Admonish Sinners


I used to think that God’s law was like those dumb rules we had to put up with in grammar school, like “Thou shalt not chew gum in class.”  They are arbitrary laws that bureaucrats came up with to keep them happy and the rest of us miserable.  The goal of students is to break such rules whenever they can get away with it.  The only bad consequence would be to get caught.

But God is not a bureaucrat.  He’s a loving Father.  If He says “thou shalt not,” it is because the particular activity in question wounds and, in some cases, destroys the child of God who engages in it.  But does not sin offend God?  Of course.  We are made in his image and likeness, and sin defaces that likeness in us.  It also wounds others made in his image and likeness.  There is no such thing as private sin — we are so interconnected that every decision to step away from God has incalculable impact on not only the sinner but on the whole family of God.

Some people correct others because they are busybodies.  Others, like the Pharisees, do so in order to exalt themselves as they put others down.  The disciple, however, intervenes out of love.  Love for God, for all his children, but especially for the sinner who is damaged the most by his own sin.

Many people think about God’s law as if it were just arbitrary bureaucratic regulations.  They are unaware that their actions are gouging wounds in their hearts and in the hearts of others.  But if we know, and we care, we must find a way to tell them.  Others don’t know about God and his will–but their actions are still wreaking havoc in their lives and the lives of others.  We need to share with them the Good News about the mercy of Christ and the power of the Spirit who makes it possible to follow the will of the Father.

“But,” you may say, “they won’t listen, so why bother?” Simple.  Because God says so.  Ezekiel the prophet was called to be a watchman for Israel, as noted by this Sunday’s first reading (Ezek 33:7-9).  It was his responsibility to let people know whenever their actions were leading to disaster.  If he told them and they did not listen, Ezekiel was off the hook.  He fulfilled his responsibility, and the consequences were on the heads of those who failed to heed the warning.  But if he neglected to warn them out of fear of their disapproval and they ended in disaster, God would hold Ezekiel responsible.

“But,” you may say, “I’m not called to be a prophet.”  Oh yes you are!  In baptism and confirmation you were anointed priest, prophet, and king.  And, if you haven’t noticed, prophets don’t usually win popularity contests.

Of course, if you are prudent and humble and sensitive as you go about this prophetic task, your chances of success will be greater.  The Lord Jesus gives us direction about this in this Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 18:15ff):  first, go privately to the person and treat him or her like a brother or sister, not like your inferior.  If you get nowhere, get another to help you.  If you still run into a stone wall, refer the matter to the Church, which in most cases would mean someone in authority such as a pastor or bishop or apostolic delegate.

The bottom line is that we owe a debt of love to our brothers and sisters (Romans 13:8-10).  And love does its best to stop a person from walking over a cliff.


About Author

Grew up in Providence RI. BA at Providence college, Ph.D. in historical theology from Catholic University of America. Former professional musician and theology professor at Loyola College in Maryland and the University of Dallas. Currently owner of Wellness Business Ventures LLC and director of Father of five.

  • noelfitz

    This like everything Dr D’Ambrosio writes is excellent. It is deep and of huge importance.

    Perhaps it is worth while examining some issues in some detail.

    Is God a loving God? Hell and eternal punishment are not mentioned in this article. If one dies in the state of grave sin, and every fault against the 6th and 9th commandments is grave matter, one is condemned to eternal punishment for all eternity. Even if one has led an exemplary life if one dies in the state of mortal sin then one goes to hell forever. So for those who will end up in hell how is God good?

    God is perfect, so how can he be offended?

    How are we made in the ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ of God? Are ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ different? Do they refer to intellect and will, which we retain even after sin? Is our image and likeness of God irrespective of our sinfulness?

    It is a mortal sin to miss Mass on a Sunday without a good reason? In Ireland some parishes have a Mass attendance on a Sunday of very few Catholics, especially young ones.

    Should we really rebuke those who do not attend Mass for the error of their way?. How can we judge the state of their souls?

    I would really appreciate answers to these queries, please.

  • Hi Noel,

    Let me take a stab at a few of your questions. First is the possibility of offending God. I think we need to remember that offending someone is an objective matter – if I break into your home and rob you, I have offended you, and the offense objectively needs to be addressed by recourse to the justice system. The state of being offended is not just a feeling; it’s a real situation that needs handling.

    You ask how will God be good for those unfortunates in Hell. Again, this is a question of being objective. God is objectively good to and for everyone, including the Devil and the fallen angels. That people in Hell do not feel that God is good is a subjective problem of the state they have earned for themselves. God remains good, and the state of an individual soul – damned or saved – does not change God.

    About the violations of the 6th and 9th Commandments being grave matter – I have not heard that before so I don’t know. What I can say is that Jesus tells us there is only one sin that cannot be forgiven in this world or the next – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This is usually interpreted to mean final impenitence, the refusal of God’s grace prior to death.

    Correcting others for their sins does not mean judging the state of their souls, which is impossible for us. What it means is that we judge someone’s behavior to be objectively sinful. To take an extreme example, we know that someone contemplating an abortion is contemplating a very serious sin, and we need to try and stop her. The reasons she is contemplating abortion – maybe her partner left her, she has no money, she struggles with her mental health, etc. – may be subjectively understandable but they cannot override the fact that an objective moral evil is about to be committed. We do not judge the woman by trying to stop her from having an abortion. We do it to save her and her baby from irreparable harm.

    About rebuking people for not attending Mass – I’ve been rebuked before and I’ve also had occasion to rebuke others from time to time. The most important thing I think is discernment; when deciding whether to speak or what to say, pray and ask for guidance, then do what seems best. I believe that we’re not called to open our mouths in every situation, but also we do well to heed Scripture when it says that if we do not speak up, we may be held accountable for another’s sin.

    We also have the gift of Counsel, which helps us to know what to do and say in difficult situations. You can work to cultivate this gift deliberately so that you know what to say when situations arise.

    I hope my little reflection helps.

  • noelfitz


    I really appreciate your reply to me. It means a lot to me that you took my post seriously and took the time to reply in such an encouraging way.

    Some time ago I submitted a post to CL and was frankly upset by the replies I got. I try to be honest and open, and avoid hurting others by my posts, yet I felt that some of the replies to me set out to humiliate and insult me.

    I do have a real problem, since if God is good how do some of us end up in hell. I attend academic biblical meetings and have raised this point a number of times; some answer me that the Gospels use metaphors and myths and really all will be save. Origen was condemned for this view. Our foremost Irish Catholic Biblical scholar believes in this universalism, that all will eventually be saved.

    My answer has been we cannot know the mind of God.

    19 You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction (Ro 9:19–22).

    We are not asked to love God, we are commanded to do so.

    4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise (Dt 6:4–7).

    In your rely to me you mention discernment and counsel. I fully agree with you. We must use discernment, often called in Ireland “cop-on”.

    Your reply is very sound and encouraging, and shows a wonderful grasp of our religion. I will reread it a few time to understand it better.

    So once again, may I express my sincere thanks to you. Your courteous and sincere reply means a lot to me at present.

  • Noelfitz,

    Thank you for your kind words. I know what you mean by people posting hurtful things online. There are no inhibitions on the Internet and people feel free to say things they would never say in person. I have had to learn when to volunteer and when to keep quiet for the sake of my emotional well-being.

    Hell is the most difficult and painful subject in Christian Revelation. Nobody wants to talk about it and we all wish it weren’t there. But Jesus mentions Hell many times. Here is a way to look at it that I have found helpful.

    Hell is part of the Good News. It exists because God wants us to return to Him the love He has for us. Now, love has to be given freely. It can’t be coerced, or it isn’t love. So God gives us the choice whether to love Him or not.

    Because we have this choice, we have the power to separate ourselves from God. We have this power because choosing not to love God means that we have chosen, in fact, ourselves. (There are two principal people in the relationship, yourself and God.) And if we choose ourselves to the exclusion of God, we have chosen a very unhappy state because all goodness and happiness ultimately resides with God.

    So Hell exists because God created us for a mutual relationship of love and happiness. This is the Good News, and Hell is the asterisk in the Good News. We all have to freely choose to love God. There is simply no other way.

    I hope that helps.

    Yours in friendship,

  • noelfitz


    you conclude your recent post with:
    “I hope that helps.

    Yours in friendship,

    Your post certainly helped me and your expression of friendship means a huge amount to me.

    At present Catholics are going through a rough time and your support and encouragements means a great deal to me.

    I, like so many others, am struggling in life and the friendship of good men like you sustains me.


  • Noelfitz,

    My pleasure.