Penance for Evangelicals.
I became aware of the idea of “penance” when I was studying for my 4 year degree. I was in a religion course that made good Evangelicals, like me, aware of other theological systems in Christianity. The idea of penance was almost laughable to me then; I thought of it as trying to earn forgiveness for sins. Every good Evangelical knows that is a stain upon the gospel. Jesus doesn’t require our good works in order to forgive us. Think “Thief on the cross.”
I was very unaware of how little I knew or understood, much less appreciated, theological reflection. I knew the right answers, and they came quick and easy. Such is the life of an inexperienced 19 year old. I thought penance was an old and stupid idea for people who weren’t satisfied with the Gospel truth that Jesus died for all sin, once and for all, and invites all humanity into a relationship with Him; forgiving all sins for those who accept it.
Little did I know, one day I would be pastoring a church. And when you pastor a church, certain truths are not so easy to dismiss or glaze over. To tell the truth, I now firmly believe in penance as a regular spiritual practice for those who have accepted the Gospel.
So what is penance? Is it really trying to earn salvation?
No. Actually, penance has less to do with earning what God is offering to us, and more to do with us accepting what is already there. In its proper place, penance allows us to stop wrestling with our sin, and start wrestling with our forgiveness. It usually is a task given to us by an ecclesial authority, formal or informal. It could be anything from saying prayers, or fasting, or a pilgrimage, or even completing some manual labor that benefits others. The tasks are supposed to be helpful, but mostly they are supposed to give us time to meditate on—and work out—this incredibly great forgiveness and life in Christ that we have been given.
A vignette of penance in the modern evangelical church.
A guy I know and love struggles with sexual addiction. I can tell you that any addiction, but sexual addiction in particular, is a seriously difficult problem to deal with on a spiritual level.
There is always a problem with the sexual stuff. It is sin that is very rarely resolved easily. It's stubborn.
Part of the problem is the root of past sin. My buddy was sexually exploited as a child, and so the normative sexual appetites a man can expect have been broken. He has never experienced sexual normalcy. This is not his own failing. Sin has a way of victimizing people, whether we admit it or not. Furthermore, our culture (more than our churches, in my opinion) makes sexuality a shameful thing; by exploiting its intrigue to sell stuff. Our churches say “sex cements” (and they mean that it’s proper place is to bond people and lives together in the sacredness of marriage), but our culture says, “sex sells.”
My buddy had been thrown into a world where he had been sold… yes… but he had been unwillingly and unwittingly cemented to deep shame and reproach. The work of being set free by Jesus Christ is just that: work. And while I do believe we should shy away from any boasting that salvation can be earned; I think we, the evangelical church, have forgotten to work that salvation out.
And so, sadly, my buddy got virtually no help from his Christian community. Pastors seemed to only have one line, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.” His response was always, “I believe! But this sin is killing me!” The pastor could offer no other help. And when my buddy’s sin problem became an embarrassment to the church, he stopped receiving even that one line. Pastors seemed to say to him, “If one time forgiveness doesn’t work, you got to change. If you can’t change, then you need better help than I can give. Here’s the number to a good counselor that I know.” No offense to all my friends in the world of counseling and psycho-analytics; but I think we pastors have forgotten an age old pastoral tradition: penance.
So I invited my buddy on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is simple, you just walk with each other all day, for days on end. I asked each participant (Wait. No. no. Let’s call them “pilgrims,” shall we?) to identify spiritual goals that God was inviting them too. The goals were different for each pilgrim. One wanted to find God’s peace, another wanted to find spiritual strength, a non-Christian came to see what Christians were like while walking together, and of course, one man wanted to be set free from his sexual addiction.
And so we started each day with a meditation on Psalm 1, and Genesis 15. Then we walked, and walked and walked. We ended each day with a small fire, and another meditation. Then we’d get up and do it again. We prayed that every mile would get us closer to grasping God’s work in our lives, ever step a victorious step in sanctification, and every mountain an opportunity to struggle towards God.
I spent time with each pilgrim, as time allowed, praying for them, and talking through whatever God was doing in their lives.
“Rev. Shivers just went up my spine. Maybe God is going to set me free. Maybe this trip is going to allow me to finally lay down this burden.” My buddy said to me.
“Well, let’s walk it out. And pray.”
If the story ended with me telling you that the pilgrimage was a great one-time cure for my buddy, and that convinced you to try it out; you would be missing the whole point of this article.
The miraculous healing we wanted is not what God gave. Penance is never about manipulating God into doing what we want. But penance, in and of itself, is a grace that God gives to us to work out our salvation. That pilgrimage, for all intents and purposes, is the temporal answer to our struggle with God’s great salvation: Christians walking with each other, praying for each other, encouraging each other, and trusting God to do the work.
As such, the evangelical model of penance promotes the very antidote that Jesus established for serious, addictive, soul-crushing sin: A Christian community that continually (and oftentimes physically) brings one another to the Great Regenerator of Humanity—Jesus Christ.
This is how we get better. We walk it out with one another. The spiritual discipline of penance demands that the evangelical response to sin is not only, “That’s between you and God. Pray this prayer and you should be good.” But also, “Welcome to the inheritance of the saints! You belong here, and your struggle with sin does not disqualify you. We want to be reconciled to God, which while we still walk this Earth, is a never ending process we help each other with.”