Corresponding with the fact that the word “penance” never appears in Scripture, the first major difference between repentance and penance is that repentance is explicitly commanded by God whereas penance is nowhere found to be required by God. Numerous times throughout Scripture God outright calls people to repent (Eze 14:6; 18:30; Matt 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; Rev 2:5, 16; 3:3, 19). In fact, He calls all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). It is a call from the highest source of authority and therefore must be obeyed or there will be dire consequences (1 Sam 2:10). When God calls Israel to repent from their idol worship in Ezekiel 14:7, He warns them that if they do not repent, He will pour out His wrath on them (Eze 14:8).
In the New Testament, when Jesus was asked why a group of people had been killed in a barbarous fashion, rather than directly answering the question, He urges them all to repent, warning that if they do not, they would perish in the same way as those who had been killed (Luke 13:3). Nowhere in Scripture is the idea of penance ever commanded by God. Actually, the idea that a person has the ability to pay for his own sins is completely foreign to Scripture.
In the Old Testament, the sacrificial system makes it clear that men cannot pay for their sins, for an animal’s blood must be shed in order to cover sins – and this system is a shadow of the greater sacrifice of Christ (Heb 10:1), who came for the very reason that humans are unable to atone for their own sins. If penance was able to save, there would have been no reason for Christ to come to earth, live a perfect life, die, and be raised from the dead. Men need a savior! For no one can be justified through works of the law – man’s efforts to atone for himself, to make himself righteous, are worthless before God (Gal 3:11).
The Pharisees are a perfect example of the failure of men to make themselves righteous before God through works. They forsook the commands of God for the tradition of men (Matt 15:3), and this is exactly what is involved in evangelical penance – rejecting the clear commands of God, replacing them with man’s own way and ideas on the matter. Even as a believer, one who has repented of their sin as God has commanded in His Word, one can have a tendency to fall back on the traditions of men, or try to do things his own way and feel that he must gain back favour with God after he has committed a sin through inflicting suffering on himself or by doing good works. While it may seem that this Christian desires to be obedient to God, and is therefore sorrowful because of sin and the feeling that he must do something to pay for the wrong; in reality, this Christian is acting in contradiction to Scripture. For what is obedience but doing what God has commanded? God has never commanded anyone to pay for his own sin; rather, God commands all to use the means that God has ordained to pay for his sins. A person’s effort to atone for his own sin is in direct violation with the Word of God. Therefore, “Self-justification is the goal of this effort”,1 and not obedience. The Bible speaks of only one way to be saved, and that is the way that God Himself has prescribed – through Jesus Christ and through Him alone (John 14:6). Penance is clearly an idea conjured up from man’s own thinking, and all those who practice it are in direct disobedience to God and His command for people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
1C. John Miller. Repentance and the 20th Century Man (Fort Washington: Christian Literature Crusade, 1980), 20.