The FISHERS Magazine (Issue 186)

Repentance or Penance

God's Word

(Man has approached the universal problem of sin and a guilty conscience by acts of remorse and penance. The principle behind penance, that one can earn merit for salvation, is commonly found in religions. However, it runs contrary to the Bible's teaching about the seriousness of sin, which has been dealt with once for all by the substitutionary atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.

A truly repentant sinner renounces his sin before God and seeks to return to Him in fellowship. This may or may not be accompanied by an outward expression of remorse. Godly repentance ultimately is a providence of God and results in definite changes, God-ward, man-ward and inward.

The teaching of penance, in the author's view, is not only absent from the Bible, but also renders the saving work of the Lord ineffective and does not work changes in a sinful heart. He shares his own testimony about the grace of God working in his heart.)

The Bible insists that remorse and repentance is the only right response to sin; yet man has conjured a substitute - remorse and penance. Though couched in Roman Catholic terms, penance in various forms appears in many religions worldwide; sadly, it can even be found in Christians from sound evangelical churches. What does Scripture have to say about repentance versus penance?

A Biblical Understanding of Sin

Let us examine the Bible's concept of sin, since sin is the problem for which both repentance and penance purport to be solutions.

The Nature of Sin 
David richly describes sin in Ps. 32:1-2: Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit (ESV).

Three words are used to represent different aspects of sin. The first means to rebel, transgress, and overstep a boundary; the second means to sin, to miss the mark, to fall short; and the third connotes twisting, bending, distortion.

Before repentance can occur, the sinner must realize the awful, evil nature of his sins. He is actively rebelling against God, willfully transgressing His holiness. In wickedness, he has perverted God's revealed way for man, failing the righteous standards God requires. His spirit is full of deceit, he lacks integrity.

The Offence of Sin
God has defined sin; the sinner cannot redefine that reality. God's standards are impossibly high. In Leviticus 4, God demands sin offerings for unintentional sins. This strikes most people as bizarre, as they believe that absence of intent surely erases culpability and guilt.

However, sin is not defined by man's limitations; it is defined by who God is and the nature of His person. When one sins, it is against the absolute purity inherent in God's being.

The Consequences of Sin
The Bible teaches the harsh severity of sin. Sin is an affront to God; all sin is personal to Him and merits wrath. God's wrath is inexhaustible even when the sinner suffers eternally in hell. It is impossible for the sinner to pay for even one sin, much less a life of sin. Only fools mock at sin (Prov. 14:9 NAS).

David confessed that I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me (Ps. 51:3 ESV). The first step in repentance is to acknowledge sin as it is clearly revealed in Scripture.

Repentance Requires Turning Away from Sin

The New Testament verb for repentance, metanoeo, means to turn from sin in thought, affections and will. It involves the following elements.

Full Responsibility
The sinner must own and own up to his sins. He is accountable for them; he falls by his own sins, not by those of others. Neither fierce temptations nor fiery trials excuse sin. Circumstances only reveal sin in our hearts, and do not cause sin. Jesus is one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15), for He had no sin in Him.

When Israel sinned, God required her to acknowledge her guilt. He would not relent in His judgment otherwise (Hos. 5:14-15). The sinner must do likewise.

Full Renunciation
The sinner must be concerned about all sin, not merely some sins or known sins. God taught Israel to pray to Him to take away all iniquity (Hos. 14:2). There is a tendency to be indifferent to "little" sins, hidden sins, socially excusable sins, or sins that appear to have no immediate consequences. The Bible asserts differently -- all sin stems from evil hearts, and it is the heart that needs healing. In Joel 2:13, God calls Israel to rend [their] hearts and not [their] garments. Sin, in its totality, and at its root, must be dealt with.

Full Reconciliation
There must be a desire to seek forgiveness from the One offended. Note how David appeals to God when he repented of his sins: Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! (Ps. 51:1-2).

This prayer appears incredibly audacious! After his heinous sins of adultery and murder, David makes no excuses, proffers no merit, enters no bargain and submits no mitigation, yet he makes an outright plea for full pardon. But repentance is motivated by grace alone, and grace prompts the truly repentant to pursue reconciliation with the God he offended.

Full Release
Finally, there must be earnest desire to be free from sin, and not merely from sin's consequences. Hos. 6:1-3 is a case of false repentance by Israel, motivated by her desire to be healed of God's painful chastisement.

God rejects them in the very next verse, saying that their love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away (v. 4). The repentant do not fear painful consequences as much as they are terrified of ongoing enmity with God. They shift attention from themselves to a concern for God's pleasure.

Repentance Requires a Turning to God

God-ward Return
Beyond renouncing self and sin, repentance is foremost a return to God. Initially set out against God, sinners must come home to the One with whom they are estranged to their peril. Israel was to pray: Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, 'Our God,' to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy (Hos. 14:3).

They will not trust anything else nor worship anyone else, since the Lord champions the cause of the righteous needy. Repentance is thus God-focused, not just sin-forsaking. Paul similarly commends the Thessalonians for turn(ing) to God from idols (1 Thess. 1:9).

God-Enabled Perseverance
At conversion, a sinner repents from sin in general, thereby restoring his relationship with the God of holiness. But until glorification, one is not free from sin's influence and must be continually sanctified. This daily repentance from specific sins restores fellowship with God.

True repentance endures, having a firm intent to live a God-centred life. The sinner does not reach perfection, but is being transformed ... from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). The pace varies, but genuine repentance will not allow the Christian to fall back into the quagmire of sin.

Repentance and Remorse

There are three elements all integral to biblical repentance. Intellectually, the sinner comes to a knowledge and an acknowledgement of his sins. Volitionally, he resolves to abandon sin and submit to Christ as Lord. Then emotionally, he feels the sorrow of having offended God.

Is remorse necessary, however? The Bible contains examples where repentance comes with expressions of distress - the penitent tax collector (Luke 18:10-14) and the city of Nineveh (Jon. 3:6-10).

However there are also instances where true repentance is unaccompanied by any emotional displays - Jacob after wrestling with God (Gen 32:22-32) and the woman of Samaria (John 4:7-30). Moreover, in not a few instances deep anguish is devoid of repentance - Judas after betraying Jesus (Matt. 27:3-5) and Esau after selling his birthright (Heb. 12:16-17).

John F. MacArthur in The Gospel According to Jesus notes, "Repentance is not merely shame or sorrow for sin, although genuine repentance always involves an element of remorse." That remorse may be quickly overtaken by the joy of forgiveness. In some cases, the repentant may not outwardly display inner feelings.

There is a crucial difference between displays of remorse and remorse itself. Paul says that godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death (2 Cor. 7:10). It is clear that not all grief leads to repentance. And turning from sin always comes with sorrow, but such sorrow may not always be displayed.

How Repentance Comes About

Distinguishing true from false repentance is of eternal importance. Remorse is not a reliable indicator; but what is? What causes true repentance?

God is the Source
God is holy in His eternal essence; man is morally depraved by nature. In grace, God provided a way of reconciliation which involved Christ taking God's wrath on His body in an act of substitutionary atonement. This gives God just cause to forgive sinners. His saving work begins with regeneration, after which the person born again becomes starkly aware of his sins, and responds according to his new life. This response is genuine repentance.

Repentance is a gift of God. When Peter reported Cornelius' conversion, the church responded by glorifying God saying, 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.' (Acts 11:18). Other passages that prove repentance is God's gift include Zech. 12:10, Acts 5:31 and 2 Tim. 2:25.)

Scripture is the Means
After explaining to Nicodemus that regeneration is entirely a work of God, and that repentance must be granted by God, Jesus immediately taught this so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15). God regenerates dead souls when the Lord is exalted, that is, when the Gospel is proclaimed. The Word of God is the means of God's grace unto repentance. Repentance is granted no other way.

Various aspects of the Gospel draw out repentance in the sinner. He may receive a true sense of his guilt, as the Jews who were cut to the heart (Acts 2:37) when they heard Peter's sermon on Pentecost. He may apprehend God's great mercy in Christ and respond to His love, for God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Or it may be the sheer terror of God's wrath that compels sinners to repent (as with Jonathan Edwards' Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God) or a bold exposure of one's specific sins (as Nathan did for David when he sinned). God may also grant repentance through a display of His majesty (Is. 6:5, Job 42:1-6).

The Christian is the Instrument
But how are they to call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
(Rom. 10:14). Somebody must minister the Word of God. Such Gospel ministry takes different forms - printed tracts, distributed messages, personal evangelism, public preaching - but they are all undertaken by Christians.

The Effects of Genuine Repentance

The only credible evidence of true repentance is outward fruit, as MacArthur (ibid) points out by referring to the Ninevites' repentance. God could see their hearts, yet He assessed the genuineness of their repentance by their deeds. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster ... and He did not do it (Jon. 3:10).

A Vertical Effect
The primary effect of true repentance is radical change in the sinner's relationship with God. Isaiah 6 illustrates this well. Confronted by a thrice holy God, Isaiah repents of his sins and immediately adopts a theocentric life-principle. He confesses his sins to God and seeks God's forgiveness. He worships God using an exalted nomenclature, the King, the Lord of hosts. He begins fellowship with God in conversation, a sweet fellowship that continued throughout his life and beyond. He seeks to please God, responding unreservedly to a call to preach an unpopular message to Israel, knowing that the fruit of his labour would be small. Repentance brings about monumental change that should, in most instances, be inevitably clear.

A Horizontal Effect
John the Baptist preached repentance by the Jordan (Luke 3:1-14). When convicted, the crowds asked him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" He replied that they should be concerned about one another's well-being, giving clothing and food to the needy. Similarly, John told the tax collectors to stop dishonest over-collection of taxes and the soldiers to cease extorting money by threats and accusations. In essence, he demanded that they bear fruits in keeping with repentance in their relationships with other people.

The case of Zacchaeus brings out an important effect of true repentance (Luke 19:1-9) -- making restitution where possible. The repentant sinner knows that while his sins have been eternally forgiven, their temporal effects may linger on to the detriment of others. True repentance seeks to make good others' material or immaterial losses where feasible.

A Point Effect
A fundamental change takes place in the sinner's view of himself. What happened when the prodigal son repented? He came to himself (Luke 15:17) and regarded his unworthiness to be a son, seeking instead just to be his father's servant.

Jesus' parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee is also insightful. The difference between true and false repentance is the difference between pride in one's "good works" and shame at one's unspeakable sins, between self-exaltation and self-abasement, which ultimately is between a most precious salvation and eternal condemnation.

A Definition of Remorse and Penance

Overview of the Doctrine of Penance
In Roman Catholicism, man's first justification occurs at baptism, such justification being granted by God for Christ's sake regardless of the sinner's merit (though his volition co-operates in some way). But justification (not sanctification) is sustained through the sinner's own merit.

Under Roman Catholicism, initial justification can be (and is) annulled by sin, and may be restored only through the Sacrament of Penance as outlined below:

  • Contrition - grief and hatred of past sins with the intention of stopping the sin;
  • Confession - self-accusation (with full details, without reserve) to a priest;
  • Satisfaction - painful work prescribed by the priest, performed by the penitent, as proper payment for sins (after death, satisfaction is achieved through purgator

Penance by Any Other Name
Though the above is a somewhat technical description of Penance, the thinking behind it is to be found in all man-made religions. Sin and a guilty conscience is a universal problem. The motivations are common: to seek tangible assurance of forgiveness (not necessarily forgiveness itself). The proud belief is the same: that man can, by self-affliction, atone for his sins and earn merit unto heaven. This is as true in Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism as it is in Christians thinking their prayers are more graciously answered on the days they live better.

A Biblical Assessment of Remorse and Penance

The Sacrament of Penance, one might argue, is a necessary corollary of baptismal regeneration. It is not only nowhere commanded in the Bible, but it is also at odds with the New Covenant established by Christ. Specifically, general remorse and general penance suffers from serious errors.

Penance Fails to Recognize the Nature, Offence and Consequences of Sin
At its root, penance presumes that man is able, in some way, to pay for his sins and gain merit with God. It fails to consider the utter evil of sin, its deep offence to God, and the harsh penalty it carries. The nature of sin is such that salvation can only be obtained by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9). No one but the spotless Lamb of God can atone for sins, and nothing less than crucifixion on a cross would do. Works of penance thus belittle the saving work of Christ.

Moreover, that saving work, once applied, cannot be annulled. The teaching on penance renders Christ's sacrifice ineffective. To suggest that sinners can earn back their salvation in any way is to say that any fallen sinner can effectively duplicate the sacrifice on the cross! The doctrine of penance severely underestimates what sin is and what it does.

Penance Does Not Insist the Sinner Turns Away from Sin
The penance-seeker desires to have the eternal consequences of sins done away with, to be replaced by an easier earthly work. And he wants some basis to unequivocally clear him of guilt. Such false repentance seeks to be free from the consequences of sin, not of the sin itself.

Penance does not actually require the sinner to deal squarely with his sin. In a perverse way, it actually opens a door for persistent sinners to indulge in their favourite sins so long as they periodically do penance. Penance is mostly an outward process -- the sinful heart is not dealt with. There is neither need for reconciliation to God nor any restitution. Penance is a very man-centred way of dealing with a problem with God.

Penance Does Not Help the Sinner Turn to God
God is not utmost in penance, neither is He glorified. Doing penance does not change the sinner from glory to glory. Although the pain of penance may have an effect, all it does is lay out legalistic standards for the sinner to fulfill so that he may earn righteousness (or further enjoy his sin). This falls far short of God's holy standards.

The Lord looks at the heart, and requires heart righteousness. Any attempt at works righteousness draws rebuke from God: this people draw near with their mouthand honor Me with their lips,while their hearts are far from Me,and their fear of Me is a commandment taught by men (Is. 29:13). In such cases, it is impossible for the sinner to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.

Penance Does Not Invoke the Means of Grace
Ultimately, God is the source of true repentance, which He grants sovereignly to sinners as He pleases. The Word of God is the means through which He brings about repentance, working by bearers of the Word. These aspects are conspicuously absent from any penance process. How can one avail oneself of God's grace when one firmly shuts the door to His appointed means?

Penance Lends Itself to False Repentance
The fruit of repentance is its evidence. The exceeding danger about penance is that it counterfeits fruits of repentance such that it deceives others and often even the sinner himself. Real fruit is produced when there is a heart change, when the sinner submits himself continually to God.

False repentance cannot restore a relationship or fellowship with God. The one doing penance may loathe his work, but does he loathe himself? He may superficially restore relationships with men, but is he right with God? He may be extremely pious, but is he even a little righteous?

Millions of religious people try to work their way to their gods through some form of penance. Their conscience accuses them of sin. They know they deserve punishment. But their fear of eternal hell makes them willing to afflict themselves in some other more bearable way.

The attraction to penance is the possibility of justifying oneself before a higher being whom they fear and feel accountable to. At the very least, inflicting suffering appeases guilty consciences. The tragedy is that none of this makes man right with the Lord. Sin is too great a problem, and God has already provided a way of salvation. There is no other.

Personal Reflections

Gratitude to God
I am very grateful to God that in researching this topic, truths which I have been taught since young have been crystallized and become clearer to me. Immense grace has been lavished on me, and I agree with John Newton "that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour." My heart is overwhelmed with praise and thanksgiving to God.

Severity of Sin
I was brought face to face with the horrors of sin. I had the tendency to take some sins lightly, but I was reminded that whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it (James 2:10). I realized anew how serious sin is, and how my sins are a direct, personal, "in-your-face" affront to God. It is only due to the patience of God that I did not get sent to hell immediately upon my first sin as a toddler. Now, it is the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross for me that keeps me from the wrath of God. I sing with Philip Bliss, "Hallelujah! What a Saviour!"

Greatness of Grace
What is abundantly available tends to be taken for granted. I was dismayed when writing this that I had done just that with God's grace. Thousands of people all over the world are doing all kinds of horrible painful things to themselves in futile attempts at gaining righteousness. Those endeavours are useless. They do not even begin to touch the suffering Christ endured when He took the wrath of God on His body.

His is the efficacious sacrifice. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). I recall with tears what Horatio Spafford wrote in It is Well with my Soul (1873):

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Repentance is Required
As I studied the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a fear gripped me that I was more like the former than the latter. At the back of my mind I thought, "Had I not given up an affluent lifestyle to come to seminary? Am I not gifted above many others in Christ's church?" Alas, I am no different from the Pharisee!

I realised that the longer one is a Christian, the more likely one is to become less penitent. Oh, that the mercy of God may keep me in poverty of spirit and constant mourning; that I may, like the tax collector, stand afar off, be too ashamed to even lift my eyes, pound my breast, and pray, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"

Word of Warning
I read several sources on true versus false repentance, and I realized how easy it is for me to mistake the two, both in myself and in others I seek to help. To take just one example, whenever I sin and suffer greatly in terms of its temporal consequences, I come to God repentant, but expecting ready forgiveness just because I had already suffered much for my sins.

My confidence was neither in God's faithfulness or mercy, nor on His impeccably just nature (since my sins are punished on Christ's body, there is no further justice to be executed). Instead, I rested wrongly in the "comfort" that I had already suffered.

This is nothing more than a kind of involuntary penance, and not short of all its error and evil. I must be watchful in prayer and alert in my thoughts to this dangerous mentality. What washes my sins away and restores fellowship with God? “Nothing but the blood of Jesus!”

Summons to Stewardship
Finally, I am very aware that I am learning these truths not merely for personal edification. I am being equipped for work which God is calling me to do. These truths have enlightened my mind, and I earnestly desire to glorify God by helping those struggling with different nuances of penance doctrine, whether they be Christians or unbelievers.

I know that I am presently ill-equipped to counsel others biblically, and I renewed my resolve to be faithful and diligent in seminary training. I desire not just to put into practice the training I receive, but also to equip others with the precious Word entrusted to me for the Church's sake.

Tan Soon Yong

- Soon Yong is an associate member of The 'Fisherman of Christ' Fellowship. He is currently taking a graduate seminary course at The Master's Seminary, USA.

Quote: A holy life will produce the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns; they only shine. (Dwight L. Moody)