Is Penance Biblical?

If penance makes sense to us, we are subtly missing the point of the Cross.    The idea of paying off our sins appeals to us as people.  There is a certain logic from a human perspective that we would need to do something good to undo something bad we did in life.  The picture is of a giant scale of justice being put out of balance by our sin.  We must re-balance it by adding something to the good side.  Thus, human logic sees no problem with paying off our sins with good works.  There is a huge problem with our logic.  It is unbelievably insulting to Jesus.  Do we want to glorify Jesus in our life or feel good about ourselves?  I wrote about the concept of grace yesterday – What Grace Really Means: Freedom but I wanted to go further.  The very idea of penance stems from a lack of understanding of the completeness of that grace.  Jesus paid it all for us.  Trying to pay for ourselves just serves to diminish that payment.

Penance Pastor Unlikely

Penance is the idea that we should discipline ourselves in some outward way in an expression of remorse or punishment for our sins.  The idea is that we must do this act or acts in order to gain forgiveness for our sins.  In the middle ages, this was expressed through self-whipping and other similar applications of pain upon our own bodies.  We did wrong, therefore, we deserve to experience hardship is the rationale.  We must hurt for the injury we inflicted.  This makes simple brutal sense to us.  We are indeed guilty, after all, why should we not pay the price? In short, the answer is Jesus.  He already paid for us.  Why would we pay again?

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.

John 19:29-30

Jesus Took Our Punishment

They are some of the 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 before, but do we really understand what they mean?  If we really look at what Jesus was talking about on the Cross our view of the idea and practice of penance should change.  What is the problem with penance?

We are Guilty, We Must Pay the Price

The answer lies in this word of Jesus on the Cross.  After enduring the suffering and agony of crucifixion, Jesus choice of wording is very important for us.  Our English translation, It is finished, comes from the word Tetelestai. Its meaning goes beyond just the end of something.  Jesus was not simply declaring that His life was finished.  He was saying more than just His suffering on the Cross was over.  Tetelestai was an accounting term in those days.  In can also be translated as “paid in full” when referring to an outstanding debt.  When a merchant received the final payment on an outstanding account, he would stamp a receipt – Tetelestai – paid in full or it is finished.  The debt is completely paid off.  That particular debtor no longer owes anything on the account and their business is done.  There was no more debt to be paid.

So what was Jesus talking about?   Why did He use an accounting term showing that a debt had been paid as He died? Was Jesus indebted to anyone?

Jesus owed no debt to anyone.  He was the perfect man.  He had no sins to pay off.  He was the perfect Lamb of God.  Rather, the debt being paid was that of mankind.  Each time a person sins a perfectly just God notices.  David said that it was against God and God alone that his sins were committed.  If God is a just God, there must be a repayment against those sins.  Justice demands it.  All accounts must be balanced in the end.  Those who are murdered must be avenged.  Those who are raped must have justice.  These are the big, obvious ones, but each act of rebellion against God must be accounted for with justice.  From gossip to slander, God is owed a debt in justice for every sin done by every man in history.  It is an enormous tally.

This is the account that Jesus dealt with on the Cross.  Ever wonder why Jesus is in such agony in the Garden of Gethsemane before His Crucifixion?  It is not the physical suffering alone that has Jesus sweating blood.  It is taking the Wrath of God reserved for all of this sin upon Himself on the Cross that brings Jesus to His knees.  No one could ever hope to pay for all man’s filthiness except the sinless Lamb of God.

The debt owed was for all of the sin of man over the ages and will do until Jesus’ return.  Every single sin was outstanding on the day when Jesus went to Calvary.  Jesus paid for all of them on the Cross in full.  God’s wrath that should have been poured out on the sinners was taken by Jesus on the Cross in our place.  He became the debtor and paid the debt with His body.  This is God’s mercy and God’s grace poured out on the undeserving.  “Paid in full!” He was declaring for now and eternity.

Penance Pastor Unlikely

This is God’s mercy and God’s grace on the undeserving.  “Paid in full”, Jesus declared for now and eternity.  There is no more debt to those who believe in Jesus.  He already tore up those old account books for us.  He paid them off with His blood, not gold or silver.  How coudl we ever hope to do the same?

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 isn’t.  If Jesus was punished for our sins should we then be punished again for the same sins?  Can we take the same punishment Jesus already took?  If we try to, what is that saying to Jesus?  “Thanks for what you did Jesus, but I don’t believe that what you did was enough for me”

This does not mean there will not be consequences that come when we sin.  It does not mean that we should not feel sorrow and repent when we fall.  It also does not mean we should never feel terrible and make restitution.  It simply means we should correctly esteem the amazing gift that Jesus gave us through the Cross.  Forgiveness of our sins and mercy to not receive the punishment we deserve came fully through  Jesus.  If we understand this, the idea of “paying off” any part of our sins after Jesus becomes unthinkable.

Jesus paid it all.  All to Him we owe.  Let us live this truth in joy and gratitude.  Is penance Biblical?  Only if we tell Jesus that He did not complete His work on the Cross.  Let that never be so.

Penance Pastor Unlikely

3 thoughts

  1. Very interesting, thank you for this post. “Tetelestai,” if I ever had the nerve to get a tattoo, the Greek lettering of that would have been it. Serious doubt at my age I will ever do a tattoo.

    I need to look further into Catholic Concepts such as penance. I need to understand more about the Catholic Church as it is my wife’s point of reference, and I have asked God to bring us closer together in our spiritual lives. I must be prepared for the possibility that the only way to bring her closer to God again is a journey together through her familiar Church.

    It’s in God’s hands.

    1. It is a wonderful word, isn’t it. That would make a good tattoo, though alas I am too old for that as well. Never could pull it off.

      Good thoughts re your wife. I had a good friend whose marriage was falling apart and was well on the way to divorce. They separated and the one spouse hated the church the other was going to. Yet, when he was asked by his wife to come to church with her, he put down his preferences and went out of love. The humility and trusting the Lord resulted in them reconciling and repairing the damage.

      Jesus washes the disciples feet and then says to them You do the same for others. Perhaps God is asking you to lead through serving her? The example of selfless service can make a difference.

      Only the Lord can answer that one, though. I’ll pray for you brother!

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