One of the most disturbing facts I see both in my own heart and in
the church is the almost knee jerk response of doing penance
rather than repentance in the face of my sin. You don’t have to be
Roman Catholic to observe the sacrament of penance. Most
evangelicals do it every single day.

The Roman doctrine of the sacrament of Penance involves three actions:
Contrito Cordis – Genuine contrition of the heart; feeling sorry out of the fear of punishment
Confessio Oris – Confession of sin to a priest
Sastisfactio Operum – Works of satisfaction

This sacrament found its basis in the Latin Vulgate’s translation of “repent” as to do penance. The Protestant Reformation was born out of a controversy over repentance and the sale of indulgences by Tetzel. His slogan was, “A coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” This found a ready-made audience because the flesh is intensely religious. So let us distinguish between Gospel repentance and religious penance.

First, penance focuses on what man does. Penance is man’s effort to save himself by his own suffering, sorrow, sincerity, intensity of contrition and brokenness. Penance is not merely a sacrament of the Roman church, it is a religious presupposition of the fallen human heart which prompts us to attempt to pay for our sins by our good works, suffering, etc. It is a self justification strategy. It is the attempt to mollify or assuage the conscience. The sinner doing penance says in his or her heart: give me one more day, one more religious duty to do, new relationships, better education and I will try harder and all will come out right side up. I can fix it in time. I am not that helpless, hopeless and bankrupt. This is also called preparationism, i.e. getting ready for grace or making yourself worthy of grace. God will then reach out if we pray through, otherwise we cheapen grace. (grace is not cheap, it is free!) We cannot take the easy way out. We must show some moral or theological improvement to prove our sincerity. Sadly, some Puritans erred at this significant point.

This is an awful insult to God and His grace (Galatians 5:4). Man’s effort and God’s grace are mutually exclusive. Disciplined study and moral effort cannot do the job. Because our hearts are rotten at the root, they need to be rooted in Christ. We can’t pay for our sins because it poisons all the best gifts of God. First our pride must be broken. We must repent of our penances. Our self deceiving hearts live out of self reliance and self justification. We may say that we are weeping over our sin but in our acts of penance we are merely asking God to baptize it. The Father does not hear this kind of pleading. Why? Because in reality we are asking for just enough
help to enable us to continue living a life independent of God’s control. We want enough grace to be strong in ourselves and intensify our efforts. The purpose of these efforts is to atone for our guilty consciences. The truly repentant person knows that all his doing is full of sin. Like Isaiah confesses in the presence of the Holy, “Woe is me, I am undone.”

Secondly, penance focuses on what man sees and feels. It is centered in human perceptions and emotions. The man doing penance sees God owing him a debt. He lives in self pity and if there is any forgiving to be done it must be him forgiving God for making him such a rotten sinner. In contrast consider Isaiah. He was undone. Why? He saw God in His glory which is the perfect cure for a sick and perverse pleasure in guilty misery. The knowledge of God brings a new and transformative knowledge of the self. We have immense pride which is the basis and root of self pity. Self pity leads us to condemn God for His incompetent management of human affairs. One real meeting with the real God revealed in Holy Scripture puts this self righteous hubris in true perspective. You don’t argue with a consuming fire, you submit to Him.

Thirdly, penance always leaves the sinner powerless and in deeper bondage. We are impotent and imprisoned. The mark of true repentance is a humility and boldness that leads Isaiah after his confession and cleansing to exclaim, “Here I am, send me.” Penance undermines itself because it is based on self reliance. Evangelical repentance is fused with trust in Christ and He is always effective where we with our self effort fail. Repentance and faith are distinguishable but are also inseparable. There is also a distinction between conviction of sin and coming to Christ. Conviction by itself is not repentance and has no value whatsoever. The law of God has value, it exposes us and leads us to despair of self salvation. The Gospel points us to Christ, not to preoccupation with our sins. If there is no preaching of Christ and Him crucified we are left suspended and penance rushes in to fill the vacuum. An aching conscience is an invitation to return to God.

Finally, penance seeks out a human priest other than Christ. We see this in the “guruization” of Christianity. The legalist (one that does penance) is in a desperate predicament. He feels self pity and seeks out a comforter to incorporate into his system of self reliance. He wants a comforter to participate in his legalism and to do the work of Christ as mediator. This is a big pastoral temptation. It feeds our pride to be mediators and gurus. We are not to be substitutes for Christ, He is our substitute. We never direct seekers to ourselves; we cannot save them. The only place where grace can be found is from Christ. It is the only way He saves. Repentance is turning away from and abandoning our self justifying strategies and running to Christ and resting in Him alone. Its fruit is joy inexpressible and full of glory. Repent with me today!

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