“What can sin do where there is penitence?”
The Oxford English Dictionary lists the prevailing meaning of penitence as “contrition or sorrow for sin committed, with desire and intention of amendment; repentance.” If we are honest with ourselves, this is a foreign concept to us. At best we tend to be like children who are sorry they were caught instead of being sorry for what they did.
In most churches, we are conditioned against penitence. Consider the songs you have sung in worship over the last few months; how many (if any) were about sorrow for your sins? After all, we have been in Lent—the season of penitential preparation for Easter—for the last few months. Even if you are part of a church that doesn’t observe Lent, it seems that Good Friday should merit a penitential song or two, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Part of the problem is that Good Friday falls on Friday instead of Sunday. We skip from the Triumphal Entry to the Resurrection without really talking about his betrayal, trial, death, and burial.
It is difficult for us to amend our behavior and change our ways if we see no reason to do so. It is difficult to find motivation to change if we don’t find a behavior distasteful or painful, and yet this does not come naturally for sin. We may find some sins repulsive, but we will find many attractive without having been “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)
Penitence is not a Romish doctrine we can eschew as Protestants; it is found throughout the pages of Scripture. Consider Peter’s sermon at Pentecost: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'” (Acts 2:37-38) We’re pretty good at the baptism part, not so much at repentance.
How do we develop a penitent heart? We must read Scripture—including the passages we tend to not underline or highlight. A good dose of the Pentateuch and the Prophets is in order. In them, we see God’s abhorrence of sin and the costs to his people. That has not changed. Sin still separates us from God and God still expects obedience.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
1 John 2:1-6 (ESV)
We must meditate upon this and realize that sin is not just an “oops” or a “party foul.” Our sin is an affront to God, an act of rebellion against our merciful and gracious creator. We need to ingrain this into our hearts and minds until we, like Christ, weep over our sins.
¹ Ward, Benedicta, Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Trappist, KY: Cistercian Publications, 1975. p. 71