Penance or Repentance?

penanceLent is a season of repentance; yet many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. There are many watered-down versions of repentance out there, which are not only cheap alternatives but tend to divert us from experiencing the joy of the real thing. One of those versions is the concept of “penance.”

Many of you recognize penance from your religious background as a sacrament consisting of contrition, confession, and the carrying out of certain works which render satisfaction for the sin committed since baptism. The Douay-Rheims Roman Catholic translation of the Bible actually replaces the word “repentance” with “penance” thus giving universal credence to this imitation of repentance.

However, we “Prots” also have our own version of penance. Though we are saved by grace, we are still driven to act in such ways that curry favor with God. Many co-opt the Lenten season with self-denial and acts of self-abnegation. Somehow our human nature feels better when we think we are impressing God by the sincerity of our outward actions, failing to comprehend that the real issue is the inner condition of our hearts. Not only does penance divert our attention away from the real need of our souls, but penance also anesthetizes our consciences so we gain momentary relief from our guilt.

Somehow we feel that our penance balances the scales and tips them in our favor, and yet, it is nothing more than a vicious cycle. We do good things to make up for our bad things; then after being good for a while we think we deserve a little bad, which we then try and make up for by being good and… so on and so forth. Penance makes us like little gerbils on a never-ending wheel of trying to please God.

The prophet Isaiah held out the free grace and mercy of God for his people when he cried, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for things that are not bread, and your labor on things that do not satisfy” (55:1, 2). And in the closing chapter of the New Testament, the Spirit and the Church cry out, “Come, and let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires to take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).

If we can do nothing to achieve our salvation, why do we think our actions (now that we are God’s children) are in any way meritorious or sanctifying? Why do we measure God’s love for us by how much we do for him rather than by what he has done for us? Penance may drive us to a bed of nails or to stand barefoot in the snow for three days, like Henry IV did to show how sorry he was to Pope Gregory VII in 1077 AD. However, repentance will always drive us back to the cross and to God’s love and mercy which continues to flow for us. The same gospel that saves me also sanctifies me.

Upon that cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess:
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.
(Elizabeth Clephane, 1830-1869)

Penance keeps us tied into our past through fear of God’s justice. Repentance frees us up to hope for a new future because of God’s love. May God drive us back to the cross!

But Dave, if repentance does not lead me to tears and showing God how sorry I am, is it really repentance? Good question! We’ll talk next week- on Good Friday.

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