On the Concept of Penance – Part 1

This article is in response to someone asking about the subject. This is addressed in the series on Purgatory which may be too long for some. For the sake of brevity, this article series will take a simpler approach and will contain extracts from that series.


As usual, the concept is not that complicated. It is only made complicated by over-simplifications, deliberately or otherwise.


1.1 Definition


It is necessary to provide a definition or a description, else the discussion will go in circles. In the broadest sense, penance can be defined as the following:

Temporal remission of sin.

Or, alternatively:

Temporal price or punishment due to sin.

It should be noted that:

  • “temporal” is that which is related to “time”¾that is, this lifetime¾so penance is paying the temporal price due to sin.

  • the temporal is by nature finite, not to be confused for nor exclude the infinite.

  • penance is not to be confused for repentance which is “being sorry for and regretting one’s actions”, although repentance has penitential value.

  • penance is not to be confused for forgiveness.


This article series will attempt to explain and discuss the above. Part 1 will deliberately avoid the Scriptural approach. In Part 2 and Part 3, a few Scriptural passages are examined.


1.2 The Need for Christ


God exists and must be infinitely good; that is, He has infinite good attributes to an infinitely perfect degree, which includes being just, merciful etc.

Justice can be simply described as “rewarding good and punishing evil”. And in order to administer justice properly, everything must be accounted for proportionally. It’s not justice when, for example, a judge ignores evidence or attributes more or less value to the evidence than is appropriate.


Given the above, how does the infinitely good God respond to sin?


God’s mercy and justice must both be satisfied without excluding or compromising each other. If salvation is to be possible, then there must be forgiveness and reparation. Justice demands that the price be paid somehow.


The price for any wrongdoing should be proportional to the offending act and its consequences. This includes the offense suffered by the offended party. Therefore, if God is infinitely good, then it follows that any wrongdoing causes God infinite offense and this demands an infinite price.


Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, 13th-century icon, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt
Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, 13th-century icon, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt

Human beings could suffer Hell eternally but this is something a merciful God is trying to avoid. If humanity is to be saved, then a substitutional sacrifice is required. A valid substitutional sacrifice must ultimately be in comparable form and innocent, capable of satisfying the infinite price for all of humanity’s sins.


Since humanity is the offending party and the object to be saved, the substitutional sacrifice must be in human form. But human beings are no longer innocent and by nature are finite, so no one can pay it as a substitution. (And if, hypothetically, human beings were infinite by grace, said grace was lost as a consequence of the Fall anyway.)


Only a being who is of infinite capability and innocent can pay the infinite price. In other words, only God can pay it. But God is obviously not human. If God pays it, then He must pay it in human form.


1.3 Temporal Justice


Since Christ is the only one who can pay the infinite price due to sin by His infinite merits, He is necessary and indispensable for Salvation.


This is why Christians say things like “All sin deserves Hell” and the Church teaches that Salvation is only possible through Christ.


The above does not exclude our actions having temporal merit (if good) or demerit (if bad). There is the distinction between the infinite merits of Christ and the temporal (finite) merits of man. In case one is confused as to why the infinite simply does not override the finite, think of it in qualitative rather than quantitative terms—that is, value (type) and not amount.


The argument that “penance is not biblical” is blatantly false, one could literally find support for penance starting from Genesis to Revelations. It is also beside the point since Scripture does not state that everything has to be written in there, and temporal justice is commonsense anyway. To deny it is at best dismissive and delusional.


To illustrate with a crude example: Someone drives into your car and it is their fault. Do you expect them to pay for damages? If you are the offending party, do you think God wants you to pay for damages (assuming you are able)? Don’t you think it has to be accounted for whether you do or don’t?


It is rather convenient that some deny the concept of penance but will demand compensation when they suffer loss. The word “hypocrisy” comes to mind.


Any temporal demerit needs to be compensated by temporal merits. To elaborate in economic terms: If one did 10 “units” of bad, then ones needs forgiveness and do 10 “units” of good to restore the balance. These 10 units of good can be one or a combination of the following (in no particular order and the list is not exhaustive):

  • rectifying the issues those 10 units of bad specifically caused (that is, “fixing what you broke” which is sometimes impossible)

  • trying to avoid the same sin in the future

  • trying to be a good person in general

  • doing good deeds (for example, “helping the old lady cross the road”)

  • bearing with whatever moral and physical evils one may face in life

  • attending church

  • prayer (hence the term “prayer and penance”)

  • fasting (not necessarily from food)

  • reading and contemplating religious matters with piety.


Jesus Christ Enthroned, 14th-century icon, Mt Athos
Jesus Christ Enthroned, 14th-century icon, Mt Athos

Whether one does so voluntarily or it is imposed, any form of suffering has potential penitential value. If one is making an effort doing or putting up with something, then it is by definition “suffering”. Of course, this depends also on one’s intent. If one obstinately curses God whilst doing it, in effect rejecting it, then it’s not worth anything.


To paraphrase what many saints have said: “If people knew the value of suffering, they would search for it.”


Penance does not exclude the need for Christ since only He can pay the infinite price due to sin. In order to be saved, it is not merely to accept Christ and it doesn’t matter what you do this life, nor is it earn your way to Heaven on your own without Christ. Both are necessary for different reasons.



Part 2 and Part 3 will briefly examine a few passages from Scripture.

 

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