Penance is a particular act, or acts, considered as
satisfaction offered to God as reparation for sin committed.1
Penance may involve mortification, such as wearing
an irritating shirt woven of coarse animal hair,2
prayer (e.g., the Rosary), or a religious
pilgrimage to a shrine of Christ or Mary,3
or any number of other deeds.
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, Jesus
Christ Himself instituted the sacrament of penance for "the pardon of
sins committed after baptism."4
Thus, "In the sacrament of penance, the faithful
obtain from the mercy of God pardon for their sins against Him.…"5
As noted, the sacrament of penance is designed
specifically to deal with sins committed after baptism. Why? Because the
grace that is received or infused in baptism can be entirely lost by
mortal ("deadly") sin. Mortal sin is held to be deadly because it
actually destroys the grace of God within a person, making salvation
necessary again. Thus, a new sacrament (penance) is necessary in order
to restore an individual to the state of grace first received at
In fact, without penance a person cannot be
restored to salvation. For example, penance is related to the concept of
justification in such a way that it actually "restores" the process of
justification. In one sense, this is why the Council of Trent actually
referred to the sacrament of penance as the "second plank" of
Thus, salvation through good works can also be seen in
the doctrine of penance. Because mortal or "deadly" sin cancels the
ongoing process of infusing grace, justification and/or salvation in the
life of the Catholic believer, all these must be restored. Thus, "...the
result of mortal sin is the loss of sanctifying grace, the loss of the
gifts of the Holy Spirit, remorse, and the punitive effect of eternal
separation from God. To avoid these consequences, the reception of
the Sacrament of Penance is required to return to the love of God."7
In other words, apart from performing the
sacrament of penance, a Catholic who commits mortal sin is destined
for eternal punishment in hell. Escaping such a fate results from the
penitent acts of the believer, i.e., a form of salvation by
But none of this is biblical. Biblically, prior to
salvation all sin is mortal. Even the smallest sin is sufficient
to condemn a person eternally. But after salvation no sin
is mortal, no matter how grave, because Christ paid the full divine
penalty for all sin on the cross—and because this complete forgiveness
has been given to the believer. Further, according to Scripture,
salvation is based on God’s grace and election—not personal merit or
works. If salvation is by grace and election, then it depends entirely
on God and therefore no saved person can ever be lost and no
mortal sin can ever cancel a person’s justification.
What this means is that Catholics who believe their
mortal sins are forgiven by the work of penance are being deceived. If
they are truly saved, then their mortal sins—all of them—are already
fully forgiven by the death of Christ solely through their faith in
But if they are not saved, then all the penance
in the world cannot forgive their sins, whether such sins are "mortal"
or the less serious "venial" ones. Biblically, it is faith in Christ
alone which forgives sins—not penance or any other sacrament.8
Although Catholicism maintains that the works of
satisfaction accomplished by the penitent sinner do not give him
intrinsic merit (merit of condignity), they do claim they give him other
merit (merit of congruity). These are works of satisfaction supposedly
done through the power of Jesus and the grace of God. But the key point
is that they are works done by an individual—they are his/her
works and they are meritorious. In the end, it is still my
work and my merit that makes it possible for God to restore me to
the process of justification and/or salvation. In the end it is
something I do that keeps me out of hell.
Biblically, of course, it is the merit of Jesus Christ
alone that reconciles us, justifies us, and assures our entrance
The above discussion proves that Catholicism does
teach salvation occurs, at least in part, through the sacraments—in
other words, works of merit performed by individual Catholics in order
to help secure their own redemption.
The above teachings are why "The sacraments as works
of human merit, which must be mediated through the church, represent a
denial of justification by faith alone and an infringement upon the
sovereign freedom of God."9
But Rome also teaches that sacraments function in
certain ways irrespective of the spiritual condition of the
priest or layperson, functioning ex opere operato; in essence,
they "work by their own working" to "confer grace to the soul":
The effects of sacraments are not dependent upon the attitude or
merits of either the priest or the recipient—contrary to the rule that
holds for all other activities. This is so because the sacramental act
is in essence an act of Christ himself, operating through his servant,
the priest (called "another Christ"). In the words of Pope Paul VI [Mysterium
fidei, no. 38]: "Let no one deny that the sacraments are acts of
Christ,… are holy of themselves, and owing to the virtue of Christ,
they confer grace to the soul as they touch the body."10
But in another sense, the sacraments may be said to
not produce grace. They:
... produce a specific effect (not grace) whenever they are validly
administered, even if they are not received in faith and good will.
This is true of the ["permanent"] "character" conferred by baptism and
holy orders, as well as in the conversion of the elements in the
Eucharist. The Eucharist is viewed as the "total Christ"—that is,
Christ and the church. As such it is a propitiatory sacrifice for the
living and the dead.11
Although Catholicism objects to the occasional
Protestant assertion that the sacraments function as a kind of magic, it
is difficult to deny this charge entirely.12
R. C. Sproul believes it is incorrect to finally
equate the sacraments with magic, but he nevertheless remarks, "...if
you made a serious analysis of the essence of magic and the essence of
the [Catholic] Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, you would find a great
In essence, what the sacraments do effect would seem
to be a form of "mechanical" sanctification.
Regardless, the Council of Trent, whose decrees remain
authoritative, declared as anathema (divinely cursed) anyone who would
deny the seven sacraments of Rome: "If anyone says that the
sacraments...were not all instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ, or that
there are more or less than seven...or that any one of these seven is
not truly and intrinsically a sacrament, let him be anathema."14
Further, "if anyone says that the sacraments... are not necessary for
salvation... and that without them... men obtain from God through faith
alone the grace of justification... let him be anathema."15
Further, Canon Five reads, "If anyone says that
baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation, let him be
In conclusion, the sacraments of Rome are proof that a
system of works salvation is taught and therefore that the Catholic
Church teaches "another Gospel" (Galatians 1:8,9). In the end, salvation
is procured by 1) God’s grace, 2) individual faith and 3) works, i.e.,
1 Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia,
revised and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), p. 254.
3 Ibid., p. 105.
4 Ibid., p. 466; cf., Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma
(Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1975), p. 425.
5 Broderick, ed., p. 467.
6 H. J. Schroeder (Translator), The Canons and Decrees of the
Council of Trent (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1978), p. 102, citing
14th Session, Canon 2.
7 Broderick, ed., p. 402, cf., pp. 466-468.
8 The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is related to penance:
"...its reception completes the effects of the Sacrament of Penance,
removes the remnants of sin, brings grace to the soul, disposes the
recipient to undergo his sufferings with the conscious joining of
these with the sufferings of Christ, and sometimes brings health to
the body." (Ibid., p. 208.)
9 Paul G. Schrotenboer, ed., Roman Catholicism: A Contemporary
Evangelical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), p. 74.
10 Ibid., pp. 68-69, cf. H. M. Carson, Dawn or Twilight? A Study
of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Leicester, England:
InterVarsity Press, 1976), pp. 89-92.
11 Ibid., pp. 68-69.
12 Ibid., pp. 68, 71, 73-74.
13 R. C. Sproul, "What Is a Sacrament?" Transcript of Lecture, nd.,
npp., p. 15. Merely because Catholicism claims that God is the One who
effects the sacraments does not, in and of itself, prove that they
differ in function from the principles of magic. There are many
occultists who also bring God into the picture in their magical
incantations—rituals which can only be said to function ex opere
14 Schroeder, p. 51, citing Seventh Session, Council of Trent,
15 Schroeder, p. 52, citing Seventh Session, Canon 4.
16 Schroeder, p. 53, citing Seventh Session, Canon 5.