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On the Concept of Penance – Part 3

Part 3 continues to briefly examine passages from Scripture. It is assumed that one has read Part 1 and Part 2.

3.1 Saved by Grace “Alone”

One of the arguments against penance is the protestant stance of “saved by grace alone”. The basis of this is from Ephesians 2:8–10:

For by grace you are saved through faith: and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God. Not of works, that no man may glory. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus in good works, which God hath prepared that we should walk in them.

What that means exactly depends on who one asks, but the argument can be phrased as the following: Salvation is a “gift of God” and “not of works”, therefore works are unnecessary or that works are not counted.

The word “alone” is not used in the text. Some argue that it is implied. How can such a modifier be implied? Consider the following two statements.

1: Your house is nice.

2: Your house alone is nice.

The two meanings are very different.

One also needs to consider what “saved” means.

A: The act of saving.

B: To be saved.

The meaning of A is very different from B.

If A, then it is the “narrower” definition, referring only to God’s initiative and action in saving us. That is obviously a grace as we cannot save ourselves, so in that sense we are “saved by grace alone”. But “alone” is then redundant since the narrower definition is already being adopted.

If B, then it is the “wider” definition, referring to “saved” as an end state; that is, a person in Heaven. By this definition, everything that contributes to that end is a factor, and this includes our choices and actions, so it is not “saved by grace alone”. The only way to deny this is to conveniently deny free will and the value of our choices and actions. And some people do!

It is probably for this reason that “alone” is not in the text. Given the way the above passage reads, St Paul is adopting the first definition since he emphasizes that our salvation is “not of works”.

It is true that free will does not save one’s soul. All the good works in the world does not save one’s soul, but insufficiency does not imply unnecessary. One of the passages conveniently ignored by some protestants is from James 2 which emphasizes the importance of works, that “faith without works is dead”.

3.2 Justified by Faith “Alone”

Another argument against penance is the protestant stance of “justified by faith alone”. The basis of this is from Romans 3:28:

For we account a man to be justified by faith, without the works of the law.

When one does something with good reason, then the good reason is justification. If one does something with bad reasoning, then there is no good reason and therefore no justification. If one is then to be justified, then they better do something good to make up for it.

Thus, the argument can be phrased as the following: Since we are justified by faith in Christ, nothing else needs to be done in terms of our Salvation.

Similar to the previous argument, the word “alone” is not found in the text and similar reasoning can be applied in its analysis.

Also, St Paul interestingly points out that Abraham was justified by faith (Romans 4). However, some conveniently ignore the following from James 2:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, offering up Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou, that faith did co-operate with his works; and by works faith was made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled, saying: Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him to justice, and he was called the friend of God. Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only?

Either St Paul and St James the Lesser contradict each other, or we can make the commonsensical distinction between the infinite merits of Christ and the finite merits of man, that St Paul is referring to the former and St James is referring to the latter since faith and works “co-operate”.

One can argue that the text is ambiguous without the word “alone” but at least it isn’t pretending to be otherwise. By using the word “alone”, it is pretending to be more specific without actually being more specific, it’s just being more misleading.

Sacrifice of Abraham, 16th-century icon, Mt Athos
Sacrifice of Abraham, 16th-century icon, Mt Athos

3.3 “Parable of the Talents”

God wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2) and we cannot do it on our own, so He provides everyone sufficient grace (2 Corinthians 12) for the ultimate end of salvation.

That being the case does not exclude the necessity of the individual to exercise free will.

The “Parable of the Talents” recorded in Matthew 25 highlights this point. It tells of a man who, before leaving for his journey, summoned his servants and “to one he gave five talents, and to another two, and to another one, to every one according to his proper ability…”

Parable of the Talents, 1594–1596 (ink & paint on paper), Lukas of Cyprus
Parable of the Talents, 1594–1596 (ink & paint on paper), Lukas of Cyprus

The parable does not end there. It is not a case of the man giving every servant what they need and then everything is all good. Upon his return, he demanded an account. The one who received five talents, gained another five and was rewarded. The one who received two gained another two and was rewarded. The one who received one buried it and it was held against him.

Everyone is given sufficient grace but it is necessary to correspond. God is just, He gives each “according to his proper ability”, judges each according their circumstances (Luke 12) and to the extent one corresponds to sufficient grace, one is rewarded with more graces.

In other words, everything we do or don’t do has to be accounted for and somehow makes a difference. It is true our temporal and finite merits on their own are insufficient for salvation, but insufficiency does not imply unnecessary.

There is another parable referred to as the “Parable of the Ten Pounds” recorded in Luke 19 that is conceptually similar. Both parables refute “saved by grace alone” and “justified by faith alone” if the meaning of “alone” is taken to exclude the necessity of temporal merit.

3.4 Conclusion

God is just (Deuteronomy 32) and justice demands that everything be accounted for. Temporal justice is commonsense and does not contradict the need for Christ. This is consistent to Scripture which states “follow justly after that which is just” (Deuteronomy 16), “pursue justice” (1 Timothy 6), “eye for eye” (Exodus 21, Deuteronomy 19), and numerous references to “prayer”, “fasting” and “sackcloth and ashes”.

Christ Himself said, “Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence [prison] till thou repay the last farthing.” (Matthew 5)

Stated more positively, He also said to “lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6) as well as “Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to render to every man according to his works.” (Revelations 22)

If there is no such thing as temporal merit and demerit, He would not say any of the above. If anything, we should be encouraged that God sees and counts our efforts (sufferings).

Personally, I can sympathize with the view that penance is distasteful. After all, who wants to suffer? No one ever said life is easy and I like to complain as much as anyone, but the stubborn protestant snobs who cherry-pick Bible verses in a poor attempt to justify their indefensible nonsense are unhelpful at best, if not maliciously manipulative. Yes, life is not easy, complain if it makes one feel better but get on with it.

The series ends for now, partly because the intent is to examine the topic conceptually and as briefly as possible. There are more complex implications. Future articles may be published depending on questions, feedback and the time available.


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