“Ask a Priest: How Quickly Can Jesus Cleanse Us of Sin?”

Q: When we repent and stop sinning, how long does it take Jesus to cleanse us of our sins? – L.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Your question is actually quite complex.

If we make a perfect act of contrition — that is, an act of sorrow for our sins based purely on love of God — then Jesus could choose to forgive us immediately.

If a Catholic has sinned mortally, this perfect act of contrition should be followed by his going to the sacrament of reconciliation and confessing the sins. If he doesn’t go to confession out of neglect, that act of contrition won’t be enough to take away the mortal sin. His soul would be at risk.

When you say “stop sinning,” you probably mean that as a relative term. Aside from those on the brink of death, very few people stop sinning totally after repenting and going to confession. Because of our fallen human nature sin will likely occur again.

This doesn’t mean that we are doomed or that Jesus has given up on us. It’s just that sin, at least venial, will likely be a part of our lives till the end.

So when it comes to being “cleansed of our sins” by Jesus, we shouldn’t be shocked if we have a relapse.

Moreover, cleansing can have various meanings.

If we mean simply forgiveness, that can be instantaneous.

If we mean being freed of all tendency to sin, that is unlikely, given the aftereffects of original sin. In fact, spiritual growth is a constant process by which these tendencies are purified and new tendencies (virtues, gifts of the Holy Spirit) take deeper root and develop.

But even the saints bear witness to the simple fact that spiritual battle (which involves resisting sinful tendencies and temptations to sin) continues until the very end of our earthly lives. The good news is that if we truly make efforts to grow spiritually, we get better at battling, and our victories spread God’s grace not only into our own lives, but also into the Church and the world around us.

Going back to the concept of “cleansing” from sin: If we mean that we are cleansed of all temporal punishment due to sins we have committed, even those already forgiven, that can vary.

If we are fortunate, we might receive a plenary indulgence right before our death and be spared purgatory. If not, we will need to pay the debt of the temporal punishment through suffering in purgatory. To better understand what “temporal punishment” means, you might find the conference from this Retreat Guide useful: Fire of Mercy: A Retreat Guide on All Saints and All Souls Day.

The important thing is to repent for whatever sins we have, sooner than later, and try our best to stay on the right path. For that we can turn to prayer, the sacraments, acts of charity, and the intercession of the saints.

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