Distinguishing Between Repentance and Penance

Janet Aucoin May 7, 2022


  1. What is repentance?
  2. Greek English Lexicon: “change one’s mind” “feel remorse, repent, be converted”
  3. Michael Lawrence: Repenting means exchanging our idols for God. Before it’s a change in behavior, it must be a change in worship… Repentance means hating what we formerly loved and served—our idols—and turning away from them.
  4. Stephen Witmer: Repenting means experiencing a change of mind that now sees God as true and beautiful and worthy of all our praise and all our obedience.
  5. Chris Brauns: Biblically, to repent means to change behavior as a result of a complete change of thinking and attitude.
  6. What is penance?

Yourdictionary.com: “self-punishment done to try to right a wrong, or the receipt of absolution from sins from a priest by fulfilling some requirement.” “an act of self-mortification or devotion performed voluntarily to show sorrow for sin or other wrongdoing.” “voluntary self-imposed punishment for a sinful act or wrongdoing. It may be intended to serve as reparation for the act.”

It’s a way to pay for our sins, to make up for them – opposite motive of restitution, which we’ll look at. Important to remember the motive/purpose behind the activity.

Michael Lawrence: “Too often we treat repentance as a call to clean up our lives. We do good to make up for the bad. We try to even the scale, or even push it back to the positive side. Sometimes we talk about repentance as if it were a really serious, religious New Year’s resolution.”

Heather Starkweather:

“Self-harm can be motivated by unresolved guilt = seek to punish themselves as a form of penance. They deserve punishment and see self-harm as a means to rectify the sin. Rom 7:11 – deceived.”

  1. The Motive of Penance
  2. Wrong theology
  1. Pride
    1. Minimizing of sin effect
  1. Justification of self/self-righteousness

Ligon Duncan : “In this passage (Matt 19), Jesus exposes the rich young ruler’s self-righteousness. He thought he we keeping the commandments. But in reality, the rich young ruler was failing to love his neighbor by valuing his personal possessions and wealth more than his neighbor’s good…

As the following context makes clear, Jesus isn’t teaching justification by works. He’s exposing the self-righteousness of the lawyer. In fact, the lawyer’s response demonstrates just how well Jesus has exposed his heart. As Luke records, the lawyer, “wishing to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”

This question reveals a great deal about the lawyer in particular and about legalists in general. While legalists are fastidious about keeping the law, they’re also always looking for loopholes to avoid Scripture’s intrusion into their life (cf. Mark 7:1–13). In response to the lawyer’s evasive and self-justifying question, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.”

Romans 3:19-20

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

Galatians 2:21

I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”

Galatians 3:24

Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.

  1. Where do restitution and consequences fit?

Restitution defined:


Restitution means the restoration of something stolen or lost back to the proper owner. It can also be defined as the recompense for injury or loss by the person responsible for the injury or loss.

Chris Brauns:

Discipline is the loving correction of a parent. Penalty is the price required for the offense. If you are a believer, the purpose of God’s discipline is not to inflict upon you the punishment you deserve. If that were the case, then God would send you to hell.

Chris Brauns:

Consequences are important for the sake of justice. A willingness to accept consequences for sinful behavior is actually good evidence that the offender truly is repentant.

  1. Understanding the difference

While it may include similar behaviors, the motives are exactly OPPOSITE.

  1. Confession (1 John 1:9)
  2. Praise (Heb 4:16, Eph 2:4-5)
  3. Gratitude
    1. Walk worthy (Eph 4:1b)
    2. Joyful restitution (Luke 19:8-9a)
  1. What are some of the results of not getting this right?
  2. False converts.
  3. Wrong view of forgiveness.

Chris Brauns: In biblical forgiveness, the forgiving person pays the price of forgiveness… Forgiveness is a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.

  1. Blinds us to our need to repent
  1. Growing in biblical repentance
  1. Remove the idols of our hearts. Be ruthless!
  1. Recognize the fruit.
  2. A change of heart

Biblical examples

Psalm 51 David

1 Sam 15:10-31 Saul

Isaiah 58

  1. A change of behavior

Possible indicators of what penance sounds like in the counseling room:

Self-pity side of the pendulum

  1. I can’t believe I did that!
  2. That’s not like me.
  3. I’m better than that.
  4. Despair when faced with their sin
  5. I don’t deserve to be forgiven. I’m so bad.
  6. I’ll make up for that.
  7. Focus on how their failure reflects on who they are and how they think of themselves

Self-righteous side of the pendulum

  1. At least I don’t ________.
  2. Listing all of the ways they are a good Christian
  3. I deserve what I’m desiring because I’ve earned it.
  4. God isn’t fair.
  5. Focus on others’ sins more than their own

Penance behaviors

  1. Desire to quickly acknowledge they could do better and then focus on better performance
  2. Work hard to make up for sin
  3. Giving time/money/talent so they’ll feel better
  4. Obedience with a lack of love
  5. Prayer focused on sharing with God how they are seeking to obey vs focused on adoring Christ


We prefer penance to repentance because then we can be “done.” I’ve made up for it and now I can feel good about me. Repentance acknowledges I owe ALL to Christ. Penance is manageable.

Illustration: Self-righteousness/self-pity pendulum


Michael Lawrence, November 7, 2017, “False Repentance Leads to False Conversions”; https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/false-repentance-leads-to-false-conversions/

Piper and Keller: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/piper-and-keller-wrestle-with-sanctification

Stephen Witmer: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/unless-you-stop-loving-sin

Chris Brauns: Unpacking Forgiveness

Ligon Duncan: http://t4g.org/media/2018/04/the-whole-in-our-holiness/; https://www.9marks.org/article/the-whole-in-our-holiness/

Janet Aucoin


Janet is the Director of Women's Ministry at Faith Church (Lafayette, IN); Host of the Joyful Journey Podcast (helping women learn that when you choose truth you choose joy); ACBC certified; teacher in Faith Community Institute; Coordinator of FBS seminary wives fellowship, retreat and conference speaker; B.S. Human Resources, University of South Florida.