An Ash Wednesday Meditation: “Incline our Hearts, O Lord…”

In Psalm 119:33-40, the Psalmist recognizes his complete dependency upon God to do for him what he cannot do for himself. This is nowhere more clearly stated than in v. 36, “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to covetousness.”

There are two things gleaned from this verse to consider on this Ash Wednesday, the day when we publicly declare our frailty and sin, as well as the hope of forgiveness that we have in the cross of Jesus Christ:

1)  In this verse there is a clear recognition of our sinful condition and corruption; that we are not naturally inclined to the things of God. David asks God to incline or bend his heart, which is not inclined to the law of God and not to leave him to his natural bent, which is to covetousness. (cf. Ps 141:4)

There are things towards which we are naturally inclined, but they are not the things of God. Paul’s depiction of the human condition in Romans 3 is hauntingly accurate; not only is there “no one righteous, no not one,” but there is “no one who understands or seeks after God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, no not one.” The Scripture is filled with examples of those who followed the natural inclinations of their hearts to covetousness at the expense of love and obedience to God:

  • Balaam whose desire for earthly gain caused him to rebel against the very strong warnings of God.
  • Ahab, whose desire for power blinded him to prophetic warnings and drove him to murderously possess what wasn’t his.
  • David, whose covetousness took the form of lust and brought sexual dysfunction into his family.
  • Achan, whose covetousness led him to steal and bring death to his family.
  • Judas, whose greed led him to betray our Lord Jesus and bring overwhelming guilt to himself.
  • Gehazi, whose greed led him to misuse his authority, lie to Elisha, and inherit Naaman’s leprosy.

This is why we believe (must believe) that God is sovereign in salvation and it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that anyone can overcome the inclinations of their own corrupt hearts and come to faith.

Jesus said, “This is why I told you that no one can come unto me me unless my Father draw him.” (John 6); “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 16); “Unless a man is born again, he cannot perceive the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3) Also, in Acts 16 we read, “And the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying.” (Acts 16)

And so, the Psalmist acknowledges the natural corruption and crookedness of his own heart and asks that he be bent in a God-ward direction. “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to covetousness.”  I think David put this request in another way when in deep repentance he cries out in Ps 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit in me.”

2) The second thing I glean from Ps 119:36 is that we need to be vigilant and pay close attention to the condition of our souls, even as believers. Paul warned the Ephesian Elders to “pay attention to yourselves and to your flock” and told Timothy to “pay attention to yourself and to your teaching.”

The reason is, once again, that even as believers (those for whom Christ died) we are still engaged in a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit; between the law of sin in our members and the law of our mind; between the things towards which we are naturally inclined and the things of God. St Augustine and Martin Luther both described our natural inclination as incurvatus in se, to be curved in upon ourselves. We are naturally drawn to those things which are a means to the end of satisfying and glorifying ourselves. SELF- the greatest enemy of the follower of Christ which is why we are told to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ. SELF- is the greatest enemy of the church; a failure to consider others above ourselves. SELF- the greatest enemy of relationships, especially marriage where I have learned that the opposite of love is not HATE, it is SELF!

There are a thousand forms of covetousness which flow out of our self-preoccupation and which dis-incline us to love and obey God:

“You cannot love God and mammon… you cannot serve two masters.” (Matt 6) “But the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mk 4) “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Tim 6) “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me…” (2 Tim 4)

Summary:

And so, we must come to the place along with the Psalmist and daily ask God to bend our hearts to His testimonies so we might listen, turn our eyes away from worthless things, and to love our God with our whole heart. This is the way of repentance, not just for today, but every day it should be our constant prayer; that our hearts be bent towards God, towards love and good works, and away from the natural inclination to love ourselves. If we are not vigilant in this repentance, then the weeds will grow and will begin to choke out the very life of God from our souls and make us unfruitful.

I will lift up my hands into your commandments which I have loved. Open my eyes and I shall see, incline my heart and I shall desire, order my steps and I shall walk in the way of your commandments.

O Lord, be my God, and let there be no other before you. Grant me to worship you and serve you according to your commandments: with truth in my spirit, with reverence in my body, with the blessing upon my lips – both in private and in public…

Help me to overcome evil with good, to be free from the love of money, and to be content with what I have. Help me to speak the truth in love, to be desirous not to lust, or to walk after the lusts of my flesh.

O Lord, help me: To bruise the serpent’s head. To consider the end of my days. To cut off occasions to sin…To make a covenant with my eyes. To bring my body into subjection. To give myself to prayer. To come to repentance. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 (A Prayer by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, 1555-1628)

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Repent and Sin No More (3)…

Did you know that this phrase is not in the Bible? Jesus told the man healed in John 5 to “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” and he told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus never told anyone to “repent and sin no more.”

However, Jesus did use the word repent with a far different word in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the gospel.” Not just repent, but repent and believe. Both are in the present imperative, active, 2nd person plural. In other words, it was a command to do these things continuously: “You all out there, continue to repent and continue to believe the gospel!”

Just as we cannot imagine a follower of Jesus without faith, so we should not imagine the same follower without the continuing character of repentance. We should not just call ourselves Believers but also Repenters, for we will not stop repenting until we stop sinning. Unfortunately, this continual character of repentance is sadly lacking in our churches, in our Christian colleges and graduate schools, in our interpersonal relationships and in our marriages, where we readily admit to our brokenness but when it comes to repentance, we act as if other people need to repent, but not us.

I would like to clarify what repentance is because I think many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. So over the next few blogs let me unpack the biblical concept of repentance by describing it in 3 different ways:

  • Repentance is not penance [see blog from two weeks ago]
  • Repentance is without regret (remorse) [see last week’s blog]
  • Repentance is without excuse

**********

Repentance is without Excuse

It has been my observation that many people who think they are evidencing true repentance are really not because their penitence is accompanied by self-defense. We can often see this as we work to reconcile marriages or fractured relationships in churches/Christian organizations; even in racial reconciliation; we are sorry for something we have done, but our apology is often muted by some form of justification. I once counseled a man who was broken because his wife had left him. He confessed, “It is all my fault. I have tried to control her with my anger and manipulate her by my silence, and I have failed her as a godly husband.”

I was thrilled by what he said and heard the faint rumblings of a repentant heart coming from a very proud and quirky man. However, he then said, “But I wish she would respect me more and listen to what I tell her to do.” So I smacked him! Just kidding, but I sure felt like it because his repentance turned into excuse-making.

In 1 Samuel 15 we see a very clear example of defensiveness and self-justification hidden behind what looked like repentance. King Saul was commanded by God to wipe out the Amalekites as part of God’s judgment upon the historical wickedness of that people. Instead, Saul disobeyed by sparing the king, some of the best livestock, and the money. Samuel confronted Saul about his disobedience, and Saul started in with his excuse—“It wasn’t really me but my soldiers who took the spoil for themselves and were going to sacrifice the best to the Lord.”

Let’s go back to the guy who had tried to excuse his behavior with his wife in my office. I told him about Saul. I also told him that true repentance would be demonstrated by going to his wife and getting down on his knees, coming clean about his angry manipulative behavior, telling her that he had failed her and God as a husband, and asking her for forgiveness even though he did not deserve it. I told him one more thing; “when you get off your knees, do not expect your wife to suddenly trust you and take you back into her life. You have hurt her deeply and she will be watching you carefully to see if you’ve really changed or whether this is just part of your manipulative bag of tricks.” He never came back to see me, and he never regained his marriage. Repentance without excuse is the life-breath of the Christian. I think it was Gary Thomas in his book Sacred Marriage who said that “couples don’t fall out of love as much as they fall out of repentance.”

Maybe marriage is not the issue for you but where is repentance most needed in your life? Do you find yourself doing penance by trying to do enough good to alleviate your guilt… but you keep sinning? Or perhaps you’re just so filled with remorse over something, but you keep doing it and you are so filled with shame that you; you are closing yourself off from God’s mercy and questioning how He could ever love a scum bag like you. Or perhaps you recognize your own sin in a relational matter, but you honestly believe that someone else’s sin has caused the real problem…so you are waiting for them to admit it and repent before reconciliation can take place.

“The kingdom of God is near. It is imperative that you be repenting and be believing the gospel.” Acknowledge your sin before God; let your sorrow drive you to the cross where God’s mercy and forgiveness flow freely because of what Christ has done for you. Don’t trust your self-fixes; repent and lean into the Holy Spirit so He can purify you mind and change your behavior. And if you fall again tomorrow; do it all again—keep repenting and keep believing the Gospel!

Once again, let me recommend an excellent book on this subject by Richard Owen Roberts, “Repentance: the First Word of the Gospel.” (Crossway Books, 2001)

Repent and Sin No More (2)…

 

Did you know that this phrase is not in the Bible? Jesus told the man healed in John 5 to “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” and he told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus never told anyone to “repent and sin no more.”

However, Jesus did use the word repent with a far different word in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the gospel.” Not just repent, but repent and believe. Both are in the present imperative, active, 2nd person plural. In other words, it was a command to do these things continuously: “You all out there, continue to repent and continue to believe the gospel!”

Just as we cannot imagine a follower of Jesus without faith, so we should not imagine the same follower without the continuing character of repentance. We should not just call ourselves Believers but also Repenters, for we will not stop repenting until we stop sinning. Unfortunately, this continual character of repentance is sadly lacking in our churches, in our Christian colleges and graduate schools, in our interpersonal relationships and in our marriages, where we readily admit to our brokenness but when it comes to repentance, we act as if other people need to repent, but not us.

I would like to clarify what repentance is because I think many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. So over the next few blogs let me unpack the biblical concept of repentance by describing it in 3 different ways:

  • Repentance is not penance [see last week’s blog]
  • Repentance is without regret (remorse)
  • Repentance is without excuse

************

Second, Repentance Is Without Regret

Good Friday is the proper context for examining another misunderstanding of repentance. The Gospel of Matthew sets in juxtaposition the dastardly deeds of two of Jesus’ intimates. It tells of Peter’s three-time denial of Christ that drove him out to weep bitterly. (Matthew 26:75) It also tells of the betrayal by Judas who actually did penance by his confession, contrition, and making amends by returning the money he received for betraying innocent blood. Then “he departed, and he went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5) So, if you did not know the end of the story, who would you say seemed more repentant?

We often make the mistake of equating repentance with deep sorrow and remorse. While there is a place for sorrow, the danger is that a person may be filled with a self-centered regret, but not be truly repentant. We have examples of those in public office or church ministry who have been “caught” and responded with great sorrow and tears. We ourselves know of the remorse and regret experienced when we see the messes we have made. I have had some friends and parishioners who have been so ashamed that they have taken their own lives. Surely, both Peter and Judas were terribly sorry for what they did. On the surface, Judas looked even more repentant, but was he?

In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul recognized that he had sent a harsh letter to the church which caused them great sorrow. Yet, at the same time, he did not regret it because it produced in them a godly sorrow. “For godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly sorrow produces death.” (v. 10) So what is the difference between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow?

CH Spurgeon’s message (1881) entitled “Sorrow and Sorrow”: Some persons seem to think that mere sorrow of mind in reference to sin is repentance; but it is not. Read the text…”Godly sorrow worketh repentance.” Therefore, it is not itself repentance. It is an agent employed in producing repentance, but it is not itself repentance.

He goes on to give examples of how there are many people who get caught in a sin and are filled with sorrow and despair—not because of their sin, but because they got caught and are in a heap of trouble. In fact, they are probably just as fond of the sin they committed as they ever were. And they quite possibly continue to desire what the world offers, but will wait until the consequences of getting caught blow over. This kind of sorrow is not repentance nor does it lead to repentance.

Spurgeon continued: Next, do not fall into the other mistake, and imagine that there can be such a thing as repentance without sorrow for sin, for there can never be such a thing… [Repentance] is an entire and total change of mind, a turning of the mind right round, so that it hates what once it loved and loves what once it hated… If there is no such sorrow as that in your heart, one of the things necessary to a genuine repentance is absent.

Once again, true sorrow is not a self-centered sorrow which produces regret or remorse because of the painful consequences of sin and which yields the fruit of our  discouragement and despair. Rather, it is a God-centered sorrow that produces in us a heart-felt grief over our sin and always drives us to God and not away from Him. It is always laced with hope and leads us to a decisive about-face in our attitude and behavior; it yields the fruit of righteousness.

These two kinds of sorrows are exemplified, on the one hand, Esau who could not find repentance though he sought it with tears (Heb. 12:17) and, on the other hand, by David who acknowledged his guilt before God and cried, “Against You and You alone have I sinned…” (Ps 51:12).

Thus if you are in despair over your sin, is it driving you away from Christ? Has your penitence turned into penance and you are striving to earn back God’s favor? If so, you are not experiencing godly sorrow nor will you find true repentance. Come back to the cross and believe the gospel. Come clean with the Lord, and lean into the same same unchanging grace and forgiveness that you appropriated when you first believed. Don’t rely on your own fixes, but trust Him by His indwelling Spirit to change your heart and your behavior. Be a Peter and not a Judas; a David, not an Esau.

 

Repent and Sin No More!

 

Did you know that this phrase is not in the Bible? Jesus told the man healed in John 5 to “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” and he told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus never told anyone to “repent and sin no more.”

However, Jesus did use the word repent with a far different word in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the gospel.” Not just repent, but repent and believe. Both are in the present imperative, active, 2nd person plural. In other words, it was a command to do these things continuously: “You all out there, continue to repent and continue to believe the gospel!”

Just as we cannot imagine a follower of Jesus without faith, so we should not imagine the same follower without the continuing character of repentance. We should not just call ourselves Believers but also Repenters, for we will not stop repenting until we stop sinning. Unfortunately, this continual character of repentance is sadly lacking in our churches, in our Christian colleges and graduate schools, in our interpersonal relationships and in our marriages, where we readily admit to our brokenness but when it comes to repentance, we act as if other people need to repent, but not us.

I would like to clarify what repentance is because I think many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. So over the next few blogs let me unpack the biblical concept of repentance by describing it in 3 different ways:

  • Repentance is not penance
  • Repentance is without regret (remorse)
  • Repentance is without excuse

 

First, Repentance is not Penance

Roman Catholic Theology defines Penance as a sacrament consisting of contrition, confession, and the carrying out of certain works which render satisfaction for the sin committed since baptism. Certainly repentance and inner sorrow is a part of this, but penance is an act performed that makes amends or satisfaction for sin.

Not to be out done, we “Prots” have our own version of penance. Though we confess to being saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, we are still driven to act in ways that seek to curry favor with God. Many co-opt the Lenten season with acts of self-denial and self-abnegation to demonstrate contrition to God by the sincerity of outward actions, while failing to comprehend that the real issue is the inner condition of the heart. It becomes more of a “flesh formation” rather than a spiritual formation.

Not only does penance divert our attention away from the real need of our souls, but it can also anesthetize our consciences so we gain momentary relief from our guilt. In so doing we actually set up a vicious cycle for ourselves: do good things to make up for our bad things; then after being good for a while we think we deserve a little bad, which we then try to make up for by being good and… so on and so forth. Penance makes us like little gerbils on a never-ending wheel of trying to deal with guilt.

The prophet Isaiah held out the free grace and mercy of God for his people when he cried, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for things that are not bread, and your labor on things that do not satisfy” (55:1, 2). And in the closing chapter of the New Testament, the Spirit and the Church cry out, “Come, and let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires to take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).

If we can do nothing to achieve our salvation, why do we think our actions (now that we are God’s children) are in any way meritorious or sanctifying? Why do we measure God’s love for us by how much we do for him rather than by what he has done for us? Penance may drive us to a bed of nails, but true repentance will always drive us back to the cross! Repent and believe the gospel of God’s love and mercy which continues to flow for us because of Christ. The same gospel that saves also sanctifies.

More on this next blog… let me recommend an excellent book on this subject by Richard Owen Roberts, “Repentance: the First Word of the Gospel.” (Crossway Books, 2001)

Kung Fu Repentance…

Fighting-Kung-Fu-catsRepentance is not one of the most exciting topics in the world and perhaps you are not getting into my series on the subject. That’s ok; you’re busy and are looking for more uplifting and encouraging reading. However, be aware that you may be suffering from a form of Kung Fu Repentance and not even know it.

It has been my observation that many people who think they are evidencing true repentance are really not because their penitence is accompanied by self-defense. We can often see this in our marriages; we are sorry for something we have done, but our apology is accompanied by some form of justification. I remember counseling a man who was broken because his wife had left him. I can still hear him say, “It is all my fault. I have tried to control her with my anger and manipulate her by my silence, and I have failed her as a godly husband.”

I was thrilled by what he said and heard the faint rumblings of a repentant heart coming from a very proud and quirky man. However, then he said, “But I wish she would respect me more and listen to what I tell her to do.” I smacked him upside the head! Just kidding, but I sure felt like it because he just Kung Fu’d his repentance right out of my office.

In 1 Samuel 15 we see a very clear example of defensiveness and self-justification hidden behind what looked like repentance. King Saul was commanded by God to wipe out the Amalekites as part of God’s judgment upon the sinfulness of that people. Instead, Saul disobeyed by sparing the king, some of the best livestock, and the money. He did this for his own self-aggrandizement because he had already built a monument to himself (1 Samuel 15:12) and in his mind he was the most important star in the universe. What a change from a man who was at one point “little in his own eyes” and began his career by building an altar for God! (14:35)

Samuel confronted Saul about his disobedience, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears”? Saul had started in with his Kung Fu—“I saved the best animals to give to the Lord.” That is what I call “Religious Kung Fu” where we justify our sinful behavior by spiritualizing it away. Then Saul used the oldest excuse in existence; “It wasn’t really me but my soldiers who took the spoil for themselves.” That one I call the “Adam-style Kung Fu” named after the first guy who blamed his sin on his wife. I wonder if all of this blah blah blah sounded like bleating to Samuel?

After Samuel told Saul that he had been rejected by God as king because of his repeated disobedience, Saul fell on his knees (good posture for repentance) and cried out “I have sinned!” Now we’re getting somewhere… however, notice what followed; “but honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me that I may bow before the Lord your God.” (15:30) Here we see just plain old Kung Fu; nothing fancy, just pure selfishness which had sunk to the level of charade. Saul was done, and lived the rest of his life in depression with momentary flashes of regret.

Let’s go back to the guy who had tried to Kung Fu me in my office. I told him about Saul. I also told him that true repentance would be demonstrated by going to his wife and getting down on his knees, coming clean with the viciousness of his angry manipulative behavior, telling her that he had failed her and God as a husband, and asking her for forgiveness even though he did not deserve it. I told him one more thing; “when you get off your knees, do not expect your wife to suddenly trust you and take you back into her life. You have hurt her deeply and she will be watching you carefully to see if you’ve really changed or whether this is just part of your manipulative bag of tricks.” He never came back to see me, and he Kung Fu’d his marriage.

Repentance without excuse is the life-breath of the Christian. I think it was Gary Thomas in his book Sacred Marriage who said that “couples don’t fall out of love as much as they fall out of repentance.” Maybe the way to reinforce this lesson is to give someone permission to speak into your life and say to you, “what’s that bleating sound I hear?”

A Constant Weeper Be…

crying_729-420x0Good Friday is the proper context for examining another misunderstanding of repentance. The Gospel of Matthew sets in juxtaposition the dastardly deeds of two of Jesus’ intimates. It tells of Peter’s denial he ever knew Jesus—not once but three times, and in the end Peter “went out and wept bitterly.” (Matthew 26:75) It also tells of the betrayal by Judas and his recantation by giving back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and confessing to them that he had betrayed innocent blood. Then “he departed, and he went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5) So, if you did not know the end of the story, who would you say seemed more repentant?

We often make the mistake of equating repentance with sorrow. While there is a place for sorrow, the danger is that a person may be filled with remorse but not be truly repentant. We have had examples of preachers and presidents caught in the web of infidelity and adultery. They have stood before us and confessed their sin with tears. We have also known others in public office or church ministry who have been “caught” and responded with great sorrow. We ourselves know of the remorse and regret we experience when we see the messes we have made. Some of our friends have been filled with such remorse that they have taken their own lives. Surely, both Peter and Judas were terribly sorry for what they did. On the surface, Judas looked even more repentant, but was he?

In 2 Corinthians 7 Paul regretted sending a harsh letter to the church which caused them great sorrow. Yet, at the same time, he did not regret it because it produced a godly sorrow. What is the difference between sorrow and sorrow? “For godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly sorrow produces death.” (v. 10)

CH Spurgeon preached a message in 1881 entitled “Sorrow and Sorrow” and this is part of what he said: Some persons seem to think that mere sorrow of mind in reference to sin is repentance; but it is not. Read the text…”Godly sorrow worketh repentance.” Therefore, it is not itself repentance. It is an agent employed in producing repentance, but it is not itself repentance. There is, in the world, a great deal of sorrow on account of sin which is certainly not repentance, and never leads to it. Some transgressors are sorry for sin for a time; they are convicted of guilt, with a transitory conviction, which soon passes away. Many are sorry for sin because of its temporal consequences; and many more because of its eternal consequences… They are as fond of sin as ever they were, but they sorrow because they see that it is bringing them down to the gulf of perdition. Now, that kind of sorrow is not repentance. A moth may burn its wings in the candle, and then, full of pain, fly back to the flame. There is no repentance in the moth, though there is pain; and so, there is no repentance in some men, though there is in them a measure of sorrow on account of their sin. Do not, therefore, make a mistake in this matter, and think that sorrow for sin is, or even necessarily leads to, repentance.

Spurgeon continues: Next, do not fall into the other mistake, and imagine that there can be such a thing as repentance without sorrow for sin, for there can never be such a thing… It is an entire and total change of mind, a turning of the mind right round, so that it hates what once it loved and loves what once it hated… Here is a man who says, “I repent.” But are you really sorry that you sinned? “No,” he replies. Then, my dear sir, you cannot have truly repented; for a man, who has not got even so far as repentance, is often sorry for having done wrong. When a man is convinced that he has transgressed against God he ought to be sorry; and if you tell me that there can be such a thing as Spiritual repentance, and yet no sorrow for having broken the law of God, I tell you that you do not know what you are talking about… If there is no such sorrow as that in your heart, one of the things necessary to a genuine repentance is absent.

Judas and Peter were both filled with sorrow on that first Maundy Thursday/ Good Friday. The worldly sorrow of one led to death; the godly sorrow of the other led to repentance and life. There have been many who have known the way of tears and even the mutilation of the flesh, but have never come near to true repentance because it was more about them than it was about their own sin. Like Esau, they have sought repentance with tears but could not find it (Hebrews 12:17).

“Lord, let me weep for nought but sin, And after none but thee; And then I would – oh, that I might! A constant weeper be.” (Spurgeon)

Penance or Repentance?

penanceLent is a season of repentance; yet many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. There are many watered-down versions of repentance out there, which are not only cheap alternatives but tend to divert us from experiencing the joy of the real thing. One of those versions is the concept of “penance.”

Many of you recognize penance from your religious background as a sacrament consisting of contrition, confession, and the carrying out of certain works which render satisfaction for the sin committed since baptism. The Douay-Rheims Roman Catholic translation of the Bible actually replaces the word “repentance” with “penance” thus giving universal credence to this imitation of repentance.

However, we “Prots” also have our own version of penance. Though we are saved by grace, we are still driven to act in such ways that curry favor with God. Many co-opt the Lenten season with self-denial and acts of self-abnegation. Somehow our human nature feels better when we think we are impressing God by the sincerity of our outward actions, failing to comprehend that the real issue is the inner condition of our hearts. Not only does penance divert our attention away from the real need of our souls, but penance also anesthetizes our consciences so we gain momentary relief from our guilt.

Somehow we feel that our penance balances the scales and tips them in our favor, and yet, it is nothing more than a vicious cycle. We do good things to make up for our bad things; then after being good for a while we think we deserve a little bad, which we then try and make up for by being good and… so on and so forth. Penance makes us like little gerbils on a never-ending wheel of trying to please God.

The prophet Isaiah held out the free grace and mercy of God for his people when he cried, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for things that are not bread, and your labor on things that do not satisfy” (55:1, 2). And in the closing chapter of the New Testament, the Spirit and the Church cry out, “Come, and let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires to take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).

If we can do nothing to achieve our salvation, why do we think our actions (now that we are God’s children) are in any way meritorious or sanctifying? Why do we measure God’s love for us by how much we do for him rather than by what he has done for us? Penance may drive us to a bed of nails or to stand barefoot in the snow for three days, like Henry IV did to show how sorry he was to Pope Gregory VII in 1077 AD. However, repentance will always drive us back to the cross and to God’s love and mercy which continues to flow for us. The same gospel that saves me also sanctifies me.

Upon that cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess:
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.
(Elizabeth Clephane, 1830-1869)

Penance keeps us tied into our past through fear of God’s justice. Repentance frees us up to hope for a new future because of God’s love. May God drive us back to the cross!

But Dave, if repentance does not lead me to tears and showing God how sorry I am, is it really repentance? Good question! We’ll talk next week- on Good Friday.