I have this tendency, and I think it is a common tendency, to desire to pay for the price of my own sin. Whenever I sin against God, or make a mistake of some sort, and the guilt begins to set in, there is an immediate desire to fix my mistake. I do not think this is always a bad desire, because it is this same desire that causes us to ask for forgiveness and rebuild broken relationships. More often than not, however, my desire is not simply that – because it is often something done that cannot be undone – but it is a desire for penance.
Penance, as defined by Webster, is “The suffering, labor or pain to which a person voluntarily subjects himself, or which is imposed on him by authority as a punishment for his faults”. I have heard stories of Martin Luther, while he was still a monk, walking all day upon his knees in an attempt to atone for his sins. Others would sit upon tall poles; flogging was an equally proper technique. In the case of Martin Luther, however, nothing satisfied him. My form of penance was rather simple, but it was a forced distance from God. I would say, “Lord, I am not worthy to be in Your presence for what I have just done; I will avoid you, to pay for my mistake.” And like Luther before me, this never truly satisfied anything but my own pride.
There is a better way. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The problem with my “penance” is that it denied the fact that this verse tells us. God desired me to instantly come to Him, ask His forgiveness, and allow Him to cleanse me from all my unrighteousness. Instead, out of my desire for “penance”, I avoided the very source of my forgiveness. I have to forcefully remind myself of this fact.
I think the reason I must do this is that for me, and a great majority of mankind, we desire to work for our salvation. We want to feel like we have accomplished something on our own. This is a result of the Fall: we think, just like our parents Adam and Eve, we can become righteous on our own. Romans 4:4-5 tells us why this is a problem: “Now to him that works is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that works not, but believeth on Him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
Penance becomes not a solution, then, but a problem. Our work to bring us back to God, whatever form it may take, becomes part of the debt that we owe for our sin. What God does not want are people who are independent from Him, able to be righteous on their own; that is, in fact, impossible. God desires those people who are wholly dependent upon Him, upon Christ, for their righteousness. A great hymn says:
“Could my tears forever flow;
Could my zeal no respite know;
These for sin could not atone.
Thou must save, and Thou alone!”
Christ is our righteousness. Instead of spiritually, mentally or even physically flogging ourselves, the moment we are convicted of our sin, let us draw near to the cleansing fountain, the blood of Christ. He will cleanse us from our unrighteousness. God is faithful to forgive; He will cast our sin are far as the east is from the west. He will not make us work for our righteousness, because He already has.