Penitence, repentance, penance

The root meaning of penitence is connected with the idea of ‘regret', but is also closely linked with repentance, or being repentant, which has the sense of ‘turning round' or ‘turning away' from a former life and beginning again. Jews and Christians believe it is important to repent of sin and begin a new life lived in obedience to God; this is central to their faith. In the Gospels (Luke 3:3), John the Baptist is shown preparing for the coming of the Messiah by urging people to be baptised as a sign of repentance (see Big ideas: Baptism; Messiah, Christ, Jesus; Sin).


Some Christians believe that, when Christ died on the cross, he made a sacrifice, which paid the necessary price for the sin of humankind. This act of redemption offers salvation to the world (see Big ideas: Atonement and sacrifice; Cross, crucifixion; Death and resurrection; Redemption, salvation). Consequently, God's forgiveness is freely granted to those who do repent (see Big ideas: Forgiveness, mercy and grace). However, some Christians believe that a sincere wish to repent is necessary before the sinner can receive God's forgiveness.

Repentance in literature

In his play Hamlet, Shakespeare shows that the murderer Claudius cannot truly repent because he wishes to keep the throne and queen for which he has killed his brother: ‘Try what repentance can: what can it not? Yet what can it when one cannot repent?'

Acts of penance

In previous centuries, it was more common than it is nowadays to perform public acts of penance. These were acts of humiliation undertaken as a penalty for sin and to show true penitence. Examples include walking in a public place barefoot or wearing sackcloth, or by the person approaching a holy place on their knees.

Historically, there have been instances of leading figures in society undertaking such public penance. For example, when King Henry II was implicated in the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, he walked barefoot, clothed in sackcloth and covered with ashes, to Canterbury Cathedral where he was flogged by the monks. Processions of robed and hooded penitents are still a common sight today in Spain during Holy Week.

Expressing penitence

ConfessionalsNowadays penitence is usually indicated by confession of sins, whether in public or in private. The Book of Common Prayer, used for over four centuries in the Church of England, urges worshippers to,

‘confess our sins with an humble, lowly, penitent and obedient heart'.

A modern version asks the congregation to,

‘confess our sins, in penitence and faith, firmly resolved to keep God's commandments and to live in love and peace with all men.'

(See also Liturgy Morning Prayer:Confession.)

Penitence in literature

Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

In his novel The Scarlet Letter, set in Massachusetts, America, in the seventeenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne shows how outward signs of penitence, imposed by church officials, might not reflect the mind and soul of the offender. Hawthorne's heroine, Hester Prynne, is made to wear a scarlet letter ‘A' as a sign of adultery, but she rejects the harsh attitudes of her society and feels no inward penitence.

Related topics

Big ideas: Atonement and sacrifice; Baptism; Cross, crucifixion; Death and resurrection; Forgiveness, mercy and grace; Messiah, Christ, Jesus; Redemption, salvation; Sin

Other cultural references

Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

Shakespeare's Hamlet

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