Penance and Duty

Recently I posted on fasting.  It raised the question of whether fasting was optional or obligatory.  Also whether it is sacramental or … I don’t know what.  A response to the post (in Facebook) brought up penance, suggesting that Lent is a season of penance (a popular notion) and that fasting is part of penance.  I wonder.

Penance is a discipline imposed by church / ecclesiastical authority.    No matter how you twist it, this is the bottom line of penance.   By the time of Luther penance had developed into satisfaction for venial sins, sins that do not lead to death. Penance became that which atoned for our guilt.  There’s no whitewashing this.  This is heresy.  As Lutherans we reject the teaching that imposed penance justifies us before God.  Penance does not atone for our guilt.  It does not satisfy the demands of the Law or the sentence the Law gives.

So let us expel the immoral brother in order to save him.  That is, let us expel the heresy in order to save penance. Why save penance?  Because it is good and useful for godly training and encouragement.  It is true that penance does not cleanse us from sin or the guilt of sin, and neither does is satisfy the consequences of sin.  But penance is still good.  It reminds the sinner that he is not his own.  He belongs to another.  He does not live to himself and he does not die to himself.  If he suffers, the whole Body suffers.  It is good to assign penance to the penitent. Not to satisfy guilt or assuage God’s wrath, but to encourage, exhort, rebuke, and build up.  Consider that the highest penance is excommunication.

Excommunication is not imposed to relieve guilt or satisfy the Law.  It is imposed to discipline, to train the sinner in the ways of righteousness. But this is extreme.  There are lesser penance.  Say, for example, imposing on the adulterer who cheats on his wife with virtual women to cancel his internet subscription for a set time. If he needs the internet, he can use the church’s (or some similar arrangement).  Or for the woman who cannot control her anger at her children, give her the penance of reading the Table of Duties in the morning, at noon, and at night?  These are ecclesiastically imposed disciplines for the purposes of training the faithful in the ways of righteousness.  The sinner is forgiven by God’s grace (presumably coming to Confession where forgiveness is given and penance is assigned).  The penance does not merit anything.  It trains.  Some is severe, some is less so.

So what of fasting and other such spiritual exercises like prayer?  They can be penance.  The sinner who is tempted by gluttony can be assigned a fast (pastors be wary of health issues).  The sinner who is tempted by greed may be given penance of increased alms giving.  But again, as penance these things do not change our status corum Deo, before the face of God.  And neither do they come without the sinner confessing his sin.  They are not imposed because we think a person could benefit from them, but because the person has confessed specific sins and so can benefit from specific penance.  But Lenten fasting is not penance.  Neither is alms giving.  Penance is a specific discipline for a specific temptation/sin of a specific person.  Fasting is commanded by our Lord for all.  Alms giving is commanded for all.  Prayer is commanded for all.

So if they are not penance, what are they?  They are the duty of the Christian.

Consider a mother.  A mother does not consider (or should not!) that changing a diaper is penance for having a baby or for feeding her baby.  Changing the diaper is her duty.  Not merely done under compulsion (though that may depend on the stank of the diaper), but in love.  She loves her baby and so cares for him, part of which is diaper changing.  Or consider a father.  A father doesn’t play with his children as penance for having children, but out of duty of being a father.  Again, this is not a burdensome duty but a loving duty that the father carries out happily.  It is a gross confusion that equates duty or obligation with suffering and negative attitudes.  It is the duty of a father to teach his children. That doesn’t mean he can’t be excited about teaching them.

So with fasting, alms giving, and prayer.  As our Christian duty they are not penance assigned to sinners (though they can be).  They are our duty as Christians.  Why? In service to God and neighbor.  I do not fast to assuage God’s wrath or to satisfy the Law or to remove guilt.  I fast because our Lord says, “When you fast…”  My Lord teaches me in fasting.  By fasting I worship (serve) Him by confessing that He provides all I need to support this body and life (among other nuanced confessions).  Through fasting my Lord teaches me to have faith in Him and fervent love for my neighbor (sound familiar?  It should.).  So to with alms giving and prayer.

So I’m not so sure fasting, alms giving, or prayer (things that are done year round, but heightened in Lent) are penance.  They can be in some situations, but as the Body of Christ they are not.  They are our duty. They are part of thanking and praising, serving and obeying Him.  This is most certainly true.


2 Responses

  1. May I suggest to you Thomas Merton’s excellent essay “Ash Wednesday” in WORSHIP. You can search at CTSFW Walther.

  2. Penance is I would argue, only properly understood when it is an act of love.

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