“To confess my sins, to do penance,”
Confession is something most us have a handle on, even if we refuse to do it. But once done, there’s the issue of guilt and the penalty that remains to be paid; this is when penance becomes at issue. Without spending time on the theological debate between Catholics and Protestants regarding the necessity and definition of penance, let’s just look at what the Bible has to say on the subject. To do penance means, for a Christian or non-Christian, to be penitent both in attitude and behavior; specifically to be sorry for having done wrong and willing to at least attempt to right the wrong. Also, it is assumed that you will try your best never to do it again. This has a clear and unambiguous biblical foundation and regardless of what church you attend, or even if you don’t, few would argue its necessity.
Confession and repentance (trying not doing it again) are both part of our conversation with God, something he expects for having betrayed his selfless love for us. There is no penalty levied on us for our wrong (sinful) behavior since Christ already paid the penalty for our guilty plea; this is what is called God’s grace. So how does penance differ from confession and repentance? Penance is the penalty, that fine or loss of freedom and in some instances, a sentence of death. But what about when we are attempting to restore a relationship with someone other than God; should we expect to have to do penance before healing can be complete. In theory, no, that is if both parties were following Christ’s example of selfless love. The reality is that deep down in our heart we want payback and without it we’ll withhold complete forgiveness and hold reconciliation hostage. At other times it’s not selfishness that motivates us to withhold forgiveness; it’s the fear that if we forgive completely, it will give license to hurt us again. The problem is, that unlike with God, we can’t trust anyone unconditionally. Only with God, can we enjoy perfect peace and love. Ok, what’s the answer is penance required or not when seeking to be reconciled to my wife, my office partner or the guy next door? Is there a penalty to be paid?
Paul writes to his friend, Philemon, regarding any loss his friend may have incurred when his servant, Onesimus ran away, “So if you consider me a partner (in Christ), welcome him (Onesimus) as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I will pay it back… (Philemon 17-19).” The key here is not the price or the amount of the penalty or even if it is paid, it is the willingness to pay expecting nothing in return, nothing more than perhaps a renewed love, respect and a restored relationship.
“and to amend my life.”
The word amend implies that the offences we have done and the ones that we have endured haven’t vanished or been erased. It’s like the process of amending the U.S Constitution, what was previously written isn’t erased, but is added to. It is done to bring about a new condition or protection. This is the difference between amending and repealing that which has already been done or put in place. With regard to the forgiveness that Christ provides, through his sacrifice on the cross, our sin is covered by his blood. When we accept Christ as our Savior and Lord, our sin is washed away and we are now able to be in the presence of a perfect God; without it we would surely perish in his presence. But what about the sin we commit after our initial cleansing, is it also washed away or simply covered up?
Let me begin by saying that all sin, no matter when committed, can only be forgiven by the blood sacrifice of Christ, the Son of God; nothing we do can make amends. Let’s take a look at what Paul had to say about the subject of making amends. In his letter to the church in Rome he wrote, “For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written (in Isaiah 45:23): ‘As surely as I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God (Romans: 10-12).” So then, it is clear that our faith and commitment in Christ does not spare us the humiliation of standing in judgment.
What makes us, believers in Christ, different from those who have refused his free gift of grace, is that we have trusted in Christ to deliver us from the death penalty we deserve. Jesus describes the judgment as a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. “He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on the left. Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous (the sheep on the right) to eternal life (with the Father).” And if you think you can rest in the fact that Jesus will be there to cover for your sin, having already accepted your penalty of death, read further the Savior’s warning, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” In other words, the difference between the sheep and the goats is what they did or didn’t do.
As believer’s in Christ, as Savior and Lord, we will be found innocent but we will have to account for our actions toward one another at the judgment. We cannot erase what has already been done but we can amend our lives as we go forward; as we look forward to the day when we will be declared, not guilty.
As to our relationship with others, we can’t erase the past; we can only begin a new chapter. There is no such thing as forgive and forget, only forgive and forgive again. Reconciliation is accomplished, not by erasing what has already been done, but by amending what is already in place. This means making changes and sometimes changes we don’t wish to make; it means making sacrifices and accepting them as necessary and justified; all done for the sake of others, expecting nothing in return.
Nobody said it would be easy, just necessary. “Amen.”