True penance is not to commit things worthy of repentance but to lament what has been committed. But since this is annulled by the weakness of many, not to say of all, the measures of penance must be known.
- Columbanus, Penitential, Irish, 7th century
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
- Romans 12.21
The Scriptures are clear that Christians are to be holy, as their heavenly Father is holy, and that, in the fear of Him, we must strive to bring holiness to completion day by day (Matt. 5.48; 2 Cor. 7.1). Not that we expect to be made completely holy in this life, but knowing that holiness in the Lord is our ultimate destination, we strive to prepare for that great day by bringing holiness to ever-greater measure of completion in our lives.
And to help us in this holy calling, God has given us the discipline of penance.
He has also given us His Holy Spirit, Who rewrites His holy and righteous and good Law on our hearts (Rom. 7.12; Ezek. 36.26, 27), and uses all His Holy Word to transform us from glory to glory into the holy image of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3.12-18).
Our duty is to take up and submit to these resources – Scripture, the Spirit, and the practice of penance – so that we might learn Jesus and overcome the sinful ways of our former lives (Eph. 4.17-24).
This does not imply that, by diligently working out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2.13), we somehow become holy with a holiness we have achieved or sustain by our efforts. Rather, the effort we must make is that of continually repenting and turning away from sin, to make room for the Spirit of God – the Holy Spirit of God – to stretch out in us, with all His mind, fruit, gifts, and power (Eph. 3.20; Phil. 2.13; Rom. 8.5-9; Gal. 5.22, 23; 1 Cor. 12.7-11; Acts 1.8).
Celtic Christians were serious about holiness. They pursued it earnestly through the rigorous observation of spiritual disciplines, and by working together in common mission for the Lord. They encouraged one another in becoming holy. And whenever sin found its way into their lives, they submitted to the discipline of penance, to be cleansed, purged, restored, renewed, and set back on the right course. For Celtic Christians, penance was a discipline – like prayer or fasting or meditation – and not a sacrament.
Celtic Christians tailored the spiritual discipline of penance to individual needs, to help those convicted of sin overcome whatever was hindering the pursuit of holiness, and to restore them to the path of following the Lord once again.
These days we don’t talk much about sin. Whenever someone is found guilty of sin, he may sincerely apologize and express remorse. But is he appalled at the depths of his sin, or sad because now he’ll have to give it up? And do we, like John the Baptist, insist on proof of repentance (Matt. 3.8)?
It’s hard to tell, since we rarely even get to the point of confronting people with their sin.
We’re almost as reticent about disciplines, and leading a disciplined life. Little evidence exists indicating that the practice of penance is operating in churches today. If we dare to confront a sinner with his transgression, we receive his apology and try to get back to normal as soon as we can.
The Celtic Christians would say, “Not so fast.” Their goal being holiness – both for the individual and the community – they worked to root out sinful practices and cut new grooves in the souls of sinners, so that they would delight in the Lord and His ways. The slogan animating their use of the discipline of penance was contraries are by contraries cured. That is, someone found to be living in a way that was contrary to the Word of God, would, after confession and repentance, be led to take up ways contrary to that sinful path, thus overcoming evil with good. The “measures of penance” were known to all; thus, all those within the circle of the transgression would know what was being done to redress it, and they could encourage and pray for their friend as he began to walk the path of holiness again.
Celtic Christians wanted to ensure that the tears and confession were genuine, and so, having prescribed a course for restoration, and assigned a soul friend to encourage the penitent, they would watch and pray for the offender for a season, to see if he had taken seriously the regimen of “contrary” behaviors prescribed.
This is how to overcome evil – with good, not just with tears, apologies, and getting on with things, much less saying nothing and hoping either no one will get hurt or the unacceptable behavior will correct itself.
We must recover this discipline of setting our feet straight once again (cf. Ps. 119.59, 60), or the sin that too easily finds safe harbor within the churches of the land will pollute that harbor beyond all repair, until the Church is no longer the salt of the earth, but the stench.
1. What would the practice of penance – overcoming evil with good – look like in your life?
2. Why is it so important that we press on to bring holiness to completion in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7.1)?
Psalm 51.7-13 (Passion Chorale: O Sacred Head Now Wounded)
In Jesus’ blood and mercy, Lord, cleanse my evil heart!
Let me washed, cleansed, renewed be and pure in whole and part.
Bring joy again and gladness; look not upon my sin.
Deliver me from sadness; renew me yet again!
Create in me a clean heart, renew me from within!
Take not Your Spirit from me, beause of all my sin.
Salvation’s joy restore, Lord, and keep me in Your hand;
Thus shall I tell Your strong Word to sinners in the land.
Lord, show me how to walk in the path that You have marked out for my sanctification, and today I will…
The Disciplined Life
Personal Mission Field
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T. M. Moore
All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Walker, p. 169.