(this is one portion of a paper written on the difference between repentance and penance. Simply stated, penance is “a religious attitude deeply rooted in the human heart which prompts men to attempt to pay for their own sins by their good works and sufferings.”1
1C. John Miller. Repentance and the 20th Century Man (Fort Washington: Christian Literature Crusade, 1980), 19-20).
One of the major differences between repentance and penance is that repentance flows out of a godly sorrow, while penance flows out of a worldly sorrow. The Apostle Paul plainly states this truth in 2 Corinthians 7:10: “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.” Two types of sorrow are mentioned, and the fruit of each is a world apart.
Godly sorrow produces repentance, and this repentance is “without regret” (2 Cor 7:10). The phrase, “without regret” does not mean that the person is not sorry for having sinned against a holy God, for it is in fact godly sorrow in that it is primarily a sorrow towards God (Ps 51:4, 2 Cor 7:11), but rather, this phrase means that the repentant sinner has no regret for leaving the sin that before he had loved.
On the other hand, while there is also real sorry in worldly sorrow, it is not primarily due to sorrow over having sinned against God but is due to the negative consequences for the person’s sin. This worldly sorrow is many times heightened by going to great lengths to pay for one’s own sin to the point of believing that “if there is any forgiving to do he must forgive God for making him such a rotten sinner.”1 Worldly sorrow results in people placing the blame for their sin on their surroundings rather than where the blame rightly falls, on their own heads. On the other hand, godly sorrow leads sinners to take full responsibility for their sin and results in fear to God (2 Cor 7:11). This fear then causes them to cry out for mercy to a God who is fully justified in damning them (Psa 51:1-4), whereas worldly sorrow involves a fear of the consequences of sin, and not of the Judge Himself.
While those who experience worldly sorrow may have a excruciating sense of approaching doom and be conscious of the fact that they are not prepared for life hereafter, they cling to the sinful pleasures of this world and are grieved because they cannot have both the pleasures of God and the pleasures of this world. They have no real fear of God in them (Psa 36:1). King Saul is a perfect example of this “worldly sorrow,” for when he was confronted by Samuel over his disobedience against God’s command to completely wipe out the Amalekites, he first masked his sin by claiming to have done what God had asked of him. Finally, when Samuel pushes him on the issue, Saul declares, “I have sinned; I have indeed transgressed the command of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice.” (1 Sam 15:24). Saul’s sorrow did not flow out of his having sinned against God; rather, he only confessed to having sinned once Samuel told him of the consequences that he would face because of his disobedience. Saul was sorrowful because of the consequences of his sin, not because he had transgressed against a holy and righteous God. The motive behind Saul’s confession is clearly seen in his reply to Samuel after Samuel declared the Lord would remove him from being king, “I have sinned; but please honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and go back with me, that I may worship the Lord your God” (1 Sam 15:30). Saul was primarily concerned with his standing before men, and only cared of his standing before God because it affected how other people thought of him. Restoration to a right relationship with God and therefore the ability to worship was only a side note to Saul; his primary goal was to look good in the eyes of men. He did not ask God to pardon him, but again, because he feared man more than he feared God, he asked for Samuel’s pardon. Saul’s worldly sorrow lead to death.
The example of Saul is in stark contrast with that of David and the godly sorrow he exemplified after sinning by numbering the people of Israel and Judah as recorded in 2 Samuel 24. After ordering the people to be numbered, David’s heart troubled him (2 Sam 24:10), and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have acted very foolishly” (2 Sam 24:10b). Already we see a contrast between David’s response to that of Saul, for David’s sorrow came before there were any consequences mentioned, and it lead him to take full responsibility for his sin and confess the sin to God and beg for God to pardon his iniquity. His sorrow stemmed primarily from having committed wrong towards a holy God, not for the negative consequences of his actions. It is also evident that David understood the gravity of the problem and did not attempt to make light of what he has done, saying, “for I have sinned greatly” (2 Sam 24:10).
When God sent the prophet Gad to ask David to choose between three penalties for his sin, either famine, defeat, or pestilence, we again see an extreme contrast between David and Saul in David’s choice of penalty. If Saul was in David’s place, most likely he would have chosen to be pursued by his enemies for three months and then not left his palace for three months while his soldiers died in battle and fled. There would be no sorrow in Saul’s heart, because there was no direct consequence for him. But David throws himself at the mercy of God in his reply to Gad, saying, “I am in great distress. Let us now fall into the hand of the Lord for His mercies are great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man” (2 Sam 24:14b). The sorrow of David again is revealed, and it is not primarily connected to the consequence, but rather to the fact that he sinned against God. This godly sorrow leads David to put himself at the mercy of God and align himself with God, agreeing that whatever God chooses to do would be just. David’s knowledge of God proved correct, for the pestilence did not in fact last three days, but God in His mercy stopped it before the whole duration was complete.
When David saw the angel who was striking the people with pestilence, we see even more clearly his heart of true repentance reflected in these words: “Behold, it is I who have sinned, and it is I who have done wrong; but these sheep, what have they done? Please let Your hand be against me and against my father’s house” (2 Sam 24:17b). Saul would have kept silent, and comforted himself in the fact that he was not suffering for committing evil, but David could not bear the fact that he had caused so many others pain and death because of his sin against God. Because of David’s godly sorrow that lead him to repentance, his relationship with God was restored and he completely turned from his sin and worshiped God (2 Sam 24:25); whereas Saul’s worldly sorrow left his fellowship with God broken, never restored, ending ultimately in death (1 Sam 16:14; 31:4).
The examples of Saul and David embody the differences between a remorse that leads to repentance and a remorse that leads to penance. As believers, repentance is the only option, and if there be any tendency towards penance in us, we must return our focus away from ourselves and back on to God where it belongs. The difference between repentance and penance comes down to pride verses humility. Penance is the direct result of men paving their own way – a direct result of believing that man’s way is better than God’s. But repentance comes by God, through the Holy Spirit’s work in the heart, causing that heart to humbly submit to God’s ways and throw itself at the mercy of a holy and just God.
1 C. John Miller. Repentance and the 20th Century Man (Fort Washington: Christian Literature Crusade, 1980), 26.