Penance is an act of devotion designed to show sorrow for or repentance of sin. The word penance is mentioned in two Bible translations, the New Living Translation (NLT), a modern-day thought-for-thought version; and the New American Bible (NAB), a Catholic version first published in 1970. In each, the word penance is used in only one passage: “You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD?” (Isaiah 58:5, NLT).
The New American Bible renders the passage this way: “Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” (Isaiah 58:5 NAB).
The more literal Bible translations, such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the English Standard Version (ESV), render this passage similarly: “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?” (Isaiah 58:5, NASB). The word humble replaces penance.
Penance is one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. It is used as a form of discipline or punishment imposed on a person to demonstrate repentance for his or her sins. The Catholics refer to this as “doing penance.” The penitent first confesses his sin(s) to a priest. The penitent is then given instructions on what to do in order to atone for his sins. Usually, penance takes the form of praying certain prayers a specified number of times, fasting, or spending time in front of an altar. This is unbiblical. Nowhere does Scripture teach that performing works or punishing oneself will make restitution for sin. The Bible does teach us to repent (Acts 11:18; Acts 20:21: Luke 15:7). To repent means to have a change of mind or a change in attitude toward God. Repentance of sin is accompanied by faith in Jesus Christ; they are inseparable. The Catholic teaching of “doing penance” as a means of atoning for sin or of appeasing God is nowhere taught in the Bible. It is not our works that make us right with God. In fact, our works are considered as nothing more than “filthy rags” in His eyes (Isaiah 64:6). It is the blood of Christ that makes us right: “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14).
The Roman Catholic’s practice of “penance” is unscriptural because it focuses on man’s works in order to be forgiven, not the blood of Jesus and our relationship with Him. John tells us, “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).