CHALLENGE: The value of Christ’s sacrifice was infinite. He paid it all. Therefore, there is no role for penance in the Christian life.
DEFENSE: The value of Christ’s death on the cross was infinite—more than enough to pay for all the sins of mankind. But even after God has forgiven the eternal consequences of our sins, he wants us to experience some negative consequences.
When a child misbehaves, there need to be consequences. If parents never applied any discipline, the child would never learn his lesson. Scripture uses parental discipline as an image to express how God relates to us: “The Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6). He “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb. 12:10).
That’s why we do penance. If we learn how to say no to ourselves, we’ll be better able to say no to temptation.
Christ expects us to do penance. When Jesus was asked why his disciples did not fast, he said they would fast in the future (Mark 2:18-20). Thus he told the disciples, “When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites” (Matt. 6:16). He didn’t say, “if you fast,” but “when you fast.” In Acts, the early Christians put this into practice (Acts 13:2, 14:23).
By practicing fasting and other forms of penance, we embrace spiritual discipline that will, as Hebrews says, help us grow in holiness.
Penance also provides us with the opportunity to express sorrow for our sins. We have an innate need to mourn when something tragic has occurred, and that includes our own sins. To insist a person not feel or show any grief for sin would be unnatural and would short-circuit responses that God built into us. There is “a time to weep . . . a time to mourn” (Eccles. 3:4).
TIP: The first-century document known as the Didache (DID-ah-KAY) indicates it was common for first-century Christians to fast twice a week: “Let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week [Monday and Thursday]; but keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation day [Wednesday and Friday]” (8:1-2).
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