Protestants Do Penance Too

Protestants are generally suspicious of Catholics. I often hear concern that Catholics work to earn their salvation. In this post, I would like to turn that accusation back on Protestants. We talk a lot about grace, but I’m not convinced that the typical Protestant confidently believes that he doesn’t have to earn his own salvation.

Ask yourself this question: What do you do when you sin? Remember Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and immediately hold to the grace and forgiveness he offers? That’s the right answer, but is that really your first response? Can you tell me honestly that this comes to you naturally? I doubt it.

Most of us take a little time after falling into sin. We recognize that we have just dishonored God, so we’re careful not to approach him too immediately. Let’s wait till the dust settles. Let’s clean ourselves up a bit.

I would say that most of us live right there. We have a post-sin detox period before we’ll let the gospel kick in. Yes, Jesus died for my sins, but I just engaged in this sin. I’m not gospel-worthy yet. I hope you see the oxymoron in that line of thinking. There’s no such thing as “gospel-worthy.” Whether your latest bout with sin took place five seconds or five years ago, you don’t deserve the gospel. Grace should not be wasted on you.

And yet it was precisely while we were sinners that Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). You are not gospel-worthy, but when has that ever stopped God from loving you? When has that ever held back God’s grace? Our delay in approaching God for his grace and forgiveness is a childish game at best, and damning at worst.

Many of us aren’t content with a waiting period before we can re-approach God. We sin, recognize immediately that we’ve done something incredibly stupid and offensive to God, and then we beat ourselves up a bit. How could I be such a fool? I promised myself that I wouldn’t be back in this position again! How could I have let this happen? And so we punish ourselves. We talk down to ourselves. We reinforce our rules and tighten up our boundaries.

Do you realize that the gospel means that you are not punished for your sin? That when you beat yourself up over what you’ve done wrong you’re actually proclaiming that you do not believe the gospel? This sort of thinking is antithetical to grace.

That’s the worst part. But Paul is also clear that this approach to dealing with sin is useless:

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)

Worthless.

Do you best. Work harder. If you’re not getting results, redouble your efforts. When that doesn’t work, tighten up the rules. When you can’t keep those, punish yourself a bit. Deprive yourself. Degrade yourself. Be ruthless with yourself.

And when all of that fails, realize that it was all futile from the start. This isn’t the gospel. The gospel speaks to sinners. The gospel proclaims God’s grace, not our goodness. The gospel offers forgiveness to those who don’t deserve it. It calls us away from our own efforts and points to hope in Christ.

So don’t be slow to accept God’s grace. It’s for you. It is designed for sinners. There is no gospel for the self-righteous, the sinless, the unbroken. Nor is there a gospel for the self-punishing, for those who have done their own Protestant form of penance.

Here’s a handy little rule of thumb to help you test your trust in God’s grace: your understanding of the gospel is inversely proportional to the amount of time it takes you to return to God after engaging in sin.

 

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