Doing Penance

by James Akin

In the piece on temporal and eternal salvation we commented on the statement from Proverbs 16:6, "By loyalty and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of Yahweh a man avoids evil." At the time we noted that the kind of atonement this verse was referring to is temporal atonement. Now we are ready to look at the concept of temporal atonement in more depth, for the biblically-mandated practice of temporal atonement is the same as the practice of doing penance over one's sins. Penances can be formal (such as setting a day of fasting) or informal (such as deliberately going out of one's way to be nice to someone), but they amount to the same thing.

In this regard, it is helpful to note that Protestants, especially those who assert that it is impossible to lose salvation, often stress the difference between forgiveness and fellowship. They will point out, rightly, that even when the eternal consequences of one's sins have been forgiven, one's relationship with God can still be impaired. Thus even though one is in a state of eternal forgiveness--what Catholics call the state of grace--one may still need to repent in order to restore one to fellowship, or at least full fellowship, with God.

It is in this sense that love and faithfulness atone for iniquity, and this is the concept behind the historic Christian practice of penance. Anti-Catholics often base their attacks on the practice of doing penances to atone, make reparations, or for one's sins. However, they fail to realize that the atonement penances involve is temporal rather than eternal. Catholics are not trying to pay off the eternal debt of their sins by doing penance. Christ paid all that off in one fell swoop almost two thousand years ago. No more payment of the eternal debt of our sins is needed. In fact, no more payment of the eternal debt of our sins ispossible. And though it would surprise many Protestants to learn it, this precise point was vigorously and vociferously stressed by the Medieval Catholics that Protestants (wrongly) credit with coming up with the whole system of penances.

These Christians recognized the fact that Christ's merits on the cross were superabundant, that is, more than enough to cover the debt of our sins. This fact is often ignored and sometimes even denied in Protestant preaching, as when some Protestants, especially Calvinists, claim that Christ's sufferings were sufficient but not more than sufficient to cover the sins of the elect, but the Medieval Christians understood it.

The great Medieval saint and doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, for example, writes: "[B]y suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured, as stated above. And therefore Christ's Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 Jn. 2:2: 'He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world'" (Summa Theologiae 3:48:2).

This teaching was by no means unique to Aquinas, but has been the common teaching of Catholics both before and since him, as it is to this day. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The Christian tradition sees in this passage an announcement of the 'New Adam' who, because he 'became obedient unto death, even death on a cross,' makes amends superabundantly for the disobedience, of Adam" (CCC 411).

Yet this teaching is then a puzzlement for Protestants who deny the need for penances. "If Christ's sufferings were more than sufficient," they ask, "why then should we do penances?"

There are three answers for this: First, remember the former section on forgiveness and fellowship, and how we saw that even if a person is in a state of forgiveness they may have impaired fellowship with God and need to correct this? Acts of sorrow over one's sins (penances) are a key way in which this is done. Thus, as we will see below, people in both testaments of the Bible would do penances in order to restore fellowship with God by mourning for their sins.

Second, when God remits the eternal penalty for a sin, he may (and often does) choose to leave a temporal penalty to be dealt with. Thus when he forgave David for his sin concerning Uriah, he still left David the temporal punishment of having his infant son die and having the sword pass through his house (2 Sam. 12:13ff). Similarly, when Moses struck the rock a second time God forgave him (for Moses was obviously one of the saved, as his appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration illustrates), though he still suffered the temporal penalty of not being allowed to go into the promised land (Num. 20:12). And finally, even physical death itself is a temporal penalty that is our due because of original sin, and it is a penalty which remains even when our sins are forgiven by Christ. Forgiven Christians still die.

Why does God leave or implement some temporal penalties in place when he removes the eternal penalties for our sins? Part of this is a mystery, since Christ's sufferings are surely sufficient to cover even the temporal penalties of our sins. However, one reason is to teach us our lesson. Sometimes (in fact, often) one learns one's lesson far better if one has not just a head knowledge that what one did was wrong, but if one has an experiential knowledge of its wrongness through feeling negative consequences. Thus parents often allow their children to burn their fingers a few times or tell them, "Look, I've forgiven you and we all friends again, but you're still going to have to be grounded/get a whipping/etc." Thus the Bible tells us:

"And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons? -- 'My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.' It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed" (Heb. 12:5-13).

God thus often leaves in place a portion of the temporal retribution we deserve that this chastisement, on the model of punishing a child, may have a rehabilitative effect on us. Penance is one way in which we willingly embrace this discipline in order to learn from it, just as a godly child may consciously embrace his parent's discipline (see my piece A Primer on Indulgences for further discussion of this issue).

Third, humans have an inner need to mourn over tragedies, as indicated by the fact Christ himself wept and mourned over tragedies, such as when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus or wailed over the faith of Jerusalem. This inner need must not be short-circuited; humans must be allowed to feel grief over tragedies (a fact which became very apparent to me when my wife died). And because our sins are tragedies, we have an innate need to mourn over them. We also have an inner need to make a gesture of reparation for our sins, even when real reparation is impossible. These are things penance does -- allow us to feel the grief we innately have and need to express when we have done wrong and repented.

Unfortunately, in Evangelical circles this process is often completely short-circuited. People will immediately be told, "Hey, Jesus has forgiven all your sins! Now stop mourning them!" This is exactly like immediately telling a person whose spouse has died, "Hey, Jesus has taken your wife to heaven! Now stop mourning her!" In other words, it is an insane, idiotic and harmful thing to do.

Of course, if a person mourns too much for their sins and fixates on them then he must be discouraged, just as if a man mourns too much for his wife and fixates on her death then he must be discouraged and told to get on with his life. But the point is that this must not be done right after her death, and in the same way a person must not be told to stop morning for his sins right after he has repented of them. To do so shuts down a psychological process that he innately needs to go through -- the mourning of a tragedy -- a process to which even the sinless Jesus himself naturally underwent.

For all of these reasons we can see how, even though Christ's atonement was superabundant to cover both the temporal and the eternal consequences of our sins, we still have a need to mourn our sins, God still often leaves in place a temporal punishment even when he has remitted the eternal one (as, for example, to teach us our lesson), and we still need to have fellowship restored with God even when we are in a state of forgiveness. It is these things that the discipline of penance allows us to pursue.

And this has been recognized by God's people all throughout the ages. The system of penance goes back beyond the middle ages, through the patristic age, through the New Testament, and into the Old Testament. It has been part of the religion of Yahweh since before the time of Christ, it was part of the religion of Christ and his first followers, and it has been part of Christianity ever since. It was not until the rise of Protestantism that anyone in Christendom thought to deny it.

As always, a few pertinent quotes will help to document this fact. Virtually nobody who has read the Old Testament will deny that the ancient Jews did acts of penance--external deeds of sorrow and reparation for sins--as part of their spiritual discipline.

Thus before the time of Christ we read:

"Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before Yahweh. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to Yahweh.' (Judges 20:26)

"When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of Yahweh came to Elijah the Tishbite: 'Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son'" (1 Kings 21:27-29)

"Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of Yahweh, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. The people of Judah came together to seek help from Yahweh; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him" (2 Chronicles 20:3-4)

"There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, 'The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.' So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer" (Ezra 8:21-23).

"The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, 'Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.' When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven" (Nehemiah 1:1-4).

"The Lord, Yahweh Almighty, called you on that day to weep and to wail, to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth. But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! 'Let us eat and drink,' you say, 'for tomorrow we die!'" (Isaiah 22:12-13).

"So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes" (Daniel 9:3).

"Put on sackcloth, O priests, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar. Come, spend the night in sackcloth, you who minister before my God; for the grain offerings and drink offerings are withheld from the house of your God. Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of Yahweh your God, and cry out to Yahweh" (Joel 1:13-14)

"'Even now,' declares Yahweh, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.' . . . Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly" (Joel 2:12, 15).

Especially informative here are the passages where God himself or where his prophet commands fasting or other penance. These passages show that the practice of penance has God's endorsement.

It is also instructive when God explains the purpose of fasting as a means of humbling oneself before the him. Because they have rejected the ancient Christian practice of penance, Evangelicals often have a hard time understanding the reason for fasting. I remember when I was a Presbyterian having one otherwise very sharp PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) teaching elder tell me that the idea behind fasting was to give yourself more time to pray by skipping lunch/dinner/whatever. When one reads what the Bible has to say about fasting, one realizes how laughable this answer is. The purpose of skipping the meal(s) is not to generate more time but to humble (or, to put it more bluntly, to humiliate) oneself before the Lord and thus seek his favor from a state of humility (more bluntly, a state of humiliation).

And of course the idea of fasting, like other penances, is clearly endorsed in the New Testament:

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matthew 6:16-18).

"Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, 'How is it that John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?' Jesus answered, 'How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast" (Mark 2:18-20).

"While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off" (Acts 13:2-3).

"Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust" (Acts 14:23).

"Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up" (James 4:8-10).

"And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth" (Revelation 11:3).

Protestants often skim over these verses without thinking about them or taking them seriously. This is shown especially in sermons on the passage from James. Protestant pastors will often tell their congregations to humble themselves before the Lord so that they will be lifted up, but they completely rob the self-humbling (more bluntly, self-humiliation) of all its content because they fail to tell the congregations to humble themselves in the way James has indicated, i.e., "grieve, mourn, and wail; change your laughter into mourning and your joy into gloom." Instead they will be told (if they are believers) that they don't need to do any of that to humble themselves because they have already been forgiven by Christ or (if they are unbelievers) that they don't need to do any of that to humble themselves before the Lord because all they have to do is say and believe a little prayer and Jesus will take away from them all need of mourning and weeping over their sins. The way this passage is normally preached in Protestant circles, the only people who need to wail and mourn are those who don't repent and thus who don't humiliate themselves before God. The minute a person repents and humbles himself, in a Protestant church he will be told he doesn't need to do any of the weeping and mourning and wailing James tells him to as part of his self-humbling.

And of course, if we find the penitential discipline in the Old Testament and the New Testament, it goes without saying that it is found right throughout the patristic age.

Thus around A.D. 70 the Didache tells us: "Before the baptism, let the one baptizing and the one to be baptized fast, as also any others who are able. Command the one who is to be baptized to fast beforehand for one or two days. . . . [After becoming a Christian] Do not let your fasts be with the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday, but you shall fast on Wednesday and Friday" (Didache 7:1, 8:1).

Around A.D. 80 Pope Clement I tells the Corinthian rebels: "You, therefore, who laid the foundation of the rebellion [in your church], submit to the presbyters and be chastened to repentance, bending your knees in a spirit of humility" (Letter to the Corinthians 57).

Around A.D. 110, Ignatius of Antioch wrote: "For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ" (Letter to the Philadelphians 3).

Around A.D. 203, Tertullian records the practice of Christians and says: "Likewise, in regard to days of fast, many do not think they should be present at the sacrificial prayers [at the Eucharist], because their fast would be broken if they were to receive the Body of the Lord. Does the Eucharist, then obviate a work devoted to God, or does it bind it more to God? Will not your fast be more solemn if, in addition, you have stood at God's altar? The Body of the Lord having been received and reserved, each point is secured: both the participation in the sacrifice and the discharge of duty [concerning fasting]" (Prayer19:1-4).

Around A.D. 253, Cyprian of Carthage writes: "[S]inners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion" (Letters 9:2).

Around A.D. 388 Jerome writes: "If the serpent, the devil, bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and does not want to confess his wound . . . then his brother and his master, who have the word [of absolution] that will cure him, cannot very well assist him" (Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:11).

Around A.D. 395, Augustine instructs his catechumens: "When you shall have been baptized, keep to a good life in the commandments of God so that you may preserve your baptism to the very end. I do not tell you that you will live here without sin, but they are venial sins which this life is never without. Baptism was instituted for all sins. For light sins, without which we cannot live, prayer was instituted. . . . But do not commit those sins on account of which you would have to be separated from the body of Christ. Perish the thought! For those whom you see [at the church] doing penance have committed crimes, either adultery or some other enormities. That is why they are doing penance. If their sins were light, daily prayer would suffice to blot them out. . . . In the Church, therefore, there are three ways in which sins are forgiven: in baptisms, in prayer, and in the greater humility of penance" (Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed 7:15, 8:16).

So as we can see, the practice of penance has been part of the true religion since before the time of Christ, at the time of Christ, and after the time of Christ, nobody thinking to deny it until the Protestant Reformers came and gutted the historic Christian faith.