Thursday, March 17, 2016

Penance Is Not the Same as the Mortification of Sin - One Punishes, the Other Purifies

I gladly proclaimed in my previous post that God does not demand penance after you sin. It is simply not true that “you should feel bad about yourself for a suitable and respectable period of time before you are permitted to be hopeful and encouraged again.” Put another way, you do not have to punish yourself in order to gain God’s acceptance again. He is not waiting for you to work off a debt. God is ready to embrace you again right now. The only thing you must bring is a heart that is sorrowful over sin and repentant.

But we have to be careful that we understand what that means, or we could easily throw out a great deal of Christian teaching and literature that emphasizes the mortification of sin or mourning over sin, thinking that stuff is all the same as penance. What I have described as 'penance' is not how everyone would use the term, but it is the most common perception today. In contrast, the mortification of sin or the pursuit of holiness is not self-punishment, but a quest to purge the heart of sinful desires. Quite a few Christians have written powerfully over the years of the need to prick our own consciences and rend our hearts over the wrong desires within us and the sins we are prone to commit. Richard Sibbes, in his immensely comforting work The Bruised Reed, nonetheless says:
There is a dangerous slighting of the work of humiliation, some alleging this for a pretence for their casual dealing with their own hearts, that Christ will not break the bruised reed; but such must know that every sudden terror and short grief is not that which makes us bruised reeds… but a working our hearts to such a grief as will make sin more odious unto us than punishment, until we offer a ‘holy violence’ against it. (Sibbes, Chapter 2)

By ‘humiliation’ Sibbes does not mean ‘embarrassment’ or putting ourselves to shame. He means the work of humbling ourselves; the act of putting off all of our pride and our desire to look good, and instead being very vulnerable and honest before God about our faults. (This is, in fact, how 'penance' has been understood by some saints in Christian tradition, but it is so often interpreted as I have described it so far that I think it is clearer to draw the distinction between penance as self-punishment and mortification of sin as purification.) One of the things that transformed Martin Luther's understanding of Christianity from a religion demanding we work off our sins under the fear of punishment into embracing the Gospel of justification by faith alone was learning from Erasmus "that the Greek word metanoeite meant ‘to repent’ not ‘to do penance’” – for example, in Matthew 4:17. "[T]his insight was reflected at the first of his 95 Theses." (See Timothy George, Erasmus Before the Storm.) 
How is this different than punishing ourselves over sin? The difference is easy to miss, but is crucial for your faith and your joy. First, the difference is the order in which things happen: the common understanding of penance is that after you turn away to sin, you are expected to do something humbling and uncomfortable for a suitable time before you are fully accepted by God again and all is forgiven; but with repentance, God accepts you immediately when you come to him seeking forgiveness, and He restores you completely. Then you can continue the work of humbling your heart and learning to hate the sin. But you are not expected to put yourself through a ritual of shame and self-punishment first before God will receive you back. He receives you back first.
The second difference is in how God helps you during the process of restoration. With repentance and the free gift of forgiveness made possible by Jesus taking your place on the cross, God embraces you as soon as you turn to Him in regret and then He helps you do the work of searching and purifying your heart. You get restored first, and do the work together. The idea of penance, however, is generally that you have to prove your repentance by working your way back into God’s favor. Instead, the Gospel ensures you don’t face your sins alone. God never stands far off, as if to say, “You got yourself into this mess, now get yourself out.” God is your Savior. All He wants you to do when you get yourself into a mess is to cry out to Him and plead for His mercy, because He loves to be merciful to you and show His goodness. In Psalm 50 the Lord tells Israel that all their burnt offerings don't please Him nearly as much as this:
"Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Psalm 50:14-15).

Third, penance implies that if you make yourself feel bad enough, or punish yourself enough, God will forgive you. This is a gross perversion of the Gospel. God does not forgive you because you have beat yourself up enough to convince Him you’ve paid for your mistake. God forgives you because Christ already took the punishment for your mistake. There is nothing more you can add to that. Your efforts to “work off” the guilt of your sin are pointless, and worse, they are prideful or distrustful. Either you doubt that Christ’s death really paid for all your sins, and therefore think you have to do more to pay them off (as if the cross wasn’t enough), or you have a prideful desire to be independent, which makes you resist the idea that you can’t add anything to Christ’s sacrifice. You want to pay some of the debt yourself so you feel like you earned your way and did your share.
The Gospel doesn’t leave you any room for this: it proclaims that Christ’s death once for all was a total satisfaction of all judgment and punishment for all our sins. You can’t wear it out, no matter how many times you fail and sin. But you also have to accept it as a free gift, one you didn't do anything to earn. You can’t pay your own way. The only way to receive forgiveness is to be completely dependent on God to give you what you don’t deserve, all because He is that glorious and generous.
You can't make yourself more accepted by God through acts of penance than you are already accepted through Christ. Instead, you can embrace God's gift of forgiveness and then sincerely pursue the humble grief over sin and prayers to be healed that will lead to mortifying (killing) the desire for sin, replacing it with a desire for holiness and deeper intimacy with God. There is no shame to fear in this pursuit of holiness, because Sibbes also wrote: "if we have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us, there can be no danger in thorough dealing. It is better to go bruised to heaven than sound to hell."

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