Penance and Repentance
Question: What is the difference between penance and repentance?
Answer: The Lord Jesus summarized the Christian message in the following words:
The Gospel is the glad tidings of salvation to all people everywhere. Forgiveness and peace with God are offered to "all nations". To show His readiness to forgive the vilest sinners, the apostles were commanded to begin their mission in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of His murderers!
Sin can only be forgiven “in His name.” There is no other fount where sinners can go to for cleansing. As prophesied in Scripture, it was necessary for Christ to suffer and die on the cross as a sacrifice for sin. The resurrection is the Father's seal of approval on His Son's redemptive work. Christians are forgiven in His name and they have no other message to a lost world but the promise of forgiveness for Christ's sake.
Repentance and remission go together. As long as the sinner remains obstinate and without remorse, God will not forgive. Only when the sinner confesses his sin and turns to God, is he pardoned and reconciled.
Repentance is an inner change; the word actually means a change of mind. Yet this inner conversion shows itself outwardly. Genuine sorrow for offending God is often expressed in prayer and fasting. Life is transformed. The selfish becomes generous and kind; the dishonest becomes just and true in his dealings with others. These are the "fruits of repentance" that John the Baptist spoke about (Luke 3:7-14) - the result and proof of true conversion.
The good works that result from repentance are not reckoned as a punishment or a payment of the legal debt owed to God's justice. God forgives gratuitously, freely; God forgives on account of Christ’s sacrifice. Remission is in the name of Christ and not on account of anything we do. Our tears do not appease God's wrath but only the blood of Jesus. The repentant does not live a good life to merit forgiveness; he lives a clean and godly life because he is forever grateful to God's forgiving grace!
Sadly Catholic tradition distorts the biblical concept of repentance. Repentance is substituted by "doing penance" - a punishment inflicted on oneself to atone (make satisfaction) for sin.
To be fair, Catholicism also speaks of penance as an inner attitude - "that disposition of the heart in which we detest and bewail our sins because they were offensive to God." We readily concur that genuine repentance is expressed by sorrow, and such acts as prayer and fasting, and that repentance results in "fruit" - good works that grow out of a changed mind.
The big problem with the Catholic doctrine is the intended purpose of such acts: penance is performed to make satisfaction for sin, as can be verified from the following citations from official Catholic sources:
Accordingly, even though a person is genuinely contrite and having confessed his sins, he is still required to atone for sin by performing various works of penance in this world and by suffering in purgatory after death. He is not fit to enter heaven until he has made complete satisfaction.
The practical effects of the doctrine of penance are most disturbing and hurtful to the Christian religion:
Back to the Bible! May every one of us truly repents - detesting sin and turning to God, fully confident in his mercy and kindness. Let us trust completely in Christ whose blood cleanses from all sin. Let us love and do good works for no other purpose but to show our gratitude to God's goodness. Let us hope to the end for the grace - God's unmerited favour, our salvation - that is to be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
© Dr Joseph Mizzi