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Is Penance in the Catholic Church a Biblical Concept?

  • Dr. Michael A. Milton Author
  • 2020 4 Feb
  • COMMENTS
Is Penance in the Catholic Church a Biblical Concept?

The Sacrament of Penance (or Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession) is one of the seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholic Church doctrine states that the Sacrament of Penance was instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ through his disciples in order to bring about spiritual healing for the wounded soul. While we sometimes think of penance as a directed or voluntary act to demonstrate one’s true repentance (with practical, spiritual or devotional works), that is only one part within the larger context of this Roman Catholic sacrament.

A Roman Catholic definition of the Sacrament of Penance includes the following statement from Edward J. Hanna of Catholic Answers:

“Penance is a supernatural moral virtue whereby the sinner is disposed to hatred of his sin as an offense against God and to a firm purpose of amendment and satisfaction. The principal act in the exercise of this virtue is the detestation of sin, not of sin in general nor of that which others commit, but of one’s own sin.”

The Bible speaks plenty about repentance. But the question here is not about repenting, but how that is accomplished. While Roman Catholic teaching on the Sacrament of Penance includes the passages that speak to the need for turning from sin and turning to Christ, the singular issue at hand is the nature of the Church. Thus, the singular biblical reference supporting the Sacrament of Penance is this statement of Jesus:

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld’” (John 20:22-23).

Thus, penance is both a regulating means of discipleship and a judicial act of the Church to guard against unbelief. There are significant differences between the Roman Catholic understanding of penance and the Protestant understanding of confession of sin and assurance of pardon.

The Practice of Penance

The Sacrament of Penance begins with confession. The confession should ordinarily be made to a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. Such a confession must be followed by contrition or a genuine demonstrated sorrow for one’s sin. Defenders of the Roman Magisterium will maintain that the priestly word of forgiveness is intended to reflect God’s forgiveness to the individual through the merits of Jesus Christ. Wherever one comes down on the matter, the priest plays an indispensable part in what happens next. The penitential step that follows requires the priest to judge whether an “act of penance” (a visible sign) would be helpful to seal contrition (an invisible reality). 

When the priest believes that such a visible sign will improve the invisible necessity, then the priest would direct the penitent to perform an act designed to prove repentance. The “act of penance” could include devotional practices such as Ave Maria (“Hail Mary”), or an act of charity, e.g., giving time to assist the needy. The goal of such acts of penance is to encourage practical reconciliation with God (and others, and self). Positional reconciliation with God is accomplished through repentance and a transfer of trust to Jesus Christ. But differences remain.

While the praxis of penance involves those particulars, the concept of penance requires an understanding of the Roman Catholic view of sinActual sins that are perpetrated by an individual are a result of another category of sin: original sin. Original sin is the spiritual state of the unregenerate humanity inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. Original sin is part of the fallen condition of human beings and extends throughout even the cosmos. The doctrine of original sin and actual sin is identical in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It is at this point that the Roman Catholic Church differentiates the sins into those that are “venial,” and those that are “mortal.”

Venial sins, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, are those violations of God’s moral law that break fellowship with God, as well as us and others. Mortal sins are those most heinous sins against God and his church that effectually demonstrate an unconverted soul. As to whether one “loses salvation” at the point of the mortal sin, as some suggest, or whether the mortal sin is a de facto sign of unbelief, remains a debate within the Roman Catholic Church. That being said, mortal sins require the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Essentially, as a Protestant might think of it, if a mortal sin demonstrates that one is truly an unbeliever, not nearly “falling down” but “falling away,” and the Sacrament of Penance would be the equivalent of praying an evangelical “prayer of salvation.” It is comparable to “walking the aisle“ to dedicate or rededicate one’s self to Christ, or going to a pastor for confession and counseling.

While entire doctoral dissertations have been written on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, we will have to limit our discussion to this brief overview. I do think it would be helpful to look at each part of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation and provide a Protestant or Reformed response. For those Roman Catholic readers (and Anglo-Catholic, Old Catholic), we make the distinction as a matter of clarification; seeking to model fairness in noting honest doctrinal differences, but also underscoring our common commitments and similarities.

Let’s look at the stone that blocks the pathway of unity between Roman Catholic Christians and Protestant believers.


Photo credit: ©Getty Images/palidachan

Continuity and Discontinuity of Penance in Churches

For Christians in the Protestant and Reformed faith – it is to be recalled that the word “reformed” is a historical description to designate spiritual and doctrinal reform within the one Holy Catholic Church, not apart from it — penance has had somewhat of an ambiguous past.

Continuity: Some Protestants Practice a Formal Penance

Several large Christian communities within the global Protestant Christian faith continue to practice penance in some form, though not calling the act a “sacrament.” The Reformed faith recognizes two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For example, the Anglican Communions has parishes (of the St. Augustine Prayer Book) which continue to practice a form of penance and reconciliation. The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) published a renewed Book of Common Prayer in 2019. A penitential service for forgiveness of sins appears within a section on healing. This most recent edition of the Prayer Book provides an explanation for penance in relation to healing:

Because physical, emotional, and spiritual healing are often interrelated, it is particularly appropriate to encourage confession, reconciliation, and forgiveness in the context of ministry to the sick. The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent discussion. They teach that private Absolution should be retained in the churches, (Augsburg Confession, XI.1), because Jesus commissioned His disciples to forgive sins: ‘If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld’ (John 20:23). We do not coerce individuals to go to their pastor for Confession and Absolution, nor do we require complete enumeration of all sins. However, we do encourage people to go to their pastor for private absolution, because it is ‘the very voice of the Gospel’ and ‘shows consciences sure and firm comfort’ (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XI 2).

Discontinuity: No Protestant Church Recognizes Human Priestly Mediation between God and Man

A significant practical and doctrinal distinctive is the priestly or human intercessory actions of the Roman Catholic Church. Any hint of adding representatives to the one Mediator stands in sharp contrast to the more relational activity of the Anglican priest or Reformed pastor in a Protestant or Reformed church. In Protestantism, Christian clergy are not recognized as possessing special authority or power inherent in their office, but rather a spiritual direction arising from the churches’ recognition of the pastor’s vocation and, most essentially, the pastor’s relationship with the parishioner. 

So, in summary, the principle of going to a member of the Christian clergy to confess one’s sin is not heterodox for a Protestant believer. Indeed, some communities encourage the practice. The difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants over Penance turns on the essential nature of the priesthood and works of supererogation (human works or contributions that supposedly add merit to the believer’s account before God). Article XIV of the Book of Common Prayer (2019) states that “supererogation cannot be taught without arrogance and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they not only render unto God as much as they are bound to, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.”

The classification of sins is also an example of continuity and discontinuity between Reformed and Roman Catholic churches.

The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church clearly defines classes of sins. However, the confessional documents of Protestantism—the 39 Articles of Religion, the Westminster Confession of Faith with Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Heidelberg Confession, as well as Lutheran and other continental documents of confession — do not necessarily distinguish between sins by calling them either venial or mortal. Nevertheless, the Church recognizes that “there is a sin unto death” (1 John 5:16). When one examines the violation of God’s law, one immediately understands that the severity of one violation of God’s law may have a greater consequence than another.

For instants, a failure to observe the Sabbath day will bring about a judicial response within one’s own body. An entire nation can suffer from ignoring God’s first and seventh commandments. Usually, the judgment that one incurs upon oneself for such sin takes time. Indeed, the judgment may even be unseen. However, the taking of another human life through premeditated murder is a grievous violation of God’s law which will bring swift and immediate judgment. While one may speak accurately of all sins being equally intolerable and heinous before the throne of God, the Lord does, in fact, speak of some sins as abominations.

So, the Bible does inarguably classify the severity of and the potential disruption to self and society of certain sins. Again, we recognize that there are differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in speaking of sin, but the entire Christian church acknowledges that original sin is the poison spring from which emanates and flows all sorts of spiritual calamity. Likewise, the worldwide Christian church recognizes that some sins carry greater destructive force than others (e.g., murder, sexual sin).

Continuity: The Need for Reconciliation with God and Others Is as Important to Protestants as it Is to Roman Catholics

While priestly intercession and sacerdotal doctrine are absent in Protestant and Evangelical church life, the expression of reconciliation is a strong current in evangelical theology. All true Christian churches advocate that humankind is separated from Almighty God and must be reconciled to Him. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is that what God has required, God has provided. God has required atonement for sin through the mediator of a New Covenant, his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. When one turns to God and confesses his sin, with necessary contrition, the Bible teaches us that one’s sin is positionally imputed to the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary. God requires a holy life and has provided that life through Jesus. The removal of one and the imputation of another is the heart of the Gospel. When one believes in Christ, there is a great transfer: Christ receives our sin and we receive His life.

Discontinuity: The Act of Penance Itself

When a priest directs a parishioner to perform an act of penance to demonstrate his or her faithfulness to God, there may be an element of quid pro quo involved. That may be less of a doctrinal distinctive than a practical and unavoidable consequence. Discipline in Reformed churches is always restorative, not punitive. Thus, while a Reformed minister might develop a plan for “penance” to help the sinner find new life and return to the life of the Church, that minister would never “order” an act of penance apart from faith. Protestant confessions of faith uniformly understand that the Bible teaches that the “power” of clergy (clerks of the Church, i.e., ministers, pastors, presbyters, priests in Anglicanism) is spiritual only. Thus, any plan of “penance” would be an act of spiritual guidance. Usually, this guidance includes devotional acts such as reading the Bible or prayer. Such acts might also include forgiving another by writing a letter. All of the Christian church agrees that Jesus Christ taught that there should be fruit to our lives. “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16.) Once more, we see that the differences often arise in practices, rituals, and traditions, rather than in substance. 

What Does This Mean for Us?

So to summarize there is continuity and discontinuity between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches regarding reconciliation and penance. The Word of God is clear: humankind is born with original sin. From that sin nature flows actual sin. We need a savior. The Bible teaches us that there is only one mediator between God and man and that is the man Christ Jesus. We also should confess our sins to one another. Pastors have been instituted by God to equip the saints for the work of ministry. So, the minister is undoubtedly engaged in supporting the peace and purity of the Church. However, the minister’s authority is in the Word of God. When the evangelical minister encourages an act of faith in keeping with a changed life, and with practically demonstrating that Jesus Christ is one’s Lord, such guidance is spiritual direction aimed at restoration, growth, and discipleship, never punishment.

Some of us can understand why Martin Luther was hesitant to remove confession and penance. In fact, he did not remove it. Luther and many of the Reformers continued reconciliation and penance, not as a sacrament, but as a way to express our commitment to the confession of sins and walking in faith with changed lives. “Go and sin more” and “show fruits of righteousness” remains as valid today as when our precious Savior spoke the words. And on that point, we all can agree.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Photoboyko


Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary) Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.




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