No Grace for Michael Corleone

I recently watched all the Godfather movies again.

I started with Godfather 2, because it’s the best, then I watched Godfather 1, because it’s even better then best. Then I had a long break where I debated the merits of watching Godfather 3 and then I watched it, because hey, it’s still the Godfather.

Everyone says number 3 is inferior to 1 and 2, and it is. But Godfather 3 is still a good film with some memorable scenes – like the one where Michael confesses his sins.

[Spoilers ahead.]

For those who came in late: Michael Corleone is the Godfather who wants to get out of the crime business. For the sake of his children, he wants to go straight. He sells his casinos. He gives huge sums of money to the Church. He make every effort to become legitimate, but it doesn’t work out because his old friends and enemies won’t let him go.

“Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.”

One of the best scenes in the movie is the one where Michael visits Cardinal Lamberto looking for help rescuing a bad business deal.

During their conversation, the Cardinal picks up a stone from a fountain. He notes that the stone is wet on the outside but dry on the inside. Like Christianity in Europe, he says, the water has not penetrated the stone.

Just as the light of the gospel has failed to penetrate Michael’s stony heart.

Suddenly, Michael collapses on a bench.

He’s experiencing diabetic shock and struggling to breathe. Some orange juice is brought out and Michael drinks like a desperate man.

“When I’m under stress sometimes this happens.”

Yet perhaps there is more going on than meets the eye. Maybe Michael is being crushed under the weight of his guilt. The good Cardinal seems to sense this when he says, “The mind suffers…and the body cries out.”

Michael seems to have shrunk inside his clothes. The powerful man has become weak and frail, more a child than a mafia don. The Cardinal seizes the moment.

“Would you like to make your confession?”

Michael is flabbergasted. Confess? What is the point? He is beyond redemption. His sins are too great.

But the Cardinal is not giving up. He realizes this sinner has come to a sacred crossroads.

“I hear you are a practical man. What have you got to lose?”

And so, amongst the flowers and in the privacy of the courtyard, Michael bares his soul.

“I betrayed my wife.”

“Go on, my son.” A church bell tolls.

“I betrayed myself. I killed men.” The church bell tolls again.

“And I ordered men to be killed.”

“Go on, my son, go on.”

There is a long pause. We know there is one more sin to confess. It’s the Big Secret that has been gnawing at Michael for years.

“I killed … I ordered the death of my brother.”

Michael looks down.

“I killed my mother’s son…

I killed my father’s son!” Michael weeps.

There is no doubt that Michael is the worst of the worst, and he knows it. He is a broken man, undone by his sin.

The Cardinal, towering over the shamed man says this:

“Your sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed. But I know you don’t believe that. You will not change.”

What?!

The Cardinal’s damning judgment extinguishes any glimmer of hope and leaves Michael hanging over the abyss. Michael remains lost, and it’s all downhill from here.

In the end, it’s bullets and oranges and he loses everything.

But wait. Rewind. Let us consider the Cardinal’s judgment: “You will not change.”

These are faithless and hopeless words from the man of God. How does he know Michael won’t change? Has he not read the story of Saul of Tarsus or Moses the murderer? Has he not himself experienced the transforming power of God’s grace?

It has become a cliché to say that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. So how can the Cardinal say that Michael Corleone was beyond redemption?

Michael confessed his sins and instead of getting grace, he got damnation. Instead of hearing the good news of 1 John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” – he was written off.

It’s as if the Cardinal had said, “To hell with you. You will never change.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but the movie reminded me how important it is to give grace to sinners, because only grace can change us.

We encounter people every day who carry heavy burdens like Michael. They may not be mafia dons, but they are prisoners nonetheless.

If we don’t give them grace, who will?

If we don’t tell them about the unconditional love of God, who will?

To me, the most dangerous man in that scene is not the Godfather but the Cardinal, because he withheld grace from a desperate sinner. Sure, he got Michael to acknowledge his wretched state, but like a doctor withholding medicine, he failed to administer the grace that turns sinners into saints.

How I wish I could have been in the Cardinal’s shoes. This is what I would have said:

God loves you, Michael, more than you love your own kids. You have done wicked things, but while your enemies may hold a grudge, God keeps no record of your wrongs. All your sins were carried by Jesus who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. On account of his great love, he has forgiven you. Receive his grace. Turn to God and be set free from your prison of sin.

(I would resist the temptation to say something clever like, “Your heavenly Father is making you an offer you can’t refuse.”)

The tragedy of The Godfather is that Michael is never shown grace – at least not by anyone in the church – and consequently he is unable to change. He tries to change, but he remains a prisoner of sin to the bitter end.

Every time he thinks he’s out, they him back in.

As a father who loves his kids, I have some sympathy for Michael Corleone. He wants nothing more than to spare his children from the consequences of sin. His desire is good, but good intentions and good deeds and all the money in the world can’t save anyone.

The Godfather is a story about the wages of sin, but it’s also a story about our inability to deliver ourselves from sin’s clutches. The bad news is we cannot save ourselves no matter how hard we try. The good news is that we can be saved no matter how bad we’ve been.

No matter what you have done, there is hope. God’s grace is greater than your sin.

Even if you have whacked the heads of the five families, betrayed your wife, and murdered your brother.


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39 Comments on No Grace for Michael Corleone

  1. Great article, Paul! You almost make me want to leave my family drama genre and watch The Godfather. Almost. 🙂 Maybe you can make a Godfather 4 and include those grace words? LOL 🙂 Thank you!

  2. I love how u watch a movie. I do the same thing. I’m thinking and sometimes talking to the characters out loud about How different their lives could be if they could only trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ for them. NO ONE is a lost cause if we will allow God to use us to touch them, to speak His word to them. I ask God to give me the specific words for people because only He knows how to reach them. I thank God for His loving ministry through you!

  3. Fiona de Quidt // July 8, 2021 at 2:25 am // Reply

    It’s never too late to receive grace. Shame on the Cardinal for not speaking truth. Jesus would have reached out and so should we.

  4. Brandon Petrowski // July 8, 2021 at 2:29 am // Reply

    This reminds me of Nathan the prophet confronting King David. David repented. He still had consequences, but he received grace and sang God’s praises.

  5. There is always room for grace. The Cardinal should have offered redemption, not condemnation. So should we.

  6. Yes, grace would have been the difference. He wasn’t a lost cause. It has made a difference in me and countless others. The love of God and grace of our Lord makes all the difference. This was a great post!

  7. Is the real problem behavior or death?

    Surely God’s grace can bring life to anyone, but only if it is received.

  8. Seems,cool movie never seen before.Just watched “A Bronx Tale”need to tell,even through mafia movies God/Creator speaks!Amazing!

  9. Paul, my imagination got going as I read the synopsis of the scene. I do think Grace would have made a difference and that no one is a lost cause. I imagined the scene as a bible story as if right out of the gospels and Jesus happened to walk up as the scene was playing out. Which of the two men, the Cardinal or Michael, is closer to being ready to hear what Jesus has to say? The Cardinal? Oh, no. His carrot and stick theology has no room for Jesus’ words. The religious mind alienates itself from God, all while praising itself and being respected by the masses. But Michael, oh boy, he is primed for a miraculous encounter. His heart is ready to discover the truth and have his mind blown by Jesus. What a movie that would have made.

  10. If anyone is ever a lost cause, then Christ died for nothing!

  11. If it were up to most people, this man would at best be hard pressed to receive unconditional grace,next probably would come conditional grace with demands for provings,earnings and trying to appease then at worst he would be unmercifully condemned and written off. BUT thank God we are not God. Of course he deserves Gods free saving grace,forgiveness and redemption through Jesus at the cross. No one is beyond Gods Grace and Gods saving touch and transformation whether we humans agree with aHim or not.Only God can judge as He not us.Only He has and sees the eternal,panoramic,full picture of someone from beginning to end with regards to someone’s life journey,actions,choices reasons,behaviour,background etc. Only He is privy so only He can judge,forgive and extend grace.

  12. Timothy Matula // July 8, 2021 at 5:03 am // Reply

    Got a question. If God is love (agape) and agape lays down its rights and suffers no wrongs then why would God need to forgive? I believe it is each of us that needs to forgive one another and in the end, ourselves.

    • Good question, Timothy. Unconditional forgiveness goes hand in hand with unconditional love; you can’t have one without the other. Whether God needs to consciously forgive, I do not know, but surely we need to hear that he has done so.

      • Timothy Matula // July 8, 2021 at 9:27 am //

        Take it a step further when Jesus stated, “God does not want our sacrifices and burnt offerings, but to know what mercy means.” Now freely we have received and freely we give becoming imitators of Christ.

        Didn’t Jesus say, “Father forgive them they know not what they do.”? He wasn’t asking the Father because He and the Father are One, He was saying this so we could grasp the nature of God’s heart; it’s only the radical goodness of God that draws us into a real relationship with Him.

        Jesus turned religion on its head declaring love your enemies, bless those who curse you, ………He was showing us the Father, not the image the world had and still has of Him.. “”If””you have seen me THEN you have seen the Father.” Love never gives up hope which is defined as earnest expectation, not wishing.

        The apostle John got it right describing himself as the one Jesus loved. Notice He is the only one to use this specific language?

  13. megagenius // July 8, 2021 at 5:58 am // Reply

    Paul said he was the chief of sinners, so where is there a place for grace to be withheld from anyone who repents and believes the gospel and receives Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior? Jesus said that anyone who comes to him, he would in no wise cast out.

  14. megagenius // July 8, 2021 at 6:15 am // Reply

    All sinners are dead in trespasses and sins. Is one sinner more dead than another sinner? Therefore grace is offered to all sinners. WHOSOEVER shall call on the name of Jesus shall be saved. Don’t call on a man made religious bird (Cardinal), call on the name of Jesus, the Savior of any sinner.

  15. Yes, I know that God’s amazing Grace would’ve changed Michael’s mind. Experiencing God’s unconditional love always leaves a mark of change. I saw those 3 movies when they first came out. They’re all about man’s pride, self centeredness. When things don’t go their way, they seek revenge. Man’s revenge never brings healing to the worn out and tortured soul. Only the love of God can heal a broken heart. If only the Cardinal had himself experienced God’s Grace, then his gracious filled words could’ve been the catalyst to help set Michael free from guilt and condemnation. Condemnation kills the weary soul, but God’s love heals, restores and fulfills it. Thanks for sharing!

    • I sense you’re a fan of the series, Mary, and since my wife just asked how many women are responding to this article, your name leapt out. I fear I may have given a thin portrayal of the Cardinal. In the movie, he is portrayed as a good man. When he heard the horrors of Michael’s sin, he reacted understandably with disgust. His pronouncment was a misstep for sure but maybe it was out of character. Or maybe he had never experienced grace, as you say.

  16. Love wins! Grace is always an option no matter what! God’s goodness and grace trumps our sinfulness!

  17. Great article! I love the way you use modern pop culture to deliver your message. Keep it up!

    Are you a Godfather fan? Ehm, no. If there isn’t any alien or robot or martial arts in the movie than it is not the movie for me.:-)

    Do you think grace would have made a difference or was Michael a truly lost cause? That totally depends on Mario Puzo’s understanding of Grace, I guess.

  18. Greydanus, Susan and Ron // July 8, 2021 at 10:28 am // Reply

    On the other side there is Jean Valjean of Les Miserables. The moment he receives mercy from the priest is the moment his life is turned around and forever changed. Love that scene in the story- a picture of the Father’s unmerited mercy to us. Susan

  19. We all need Gods forgiveness bought,paid forand freely given by Jesus to us at the cross. The problem is not Gods supply of complete forgiveness extended to us all through Jesus but our struggle and sometimes inability to fully believe and receive,posess and trust ,grasp,understand His unconditional forgiveness towards us. That is when because of our lack of or incorrect knowledge of Gods Grace and forgiveness we still struggle to forgive self and others because we do not know we are forgiven ourselvesLike the woman in the bible who anointed Jesus with her tears and ointment she understood how much she had been forgiven and it was a living reality eXperience for her,so she was able to love much We all need to hear more of the gospel of Gods Grace the good news that God wants all “men” to hear no matter who,what,where they are-that He sent Jesus to die for the sins of all men ALL as we all are and most often than not feel like the chief of all sinners and end up behaving like and treating others like we have not heard the good news at all that God has forgiven us through Jesus.Romans 1:18

  20. Steve Olivier // July 8, 2021 at 9:44 pm // Reply

    Great article, Paul. Our God is a Father, not the Godfather and there are many who believe He is more like the Godfather than Father God. The examples Jesus gave us really do show us the heart of our Father.

  21. Jana Spriggs // July 10, 2021 at 12:22 pm // Reply

    Grace most definitely would have made a difference in Michael Corleone’s life. It is so sad to think that the one who had the power to show him the grace of God withheld it and walked away. It makes me think about my everyday interactions with family, friends, and people I don’t know – how much giving grace can change someone’s course of life.

  22. persianrugz // July 11, 2021 at 3:31 am // Reply

    Great comment. I never watched this seen through the eyes of God who is full of mercy and grace. Of course, I was’t saved then. But Boy O boy, nothing is ever above his unconditional love.

  23. First of all, what makes the Cardinal’s response even more wrong is that Michael just confessed everything. That’s a huge step and would suggest that he is open to grace. Even if the Cardinal is right about his life to this point showing an inability to change, this moment says he’s ripe for change.

    The second thing is that you have to give him the gospel anyway, even if you think he won’t accept it. At least then he would know what he is rejecting.

  24. One additional thought I have upon reflection of the scene described, especially in light of the current exposure of pervading darkness subjugating our societies the world is awakening to, is this: Is Michael’s discovery of the Grace of God dependent on the Cardinal’s response? Of course not. The Holy spirit could (and incessantly does) speak to anybody’s heart through a painting, or a walk in the park, or an encounter with a friendly pet etc. just as profoundly as through a minister. Many have confided their heart, or confessed, to ministers and church folk only to be peddled a mixture of law and grace, or worse, in response and they took the bait – and become another religious slave in some denomination’s empire. As much as our true Father longs for us to ‘get it’ and participate with his grand work of Grace to liberate all of us from the effects of sin and death, he is not limited by our ability to understand his ongoing work. Nor is our addiction to religion enough to keep the good shepherd from unlocking a way to find his lost sheep. My hope is in Christ, not our religious/church leaders… I don’t expect them to have a clue at this point. God’s going around them, in my opinion.

    • Jason, yes you are so right,nothing and no one can stop Gods Holy Spirit from reaching and revealing Jesus to an individual!! and He will use anything to speak to and reach someone even if a church or church community is being unsuccessful at it for whatever reason. Heck even ABBA God used a donkey in the Old Testament to speak to someone..And thank God that He is not just limited to reach us by the church! He loves us all so much that He will use anything or something else to speak to us if something is not working In order to get through to us.Bless the leaders of the church but thank God that that it’s Holy Spirit and not them that God has assigned to be responsible for our teaching ,walk and relationship with Him.Gods Holy Spirit is our only go to Person with regards to our salvation from God in Jesus. Amen.

      • jason b // July 13, 2021 at 4:28 pm //

        Amen Sally. For me, there is such freedom and empowerment that comes from realizing that Jesus himself has taken the initiative and made it his responsibility to reach us in our blindness and bring us to the Father fully redeemed and restored. They, along with Holy Spirit, will be satisfied with nothing less. But they will not pretend that we are not in a relationship and do it without us. Their aspiration for our participation will not be abandoned. It’s what we were made for. Being little clones of Jesus or obedient robots will never satisfy RELATIONSHIP, only willing participants bringing our unique individuality to join the party will do. I believe we exist in a great big bear hug from Abba, and Jesus is committed to us all coming to realize it. Even Michael.

  25. This is a Catholic theology. When I was a Catholic I have heard the same once during a confession. And priest had not forgiven me sins until I would not change something in my life.

  26. Unfortunately.and it saddens me to admit this= I agree with you there Paul. I pray Ephesians 1 and 3 for us all no matter what denomination or not we are from we all ALL need Gods enlightenment and illumination on His gospel of grace in Christ Jesus by His Holy Spirit continually and Jesus words at the cross keep coming back to me “forgive them Father for they know not what they do (or say or teach or judge or misunderstand even ) We ALL need Gods mercy and grace and unconditional love- no exceptions.

  27. Anthony Dennis Caeton // July 21, 2021 at 3:46 am // Reply

    MICHAEL HAS TO ACKNOWLEDGE FORGIVENESS OF ALL HIS ENEMIES, BETRAYERS, THE BIG AND THE SMALL. i THINK MICHAEL CAN’T EVEN REMEMBER ALL HIS SINS,, AND HARDEST OF ALL, THE KILLERS OF HIS FATHER (WHO TOOK A LONG TIME TO DIE) AND THE KILLERS, (DID HE EVEN KNOW WHO SPECIFICALLY HAD FORMED THE INTENT TO KILL ) OF HIS BROTHER. AND THEN, HOW MANY TIMES DID HE SILENTLY OR EXPRESSLY TELL GOD TO GO TO HELL WHICH INCLUDES NOT ONLY THE FATHER, AND SON, BUT THE HOLY SPIRIT WHICH ACCORDING TO JESUS, IS AN UNFORGIVABLE ACT.

    • Boy, I hope we don’t have to remember and confess in detail every single sin individually. If so, no one will be saved. But seriously, remember, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because[a] the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).

  28. I am responding to both replies above. Anthony no one can remember all of sins if we did we would as believers all be so sin conscious rather than Christ and forgiven conscious that that is all we would do, confess as we still keep falling short dailyWhen we do fail we need Gods Grace to be confident that He has already forgiven us and given us the grace to go and sin no more.This is where Gods grace comes in all sins past present,future are dealt with and covered by Jesus and His blood at he cross, please read Hebrews 8:12 and 1 John 2:1The unpardonable sin was for unbelievers and their constant rejection. Michael after all he had done,gone through was finally not looking to carry on rejecting Christ but was seeking redemption,help,grace forgiveness but unfortunately did not receivethe good newsfrom the Cardinal.The gospel of Gods Grace in Christ,his finished work at the cross, His blood that was shed at the cross for the remission of sinsfor ALL was not preached to him so he could not repent p,be forgiven and be saved. As believers,born again spiritually it is now not in our nature to willingly sin and reject Christ so commit the unpardonable sin for we now have Christ’s nature .Due to our immaturity,poor ,incorrect Understanding of what Jesus has done for us at the crosswe can fall prey to fearing and believing that we have rejected Christor will so we come under condemnation and condemn ourselves but that is a lie from the devil and our insecure flesh. The only answer to all of this is Gods Grace In Christ. I pray Ephesians 1 and Ephesians 3 for us all.

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