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On the Concept of Penance – Part 4

This article examines some common objections to penance or temporal punishment. The content was originally published in “Purgatory – Part 1” but has been edited and re-published here for convenience. It assumes one has read the definition of penance found in Part 1 of this series or the Purgatory series, and this article can be considered a supplement to both series.

Example 1: Suppose you agreed with an employer to work and get paid by the hour. You agreed it would be 10 hours of work and indeed you ended up doing 10 hours of work. But then you only received 8 hours’ pay. Would you complain about the missing 2 hours’ pay?

Example 2: You smoke three packs a day for decades and then you get cancer.

It would be surprising if anyone answered in the negative to Example 1 and dismissed Example 2 as nothing.

Objection 1: The likes of Example 1 are merely things we do.

Reply A: The implied argument is “It’s merely what we do, so it doesn’t count.” It is temporal—that is, during this lifetime—so it is “what we do”. And it doesn’t count because…?
Reply B: Granted, this is an example of positive law. Positive law is something that we formulate and do, so it is arbitrary to the extent that it is our doing. It is “posited”. Our pathetic attempt at a justice system is one example but it is not limited to that. It can be your mother giving you funny looks when you don’t do as taught. In any case, whether it is legislation or unspoken norms is irrelevant. The specific application is another matter but the fundamental principles on which it is based come from our inherent sense of justice (even if it is imperfect) and we have a “voice” (conscience) telling us to do what is right. Ultimately, said sense of justice and conscience can only come from God. If what we do truly doesn’t count, then why should there be any of that?
Reply C: People can say what we do doesn’t count except I have yet to meet anyone who acts consistent to that. At least it counts if and when it bothers them, so they are either delusional and/or idiots and/or hypocrites.

Objection 2: Regarding Example 2, that’s just how nature works.

Reply: Yes, that is an example of natural law. It is as if the laws of nature impose something on us. Perhaps the creator of the laws of nature is trying to tell us something. How is putting up with that accounted for? (Natural law is more than the physical laws of nature but that is another discussion.) Whether it is positive law or natural law, our efforts when doing something (including putting up with something) must be accounted for somehow. If it does not count, then why do anything?

Objection 3: We should do what is right just because it’s the principle.

Reply: By citing a principle, it means there is a moral standard and therefore obligation. It implies that one cares whether those obligations are met or not. Otherwise, it’s comparable to “It counts but then it sorta doesn’t.”

Objection 4: It counts during this lifetime but then it doesn’t matter once you die.

Reply A: That is comparable to “It counts when it suits me and doesn’t count when it doesn’t suit me.” How convenient.
Reply B: This can also be comparable to the sentiment of “It’s nice if you do it, but it doesn’t matter in the end.” This is similar to the Objection 5 below.
Reply C: The argument is another way of saying that it’s acceptable to hold things against each other in this lifetime but that God ultimately does not hold anything against us. If that’s the case, then how dare any of us hold anything against each other when God ultimately doesn’t?

Objection 5: God the Father judges us through His Son Jesus Christ.

Reply A: The statement is vague and can be considered true but that doesn’t make it an argument since it does not actually address the issue of temporal merit and demerit.
Reply B: If the implied argument is “As long as we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then what we do doesn’t matter”, then it presupposes that one has accepted Jesus Christ as the Savior. It begs the question. If God the Father judges us through His Son Jesus Christ, then how does the Son judge us? People can pretend to run away from justice, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense.

Objection 6: As long as one does their best, God will make up for the rest.

Reply: If by “make up for the rest” means helping us out, then this statement is generally true. I think that God often does that even when we don’t do our best because He is kind. But that is not a valid argument against temporal merit and demerit. It actually confirms it. “As long as one does X” presupposes a standard or expectation. Even if God helps us out, whether one satisfies X or not has to be accounted for.

Objection 7: Christ is the only one who can pay the infinite price due to sin by His infinite merits, so He is necessary and indispensable for Salvation. No matter how much temporal (finite) merit one accumulates by doing good things, it does not gain one Heaven.

Reply A: Temporal merit on its own cannot attain forgiveness and Salvation, but that does not mean there is no such thing. An object’s insufficiency does not imply its non-existence. Suppose one wants to make bread and only has flour. One obviously cannot make bread with merely flour but it is inaccurate to state that one has nothing.
Reply B: Also, an object’s insufficiency does not imply it is unnecessary. Flour alone cannot make bread but it is nonsensical to state or imply that flour is therefore unnecessary in breadmaking.
Reply C: To state that an object is insufficient presupposes that the object counts. One can only state one doesn’t have enough money in their wallet or purse after they have counted it.
Furthermore: The more flour one has, the more bread one can potentially make if the other necessary ingredients can be obtained. In other words, the more temporal merit one earns, the more potential benefit in the end.

Objection 8: One cannot do anything without the grace of God. Also, all good things, including our abilities, must ultimately come from God. (James 1:17)

Reply: The implied argument is that if good things only come from God, then any temporal merit we earn doesn’t count. It is true one cannot do anything without the grace of God and that one should not claim merit to what is provided, but providence does not exclude merit. By that reasoning, children at school should never receive any marks. All marks should go to their parents because they pay for the school fees, textbooks, stationery, uniforms and public transport tickets and/or drive them to and from school. We don’t do that because it is utter nonsense.

Objection 9: As written in Hosea 6:6, God “desired mercy, and not sacrifice: and the knowledge of God more than holocausts” so sacrifice or penance is not necessary.

Reply: The need for “sacrifice”, whether specifically or more broadly, is stated many times in Scripture. It is apparent that the above is not a statement abolishing sacrifice since the clarification “the knowledge of God more than holocausts” is added. In other words, it emphasizes the importance of intent (subjective) over the act itself (objective). In terms of personal merit and demerit, the intent is more important but both matter. This does not do away with penance since Christ warns us that every little thing has be accounted for (Matthew 5:26), but it is true that one’s relationship with God is more important. One should reflect and do heir best given their state of life and circumstances, keeping in mind God’s justice and mercy. It is admittedly difficult to find this balance, to be conscientious but not obsessive to the point of despair, to focus on God first but without negligently forgetting our sins.

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