ON DOING PENANCE FOR OUR SINS
Consider first, that sentence of our Lord, Luke xiii. 5, ‘Except you do penance, you shall all perish.’ The virtue of penance always was, is, and ever will be absolutely necessary for every soul that has at any time in life fallen from God by wilful sin. ‘Tis the only plank that can save them after the shipwreck they have made of their innocence. ‘Aut paenitendum aut ardendum,’ says an ancient father, ‘either penance, or hell-fire;’ there is no medium for wilful sinners, they must choose one of the two. Sin must be punished either here or hereafter; either by the penitent sinner or by divine justice. Hence the preaching of penance to such as had fallen from God by sin was the great subject of the commission of the prophets, in the Old Testament, and of the Apostles and all apostolic preachers in the New. Hence it was by preaching of penance, and of the necessity of bringing forth worthy fruits of penance, that St. John the Baptist was to prepare the people for Christ, Matt. iii.; and our Lord himself opened his mission with the same theme, Matt. iv. Because there can be no other way of coming to God and a happy eternity but either the way of innocence; or, when we have strayed from this, the way of penance.
Consider 2ndly, that this virtue of penance does not only require of us that we should turn from sin to God by a change of heart and by a change of life; but also that we should labour to make satisfaction to the divine justice, by voluntary mortifications of the flesh, and other penitential exercises, for all the injuries and affronts we have offered him by our sins; and that, by this means, we should endeavour to discharge, according to our weak ability, the debt we owe to God for them. This is properly doing penance for our sins, this is what divine justice always expects, this is what the Church of God has always called for from penitent sinners. We cannot be true penitents without hating and detesting our sins above all evils, because they offend a God infinitely good; now this of necessity infers a hatred for this traitorous self-love of ours, and for all its irregular inclinations and passions, as enemies of God and the soul, and especially a hatred for this sinful flesh, that is so apt to betray us into this dreadful evil of sin. And hence again naturally flows, in all true penitents, a sincere and effectual desire of chastising this flesh by penitential exercises, and thereby doing their best to make satisfaction for their sins. This is, and ever was, one necessary ingredient of that virtue of penance without which the sinner could never be reconciled to an offended God.
Consider 3rdly, how much this way of doing penance for our sins is inculcated in Holy Writ, where we are so often put in mind of turning to God with fasting, weeping, and mourning, of doing penance in sackcloth and ashes, and the like, and where we meet with divers instances of the mercy and favour God is pleased to show to all such as exercise themselves in these voluntary mortifications and humiliations of the flesh, when they are accompanied, as they ought to be, by a penitential spirit. Here also we learn, that no assurance we can possibly have of the remission of our sins, is to exempt us from doing penance for them, when you see that King David, notwithstanding the prophet had assured him that ‘the Lord had taken away his sin,’ (2 Sam. xii. 13,) yet still continued to do penance for it, as we find by his penitential psalms, which inform us that his sin was always before him; that every night he washed his couch with his tears; that he laboured in his groans; that he mingled ashes with his bread, and tears with his drink, &c. O let us imitate this glorious penitent.
Conclude, if thou wouldest be a true friend to thy own soul, not to be afraid of hurting this sinful flesh, which is thy greatest enemy; but to keep it In subjection, by voluntary mortifications, and to chastise it for its past misdemeanours, by penitential austerities.