Why should we do penance if Jesus Christ died for our Sins?

Why should we do penance if Jesus Christ died for our Sins?


To begin with, it deserves to be underscored that in the Economy of Salvation, that is, God’s Plan to save humankind from eternal damnation due to sin, the value of the Paschal Mystery (Christ’s passion, death and resurrection) was more than enough to pay for all our sins. Nevertheless it appears that, even after God has forgiven the eternal consequences of our sins and restored our relationship with him, he wants us to experience some negative consequences. It is like the situation in a family. When, for instance, a child misbehaves, there are consequences. If parents simply tell the child that his fault is forgiven and never apply any discipline, then the child will never learn his lesson. That is why children hear their parents say things like, “It is okay; I forgive you. But you are still punished.” In fact, forgiveness does not do away with the damage.

The Bible uses the image of parental discipline to express how God relates to his children. The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament (Heb. 12:6) tells us that “the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives”. It also tells us that he “disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). Hence even when we have become children of God (through the Sacrament of Baptism) and been forgiven, God still disciplines us. He allows us to experience some consequences for our sins so that we may grow in holiness. That is the reason for which the Christian does penance. As a matter of fact, it is a way of embracing discipline, of learning to do it, to internalize it, and it builds strength and self-control for the future. If we learn how to say “no” to ourselves as part of penance, we will definitely be able to say “no” to temptations that come our way every day and several times a day.

Furthermore, the idea that Christians should not do penance because Christ died for their sins is not found in the Bible. Actually, Christ himself expected his followers to do penance. At one point, he was asked why his disciples did not fast, and he answered that they would do that in the future. Using a parable by way of explanation, he compared himself to the bridegroom at a wedding feast and his disciples to the wedding guests. Jesus pointed out that it is not proper to fast at a wedding celebration, and he went on to say, “The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mark 2:20). This clearly suggests that he expected fasting (a form of penance), and thus penance, to be a regular part of Christian practices. Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:16), he told the disciples, “When you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do”. Here Jesus Christ does not say, “If you fast” but “when you fast.” This points to the fact that he does expect us to fast, and he even gives instructions on how to do it.

In the book of Acts of the Apostles, we see the early Christians putting this into practice. St. Paul’s commission to missionary work occurred after he and other church leaders “were worshiping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2), and later Paul appointed elders “in every church, with prayer and fasting” (Acts 14:23). By voluntarily embracing fasting and other forms of penance, the Christian embraces spiritual discipline that will, as the Letter to the Hebrews emphasizes, help us grow in holiness. And that is one of the reasons why, even though Christ died for us, we still do penance, for it provides us with an opportunity to express sorrow for our sins. We have an innate need to mourn when something tragic has occurred, and that includes the sins we commit daily owing to our sinful or fallen nature inherited from the sin of our forefathers, Adam and Eve.

Both sin and death are disasters, and while forgiveness and salvation mean that they do not have the last word, we still need to grieve. Thus, to put forward that a person should not feel or show any grief for them would be unnatural, and would undermine natural responses that God built into us. There is indeed “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccles. 3:4).

Wishing you all a fruitful Lenten season 2017!


                                                                        Fr. Floribert Ouambe, C.S.Sp