A brother asks, “Is it right, after sinning and asking God for forgiveness, to do penance by denying myself some specific pleasure? Am I thinking that God couldn’t do the work alone, or am I simply being serious about sin?”
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Perhaps you are not taking sin seriously enough. At its heart, sin is the human creature’s conscious decision to reject the Creator’s authority, to act as if we were God ourselves instead of a dying lump of animated clay. The enormity of such rebellion is so staggering that only God himself can provide a remedy for sin and a reconciliation for sinners. Our own good deeds can never pay off our debt. We cannot bring God any sacrifice which will atone for our guilt. We will never be able to scrub our hands or hearts sufficiently to clean our moral impurity (Psalm 49:7-9; Isa. 64:6-7; Rom. 6:23). Yet the gospel tells us that God loves his sinful human creatures, and that in Jesus of Nazareth he came among us, took our guilt on himself, personally accepted and absorbed its deathly consequences and, in some unfathomable way, discarded all animosity and set us right with himself (Col. 1:19-23; Titus 2:11-14; 3:3-7; 1 Pet. 2:24).
As we begin to grasp the reality of this gospel truth, we realize that Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s forgiveness are eternally adequate for our need (Isa. 53: 11-12; Heb. 7:25-27). In that light, we see that neither our contributions nor our deprivations can add anything to God’s provision for sin, and that any such attempt insults the only sacrifice which God does accept (Heb. 10:12-14, 26-29). When we sin, we remember that our sin nailed Jesus to the cross — and that God’s merciful forgiveness raised him from the dead (Rom. 4:25). When we repent of sin and confess it to God, he forgives us for the sake of his perfectly-obedient Son (Heb. 10:10; 1 John 2:1-2, 12).
There is a proper place for works — deeds which demonstrate our repentance while relying wholly on the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Repentance means changing our attitude, and we show that by reformed behavior (Jer. 7:1-11; Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20). Repentance without changed conduct rings hollow to both God and man. But our deeds of repentance will never make God love us more than he already does in Jesus Christ. They can only be part of our “thank you” to God for his love poured out in the person and work of the Savior.