Thursday, October 28, 2010

Repentance vs. Penance


Ask most people to identify the distinction between repentance and penance, and you’ll most likely hear an answer that resembles an entry in the thesaurus. We live in an “I’m sorry” culture which has lost most vestiges of the concept of forgiveness. Parents teach their children to say “I’m sorry” regardless of whether or not they mean it. We have grown up with that practice thinking a simple “I’m sorry” resolves problems, restores relationships, and allows one to move on. Apologies are one step up from this practice. The term apology technically means to give a defense, and yet over time it has become another—perhaps more formal—way of saying “I’m sorry.” The reality is most apologies are a defense of one’s actions since they typically follow this format: “I apologize, but…” The response to both these expressions is often an obligatory “It’s OK” as if to excuse and minimize the wrong doing. Sometimes the perpetrator may offer some form of restitution, payment, or indebtedness (in the form of favors). These offers can be appropriately restorative or resemble a form of penance which serves only to buy the acceptance of the perpetrated.

These terms and the attitudes that often lie behind them are in contrast to the biblical model of dealing with sin and restoring relationships. It is expected that the unbelieving world would have its own standard for relationships, but it is a mark upon the Church that the biblical model has been overshadowed. What is equally discouraging is when some in the Church attempt to redefine the biblical model to accommodate theological strongholds. This has been the case in the Free Grace community where repentance has been modified to include multiple meanings with a particular de-emphasis on its relationship to sin.[1] Of course the Roman Catholic tradition in times past morphed biblical repentance into penance which, due to the influence of Catholicism, has done nothing but confuse many people as to the biblical process of repentance.

This essay will clear the air by biblically defining repentance and contrasting it with penance. It will be shown that biblical repentance is a change of action which begins with a change of heart regarding one’s sin. It is recognition of one thought or action as sin and therefore turning in mind and action from it toward God. Before focusing on repentance, it is necessary to understand penance as it is defined and practiced.


Penance can be simply defined as payment for an offense. This payment can come in the form of self-abasement or mortification, or other acts that serve as payment. The US Judicial system has adopted a form of penance when it requires some criminals to perform hours of community service. Jail is a form of punishment while community service is more a form of paying back the community. Religiously, penance grew out of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) as a method of earning forgiveness. In 1439 Counsel Florence defined penance as having three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Satisfaction is often achieved by “prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.”[2] However it is important to understand the ultimately the priest subjectively determines the appropriate deeds required for satisfaction.

Penance, along with purgatory, is a means of paying for one’s sins which highlights the RCC’s denial of the sufficiency of the work of Christ on the cross. According to the practice of the RCC, the punishment of Christ on the cross did not result in the forgiveness of sins for those who would believe. Instead, the Christian maintains a grace tank. At birth or conversion, the tank is filled with grace and forgiveness for past sins. As one moves on the road of life with its accompanying sins the grace tank needs to be refilled which is accomplished through the various sacraments of which penance is the most repeated. Purgatory is the final rest stop in which one remains until all previously unforgiven sins are paid for. Penance, then, far from being a synonym for repentance, is rather a synonym for payment.


Now that penance is properly understood, we can give attention to the biblical model of repentance. The focus of this paper is on repentance in the life of a believer and therefore one of the presuppositions is the biblical understanding of the atonement. The doctrine of the atonement teaches us that all sin, past, present, and future, were paid for in full and forgiven at the cross (Colossians 2:13). Therefore repentance in no way seeks the forgiveness of those sins by God. Rather, the purpose of repentance is reconciliation. Reconciliation is necessary because sin separates. Sin has been simply defined as a lack of conformity to the law of God.[3] Not conforming to God’s law is rejection of that law and rejecting God as the giver of that law. Repentance is then the means by which the sinning believer turns from that rejection and is united to God and his law again. But what is the substance of repentance? What does it look like?

Repentance in the Old Testament

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the most common word for repent isשׁוב (šûb). This is not a technical term for repent, but instead is a common term used over 1,000 times in the Old Testament with a variety of meanings within a limited semantic domain. Its most fundamental meaning that stretches the entire semantic domain is to change. From the qal stem to the hophal stem the meanings include: to turn back, return, repent, abandon, bring back, lead away, reverse, and restore.[4] The precise meaning, as with many Hebrew words, depends on the context.

The dedication of the temple serves as a classic example of a diversity of meanings. Near the end of his dedicatory prayer in 1 Kings 8:46-53, Solomon gives a hypothetical situation pleading for God to respond graciously if Israel acts according to the cycle of sin and repentance they have in the past. In this situation Solomon says “if they turn [שׁוב] their heart… and repent [שׁוב]” (vs. 47) and “if they repent [שׁוב] with all their mind and with all their heart” (vs. 48). The first reference has the heart as its object. The other two contextually refer back to their sin against God (there is no other possible reference). In this passage repentance is a turning away from sin which is at the same time a turning toward God. This same speech is given in 2 Chronicles 6:36-40 with the same terminology.

Psalm 78:32-34 demonstrates this dynamic by speaking of the Ephraimites who continually rebelled against God despite his pouring out of judgment. Though short-lived, verse 34 speaks of their repentance, “When he killed them, they sought him; they repented and sought him earnestly.” It is clear in this context that repentance refers to ceasing or turning away from their sin and rebellion against God and turning to seek him.

The prophet Jeremiah uses שׁוב in a double sense of both turn from sin to God and then turning again from God to sin. In Jeremiah 34 the prophet brought a word from Yahweh to King Zedekiah after they had set free the Hebrew slaves according to the law of Jubilee, but then sinfully took their slaves back. Yahweh said to them through Jeremiah, “You recently repented [שׁוב] and did what was right in my eyes… but then you turned around [שׁוב] and profaned my name…” (vs. 15-16). This text demonstrates the non-technical nature of the שׁוב as a word which in this context simply means to stop doing one thing and start doing the opposite.

One final Old Testament example will demonstrate explicitly what repentance looks like. In the days of the prophet of Ezekiel the elders of Israel had “taken idols into their hearts” (Ezekiel 14:3), yet they came to be consulted by Yahweh through Ezekiel. Yahweh responded to them in this way, “Repent [שׁוב] and turn away [שׁוב] from your idols, and turn away [שׁוב] your faces from all your abominations” (Ezekiel 14:6). A paraphrase of this might be, “Repent! What I mean by that is turn from your idols to serve me and turn from your abominations to obey my laws.”

These passages demonstrate that when שׁוב is used in the context of sinful behavior it means to turn away from sin toward obedience to Yahweh.

Repentance in the New Testament

In the Greek New Testament the verb μετανοέω (metanoeō) with its nominal cognate μετάνοια (metanoeō) are the terms translated repent or repentance. There are several contexts where the terms are used in a technical sense with no apparent reference to repentance (e.g. John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). Therefore it is necessary to focus on those texts which have a reference point to understand the biblical use of μετανοέω.[5]

In Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus “began to denounce the cities… because they did not repent [μετανοέω].” We are not told explicitly why these cities (Chorazin and Bethsaida) needed repentance, but Jesus does compare them with Tyre and Sidon who would have repented had they seen the work of Christ (v. 21). If we understood the would-be repentance of Tyre and Sidon, we can then establish what Jesus condemned Chorazin and Bethsaida for not doing. Tyre and Sidon were Gentile seaport cities that were condemned by God for their wretchedness in every area of life as well as for capturing and selling Israelites into slavery (Isaiah 23; Ezekiel 26-28; Joel 3:4; Amos 1:9-10). The judgment on these cities was on the basis of their utter sinfulness. So when Jesus says “they would have repented [μετανοέω] long ago,” he can only mean that they would have turned from their sin. Therefore the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida were being condemned by Jesus not just because they did not accept Jesus as the Son of God (though certainly that is included), but the focal point is that they did not turn from their sinfulness.

Luke 13:1-5 records a scene where Jesus was speaking and dialoging with the crowds. Some asked him about the Galileans who were killed by Pilate as they were sacrificing in the temple. The exact question is not given, but Jesus’ response tells us the question had to do with whether those Galileans died that way because they were worse sinners. Jesus responds by saying, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent [μετανοέω], you will all likewise perish” (v. 3). Repentance here points back to someone who is a sinner. There are various interpretations as to the actions to be repented of (e.g. political rebellion, sin against God, etc.), but the common thread is turning away from their sin.

Near the end of Paul’s second letter (that we have) to the Corinthians he writes, “I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented [μετανοέω] of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced” (2 Corinthians 12:21). Paul is clear that he is fearful that some have not turned away from their sin. The Corinthians have received more than enough rebuke from Paul with particular emphasis on sexual sins, and yet it is possible that some have not turned away from it.

Thus far repentance has been defined as turning away from sin and toward God. There is a danger, though, in defining it as such. It is quite possible for someone to turn away from sin without any internal change of heart and mind. The adulterer could cease the affair to conform to his wife’s demands all the while having no change in his heart. Remember that sin is a rejection of God’s law which causes one’s standard to usurp God’s standard. Therefore all sins of action are first a sin of the mind. It is, as Jesus put it, “out of the abundance of the heart [that] the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). This is why Jesus stated in Matthew 5 that lust is adultery and hate is murder. While there may be sins of ignorance, there are no unwilling sins. A person sins because it is their heart’s desire (James 1:14-15). Therefore any genuine repentance must begin in the mind.

Luke records for us a moment where Jesus gave his disciples a lesson on forgiveness. In Luke 17:3-4 Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” This simple but very difficult lesson causes the disciples to react with consternation saying, “Increase our faith!” (v. 5). Increase our faith indeed! What exactly is Jesus telling us to do? Should we constantly forgive malicious and abusive people? How do we know if the person is sincere since less than a day has passed? Is sincerity even necessary part of repentance? The context helps answer some of those questions which in turn will demonstrate that Jesus believes that repentance begins in the mind.

Some commentators bifurcate verses 1-2 and 3-4 as completely distinct sections with no unity.[6] Careful consideration shows a clear relationship between the two. The thematic focus of verses 1-2 is on the sin tempter. The thematic focus of verses 3-4 is on the sin victim. It is not necessary that the sinner be the same in both cases but in neither case is the sinner portrayed as overtly malicious. The sinner is a Christian (“little one” in verse two and “brother” in verse three) who could be described in terms of Romans 7—“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing” (Romans 7:19). Inasmuch as the sin is not indicated as malicious neither is it necessarily singular. Jesus does not specify that it is the same sin committed seven times, but rather leaves it open to one or more sins multiple times in the day. One should not conclude definitively, then, that the repeated repentance is over the same sin which would be no repentance at all. Two of the questions above have thus been answered, namely, Jesus is not speaking of a repeatedly malicious perpetrator, nor is he teaching that we should forgive false repentance. The sinner to be forgiven is a brother who sins against another multiple times in the day and realizes through rebuke or conviction that he has sinned and seeks forgiveness. Therefore repentance, according to Jesus in this scenario, is a change of mind where one recognizes and confesses one’s sin and seeks forgiveness from the offended. The validity of such repentance must be borne out in time as one progressively grows in their resistance to temptation.

One final example demonstrates how repentance begins in the mind. Acts 8:9-24 records how Simon the magician witnessed Peter and John and desired the power to bestow the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands. After offering them money for such a gift Peter responded harshly calling him to repent saying, “Repent, therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you” (v. 22). The text gives no clear malicious intent Simon had for this request, but perhaps Peter knew through the Holy Spirit what was in his heart. Whatever the case it is clear that as far as Peter was concerned the sin to be repented of was not the offer of money, but the heart’s desire behind the offer. Therefore the repentance Peter exhorted was not of the action only, but of the intention of the heart. For Simon to be truly repentant he had to change his mind with regard to his desires which immediately led to a change in behavior.


After considering the biblical concept of repentance it is clear that penance and repentance are distinct and separate concepts. Penance is an extra-biblical and contra-biblical doctrine while repentance is taught throughout Scripture. Penance obscures the atonement while repentance lives under the shadow of the cross. Penance seeks to earn forgiveness from God while repentance seeks unearned forgiveness from the offended. Penance requires contrition (feeling bad), confession, and satisfaction while repentance requires a complete change of heart, confession, resulting in change of action. Penance lessens one’s time in purgatory while repentance increases one’s sanctification.

In the final analysis true genuine repentance has occurred when a believer has changed his mind and recognized his sin. She has gone from glorifying self to glorifying God. He has replaced his standard for God’s standard. This is not merely feeling bad—which is remorse—but a deep and effective change in one’s thinking whereby one’s actions consistently demonstrate an internal change.

[1] Chris Jenkins responds to Robert Wilkin’s redefinition of repentance in “What is Repentance? Settling the Debate.” Journal of Modern Ministry 5, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 7-19.

[2] As quoted by Paul Enns. The Moody Handbook of Theology. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997): 535.

[3] Charles Hodge. Systematic Theology. Electronic edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 2:187. Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), 1254. Augustus Strong. Systematic Theology. Electronic edition. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004): 549.

[4] Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M.E.J Richardson and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Volumes 1-4 Combined in One Electronic Edition., electronic ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1999, c1994-1996), 1429-1434.

[5] Jenkins rightly points to the critical flaw in Wilkin’s method of defining μετανοέω by pointing out that Wilkin uses only classical Greek texts (non-biblical) to define the word and applies that meaning to Scripture.

[6] Darrell Bock. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Luke 9:51-24:53. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 1380. John Nolland. Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 9:21-18:34. (Dallas: Word, Inc., 2002), 837.