our sins (CCC 1459-1460)."

"What happens if one has not fully expiated his sins before dying? Such a person, before going to heaven, would have to expiate his sins in purgatory (CCC 1030), where love for God is perfected through our sufferings there. Traditionally, the sufferings of purgatory have been compared to a "consuming fire" (1 Cor. 3:11-15). Because certain sins can be forgiven "in the age to come" (Matt. 12:32), Catholics have always prayed for the dead–for the relief of their souls, or their speedy deliverance, if they are in purgatory, for "it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins" (2 Macc. 12:46)." - Temporal Punishment and Sin.

An indulgence does not forgive the guilt of sin, nor does it provide release from the eternal punishment associated with unforgiven mortal sins. The Catholic Church teaches that indulgences relieve only the temporal punishment resulting from the effect of sin (the effect of rejecting God the source of good), and that a person is still required to have his grave sins absolved, ordinarily through the sacrament of Confession, to receive salvation. Similarly, an indulgence is not a permit to commit sin, a pardon of future sin, nor a guarantee of salvation for oneself or for another. Ordinarily, forgiveness of mortal sins is obtained through Confession (i.e., penance or reconciliation).

It seems that from the very conception of indulgence, the Sacrament of Reconciliation was an integral part of the gaining of an indulgence. Only valid sacramentally confessed mortal sins can be forgiven by a confessor. No works (no matter how holy) can take the place of the need to confess one's sins to a priest.

The actual act of going to confession does not have to be on the same day as the day in which one has completed the indulgenced act. Contemporary norms say that it should be carried out 20 days before or after the indulgenced act is done. In days of old, it was 8 days (before or after).

It is appropriate, but not necessary, that the sacramental Confession and especially Holy Communion and the prayer for the Pope's intentions take place on the same day that the indulgenced work is performed; but it is sufficient that these sacred rites and prayers be carried out within several days (about 20) before or after the indulgenced act. - The Gift of the Indulgence

A plenary indulgence means that by the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the full remission of the temporal punishment due to sacramentally forgiven sins is obtained. The person becomes as if just baptized and would fly immediately to heaven if he died in that instant. A partial indulgence means that a portion of the temporal punishment due to forgiven sin is remitted. Partial indulgences are received either by doing some act to which a partial indulgence is attached or by the incomplete fulfillment of the conditions attached to a plenary indulgence.


According to Catholic theologians I have listened to, there is a difference between sins that are forgiven and the release of punishment due to sin.

1) Admitting a sin and asking for and receiving forgiveness.

2) Then, reparation for the damage caused by the sin. The term "punishment" for sin is not usually used because it makes God sound kind of vengeful.

The example usually given by these theologians on EWTN radio, etc. is: Johnny breaks a window and is sorry for his mistake and asks for forgiveness from his father who then forgives him. However, he still needs to fix the broken window which is the reparation.

I personally find this type of official explanation of part 2) rather weak because many, many sins cannot be repaired in a normal sense. For one thing, the person that was hurt may have died. Or, Johnny may not have any glass and glazing skills and dad will have to fix the window. Actually, this is the rationale of the Catholic church for purgatory. Purgatory allows a period (non-time specific) of reparation for your sins if they were not adequately repaired while alive. I am of the Catholic Church, but I question several dogmas/doctrines/beliefs.

I hope this information contributes—this is my first answer given.

  • 3
    Thanks for your answer, and welcome to C.SE! It's worth taking a look at our help center for some tips on writing a good answer. Your answer seems to explain Catholicism's views pretty well, but I'm looking for reliable references that confirm them. Could you edit your answer to include some?
    – Zenon
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 20:24

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