Practicing Repentance

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In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when He came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.”

The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:9-15).

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!

With his typical stinginess with words, St. Mark describes the inaugural events in Jesus’ ministry. His rapid-fire approach draws attention from the details of the individual events themselves and focuses on the movement between them: Baptism, temptation, and the proclamation of repentance.

This is the movement of our life in Christ, too. It begins with our Baptism into Christ, which is followed immediately and continuously by temptation. We are not as resilient as Jesus, so the movement in the text takes a slightly different turn for us. Before we proclaim repentance to others, we need to repent ourselves.

Thus Lent. This forty-day season is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to responding to Jesus’ call to repent. This means the movement of our text, is also the movement of our life: Baptism, temptation, and the practice of repentance.

But what does that movement look like in your life?

Likely, for all of you, Baptism has already taken place. You have already been united with Christ in His death and resurrection. You are members of His body, participants in the resurrected life of Jesus Himself. Coming out of the water, you find yourselves in another kind of wilderness where the Devil still prowls.[i]

Practicing repentance involves more than acknowledging temporary feelings of guilt. It is more than a regular participation in a transaction to clean the slate. Our worship services begin with repentance and forgiveness, but the entire life of a follower of Jesus is a life of turning from sin and returning to the Lord.

Repentance is comprised of two things: contrition (sorrow over sin) and faith (trust in the promises of Christ). Our Lutheran Confessions say, “contrition is the true terror of conscience, which feels that God is angry with sin and grieves that it has sinned. This contrition takes place when sins are condemned by God’s Word.”[ii]

Scripture vividly describes these terrors:

For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. (Psalm 38:4, 8)

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But You, O Lord—how long? (Psalm 6:2-3)

“In these terrors, conscience feels God’s wrath against sin… The conscience sees the corruption of sin and seriously grieves that it has sinned.”[iii]

As St. Paul discussed contrition, he distinguished between “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow.” As anyone with a few traffic tickets can testify, most of us regret being caught in some violation of the law. We dislike going to court to pay a fine, or we find ourselves embarrassed as we face the police officer. Perhaps we fear possible future consequences (e.g., high car insurance rates). This fear of punishment is one sort of “worldly sorrow,” and we, have all experienced enough of it to recognize it instantly.[iv]

Another type of worldly sorrow involves what the Scriptures sometimes call condemnation—the feeling of despair that crashes in on us when we fear that we have used up our quota of God’s grace, and therefore, that He will refuse to forgive us for a particular offense. Probably all Christians struggle with the sense of condemnation from time to time.

But there’s another form of worldly sorrow that seems even more prevalent in our day—guilt. Secular prophets like Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that once the modern Western world finally threw off the constraints of religion, feelings of guilt would disappear. But that has not proven to be the case; if anything, guilt has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element of contemporary life as God has been kicked to the curb.

The old vocabulary is still used to describe virtue and vice, but we no longer have the religious framework to guide conversation and debate. Having departed from God’s Word, we have words and instincts about what feels right and wrong, but no settled criteria to help us think, argue, and decide what is objectively true.

You would think that would lead to a culture of easygoing relativism. With no common criteria by which to judge moral action we’d all become blandly nonjudgmental: “You do you and I’ll do me, and we’ll all be cool about it.” But that’s not what’s happened. Moral conflict has only grown. In fact, it’s the people who go to church least who seem the most fervent moral crusaders. Religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerfully present as ever.[v]

Where does this guilt come from? You and I know it’s ultimately from the Law that is written on our hearts, our consciences. But without proper guidance of the Law, that guilt can get misplaced. Wilfred McClay suggests technology plays a part. It gives us a feeling of power, and power entails responsibility, and responsibility leads to guilt. You and I see a picture of a starving child in Sudan and we know inwardly that we’re not doing enough. “Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough.” [vi]

McClay describes a world in which people are still driven by a need to feel morally justified, and yet they have no clear framework or sets of rituals to guide their quest for goodness. Worse, people have a sense of guilt and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace, and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption.

People seem to sense, if not fully understand, our brokenness. And that’s a good start, but if we only see it as something that has been done to us, we’re going to fail to benefit from that knowledge. Repentance will be replaced with a counterfeit named with victimhood. Yes, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but it’s all somebody else’s fault, those who are around me, those who came before me. The Law is a mirror that others must look into, a microscope that detects all the sins of our forefathers without acknowledging any of our own.

And so we enter into the 40 days of Lent. Forty days out in the wilderness, to be reminded that there is more to life than food, than glory, than power, as our Lord Jesus Himself showed us. But even more, to confess our sins, to say not only mea culpa (“my fault”), but mea maxima culpa (“by own grievous fault”). Unbelief is the core of all sin, but to say so is a ploy if we do it to minimize what it is we are doing, or not doing, in our lives.

For this, the Law is more than helpful.

Have we had problems with our parents? Of course, we have! But have we played a part in causing those problems? Does our own anger and rage reach to the violence of murder? Well, we know the angry one is liable to the charge. But then our own desires for pleasure and convenience, makes murder necessary as we see in the life of King David or the current abortion holocaust. Violence is justified if it furthers our own cause. We say we don’t steal, but we do demand justice, which means taking other people’s money. Gossip remains an indulgence, and still destroys other’s reputations and lives. Instead of speaking well of others and putting the best construction on their words and actions, we find our own righteousness in a cancel culture which aims to show the sins of others, so that we may feel good about ourselves. And yes, coveting. It’s in the air. Others are wealthy, and we’re not, so we want what they have.

Now is not the time to minimize the Law; it’s time to actually preach the Law in such a way that the Gospel might once more be sweet in our ears. And we must never minimize the Law in such a way as to say it is temporary, as if it is done away with, and not fulfilled, and we are left in our sin.[vii]

Worldly sorrow comes from Satan; it brings death. By way of contrast, Paul commends “godly sorrow.” This kind of sorrow for sin leads us to the next step in God’s process of repentance. Recognizing our sin and sorrowing over it, we confess it. The word for confess in Greek means literally “to speak together” or “to say the same thing.” When we confess our sins, we simply say what God says:

  • We have indeed done what His Law has forbidden.
  • Our action (thought, attitude) was wrong.
  • Our sin hurt God; it hurt us; it hurt other people.
  • We deserve God’s punishment.

When we honestly confess our sins to God in this way, we do not try to excuse ourselves. We do not try to shift the blame for our sin onto someone else’s shoulders. We do not trivialize what we have done, nor do we minimize the consequences we deserve. As the apostle John wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Standing before God stripped of all self-righteousness, we hear the beautiful words of our Father’s absolution: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Absolution is, for the Christian, a glorious emancipation proclamation. The Latin word from which we derive the word absolve literally means “to set free; to release.” Absolved from our sins, we find freedom from their guilt and from the punishment we have deserved. But also—and this is critically important—we receive in God’s absolution release from the power of our sins to enslave us.

That freedom comes, not as we try hard to amend our sinful lives, but as we rely on the Holy Spirit’s power to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We realize that in our own strength, we cannot obey God. And so, we ask Him to work these things in us.

Contrition. Confession. Absolution. Yielding to God’s Spirit. We repeat this process of repentance as often as we need it. We may, at times, find ourselves mired in a sin that we confessed only minutes before. In fact, we may find ourselves repeating the steps of the cycle a dozen times within a 10-minute period. But God will not become impatient or angry with us. He simply invites and encourages us to use the medicine He has prescribed. We can take it as often as we need it; we need not worry about overdosing.

Perhaps all this seems too simple. Admittedly, it is simple, so simple that we could easily let our pride prevent from using the process our Lord has given us to enable us to live more fruitful, less frustrating lives of discipleship. It is simple. But it works. It is the only thing that works. And Jesus yearns to help us use it.

And so He equips us for such a life. He baptizes us into His death and resurrection, bringing us forgiveness, life, and salvation, teaching us through His Word, feeding us with His body and blood to strengthen us in our faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another. Then He sends us out in the world, providing us with opportunities to practice repentance in our daily vocations.

As we sit, stalled in traffic; as we push a wobbly-wheeled grocery cart up and down the aisles of the grocery store; as we coach softball or chair a congregational meeting; as we play with our grandchildren or kick our shoes off and turn on the television set—as we do all these things, our Lord gives us opportunities to practice the principles He has taught us. We never work on these on our own. Our Teacher always stands beside us, reminding us of His Word and offering His encouragement and His help.[viii]

Sometimes we will succeed; other times we will fail, even fail spectacularly. In this life, we’ll never get it perfect. That’s when we repent. We confess our sins and failures, hear and trust in Christ’s forgiveness, resolve to do better with the help of God and continue practicing repentance over and over until the day the Lord calls us home.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy! You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Nafzger, Peter. https://www.1517/articles/gospel-mark-19-15-lent-1-series.b

[ii]  McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 160–161). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[iii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 162). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[iv] Fryar, Jane L. (1992). Go and Make Disciples: The Goal of the Christian Teacher (pp. 57-58) St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House

[v] Brock, David. The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” The New York Times, March 31, 2017, Section A, Page 23.

[vi] McClay, Wilfred M. “The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” Hedgehog Review.

[vii] Scaer, Peter. “Ash Wednesday, Sin, and Brokenness.” Facebook post, February 18, 2021.

[viii] Fryar, Jane L. (1992). Go and Make Disciples: The Goal of the Christian Teacher (pp. 59-60) St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House

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