by Heather Green
At Christ Lutheran, the order of worship usually begins with the confession of sins, by Pastor Ray making the following statement: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” The congregation responds with, “But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We then silently confess our sins and Pastor Ray, “as a called and ordained Servant of the Word,” forgives our sins, “in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The order of worship does not specifically use the word “repentance,” although that is what we are doing by confessing and acknowledging our sins.
In conversation, penance is often used interchangeably with repentance although the words differ in meaning. To keep it simple, repentance is the “activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs, which is accompanied by commitment to change for the better,” whereas penance is “repentance of sins, as well as an alternate name for the Lutheran sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession.”
As Lutherans, we tend to associate penance with the pre-Reformation Catholic practice of paying indulgences or doing “acts” to assuage one’s conscience and “prove” a person wanted forgiveness. My dad (I should note here that my parents recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary) likens indulgences to storing up brownie points with your wife because sooner or later you’re going to mess up and need them. The practice of selling indulgences for penance was grossly abused and was one of the main reasons Luther tried to reform the Catholic Church. He believed, as we continue to believe as Lutherans, that we are saved by “justification of faith through grace” and that there was absolutely no basis of paying for penance in the Bible. Because of Jesus Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross we have an enduring forgiveness of sin.
Furthermore, Luther believed that confession should be a private matter between the believer and God, which is why we still have the silent confession of our sins during Church services. Public acts of penance as many denominations still observe, especially during specific times of the year such as Lent, are merely a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice and personal denials but are not necessary to obtain absolution.