Penance or Repentance

Misunderstanding the difference between penance and repentance will bring disaster in a persons life. It is an eternally significant disaster. The Lord revealed this to Martin Luther as he was translating the Greek New Testament and comparing it to the Latin Vulgate,

Luther had been studying the new edition of the Greek New Testament published by the humanist scholar Erasmus. In these studies he had come to realze that the Latin Vulgate, the official chrurch Bible, had misleadingly rendered “repent” in Matthew 4:17 by poenitentiam agite (“do penance”), thus completely misconstruing Jesus' meaning. Luther saw that the Gospel called not for an act of penace but for a radical change of mind that would lead to a deep transformation of life.1

Penance falls short of repentance in many ways. It tends to focus on the external or outward issue of what the sinner has done rather than what the sinner is. It is frequently aimed toward the ecclesiastical body rather than toward God. It tends to elevate the priest as the absolver of sin more than Christ. It deals with the past more than the fiture. It often diverts attention from the real needs of the soul to some relatively inconsequential acts. Thus you can have “penitent thieves” whose penance consists of paying part of their loot to the church, and “holy men” whose garments are alive with vermin they cultivate to mortify the flesh.2


1. Sinclair Furgeson, The Grace of Repentance pp.13-14
2. Richard Owen Roberts, Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel pp. 92-93