A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth. 30Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.
They are last words of our Savior. He spoke them moments before giving up His life for the world.
It is finished.
We have probably read them many times. Do we really understand what they mean? If we really look at what Jesus meant would our view of the idea of penance as playing any role in the worship of Jesus Christ change?
Penance is the idea that we should punish ourselves in some outward way in an expression of remorse or punishment for our sins. The dictionary definition is voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong. It comes in many forms, from serving in soup kitchens to saying particular prayers a set number of times. Neither are exactly wrong on their own. The problem comes when we think we are paying off our sins. We do something to make up for what we have done rather than out of Christian service.
In the middle ages, this obligation and works focused view of penance was quite a bit more painful. Whipping oneself bloody and wearing hair shirsts, extremely painful garments, were common. The idea was that application of pain upon our own bodies was appropriate given our sins. We did wrong, therefore, we deserve to experience pain is the rationale. It makes simple brutal sense to us. It is still very common and accepted in other religions and in the cults of Christianity.
We are indeed guilty, after all, why should we not pay the price?
It is finished.
After enduring the suffering and agony of crucifixion to pay the price for our sins, Jesus choice of wording is very important for us. Our English translation “It is finished” comes from the word Tetelestai in the original language of the time.
Its meaning goes beyond just the end of something. Jesus is not just saying that His crucifixion was done. Rather, the word was also an accounting term that could also be translated as “paid in full”. When a debt in a ledger book was fully paid off it was marked tetelestai, paid in full. When a merchant received the final payment on an open account, he would indicate it in his books. The debt is paid and his business with that debtor is done.
So what was Jesus talking about? Why did He use an accounting term at such a crucial time?
Jesus owed no debt to anyone. He was the perfect man and had no sins to pay for. He was the perfect Lamb of God so He was not referring to payment on His behalf. Rather, the debt being paid belonged to mankind.
Each time a person sins there is a mark in God’s ledger in heaven. Since God is a perfectly just judge that ledger must be balanced in the end. Crimes must be punished. Those who are murdered must be avenged. Those who are raped must have justice. Each act of rebellion against God must be accounted for with an appropriate punishment if God is truly the judge of all mankind. This was the great open account that the world was running up with God.
The debt owed was all the sin over the ages. Every single act of iniquity was outstanding on the day when Jesus went to Calvary.
Yet Jesus, being guilty of none of them, willingly chose to pay for all of them. He balanced all of our accounts that day. God’s wrath that should have been poured out on the sinners was taken by Jesus in our place. He became the debtor and paid the debt with His body. We sinned and He was punished for it.
Our debt to God is paid in full Jesus declared for now and eternity. There is nothing more owed to those who believe on Jesus. He already tore up those old account books for us.
So, the question then is where does the idea of penance fit in if we take Jesus’ words as true.
The debt has either been paid in full or it hasn’t. It is finished or it is ongoing.
If Jesus was punished for our sins, should we then be punished again for the same sins?
Is there really anything we can do to add to what Jesus paid for our sins?
Is the debt really not paid in full?
Jesus took all of God’s wrath for us so that we could be set free from that economy. We are entirely removed from that judicial system. We are pardoned to live in peace. Not so we can beat ourselves up trying to pay for something we could never earn.
It is finished. Jesus said it, not man. If we have a problem with that take it up with Him.