Is Catholic Penance Biblical?

Question
Is Catholic Penance Biblical?
Answer

"Catholic Penance" is not a biblical doctrine or sacrament.

What is Penance?

Penance in the Catholic sense is a sacrament. It is essentially an act of devotion - a work (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1430) - by a person designed to obtain forgiveness for sin. The Catholic Encyclopedia in part describes penance as, "a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest's absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same." In addition, the Catholic Church says penance is necessary for regaining salvation (CCC, 980). They add, that it can be performed for the dead (CCC, 1032); that it cleanses a person preparing for confirmation (CCC, 1310); that it is part of the process that restores the person to God's grace (CCC, 1468, 1496); that it reconciles a person to the RCC (CCC, 1469); and that with faith it is part of the process of conversion to Christ (CCC, 1470).

Depending on the modern translations of the Bible one chooses to read, the term "penance" is mentioned only in one verse. The Catholic Bible (NAB, published in 1970) states in Isaiah 58:5, NAB, "Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?" The same verse in the ESV reads, "Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?" (Isa 58:5). As one can see, the Catholic Bible substitutes "penance" for the word "humble." One other modern version of the Bible - a thought for thought version as opposed to a word for word version - substitutes the word "penance" for "humble" as well - the NLT.

Why Penance is Unbiblical?

The word anah in Hebrew according to the BDB, means humble, afflict, to weaken oneself, to stoop, to become low, to be depressed or downcast. It does not mean "penance," a word that didn't even come into existence until c. 12-13th century.

Repentance cannot be earned. Repentance is an underserved gift. 2 Timothy 2:24-26 states:

And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

So, repentance is a gift of God (Acts 11:18; Rom 2:4). It is something God gives to an undeserving sinner by grace alone. It cannot be earned by saying XXX amount of "Hail Mary's." See "Praying the Rosary?" below. It is not a reward for depriving one's self of food, sleep, or engaging in some sort of self-torture. While repentance is a biblical doctrine (Luke 15:7; Acts 11:18; 20:21), it is not accomplished through the process the Catholic Church describes: (1) confession to a priest and (2) then doing certain things to atone for one's sin (praying, fasting, time before the altar, etc.). Clearly, Isaiah was not referring to Catholic penance in Isaiah 58:5, as just a few verses later he says that all our works are as a "polluted garment" (Isa 64:6). Even our very best prayers and our finest works - even our very repentance itself - needs to be repented of! We need the Holy Spirit to strengthen our weaknesses (Rom 8:26).

The Bible teaches that one is made right with God by faith apart from their works (Rom 3:24; 4:3, 5; 5:1, 9; 11:6; Eph 2:8). We are cleansed of our sins by the blood of Christ - not by our works (Heb 9:14; 1 John 1:7). Christ's blood cleanses us of all sin - past, present, and future (Psa 103:12; Rom 11:6; Gal 2:21; 3:21-22). It is Christ alone who made the atonement by which our sins are removed (Heb 1:3; 2:17; 10:10-12; 1 Pet 2:24). To teach anything different is to teach another gospel, which is no gospel at all (Gal 1:8-9; 2 Cor 11:4, 14; cf. Jer 23:16; Rom 16:17).

What is True Repentance?

Even though Christians have already been forgiven of their sins "in Christ," we are called upon by God to continue in our repentance so that we might walk holy and blameless before him (cf. Eph 1:3-4; 2:10; 4:2; 5:2; 2 Cor 7:10).

Repentance is essentially an act that the Holy Spirit works in us resulting in an act that flows out of us (cf. Phil 2:13; Heb 13:21). Within our natural man, repentance is foreign to us (Rom 8:7-8). We are naturally:

(1) hostile to God
(2) not submisive to God's law
(3) cannot submit to God's law and
(4) cannot please God

So, within our natural man we are both unwilling and unable to repent. So, repentance begins outside of us through the agency, grace and mercy of the Holy Spirit resulting in God's will of repentance within us.

So, repentance originates with the Holy Spirit, not us. It is a gift granted by God to his children (2 Pet 3:9; Rev 3:19). It is a change of mind resulting in a literal change of life (Ezek 14:6; Matt 3:8; Acts 26:20; Rev 2:5). Though it is the command of Christ himself (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:14-15), it can't be earned or merited.

Catholic Penance is not a biblical doctrine.

Related Topics:

Is Purgatory Biblical?
Lessons on Repentance - Psalm 51
Noah, Baptism, and Hell - 1 Peter 3:18-22
What is the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?
What is the Immaculate Conception?
Praying the Rosary?
Catholics and Justification?
The Catholic Bible?
Apocrypha Accounts?
Transubstantiation vs. Consubstantiation vs. Memorialism vs Reformed?
Hahn's Hersey: The Four Cups?
Pre-Apostolic Succession ???
What are the three types of Merit?
Can Catholics be Saved?
Are all Protestants going to Hell (Catholic Dogma)?
Was Peter the First Pope?
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Do you agree with what the Roman Catholic teaches?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).