How To Use This Information on Repentance vs. Penance In A Counseling Situation

Having biblically established the Biblical mandate for repentance, we will now turn our attention to giving some practical and personal advice regarding how a person can help a fellow believer who has confessed to an immoral affair to understand biblical repentance and the dangers of penance. Because this case has to do with a person who has confessed to an immoral affair, one of the most natural places in Scripture to use to help this person understand biblical repentance is Psalm 511. There are five general principles that can be taken from the first twelve verses of Psalm 51 and applied to the counselee’s situation. First of all, God’s Word condemns the sinner (based on the title of Psalm 51). Sometimes that comes through another person, as it did with David, but other times it is through the direct reading of God’s word. It is important to convey to the counselee that God is clear, the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23), and there is a choice, either to agree with God, or to rebel against His assessment of the severity of your sin. Second, we see that we should cry out to God to be gracious and cleanse us from our sin based on God’s lovingkindness and great compassion (Psa 51:1-2). Remind the counselee that God’s forgiveness is not based on what we do, because our works are filthy rags to Him (Isa 64:6), but rather God’s forgiveness is based on God’s own character (Psa 51:1-2). Christ did not die because people had worked to pay for their sin, or punished themselves for disobeying God – no, rather Christ died while we were still sinners (Rom 5:8), while we were enemies of God (Rom 5:10)! Thirdly, sin is primarily against God (Psa 51:4-6). It is essential that the counselee understand that while sin does effect others (2 Sam 24), our sin is first and foremost against God – it is breaking His standard and doing what is evil in His sight (Psa 51:4). God is blameless and just (Psa 51:4), while we are born sinners (Psa 51:5) – He is not responsible for our sin, we are! We are fallen sinners, we are not good people who sometimes do wrong things2 but are, of ourselves, wicked to the very core of our hearts (Jer 17:9-10). God’s standard is perfection, not only outwardly, but inwardly (Psa 51:6) and we cannot meet that standard, but fall far short (Rom 3:23). Fourthly, we should ask God to purify and renew us (Psa 51:7-9). Remind the counselee, that although on our own there is no hope of restoration of a right relationship with God, there is hope because God forgives! And when God forgives it is not some superficial band-aid on a cancer patient, but is real forgiveness that cleanses to the core! Christ is our hope, for in Him we have “the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13). While we may be tempted to sulk and become depressed because of our sin, this should not be our goal, rather renewal should be our desire, based on the completed work of Christ. Stress the fact that when we sin, our joy is taken away (Gen 4:6-7), but because of Christ’s finished work on the cross, the crushing weight of sin is lifted – we can be restored! And finally, we must recognize our utter reliance on God for the will to please Him in the future (Psa 51:10-12). Convey to the counselee the danger of trying to work off our sin through various good deeds or self-imposed suffering, for the fruit of self-effort is death (Rom 8:13). In our own strength we cannot do what God wants, but rather we produce the exact opposite (Gal 5:19-21). We must rely on God to produce faithfulness in our hearts towards Him (Psa 51:10-12), and use the means by which He has ordained for our sanctification, walking in the Spirit (Gal 5:22-25). As believers we live by the Spirit (Gal 5:22a), therefore we must urge the counselee to walk by the Spirit, putting to death the flesh, and because of his regenerated heart, live as God would have him to live from this time forth. And when sin is again committed, confess it, turn from it to God, knowing that “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9b).

1David Covington. “Psalm 51: Repenter’s Guide” Journal of Biblical Counseling 20, no. 1 (Fall 2001): 21-39.

2Ibid., 33.


The First Major Difference Between Repentance and Penance

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.

The Second Major Difference Between Repentance and Penance

A second major difference between repentance and penance is that repentance is a work of God in the heart, while penance is a work of man in his own heart. As discussed previously, repentance is commanded of God, and anyone who repents has obeyed God and done what is right. However, it must be clarified that repentance is not a work of man, but rather a work of God. For it is impossible for men to please God, doing what He has asked of them, being that there is no one who is good and no one who does anything good on his own merit (Rom 3:10-12) except God Himself (Luke 18:19). While men might preach and instruct others to repent, “It is the Holy Spirit breathing in them that makes their words effectual” (Acts 10:44).1

Another way to show that God is the author of repentance comes about through a careful study of Romans 12:2. As believers, Romans 12:2 states that we are not to “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This transformation allows us to, “prove what the will of God is” (Rom 12:2). A link between this transformation and repentance is clearly seen,2 for as was stated before, repentance is essentially “a change of mind”.3 Titus 3:5 states clearly that the Holy Spirit is the agent of this change – it is not accomplished by a person’s own effort or his own righteousness. A correct understanding of the source of repentance is vital to believers who practice penance, because they are in direct violation of the truth of God’s Word. They cannot do anything in and of themselves to make themselves right before God. Their work is of no avail in God’s economy. And so rather than focus on their own efforts to pay for their sins, they should look to Christ as their only hope, and the one to whom they can look for the forgiveness of sin (1 Tim 1:1).

1Thomas Watson. The Doctrine of Repentance (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 14.

2William Douglas Chamberlain. The Meaning of Repentance (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1943), 172-173.

3Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 513.

Repentance vs. Penance – Introduction


In Evangelical Christianity today, there are some believers who have a tendency to practice penance rather than repentance.  Though the term penance is many times associated with Catholicism, in this context, it does not mean that large numbers of Evangelicals are turning Catholic, but simply that there are some within Evangelicalism who, after initially being converted, try to pay for their sins by their own good works and sufferings.  The difference between biblical repentance and evangelical penance is vast, has significant personal ramifications, and must be addressed practically in the church today.

Biblical Definition ofRepentance in the New Testament

[1] In order to define what repentance is, it is important to look at  what the Bible says because it is not enough to reason from one’s own opinions or to argue philosophically, for the truth does not come from men, but from God.  God has revealed the truth to us in His Word – His Word is truth (John 17:17).  And since the Bible was not written in English, it is many times helpful to read and study it in the original languages in order to gain insight into its meaning.  Therefore, to begin the search for a biblical definition of repentance, we will look at the Greek terms used in the New Testament that convey the idea of repentance.  Returning to that first word of the Gospel spoken by Christ  in Matthew 4:17, we find that the word translated as “repent” is metanoeite (μετανοειτε) which comes from the root word metanoeo (μετανοέω).  The word, metanoeo along with its nominal equivalent metanoia (μετάνοια) is used fifty-seven times in the New Testament and means simply to, “change one’s mind.”[2] Literally, metanoeo means “to perceive afterwards” (meta means after, implying change and neoe means to perceive) therefore it, “signifies to change one’s mind or purpose, always in the N.T., involving a change for the better, an amendment.”[3] There are two other words in the New Testament which convey the concept of repentance, epistrepho (ἐπιστρέφω), and metamelomai (μεταμέλομαι).  The word epistrepho brings with it the idea of “to turn,” “turn around” and therefore “to return”,[4] being very similar to the meaning of metanoeo.  Metamelomai, however, means “to experience remorse”[5] referring specifically to the feelings a person has towards something rather than to the fact that a person has arrived at a different position on something as metanoeo implies.

Biblical Definition  Repentance in the Old Testament

Continuing the search for a biblical definition of repentance, a student discovers that in the Old Testament, there are primarily two Hebrew terms that are used to denote the idea of repentance.  The first term is sub (שׁוּב) which means “to turn back, return”[6] and many times expresses a person’s change of attitude toward God and sin (Dt 4:30; Neh 1:9; Psa 7:12; 85:4; Jer 3:14),[7] denoting “a conscious, moral separation and a personal decision for forsake sin and enter into fellowship with God”.[8] The second Hebrew term used to denote repentance is naham (נחם) which means “to be sorry, rue, repent,”[9] and many times refers to a change in God’s dealings with humans as required by His justice (1 Sam. 15:29; Psa 110:4; Jer 4:28).[10]

Repentance as Defined by the Whole of Scripture

Looking throughout the whole of Scripture, a picture of what biblical repentance is begins to be seen clearly.  There are rituals of repentance such as the tearing of one’s clothing, fasting, sitting in sackcloth, sitting in ashes, (2 Kings 22:11; Jonah 3:6; Dan. 9:3); in addition, repentance is related to baptism as the start of a person’s life in Christ (Acts 2:38; 13:24; 19:4).  It is connected with faith (Acts 20:21; 26:18; Heb 6:1), with forgiveness (Luke 24:47; Acts 3:19; 8:22; 2 Cor. 12:21; Heb 6:1; Rev. 2:22; 9:20), and with a return to God (Acts 20:21; 26:20; 1 Pet 2:25; Rev. 16:9) that is based on the righteousness of Christ alone (Acts 3:19; 5:31; 17:30).[11] It is essential to note that throughout the Scriptures, “Repentance and faith are two side of the same coin”.[12] Biblically it is “repent” or “perish” (Luke 13:3, 5), “repent” or go to “hades” and “torment” (Luke 16:23, 28, 30).  But for those who do repent, there is “joy in heaven” (Luke 15:7, 10), and so it can be concluded, that repentance is representative of the “entire response bringing about eternal life, including faith when it is not stated…Repentance must not be separated from its flip side of faith (Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21), or from the realization that it sometimes stands for the package of human response to the good new of Jesus Christ.”[13] In summary, repentance is simply a change of mind that implies a conscious personal decision to forsake sin and turn to God.

Definition of Penance

Contrary to the wealth of information in the Bible regarding the word “repentance” and its derivatives, the word “penance” never appears in any major English version of the Bible.  The concept of penance, however, is not foreign to the Bible.  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.”[14] Several examples of biblical penance will be discussed in the midst of looking at three major differences between biblical repentance and “evangelical” penance.

[1] All Scripture references taken from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra: Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[2] Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 513.

[3] W. E. Vine. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Los Angeles: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1952), 279-280.

[4] Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 301.

[5] O. Michel. “μεταμέλομαι,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), IV:626.

[6] Brown, Driver, and Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 996-999.

[7] Irvin A. Busenitz. “Divine Forgiveness: Conditions and Limitations”, (D.Th. diss., Grace Theological Seminary, 1980), 64.

[8] Byron H. DeMent. “Repentance,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), IV:135.

[9] Brown, Driver, and Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 636-637.

[10] Irvin A. Busenitz. “Divine Forgiveness: Conditions and Limitations”, (D.Th. diss., Grace Theological Seminary, 1980), 63-64.

[11] W. A. Quanbeck. “Repentance,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 4:34.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Joseph P. Healey and A. Boyd Luter, Jr. “Repentance,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday 1992), 5:673-674.

[14] C. John Miller. Repentance and the 20th Century Man (Fort Washington: Christian Literature Crusade, 1980), 19-20.

The ThirdMajor Difference Between Repentance and Penance

(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.