Today, I want to narrow the scope even further, and contrast the doctrine of Biblical repentance to the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance, and suggest that many Evangelical Protestants who would vehemently denounce penance unwittingly practice penance while thinking they are practicing Biblical repentance. This goes to the heart of the Gospel, because it calls into question the sufficiency of Christ's atonement.
The Doctrine of Penance
Though all Christians must heed the command of John the Baptist to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Lk 3:8), there exists a tendency in every fallen human heart to conceive of such acts of obedience as currency by which we pay God back for his gift of the forgiveness of our sins. “The exhortations of the ancient prophets, of Jesus, and of the apostles show that the change of mind is the dominant idea of [repentance, and] the accompanying grief and reform of life are necessary consequences.” However, the Latin translation of metanoéō into the Vulgate emphasized the “grief over sin rather than the abandonment of sin as the primary idea of NT repentance” by translating it do penance (ISBE, 4:136). Penance, then, and not Biblical repentance, became the focus of the Roman Catholic Church through the middle ages.
The Roman Catholic sacrament of penance is the process by which the Church absolves a penitent sinner of his sin by requiring him to (1) confess that sin to a priest, (2) demonstrate adequate sorrow over that sin (usually by a prayer) and (3) endure any temporal punishments (such as repeating prayers or performing works of service) levied by the priest in order to make satisfaction for that sin before God. In a non-technical sense, penance is often spoken of as synonymous with satisfaction, which is “the voluntary enduring of the penalty imposed by the confessor in order to [a] compensate for the injury done to God and to [b] redeem or atone for the temporal punishment which is ordinarily due even after sin as been forgiven” [Adolphe Tanquerey, Manual of Dogmatic Theology. Trans. John J. Byrnes (Desclee: NY, 1959), 2:330]. Put simply, the sinner must atone for their sin by enduring the punishments assigned to them by themselves or by a priest (see the Canons of the Council of Trent, Session XIV, Chapter IX).
The Danger of Penance
The danger of this doctrine is damning. First, it makes provision for the act of repentance to quickly become mechanical. It removes the focus of the change of heart, will, and mind that is so central to Biblical repentance, and replaces it with an external, potentially mindless ritual. Confession of sin becomes a sort of quid pro quo transaction between the sinner and God in such a way that no real change of heart and abandonment of sin is required. The sinner may dispassionately recount his sins to a priest who assures him that he may have forgiveness if he recites a particular pre-written prayer a certain number of times. Such a practice, in effect, reverses the call of Yahweh in Joel 2:12-13 and instead commands, “Rend your garments, and not necessarily your hearts.”
Secondly, and perhaps much more severely, penance undermines the sufficient atonement for sin that Christ achieved by the sacrifice of Himself on the cross. This is subtle, yet extremely important. When we are convicted of sin, desire to repent, and seek God to receive the gift of forgiveness of sin (cf. 1Jn 1:9), impulses of initial sorrow followed by joy and gratitude are natural expressions of our repentance. However, requiring one to work up such sorrow or to demonstrate joy and gratitude in order to make satisfaction for his sins nullifies grace. “You would be treating [forgiveness] no longer as a gift, but a purchase. God would no longer be the free benefactor. And you would be enslaved to a new set of demands that he never dreamed of putting on you” (John Piper, Future Grace, 45). And if the believer tries to purchase his forgiveness with his deeds of repentance, he necessarily dishonors the sufficient, once-for-all purchase that Christ Himself made for sin by giving His life on the cross. Consider the following passages about the absolute sufficiency of Christ's work, with no need for supplementation:
- Hebrews 7:26-27 - For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.
- Hebrews 9:11-14 - But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
- Hebrews 9:25 - ...nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own.
- Hebrews 10:11-14 - Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
Now, though penance is a Roman Catholic doctrine, the inclination to do penance – to attempt to make some satisfaction for our sins – is present even with many conservative evangelicals. In fact, there is a natural desire in all human beings to offer some payment for our sins. Frankly, we all seek to earn our way to God. Grace is insulting to us, because it highlights our inability and our need for an alien righteousness, since we don't have our own. And so because it's our nature to be legalists, we often slip back into that mindset. Rather than receiving the gift of forgiveness with a spontaneous response of heartfelt joy, we treat our Christian walk as “an effort to pay back the debt we owe to God. … Good deeds and religious acts are the installment payments we make on the unending debt we owe God” (Piper, Future Grace, 33).
When we sin and come to God in confession, after feeling badly about what we have done we resolve to read our Bibles more, pray more, go to church more, or even do acts of service to ‘make up for’ our sin. We often wonder if we have felt badly enough for our sin and we heap scorn upon ourselves to make sure that we are sorry enough. We recognize that we do not deserve forgiveness, and so we learn from Scripture and from others what the appropriate responses of genuine, heartfelt repentance ought to be, and we seek to manufacture those responses and offer them to God in order to earn our forgiveness. Yet the grace of God was never designed to indebt us to Him. No, grace does not create debts, but pays debts. Grace does not enslave believers, it makes us free. The Lord Jesus Christ, by His perfect obedience, has earned our forgiveness and bestows it upon us freely by faith.
Such ‘functional penance’ is a common practice among those in counseling and other kinds of accountability groups. Paul Tripp tells a story about Celia who, “like many counselees, thought that being in counseling was an act of repentance” (Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, 286). She conceived of her talking as confession and her remaining in counseling as her ‘fruits in keeping with repentance.’ However, Tripp says that Celia was treating the counseling process as penance:
She was blind to the fact that she was really participating in an act of self-atonement. I call this “Protestant absolution.” The counselee confesses, examines issues, participates in an ongoing discussion of self and the situation and, week by week, leaves the counseling time feeling atoned, cleansed, and right. Yet all of this is happening without any substantive heart or behavioral change (Tripp, Instruments, 286).Such insights shed light on the wicked tendency of our hearts to seek our own self-righteousness through penance, even as conservative, orthodox, Protestant Evangelicals. With our feeble efforts at ‘Protestant absolution,’ we try to do enough or say enough or feel enough. But the reality is, we could never be enough. That is precisely why we needed a Savior to die on our behalf: because even our best would never have been enough. When we adopt such a mindset, we are just like Adam and Eve in the garden, who, knowing the shame of our nakedness, sew mere fig leaves together to cover the sin in our lives (Gen 3:7). Yet we refuse the better covering that God Himself provides (Gen 3:21) -- the perfect garment of Christ’s atonement (Gal 3:27; Rom 13:14).
The Antidote to Penance: Repentance Motivated by Delight in Superior Pleasures
Biblical repentance comes not as a result of our works; rather our works are the fruit that come from repentance. But if our performing deeds appropriate to repentance (Ac 26:20) does not come from a desire to earn favor or forgiveness with God, from where does it come? As Piper puts it, the fruits in keeping with our repentance come from the delightful root of faith in future grace.
With true gratitude [in repentance] there is such a delight in the worth of God’s past grace [e.g., forgiveness of a particular sin], that we are driven on to experience more and more of it in the future. But this is not done by ‘payments’ of debt in any ordinary sense. Rather, it is done by transforming gratitude into faith as it turns from contemplating the pleasures of past grace and starts contemplating the promises of the future. … True gratitude exults in the riches of God’s grace as it looks back on the benefits it has received. By cherishing past grace in this way, it inclines the heart to trust in future grace (Piper, Future Grace, 38-39).
The joyful gratitude for the forgiveness of sin that we experience in repentance drives us to forsake our sin and obey freely, because that gratitude is produced by the promise of future experiences of the sweet pleasures of God’s grace. Our repentant obedience, then, is driven by our faith in the promises of God. It is not the price we pay or the punishment we endure to gain acceptance, but the natural overflow of hearts that yearn to be satisfied with more of Christ. Both the alternative and antidote to penance -- even "Evangelical penance" -- is the delight and satisfaction we have in Christ.
So fight your sin that way. Battle against the faux-pleasures promised by your sin by preferring the superior pleasures of all God is for you in Christ. You are not under law, Christian, but under grace. So on the basis of Christ's death and resurrection -- the basis upon which grace was purchased for you -- consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ, and thus present your members as weapons of righteousness, not unrighteousness.
but the life that He lives, He lives to God.
Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin,
but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts,
and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin
as instruments of unrighteousness;
but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead,
and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.
For sin shall not be master over you,
for you are not under law but under grace.
- Romans 6:10-14 -
Biblical Repentance: Introduction
1.1. Nacham: Biblical Repentance Involves the Emotions
1.2. Shuv: The Heart's Obedient Turn from Sin to God
1.3. Metanoeo: A Fundamental Change of the Whole Man
2.1. Summary and Discussion: Intellectual, Emotional, Volitional
2.2. Repentance for the Christian
3.1. Repentance vs. Penance
3.2. Counsel to a Sinning Brother