Thursday, April 29, 2010

Penance vs. Grace

Repentance is a word that has picked up baggage over the centuries and today many Christians use the word without ever asking whether they even know what it means. The common idea of repentance today actually has its root in Roman Catholic penance rather than in the New Testament. Penance is the idea that one must show God they are sufficiently sorry for their sins by confessing, feeling remorse, making restitution and doing good deeds in order to enable God to forgive them. People have always naturally felt the need for penance because we have such a difficult time believing that God can forgive and accept us freely as ungodly people through Christ alone. We think we must, to some measure, make ourselves acceptable to God. This idea of penance is simply another branch of works-based righteousness that opposes the only true righteousness - the righteousness of God that comes to us by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21-24).

The Bible teaches us that God justifies the ungodly through faith in Christ. "Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted unto righteousness." (Rom. 4:4-5) It is the man who does not work, but rather believes that God will justify him through Christ in his presently unacceptable state, who is justified. This is because it is not on account of our own worthiness but on account of the death of Jesus Christ that God is enabled to justify sinners. We place our trust in Christ alone and not in ourselves for our justification. As long as someone is trying to work (which means anything, including remorse, restitution, etc.) to enable God to forgive them, they are not trusting that what Jesus Christ did for them on the cross is enough to enable God to forgive them.

The Bible also show us how thousands were saved simply by believing the message of this gospel of the grace of Christ (ex. Acts 4:4, 13:43). There isn't always great sorrow for sin that accompanies their faith. For some people, believing in Christ can be a deeply emotional experience, but for others it is not, nor is it ever said that it has to be. Remorse and restitution for sin are not bad things, but they are no grounds for justification, and they become bad things when men seek to be justified by them. It is simple faith in what Jesus has done that justifies, and God is completely enabled to legally justify any ungodly person who trusts in Christ because Jesus died on the cross for that person's sins. This is the point of Romans 3:26: "That God might be just, and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus." According to this verse and many others like it, if you believe in Jesus then God is just in justifying you. If you think you have to first contribute a measure of righteousness or offer some token of sincerity or emotion before God can be enabled to forgive, then you are placing the enabling of God to be just in forgiving on yourself rather than on Christ. Christ's death has done it all! He alone has accomplished that which was necessary in order for God to forgive all who believe! Do you believe this? Do you believe that what Jesus did is enough? If so, simply trust in what He did for you and the Bible declares you are justified. God cannot lie. It would be absurd to think that a person who is trusting in the sacrifice of Christ would hear from God when he dies: "I'm sorry, I know my Word said that whoever believes would be justified, but you weren't sufficiently worthy. You should not have thought that the sacrifice of my Son was enough. You should not have trusted so fully, so exclusively in Him." That is not only absurd, but God would be a liar, and that can never be since His glory would be lost forever!

The gospel message is the good news of the grace of God. It is the message that God has accomplished something on the behalf of a hopelessly unworthy humanity that enables reconciliation. It is not a message that man must accomplish something for God but that God has accomplished something for man, and now all man must do is believe in what God has done. Believing is not a work nor a worthy deed. It is trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. It is trusting that what He alone did on the cross reconciles us to God. All the righteousness that we as sinners need is provided for fully by Jesus Christ. "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Cor. 5:21) Everything God requires is fully provided for in Him. This is the Biblical gospel.

And why did God do this for us? Because He loves us! "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) God's love for us is not dependent upon our penance nor our tears nor our emotional responses, nor any ounce of worthiness that we might try and offer to Him. "For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:6-8) God has already demonstrated how much He loves us by sending His Son to die for us in our totally sinful state. God, who knew our past, present and future, chose to do this for us because He loves us. He does not demonstrate His love for us by forgiving us of our sins after we are sufficiently penitent. He has already demonstrated His love for us even before we knew Him at all. God's love is not something that we are trying to obtain, but something we discover has been there for us all along. Forgiveness is not something we must earn, but something we receive from the God who is already willing to forgive. Christianity is not about trying to convince God of our worthiness so that He will forgive us, but about believing the good news that God is forgiving toward us because of Christ Jesus, though we are unworthy. By faith we simply receive the forgiveness of sins that is being offered to us through Christ. That's what the gospel is all about! "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (1 John 4:10)

And that is all that repentance is. It is changing your mind. It is changing your mind from thinking that you must try to establish your own righteousness in whatever degree or form before God, to believing the good news that God is gracious towards sinners through His Son, Jesus Christ.

If the Holy Spirit causes what I have shared with you to resonate in your heart, then just believe the good news with simple faith. You don't need to work up an emotional experience. If that comes, great. If it doesn't, that is great too, because the power of salvation is in the finished work of Jesus Christ and not in our fluctuating, ongoing experiences. May you see that Jesus Christ alone is all that you need.

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


Unknown said...

Hey Eli. I really appreciate your thoughts here (rather, the truth you explain!). Question: doesn't repentance also involve a change of mind? I suppose that goes hand-in-hand with believing on Jesus for salvation, since only those who truly believe they are an enemy of God (a changing of the mind) will look to Jesus for propitiation, reconciliation, etc. So maybe one cannot look to Jesus for salvation without first realizing their damned state as a sinner.

But there are a number of references to repentance in the New Testament and many of them seem to involve a turn, a change of mind.

Acts 8:22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.

I'd love to hear your thoughts here.

Unknown said...

I know repentance does not mean to stop doing bad things and start doing good things. But repentance seems to largely entail changing your mind, going from "I'm going to live my life the way I want, and I'll do what makes me feel good" to "God does not like what I'm doing. I'm not a good person and the things I do are bad. Wow, I'm bad!"

That change of heart (change of mind or whatever you call it) leads to a change in action. But the changing of the action is not repentance itself, but the consequence of repentance.

This verse gives evidence for this definition of repentance:
Acts 26:20 ...that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance

Eli said...

Hi Chris, great question.

I don't know if you recall the response I gave to this same question on Acts 8:22 some time ago on Timothy Ministry. Here is what I wrote:


When we look at the case of Simon in Acts 8, we must note what the text is actually saying. I do not believe Simon was a Christian, even after he was baptized. This is evident not only by his behavior but by Peter's words to him in verses 20-23. Simon's heart was not right with God. However, the text specifically identifies his sin as trying to purchase the gift of God with money (v.20). He actually thought that a spiritual gift from heaven could be purchased with commodities on earth! This has traditionally been called the sin of 'Simony'. Peter rebukes him for this wicked thought, and states that he has no part nor lot in this matter. Anyone who thinks that God's gifts can be bought or received any way other than grace has no part with God. God will not accept a token - it would undermine His very purpose to be gracious! For then it would cease to be a GIFT.

"Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee." (v.22) What is "this thy wickedness"? It is specific. Peter is not telling Simon to abandon all known sin and proceed to keep the commandments of God. The apostle is telling Simon to repent of the wicked thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money. His behavior betrayed the fact that his heart was not right with God, that he was not saved, and that he needed to seek God for forgiveness - this particular sin included. That he needed forgiveness in an overall general sense, Peter reveals by saying: "I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity." (v.23)

This passage no more teaches that men must stop all their sins to be saved than Genesis 1:26 teaches that there are many gods. It is actually a warning against anyone who would attempt to barter with God for spiritual gifts... and ironically, this applies to the similar scenario of offering to God one's moral commodities to earn the gift of eternal life. You cannot purchase the forgiveness of sins! That is the wicked thought that men must repent of! For it is by the blood of Jesus Christ alone that He has purchased for us eternal redemption, and we dare not add to it or take away from what He alone has already done. "Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us." (Heb. 9:12)


Your absolutely right in saying that repentance and the fruit of repentance are two different things. Our lives will indeed reflect the faith that we have.

But let me add this one more thing. The KIND of fruit that we bear will reflect the KIND of faith that we have, or the OBJECT of the faith that we have. If the object of our faith is that we believe we must keep the commandments to be saved, then we will bear a certain kind of fruit - bad fruit: hypocrisy, judgmentalism, sin, etc. But if the object of our faith is that we believe we are saved by grace alone through Jesus Christ, then the kind of fruit that we will bear will be good: peace, mercy, love, joy, etc. Get the picture?


Unknown said...

I get that. The main reason I commented is because you say:

The Scriptures also show us how thousands were saved by simply believing the message of the gospel of the grace of Christ (ex. Acts 4:4, 13:43, etc). There isn't always great sorrow for sin that accompanies their faith.

I'm not going to put a certain "level" of sorrow one must have, but if one isn't sorry (if their view of their sin hasn't changed from 'not a big deal' to 'this offends a holy God and I should get sent to Hell'), then one will not genuinely look to God for salvation. You cannot have faith without your view of your sin being changed.

In your earlier post, you said "The apostle is telling Simon to repent of the wicked thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money." It seems that repentance not only involves looking to God for salvation, but also a true acknowledgement of guilt and an understanding that our sin is evil (whether or not we enjoy it). And this change of mind is what leads to looking to God for salvation.

Your blog seems to assume that the theoretical person you speak of understands and accepts they are a sinner. That understanding and acceptance seems to to, itself, be a part of repentance.

And I'm not combating what you said (I agree with your words). But I wanted to clarify that you assume that this person already knows they need to be saved (because they're guilty).

What do you think?

If you'd like, I'll provide Biblical evidence.

Eli said...

Hi Chris,

I sent a reply about a week ago and just realized it wasn't posted!

Yes, your absolutely right, and I am taking for granted a person understands their sin and that Christ died for their sins. It's all packed into believing, because one cannot trust in Christ without understanding why He died.

Thanks for the clarification.

Anonymous said...

Eli, do I have to turn from my sins to be saved?

Sean Scott said...

Great post brother Eli. There's so much false emphisis place on weeping and wailing over sin, in certain circles (like revival circles), as the necessary evidence of true repentance. Saving faith can look different in those who believe. The Ethiopian Eunic is a great example. His example of saving faith does not fit the false idea of repentace that most people promote and say "must" happen. Yet his simple child like faith was accepted by the Lord.

Again brother, it's really refreshing to read a post on true repentance.

IN Christ,


Micah and Katie said...

Hey Eli,

I really appreciated this post and I think it has great application for Christians with their heads bowed. It's time to realize God loves us, stop punching ourselves in the head and lift our heads! I love this truth and can't get enough of it : )

Anonymous said...

Hi eli you mentioned that God does not take tokens,in repentance ie Simon with the money and you mentioned that you cant exchange morals for repentance too so would that apply to other objects as well

Anonymous said...

Hi Eli

I was looking up some stuff on repentance online and came across your blog. I really liked what you have to say and agree with it 100 percent. Certainly taught me some things I never knew. You mentioned the fact that Simon offered the money to God as redemption and said that would also apply to any moral thing that anyone wanted to offer as well as a token of redemption and God doesn't accept tokens of redemption because Christ already shed his blood for us. I guess anything else that was offered would fall in that category too would it?