Since the times of the Old Testament, believers in God have practiced what we know as ‘Penitence’, which is a demonstration of sorrow and repentance for our sins, before God and the believing community around us.
Generally, repentant people used to dress in rough clothes made of goat or camel’s hair instead of their everyday clothes, and cover themselves with ashes, as a sign of remorse and humility before God (Matthew 11:21; Jonah 3:5-7). The practice of Fasting used also to be part of this mortification process; and God listened to those who repented in such a way (Jonah 3:10).
This practiced used to reflect our discomfort with our sinfulness and the fact that we have come to realize our evil and were sorry for them.
In the time of the Law, this was a normal procedure to demonstrate God our true repentance, and it was an integral part of the reconciliation process.
When the time of Grace and Forgiveness came through the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ; many took the idea that no sign of ‘repentance’ is necessary, since we are ‘all-forgiven’. For this reason, many reject any kind of discomfort or even fasting, if its related to any show of repentance, because in fact, they even reject the idea that we need to repent, since we are totally forgiven, even for future sins.
However, fasting was openly practiced by the Apostles of the Lord (Luke 5:34-35), and also by the first Christians (Acts 13:2), and it would be probable, that also the ancient wearing of sack clothes and ashes was practiced as well.
The problem starts in the understanding of this practice.
During the Obscurantism, when people had forgotten about Grace and relied heavily on their own ‘justice and holiness’ to approach God; Penitence became a way to repay God for the consequences of their sins, by intaking the pain of the damage caused. The more sins a person committed, the more penitence was required to ‘re-pay’ our evil, to God and the world around us. And if we did too much, as if it was currency, it could be stored on our spiritual credit to be distributed freely over those who had none or not enough.
This idea, that persists even today in many forms of Christianity, widespread mostly in the Western world, being ‘purgatory’ the utmost perfect example of mortification in payment of our sin’s consequences.
THE PLACE OF PENITENCE IN CHRISTIANITY
The Bible teaches that Jesus paid for all our sins, so much for the actions committed, as well as for the consequences of them. His atoning sacrifice was perfect and complete (Matthew 26:28; John 1:29; 1John 2:2).
Speaking about the atonement value, St Paul said:
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
In other words, the Father put on Jesus the whole weight of our sinfulness, in order that through his atonement, we may become free from all that evil and its consequences, so much, that we will be considered ‘Righteous’ according to God’s will.
If the consequences of our evil were going to hold as unpaid even after we were granted forgiveness, then the atonement of Lord Jesus would have been incomplete. And, if as some say, no impure things can enter Heaven, and therefore we need to be totally ‘purified’ either in this life or the next, through some kind of atoning discomfort, then the sacrifice of Jesus would not render us ‘Righteous’ before God. The atoning of our sins would be a cooperation of God-human effort, and not God alone. But Jesus said:
“What can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
No act of self-mortification can pay for any sin or consequence of sin to God. Our incapability to rescue ourselves is what motivated the Vicarious atonement in the first place. However, it can help us to enforce the will of the soul over the flesh, to submit better to the will of God.
Christians today practice Penitence, as a re-educational act disposed by their spiritual advisors or on their own free will, not to ‘gain’ divine favour or forgiveness, but as a disciplinary measure to personal betterment before God.
Usually this penitential acts, look to submit the bodily impulses to the will of the spirit, like fasting; or in other occasions they can repair the damage we have caused to others in this life, like confessing a lie or returning a stolen product or money. But never, under any circumstance, it is to ‘atone’ for the guilt of our sins or its spiritual consequences. There is no value in our personal life to ‘give back’ for the sins we have committed and the destructive consequences of them. God knew that, and that is why he presented the solution in the sempiternal atonement of Jesus Christ.
"With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."