Temporal and Eternal Punishments, and Penance

The following is based mostly on James Akin’s The Salvation Controversy. By “based”, I pretty much mean “verbatim”.

Scripture talks about salvation from the eternal consequences of our sins, from which, if we were to remain unsaved, we would incur the penalty of eternal separation from God. This is nothing controversial. But Scripture also speaks about salvation from temporal difficulties. Sometimes these difficulties simply arise from living in a world in which the wicked oppress the righteous. The fact that not all suffering is brought on by our sins is the key point of the book of Job. But God also saves from calamities that people bring upon themselves by sinning. For example we read:

“Man is also chastened with pain upon his bed, and with continual strife in his bones…[But if] there be for him an angel, a mediator, one of the thousand, to declare to man what is right for him; and he is gracious to him, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down into the Pit, I have found a ransom’…then man prays to God, and he accepts him, he comes into his presence with joy. He recounts to mean his salvation, and he sings before men, and says: ‘I sinned and perverted what was right, and it was not required to me. He has redeemed my soul from going down into the Pit, and my life shall see the light.” (Job 33:19, 23-24, 26-28).

In this passage, the sickness is brought on the man by his own sin, so he is chastised, but an angel mediates for him and God saves him from the temporal calamities that had come upon him for his sins. This idea also dominates the deliverance passages in the writings of the prophets, since the prophets are usually talking about God’s delivering his people from calamities they brought on themselves by their sin.

This idea of salvation from temporal calamities, from one’s own sins or not, is also present in the New Testament. One of these is:

“And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing!’” (Mt. 8:23-25)

This passage deals with salvation from temporal calamities that come simply from living in this world. Salvation from temporal calamities that stem from one’s own sin is exemplified in this following passage:

“And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘O man of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Mt. 14:28-31)

Here the temporal consequence from which St. Peter is saved is drowning. A point of special interest in this text is the way Jesus saves him: simply by reaching out a hand and pulling him up. To save St. Peter, Jesus did something that anyone of us could have done, given a solid surface and appropriate musculature. This passage reveals that one need not be God to be a temporal savior. Further corroboration of this fact is also found in Scripture:

“And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them continually into the hand of Hazael king of Syria and into the hand of Ben-hadad the son of Hazael. Then Jehoahaz besought the Lord, and the Lord hearkened to him; for he saw the oppression of Israel, how the king of Syria oppressed them. Therefore the Lord gave Israel a savior, so that they escaped from the hand of the Syrians; and the people of Israel dwelt in their homes as formerly.” (2 Kings 13:3-5).

In this passage, a human savior is given to Israel to save them from the temporal consequences of their sins. Other such passages include Nehemiah 9:26-27 and Obadiah 20-21.

It is in this sense that the Catholic Church understands the statement in Proverbs, “By love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil” (16:6), and the statement in St. Peter, that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). It is precisely because Christ’s sacrifice is considered super-abundant(1) for the remission of the eternal consequences of sin that such verses are interpreted to refer to the temporal consequences of our sins. With this background, we are now in a position to be able to speak of the Catholic practice of penance, because the practice of penance is the same thing as the practice of temporal atonement, described in Proverbs and St. Peter. Acts of penance can be formal, such as setting a day of fasting, or informal, such as deliberately going out of one’s way to be nice to someone.

In this regard, it is helpful to note that Protestants, especially those who assert that it is impossible to lose salvation, often stress the difference between forgiveness and fellowship. They will point out, rightly, that even when the eternal consequences of one’s sins have been remitted, one’s relationship with God can still be impaired. Thus even though one is in a state of forgiveness – the state of grace, to Catholics – one may still need to repent to be restored to fellowship, or at least full fellowship, with God. In this sense only, love and faithfulness atone for iniquity, which is the concept behind the historic Christian practice of penance.

It has been stated already that Catholics view Christ’s sacrifice as superabundant. This often raises the question in non-Catholic minds, “why then should we do penance?” This question has three answers. First, regarding the distinction between forgiveness and fellowship, we saw that even those who are in a state of forgiveness may have impaired fellowship with God and need to correct this. Acts of sorrow over one’s sins (penance) are a key way this is done. Thus, as we will see below, people in both testaments of the Bible would do penance in order to restore fellowship with God by mourning for their sins.

Second, when God remits the eternal penalty for a sin he may (and often does) choose to leave temporal penalty to be dealt with. When he forgave David for his sin concerning Uriah, he still left David the temporal punishment of having his infant son die and having the sword pass through his house (2 Sam. 12:13). Similarly, when Moses struck the rock a second time, God forgave him (2) , though he still suffered the temporal penalty of not being allowed to enter the promised land (Num. 20:12).

Why does God leave some temporal penalties in place when he removes the eternal penalties for our sins? Part of this is a mystery, since Christ’s sufferings are sufficient to cover even the temporal penalties of our sins. However, one reason is to teach us our lesson. We often learn our lesson far better if we have not just head knowledge that what we did was wrong, but experiential knowledge of its wrongness through feeling negative consequences. Thus parents may allow their children to experience the consequences of their folly or may tell them, “Look, I love you and I’ve forgiven you, but you’re still going to be grounded.” Similarly, in the Bible we read:

“And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons? – ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him who he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (Hb 12:5-13).

We see, thus, that God often leaves in place a portion of the temporal retribution we deserve, and that this chastisement, on the model of punishing a child, may have rehabilitative effects on us. Penance is one way in which we willingly embrace this discipline in order to learn from it, just as a godly child may consciously embrace his parent’s discipline.

Third, humans have an inner need to mourn over tragedies, just as Christ himself mourned over tragedies, as when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn. 11:35). This inner need must not be short-circuited; humans must be allowed to feel grief over tragedies. And, because sins are tragedies, we have a natural need to mourn over them. We also have an inner need to make a gesture of reparation for our sins when real reparation is impossible. Penance allows us to feel grief we naturally have, and we need to express this grief once we have done wrong and repented. This process is unfortunately, in non-Catholic circles, short-circuited. People will be told, “Jesus has forgiven your sins. Now stop mourning them!” This is like immediately telling a man whose spouse has died, “Jesus has taken your wife to heaven. Now stop mourning her death!” That may be well-meaning to do, but in the case of persons who need to grieve, such exhortations are ill-thought-out and can even be harmful.

For all of these reasons, we can see how, even though Christ’s atonement was more than enough to cover both the temporal and the eternal consequences of our sins, we still have a need to mourn our sins; God still often leaves in place a temporal punishment even when he has remitted the eternal one (for example, to teach us our lesson); and we still need to have fellowship restored with God even when we are in a state of forgiveness. The discipline of penance allows us to pursue these things.

This discipline has been recognized by God’s people throughout the ages. The system of penance goes back beyond the Middle Ages, through the patristic age, through the New Testament, and into the Old Testament. It has been part of the religion of the one, true God since before the time of Christ, it was part of the religion of Christ and his first followers, and it has been part of Christianity ever since. It was not until the rise of Protestantism that anyone in Christendom thought to deny it. As always, a few pertinent quotations will help to document this fact. Virtually nobody who has read the Old Testament will deny that the ancient Jews did acts of penance – external expressions of sorrow and reparation for sins – as part of their spiritual discipline. Thus we read in words written before the time of Christ:

“In that day the Lord God of hosts called [you] to weeping and mourning, to baldness and girding with sackcloth; and behold, [instead you engaged in] joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine” (Is. 22:12-13).

“‘Yet even now’, says the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning…’ Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly” (Joel 2:12, 15).

“And when Ahab heard those words, he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted and lay in sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, ‘Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the evil upon his house’” (1 Kg. 21:27-29).

It is also instructive when God explains the purpose of fasting as a means of humbling oneself before him. Evangelicals often have a difficult time understanding the reason for fasting. I remember when I was a Protestant, hearing people speak of fasting as if its only purpose was to clear out more time to pray. But the Bible says that the purpose of skipping the meal is not to make more time available for prayer, but to humble (or to humiliate) oneself before the Lord to seek his favor. And, of course, the idea of fasting and other acts of penance are clearly endorsed in the New Testament:

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6:16-18).

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3).

“Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you” (Js. 4:8-10).

“And I will grant my two witnesses power to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth” (Rev. 11:3).

It is noteworthy that St. James equates a series of physical actions with humbling oneself before the Lord, and he is telling that to people who are already Christian. It is often assumed that such activities don’t apply to Christians, but St. James seems to think otherwise. Of course, if we find the penitential discipline in the Old Testament and the New Testament, it goes without saying that it is found throughout the patristic age. Thus, about AD 70, the Didache tells us:

“Before the baptism, let the one baptizing and one to be baptized fast, as also any others who are able. Command the one who is to be baptized to fast beforehand for one or two days…[After becoming a Christian] do not let your fasts be with the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday, but you shall fast on Wednesday and Friday” (Didache 7:1, 8:1).

And others:

“You, therefore, who laid the foundation of the rebellion [in your church], submit to the presbyters and be chastened to repentance, bending your knees in a spirit of humility” (Letter to the Corinthians 57, Clement, AD 80).

“For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that may live according to Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3, Ignatius, AD 110).

“In regard to days of fast, many think that they should not be present at the sacrificial prayers [at the Eucharist], because their fast would be broken if they were to receive the Body of the Lord. Does the Eucharist, then, obviate a work devoted to God, or does it bind it more to God? Will not your fast be more solemn if, in addition, you have stood at God’s altar? The Body of the Lord having been received and reserved, each point is secured: both the participation in the sacrifice and the discharge of duty [concerning fasting]” (Prayer 19:1-4, Tertullian, AD 203).

“Sinners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion” (Letters 9:2, Cyprian, AD 253).

“If the serpent, the devil, bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and does not want to confess his wound…then his brother and his master, who have the word [of absolution] that will cure him, cannot very well assist him” (Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:11, Jerome, AD 388).

“When you shall have been baptized, keep to a good life in the commandments of God so that you may preserve your baptism to the very end. I do not tell you that you will live here without sin, but they are venial sins, which this life is never without. Baptism was instituted for all sins. For light sins, without which we cannot live, prayer was instituted…But do not commit those sins on account of which you would have to separated from the body of Christ. Perish the thought! For those whom you see [at the church] doing penance have committed crimes, either adultery or some other enormities. That is why they are doing penance. If their sins were light, daily prayer would suffice to blot them out…In the Church, therefore, there are three ways in which sins are forgiven: in baptism, in prayer, and in the greater humility of penance” (Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed 7:15, 8:16, Augustine, AD 395).

(1) “By suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity [on account of] which he suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of his life which he laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured, as stated above. And therefore Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2: “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” (St. Thomas Aquinas; Summa Theologica III:48:2)

“The Christian tradition sees in this passage [Gen. 3:15] an announcement of the ‘New Adam’ who, because he ‘became obedient unto death, even death on a cross,’ makes amends superabundantly for the disobedience of Adam.” (CCC 411)

(2) We know Moses was forgiven because he later shows up on the Mount of Transfiguration.


~ by Rob on August 8, 2007.

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