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Realizing the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom of God.

Chart a Course

Overcome evil with good.

Repentance and the Conscience (5)

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12.21

Over the years, those Christians who have yielded the most fruit for the Kingdom of God have waged a ferocious and unrelenting battle against sin and unrighteousness.

Consider, for example, the Christians of the Celtic period (ca 430-800 AD). Beginning in Ireland, with the ministry of Patrick, and spreading from there to Wales, Scotland, and most of Europe, a revival of large proportions brought renewal and awakening to people and cultures, pagan and Christian alike. Celtic Christians were fiercely evangelistic, devoted to community and service, and skilled in the creation of supportive communities and glorious cultural artifacts.

Underlying all their fervor and fruitfulness was a compelling vision of Jesus Christ exalted in glory, and a powerful devotion to a deeply spiritual way of life, including an unwavering earnestness about holiness and repentance.

Celtic Christians understood that it is not in the interest of the believing community or the Kingdom of God to allow sin to continue unchecked among the brethren. Especially in Ireland, Celtic communities were built around monasteries, and the disciplined lives of the men and women in monastic orders spilled out into the surrounding communities as well.

One feature of that way of life was the loving use of the discipline of penance to chart a course for righteousness for those who fell into sin.

How it works
For Celtic Christians, penance was not a sacrament, but a discipline. One had to learn it, and then practice it faithfully as needed. Penance was called for as the last step of repentance for recovering the lost path of righteousness.

Once the Spirit of God, working through the conscience, brought a sense of conviction to one who was found to be in sin, and after confessing his sin and repenting sincerely, he would present himself to the local pastor, soul friend in tow, to be prescribed some remedy for the sinful condition. Going to one’s pastor to receive a penitential prescription is frequently equated, in the literature of that period, to going to one’s physician to cure some physical ailment. The idea was that behavior contrary to the Law of God and the best interests of the believer and the community, was corrected by a regimen of disciplines that would, over time, restore the fallen sinner to the path of righteousness.

As several of the existing penitential handbooks from this period summarized the practice, “contraries are cured by contraries.” To overcome sin and evil in one’s life, one had to take up a contrary pattern of spiritual and righteous behavior. This typically consisted of two elements. We must not be overcome by evil, but we must overcome evil with good.

What did this involve?

Restoring righteousness
First, following the Law of God, some restorative behavior was prescribed. So, for example, a person with a sharp or lying tongue might be required to recite certain psalms every day for a specified period, or to join a soul friend in singing psalms and prayers for a portion of every day. Thus, his conscience bound by the Spirit’s leading in righteousness, the repentant sinner would train his mind and heart to realign with the holy and righteous and good purposes of God.

One who had become lazy and irresponsible would be given a regimen of work to do at some place in the community. At the same time, a fast might also be prescribed – not a total abstinence from food, but a selective fast, to be kept for a specified time, often exceeding that of the restorative behavior, to remind the penitent of his discipline and to reinforce his ability to subdue his body for spiritual purposes.

Thus, those ways that were seen to be contrary to the teaching of God’s Word, would be overcome by exercises and practices contrary to sin, and thus more in line with the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.

A discipline, not a sacrament
Penance, as thus practiced, was not a sacrament, and it had nothing to do with earning salvation. Rather, it was a spiritual discipline that came into play whenever wrong behavior needed to be corrected in a member of the community. Contrary behaviors were cured by contrary prescriptions of righteous conduct; Celtic Christians thus worked to overcome the evil in their lives with good conduct, based on the Word of God.

Manuals of penance – like counselor’s handbooks – survive from every century of this period, showing just how serious Celtic Christians were about getting their faith right. The blessing of God that accompanied their efforts – and that, as Thomas Cahill put it, saved civilization – should say to us that there’s something to this practice that could benefit us in our own pursuit of holiness as well.

Practicing restorative behavior like penance will reinforce the conscience and the values and priorities of which it is guardian and caretaker. And a good conscience, bearing faithful witness to the Law of God written on our heart (Rom. 2.14, 15), is crucial for a strong soul.

For reflection
1.  What do you understand by penance? Is this a practice among Christians you know?

2.  What role do one’s fellow believers have in helping him through a time of penance?

3.  How does performing outward behaviors help in renewing and retooling the mind, heart, and conscience?

Next steps – Demonstration: Is there some sin you’ve been struggling to overcome? Chart a course of action for overcoming that evil with good. Commit your course to the Lord, and trust His Spirit to empower you to grow in the Lord.

T. M. Moore

All the installments in this “Strong Souls” series are available in PDF by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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