By Daniel H. King
A very real and necessary aspect of New Testament Christianity is that Bible doctrine known as repentance. Yet it has been misunderstood and misrepresented by many religious people to the point that the scriptural definition and intention cannot be identified for all the “stuff” that, at first purposed to explain and facilitate it, in the end has obscured and perverted the concept.
Pious fraud. There is no facet of theological thought that better fits this particular description any more suitably than that doctrine of the Roman church known as penance. The idea has a long history and fits well into the veritable maze of false theories and twisted notions that Catholic canon law has built up for herself and her millions of adherents in the long ages of apostasy and departure from God that has been her lot.
The idea started very innocently in the days of the persecution of the early church. Many Christians in the ancient church during those troubled times either disavowed their faith publicly and explicitly or else eluded their duty of profession by dishonest means. At that point the question arose among the faithful as to how they were to be treated. No universal answer appears to have been formulated as to how to treat the so-called “lapsed” until the third century – the fiery days of the Decian and Valerian persecutions when their numbers decidedly increased.
By this time the power of the monarchial bishopric had grown to the point that between 251 and 325 a complete system of penitential rules was elaborated by the bishops. This public Penance was looked upon as a `second Baptism’ and was extended to several sins (at first), especially idolatry, adultery, and murder, and had reference to the scandal given to the church and the necessity of its taking part in the readmission. After the sinner, voluntarily or under threat of excommunication, had asked the Bishop for Penance, he was enrolled in the order of the penitents, excluded from communion, and committed to a severe course of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. At the end of a period of time (determined by the gravity of the transgression) the sinner was reconciled and rejoined the congregation of the faithful. Two things were forbidden him for life: he could not be a soldier and he could not marry. This could only be undergone once in a lifetime. On account of its terrible regimen, most postponed it until the eve of death. For obvious reasons this system was relaxed from the fourth century on.
A new approach was introduced in the eleventh century by Anglo-Saxon monks in their “Penitential Books.” Confession of the details of the sin were private and absolution was granted at the end of the arduous period of Penance. This private penance received its charter at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which required every Catholic to confess his sins in Penance at least once a year. Furthermore, it came to be described as a “sacrament” of the church.
Under this requirement, all grave sins were to be confessed to the priest, who was to pronounce forgiveness and impose a fitting satisfaction. According to the contemporary theologians that priestly absolution remitted the guilt and the eternal punishment of sin, but there still remained a temporal punishment which must be worked off through these satisfactions. For any satisfaction not made in this life, the suffering of Purgatory was conjured up by the thinkers. And, for those who could afford to pay for it, the suffering of Purgatory could be avoided by means of the program of Indulgences which were auctioned off by Catholic salesmen. Moreover the “Treasury of Merit” was at the heart of this practice. In every sense this is a system wherein it requires one false doctrine to support another. It all reminds me of a liar who is forced to tell half a dozen more lies in order to cover up for the first one he told!
The word Penance comes from the Latin word peons which means “punishment.” The theory behind the system of Penance is that sins must be atoned for, in part at least, by the punishment of the sinner, on the ground that it was better to endure the punishment in this world than in the next. Sometimes this punishment consisted of fasts, continence, and pilgrimages – but occasionally even floggings and imprisonment were imposed. And, I would suppose that it is improper to speak of such in the past tense. For, although today most penance consists of saying “Hail Mary’s” and “Our Father’s,” still it would seem that these practices do prevail in some places even at the present. For example, by a group known as the Penitentes in northern New Mexico (related to the Third Order of St. Francis and founded in thirteenth-century Italy) as recently as 1971, self-flagellation, carrying of heavy wooden crosses, and even bloody, simulated crucifixions have been practiced in their intense belief that penance is the most direct path to salvation.
In an article by Russell Chandler which appeared in Liberty, he quotes Lorenzo W. Brown as recalling Holy Week penance among these people in the 1920’s and 1930’s:
The most common form was flagellation with a scourge or disciplina plaited from the razor-edged fibers of the yucca plant, and the dragging of heavy wooden crosses known as maderos. These crosses were dragged from the morada to the village church and back, and to a cross set up some distance from the morada to represent Mt. Calvary where Christ was crucified (Vol. 73, No. 3, May-June, 1978, p. 23).
Brown remembers other penances: binding of cactus to the body with tightly drawn horsehair ropes, kneeling for hours on end in silent meditation or prayer on a floor strewn with fine flinty pebbles gathered from ant hills and binding heavy timbers to arms stretched out straight from the shoulders during long hours of penitential procession. Most believe that these same activities are still being carried out in privacy by the Penitentes.
The erroneous views of the Roman church on these matters, if taken to their logical conclusion, are at fault for these perverse and sadistic activities even though most Catholics would today decry this sort of thing. Several false doctrines are at the heart of the matter:
1. The doctrine that the church has the right to make laws about penance or anything else is fundamental to this doctrinal travesty. The scriptures are the authority in every respect – not the church – since they gain their authority from Christ and his apostles (Mt. 4:4, 7, 10; Rom. 10:17; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 1 Cor. 4:6). Churches, on the other hand, can be and often are influenced by human traditions rather than apostolic ones (Col. 2:8; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6-7, 14).
2. The doctrine which limits the atonement of Christ to sins which were committed before baptism is foolish and unscriptural. When John discussed the Christian life and made allusion to the reality of sins in the lives Li us all, he made it abundantly clear that Christ’s blood is sufficient to cleanse us of sin when we repent and pray and confess those wrongs (1 Jn. 1:5-10). Those are God’s only preconditions of forgiveness.
3. The doctrine which says that we must be punished for our sins flies in the face of the Bible teaching that Jesus came to “bear the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12) and the scriptural fact that “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:5-6). Catholic doctrine would have men suffer for that which Christ suffered in our place! What an unbelievable heresy!
4. The incredible theory that our suffering for our own sins will actually make some sort of atonement for them is monstrous. If man could have received remission of sins by works of righteousness, then there would have been no need for a Savior. The Bible says we are saved by God’s grace through faith in the atoning power of the blood of Jesus; not any works that we do or’ blood that we spill will atone for a single sin that we have ever sinned. Only the blood of the sinless Son of God can or ever will do that (Eph. 2:5-9; Rom. 3:21-26; 5:1-11). He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29). Acts of Penance may make satisfaction to the Catholic church but not to the God of Heaven.
5. The influence of the Latin in this whole matter as it motivated Catholic thought and brought this whole horrid situation about must not be underestimated. The Latin version rendered the New Testament terms for “repentance” as poenitentiam agere or “exercise penitence.” But “penitence” etymologically signified pain, grief, distress, etc. rather than a change of thought and purpose as the original did. Thus, the Catholic theologians, influenced by the Latin mistranslation and the consequent misconception that emerged, have consistently and constantly represented grief over sin rather than abandonment of sin as being the true teaching of the scripture in the matter. Nothing could be further from the truth as a645simple perusal of any Greek lexicon under the terms metamelomai, metanoeo and epistrepho will show. The fundamental idea present in all of these terms has to do with a “change of mind with reference to sin.” Grief may move us to repentance – but grief is not repentance: “Ye were made sorry unto repentance” (2 Cor. 7:9).
It is truly sad that so many have been led astray by this pernicious and Babylonish system. Lord, help us to snatch as many of them as we can out of the fire (Jude 23)!
Truth Magazine XXIII: 40, pp. 645-646
October 11, 1979