By David Armstrong
[written in 1995]
Calvin: You know, Joe, you Catholics ought to get rid of penance – punishing yourself to please God. Don’t you know God has already forgiven you?
Joe: We would, Calvin, if the Bible allowed us to, but it teaches that there is a penalty to pay for sin in this life, too. For instance, David had to suffer terribly even though God had forgiven his sin (2 Sam 12:13-14).
Calvin: That’s in the Old Testament, so it doesn’t apply anymore. God is only merciful now.
Joe: That’s just wishful thinking. In Malachi 3:3 God purifies His people “as gold and silver” to make them righteous. He hasn’t changed His mind. In Hebrews 12:6-8 He still “chastens” and “scourges” his “sons.” Jesus commands us to “take up a cross” if we want to follow Him (Mt 10:38, 16:24), and St. Paul wants us to compassionately suffer with fellow Christians (1 Cor 12:26).
Calvin: Well, God can discipline us since that is His prerogative, but the Catholic Church acts like it can give out penalties. Isn’t that an abuse of love and Scripture?
Joe: No, not at all, since the Lord Himself gave St. Peter and the disciples the power and authority to “bind and loose” (Mt 16:19, 18:17-18). St. Paul imposes a penance for the well-being of a straying Christian (1 Cor 5:3-5). Later on, he issues an indulgence by lessening the temporal penance for sin of this same brother (2 Cor 2:6-11). This is all that the word “indulgence” means, despite all the rhetoric against it from Luther and Protestants ever since, absurdly implying that it winks at, or “indulges” sin!
Calvin: But Jesus suffered for us so we wouldn’t have to, as it says in Isaiah 53:4-5.
Joe: He took away the penalty of eternal hellfire for those who obey His will and accept His work as our Redeemer, but not all suffering. That’s a candy-coated gospel. In fact, in a sense, we even
participate in this Redemption, by our intercessory prayers and penitential acts and suffering. St. Paul repeatedly speaks of suffering with Christ, almost in a literal fashion (Rom 8:17, 2 Cor 4:10, Phil 3:10, and especially Col 1:24; cf. 1 Pet 4:1,13). He even considers himself an “offering” (2 Tim 4:6; cf. Ex 32:30-32).
Calvin: Man, you sure quote Scripture like a “Bible-thumping” Protestant! I’ve never seen a Catholic do that! I thought that all your doctrines were gullibly accepted on unquestioned authority and blind faith alone, from the nuns!
Joe: Well, I’ve gotten to know the biblical evidences for my beliefs because I’ve studied the Bible, Catholic catechisms and Catholic apologetic works, which give a biblical defense of Catholic doctrine, along with logical reasons and the history of Christian teaching on any given doctrine. Unfortunately, many Catholics settle for their childhood instruction in the faith and never progress or grow any further by reading and pursuing theological truth on their own.
Calvin: That’s for sure, and many Protestants do the same. But on our subject, I still don’t understand the purpose of penance. Why can’t God just forgive and be done with it?
Joe: He could, but penance is for our benefit, due to our stubbornness and rebelliousness. Sin causes a disorder in the universe, and Justice requires that it be punished. You know, Calvin, even your own life is an illustration of this spiritual principle. You’re in this jail, and have a broken arm and suspended driver’s license due to the sin of drunk driving. This is your “penance,” in a legal, secular sense.
Calvin: But I’m very sorry and the judge believes I’m sincere and will reform my behavior.
Joe: That’s the whole point. You have “repented,” but still a penalty must be paid for your own good and society’s. Even though the judge likes you, he is bound by law to jail you for a time. That’s how it is with God and sin, since He is perfectly holy. Purgatory continues the process after death, until finally we enter into Heaven, for which all our sufferings have prepared us (Rom 8:18, Heb 12:14, Rev 21:4).
Calvin: I still have trouble with this whole idea because it seems to me to be perverting the grace of God and making us do works in order to be saved (Eph 2:8-9). That’s a losing battle because none of us can be good enough (Ps 53:3).
Joe: You’re constructing a false dichotomy: Because God is perfectly good, therefore we cannot be good at all. But the Bible teaches that we can cooperate with God in our salvation, even though all grace and good always comes from Him (Eph 2:10, 1 Cor 3:9, Phil 2:13). Grace is entirely God’s work, but that doesn’t make us mere puppets or robots. The Council of Trent declared that:
“Neither is this satisfaction so our own as not to be through Jesus Christ. For we can do nothing of ourselves; He cooperating strengthens us (Phil 4:13) . . . No Catholic ever thought that, by this kind of satisfactions on our parts, the efficacy of the merit and of the satisfaction of our Lord Jesus Christ is either obscured or in any way lessened.”
(On the Sacrament of Penance, chap. 8, session 14, November 25, 1551)