The Real Meaning of Lenten Penance

ashes, Lent

We Catholics are familiar with Lent as a time of fasting and penance. We are told every year that during this time we ought to abstain from a habit that is not beneficial for us and to take up a more fruitful spiritual practice. We are also obliged to abstain from meat and to fast. It is likely that there are many people who have engaged in their Lenten observances for years without ever knowing the reason why Lent is a time for such things. So, what is the purpose of these annual Lenten observances? One hymn from the breviary puts the answer this way,

“As you did hunger and did thirst, so teach us, gracious Lord, to die to self and so to live by your most holy word. Abide with us that through this life… an Easter of unending joy we may obtain.”[i]

The point of our Lenten observances is not that food, meat, watching T.V. or whatever other habit given up are necessarily bad (though some habits might indeed be bad), the point is that we need to renew the trajectory of our lives to ensure that we are living according to the word of the Father. Lent is a time to grow closer to the Lord by getting our priorities straight and detaching ourselves from worldly things, (again, not because they are necessarily bad per se) in order to attach ourselves to the things of Heaven. Jesus tells us that we must take up our crosses and follow Him if we are to be worthy of Him (Luke 14: 17). So Lent is a time to offer little sacrifices to God in the form of penance and discipline in order to better conform ourselves to His desires for how we should live. Some may ask, can the disciplines taken up during Lent really assist in our salvation? More broadly, can any action we take play any part in drawing us closer to God and salvation like the hymn above suggests?

Salvation Declaration

This question is rooted in the Protestant view of justification. For Protestants, justification is known as a “forensic declaration.” What this means is that justification[ii] is solely the working of God by which He declares a man to be righteous regardless of his current interior disposition and any virtues he may or may not possess. Protestants are keen to maintain that justification is totally and unequivocally the work of God in which man plays no part. The Protestant position maintains that any sort of interior change in man and positive change in his moral character is an outgrowth or a fruit of God’s declaration, but it is not essential to man’s actually being justified before God. The only thing essential to justification is faith and faith defined by Martin Luther is,”a living bold trust in God’s grace.” And faith is a pure gift from God which has nothing to do with man’s own actions in the slightest.

One of the main texts Protestants use to back up their claims is Romans 4: 1-4. In this text St. Paul speaks of how Abraham attained justification not by works but by faith that was counted to him as righteousness by God. So it seems then, that if justification is a forensic declaration like many Protestants believe, then there is no room for a man in the workings of salvation, which is to say we contribute nothing to our own salvation. Our Lenten disciplines then, from this perspective, might seem misguided at best and sacrilegious at worst. But is it in accord with the Catholic faith to say that justification is a forensic declaration? If not, then maybe our Lenten disciplines can be efficacious after all.

Be Perfect as Your Father in Heaven

The Catechism states that “Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. In faith, the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace.” The catechism says further that “It [Justification] conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom.” So justification, for Catholics, is not merely about a declaration from God but about the interior renewal of man that makes us true children of God. This renewal is done by the grace of God and is not the result of any human effort, but it also requires the cooperation of man.

Indeed, many passages of scripture seem to be problematic assuming a forensic view of justification. Jesus says that not everyone that calls him Lord will enter heaven, but rather those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21). He also tells us that our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and that we must be like children if we are to enter the Kingdom (Matthew 5:20; 18:3). Our Lord also says that we must be “born again” if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven (John 3:3). And St. Paul himself says that we must “put on the new man” and be “renewed in the spirit of the mind” (Ephesians 4: 23-24). And lastly, Jesus tells St. Peter that he has prayed for Peter so that his faith “might not fail” and so that he can confirm his brethren (Luke 22:32).

Now, the images above are highly invocative of interior renewal. St. Paul explicitly states that interior renewal is what the Christian life necessitates. The image of being born again brings to the mind the idea of interior regeneration as does Jesus’ declaration that we need to be like children and have greater righteousness than the Pharisees. Further, Jesus’ telling Peter that his “faith might fail” is very critical. If faith and, therefore, justification do not require human effort or cooperation in the slightest, as the Protestants hold, then how can it be possible for a man’s faith to fail? If I am justified by a declaration of God irrespective of my interior state, and this justification is a result of faith that also does not depend either on any effort of mine or my interior state and God is the sole author of faith and justification, then we must say that if faith fails then God has failed. If one maintains that human effort does not play any part in justification, then there does not seem to be a way of escaping this problem. But, it is impossible for God to fail so the understanding of faith as purely forensic must be mistaken.[iii]


So what does all of this mean for our Lenten disciplines? This means that our Lenten disciplines are our participation in our salvation. It is our way of not merely saying “Lord, Lord” but doing the will of the Father. We should not be proud or boastful, though, because even these disciplines and penances are efficacious only by the grace of God, but they are truly human acts as well. This is why the time of Lent is so important and we ought to take our penances seriously. We ought to see that we should not just seek to fast and do good works for forty days, but rather, for all the days of our lives. In that way, we can work out our salvation by the grace of God and strive to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

[i] Tune: St. Flavian C.M. Music: Day’s Psalter, 1562 Text: Claudia Hernaman 1838-1898.

[ii] By justification, I mean a state in which one is considered righteous by God and all of one’s sins have been “blotted out.”

[iii] There is much more that could be said for both the Catholic and Protestant views of faith and justification. I merely present them in summary form here to highlight the importance of our Lenten penances which presuppose the Catholic view of justification and faith over and above the Protestant understanding. I do plan on making the subject of justification a column in its own right in the future.

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2 thoughts on “The Real Meaning of Lenten Penance”

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