Penance, Evangelical Style

By: Dale M. Coulter
Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

554px-Paris_psaulter_gr139_fol136vThe recent episode surrounding Sam Hinn’s confession of a four-year affair and his sudden restoration shows the pastoral necessities of some rite like penance. The brother of well-known televangelist Benny Hinn, Sam Hinn was the pastor of The Gathering Place in Sanford, FL (greater Orlando) when he issued a letter to his church of an indiscretion and resigned his position in January of this year. Since the church had no ties to any larger body, Hinn submitted to a process of restoration led by another Orlando pastor, Ron Johnson.

Evidently, Hinn did not want to complete the two-year process Ron Johnson laid out for him and he was recently “re-ordained” by a group of bishops, including another televangelist Bishop Mark Chironna. Johnson has now publicly denounced Sam Hinn in Charisma and the Orlando Sentinel for stopping the process after only three months.

While there are many issues that these events raise, such as accountability for non-denominational church leaders or the use of the media as a mechanism of church discipline, what interests me most is Johnson’s description of the process of restoration. It  is simply the sacrament of penance or reconciliation by another name and it illustrates the need for some rite within evangelicalism.

In the medieval church, penance contained three basic elements:

  • confession of sin in which the person would go to the priest and reveal sinful thoughts and behaviors
  • contrition or sorrow for sin in which a person would express genuine remorse
  • satisfaction or repayment in which the priest would have the person engage in activities leading to restoration, usually prayer, fasting, and alms giving (some form of service)

If you read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) on penance and reconciliation, these elements remain present although the CCC talks about the difference between interior conversion and exterior acts that demonstrate genuine repentance and desire for reconciliation.

The purpose of this rite or sacrament is to foster holiness of life by providing pastoral care and oversight of sinful behaviors. The church does not forgive, only Jesus does; however, the church extends the forgiveness of Jesus to those who express genuine repentance. Think of John 20:21-23 where Jesus breathes on the disciples and gives them the authority to extend forgiveness in his name to others.

If you look at Ron Johnson’s descriptions of the process of restoration for Sam Hinn all of the basic elements are present. First, there is the public confession (Sam Hinn’s letter to his congregation) accompanied by “deep sorrow and brokenness over sin.”

Confession and Contrition, check.

Then Johnson states: “The Bible teaches that we must bring forth the fruit of repentance (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8). The only way I know if a person has truly repented is not by what he says but by what he does. It is through demonstrating a tested, proven lifestyle of change that I can know. Then and only then can I know it’s real. That is fruit!”

Satisfaction for sins, check!

Lest anyone disagree with the lengthy nature of the process, Johnson makes it clear that the person must fix what is broken and repair the damage. This is all about sanctification and the cultivation of a holy life. If I were to put it in other words, I would say that the disordered desires leading to the adultery in the first place (narcissism, etc.) must be re-ordered, which requires a process of cooperation with the church and the Spirit. At the end of the process, the person is welcomed back as a restored member.

The difference is that evangelicals practice penance without calling it that or thinking of it as a sacrament. It is interesting to me that Sam Hinn’s restoration came in the form of bishops laying hands on him and asking God to anoint, which is a sacramental practice. A sacrament simply is a guaranteed means of encountering God established by Christ either through a command or through precedent. Christ was baptized in water and the Spirit came down, we are baptized in water and we pray that the Spirit hovers over those waters.

Many denominations already have formal procedures in place that spell out the steps in a process of reconciliation for a minister or church member who has fallen into serious sin. For “lesser” sins (lying, etc.), we simply allow the individual to take it to God in prayer and expect that the person will develop a process on his or her own. In more liturgical settings in which confession of sin is a formal part of the liturgy, the minister will pronounce forgiveness over the congregation as a whole.

Another point I might mention is a common practice of re-baptism among low-church Protestants. I have witnessed many re-baptisms. Most of them stem from a desire of the baptismal candidate to formalize his or her re-entrance into the faith. Since there is no other rite to do this within low-church settings, individuals choose the only rite they know: baptism. They want to publicly declare that they have come back to Christ or made a new start in Christ.

My point here is that there is something important about the pastoral practice of penance as a mechanism to bring restoration and cultivate holiness. We already practice it, maybe we should think about solemnizing it in a rite.


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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Tuesday, August 13th, 2013 at 6:57 am and is filed under Church Ministry, Faith & Culture, Spiritual Formation, Theology, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

4 Responses to “Penance, Evangelical Style”

  1. David wine says:

    I also have mixed thoughts about penance. Gods forgiveness is immediate and complete. Mans sometimes never comes.
    If a debt is owed, repayment or forgiveness, really both, are required. One for the offenders benefit, the other for the offended.
    The Bible teaches that the less spiritual are slower to forgive.
    Crawling on stones for a mile or two may be easier than some require today.

  2. Jeremy says:

    I love this posting Dr. Coulter! It has been so amazing to me, as I have encountered the historic practices and beliefs of the Church, how much low churches do the same thing but label it something different. It has also been amazing to me to see how much we might benefit from solemnizing what we practice into rites. However, I think that too many low church people are still far away from even admitting the similarities, much less using language that would suggest a connection with the historic church. It is ironic that we often reject the practices of the historic church only to recover them later when they are “our idea.” I too have thought that the low church could benefit from practices like confession, penance, and even catechism. Of course, these practices have to be held in check with biblical principals but if done right they can greatly improve the life of the body.

  3. Gary says:

    Hi Dr. Coulter,

    I would think any restoration would have to be completed within the community in which the betrayal is committed. A healthy restoration must include the people. In this way the offender and the offended can walk through the healing process.

    I am bothered that Johnson would take his case to Charisma – sounds like manipulation. While I am ignorant of the terms of Johnson plan, two years sounds ridiculous. It is an arbitrary decision that seems to exact its pound of flesh from the offender. Our God is not vindictive though many times his saints are.

    If you are interested in some great insight into the issue, give Ted Haggard a call or the folks from Bethel in Redding, CA. They seem to have a healthy perspective.

    • Thanks for the comments Gary. I don’t know enough about the specifics of the Hinn case to comment on Johnson’s plan. I know length of time can vary depending upon the severity and duration of the offense. It was a four year affair evidently. My main point, however, was that restoration to God includes actions that seek to cooperate in the process of sanctification. Regardless of how long, it does seem that most Protestant churches think restoration for series sins should include some practice akin to penance. If sinful actions destroy character, then the individual needs to cooperate with the Spirit by engaging in righteous acts that rebuild the character. How long does it take to reverse four years of deception, not simply the actions, but the character of a deceiver the individual now possesses by virtue of all those years of acting to deceive? I don’t have a ready answer except to say that forgiveness does not remove the sinful character; it only places one in right standing before God.