Sermons on Repentance
Pastor Rolf Preus
Preached at Grace Lutheran Church in Crookston and
First American Lutheran Church in Mayville
Midweek Lenten Services 2012
What is Repentance?
February 21 & 22, 2012
Matthew 6, 16-21
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6, 16-21
The religious culture changes but God’s doctrine does not change. In Jesus’ day fasting was a regular religious practice. It is not so common today. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and as the name suggests, it signals a time when Christians repent of their sins. Ashes signify sorrow over sins. Many Christians continue the practice of applying ashes to the forehead as a sign of repentance. Many do not. Neither fasting nor the sign of ashes are of the essence of repentance. As the words of our Lord Jesus make clear, repentance is not something to display to the world. It is something between the individual and God. Outward signs of repentance are just that: outward signs. The essence of repentance is invisible to anyone but God. It lies hidden within the human heart.
Beginning this evening, we will consider the topic of repentance by asking the questions: what, who, why, how, when, and where. What is repentance? Who must repent? Why must we repent? How do we repent? When do we repent? Where do we repent? This evening, our topic is: “What is Repentance?” and the text we consider is the traditional Gospel Lesson for Ash Wednesday, which contains our Lord’s instructions on fasting.
Fasting is outward discipline. We learn how to prepare for the Lord’s Supper in these words from Luther’s Small Catechism:
Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.”
The outward bodily discipline is one thing. The faith in the heart is something else. This is so not because the body and the soul have nothing to do with the other. They belong together. This is why fasting has often been a part of worship. It is so because faith is visible only to God. Faith pertains to our relationship with God. Love pertains to our relationship to our neighbor.
Repentance doesn’t benefit the neighbor. Fasting and wearing ashes are bodily reminders of a spiritual reality. We are mortal. We are mortal because we are sinners. God said to Adam: “The day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Moses wrote: “The soul that sins it shall die.” St. Paul wrote: “The wages of sin is death.” The pastor says at the graveside the words that have been spoken at countless committals over the years: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Fasting and ashes are reminders of our mortality and our dependence on God. Repentance is between the individual and God. Repentance begins with an acknowledgement that we have brought upon ourselves our own destruction. Repentance ends with the soul’s firm reliance on the grace of God.
Repentance is two things joined together: contrition and faith. Contrition is sorrow over sin. Faith is confidence in the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. Contrition is sorrow over sin. It is not sorrow over the pain that sin brings. It is not sorrow over the consequences our sins bring upon us. Contrition is sorrow over the sin itself. It is wishing that we never did it. The contrite heart hates the sin on account of it being a sin. It wants to avoid the sin in the future. Since contrition exists within the heart that still yearns to sin, it brings with it an inner conflict that even entails self-hatred. Contrition is not wanting to do the sin again even when we feel the desire to do the sin again.
Faith is confidence in the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. Faith is not hoping that God might forgive us. Faith is not resigning ourselves to whatever God chooses to do to us. Faith is not a resolution to avoid the sin. Faith is none of these things. Faith is trust. It is trust in the gospel that tells us that God, for Christ’s sake, forgives us all our sins. Faith looks to Jesus suffering and dying for the sin of the world and says: it was for me. It was my sins he suffered and it is my sins that are washed away by his blood.
Contrition and faith combine to form repentance. What is repentance? It is literally a change of mind and heart. We hate the sin we loved. We run to the God from whom we fled. What we regarded as precious we dismiss as worthless. Faith is born as God smashes the idols within our hearts and engenders in their place a confidence in Christ as our Savior from sin, death, hell, and the power of the devil.
Repentance changes the direction of our lives. A life headed to hell is now headed to heaven. The things of this world that so enthralled us; that captivated our hearts; that controlled our affections; that claimed our loyalty; are seen as transient and disposable. God has taken their place. Our treasure is in heaven with God. The gospel of Christ’s suffering and death for us to take away our sins and to reconcile us to God is more precious to us than the things of this world that can be broken, lost, stolen, and destroyed. Since our treasure is in heaven, so are our hearts.
This is what repentance is all about. It’s not about showing our neighbor that we have repented. It’s not about putting on airs so that others can know that we are authentically religious. Indeed, we don’t care about whatever status religious folks can give us. Why should we? We have the status that our heavenly Father gives us. We are citizens of heaven. We are heirs of the promises God made to the fathers.
A hypocrite is an actor. He poses. He does what he does for show. Repentance is not for show. Repentance is not a good work. When Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven,” he was not talking about showing your repentance. That’s not a light to shine. That’s between you and God. Jesus was talking about good works, works of love, works that benefit your neighbor, that make life less of a burden, that remove some of life’s sorrows. He was talking about living honestly and treating your neighbor fairly and with kindness.
What good do ashes on your forehead do for your neighbor? What good does your fasting to for your neighbor? I’m not criticizing either of these customs. Many Christians can testify to the benefits of fasting as this outward discipline helps them to focus inwardly on God’s word and shut out the distractions of this world. And the putting of ashes on the forehead can serve as a powerful symbolic reminder of our mortality and utter reliance on God. But my repentance doesn’t do you any good. So why should I set it before you? Who am I to promote me? This wearing of your religion on your shirtsleeve is inconsistent with true repentance.
True repentance hides it from the world and reveals it to God alone. We’ve all listened to the reformed alcoholic who thinks that his experience will benefit you and so he repeats it again and again and again. Perhaps you’ve heard of the religious testimonials where somebody gets up and talks about how God delivered him from this or that or the other sin. How much about these testimonials is about the grace of God and how much is about the heroic victory of the one giving the testimonial?
Jesus tells us to bring our repentance to our Father in heaven privately, secretly, and without fanfare. Repentance is personal. It’s between the sinner and God.
The essence of repentance is always the same no matter who is repenting. It always involves contrition and it always entails faith. There can be no true repentance when someone refuses to acknowledge his sins to God. This is why when liberal churchgoing people whose hearts bleed for folks who have fallen into fashionable sins insist that those sins aren’t sins, they aren’t showing love at all. God forgives homosexuals, fornicators, liars, thieves, and every other kind of sinner. But God does not forgive the impenitent. Without contrition there is no faith. Without faith in the gospel no one can rightly regard himself as forgiven of his sins. Sins are forgiven only by the shedding of Christ’s blood for us. That forgiveness is for those who are sorry for their sins against God. Those who are not sorry for their sins are not forgiven of their sins.
But we don’t look to our sorrow for assurance that our sins are forgiven. We look to Christ who bore our sins away on the cross. For his sake heaven is our home. To him we sing, “Earth has no pleasure I would share, yea heaven itself were void and bare, if thou Lord were not near me.” Let all the stuff that passes away with the world be gone. If we have Christ we are wealthy with the wealth of heaven itself. This is what repentance teaches us. And this is why repentance is a most precious gift of God. Amen
Who Must Repent?
February 29, 2012
Luke 23, 27-31
And a great multitude of the people followed Him, and women who also mourned and lamented Him. But Jesus, turning to them, said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For indeed the days are coming in which they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, wombs that never bore, and breasts which never nursed!’ Then they will begin ‘to say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”’ For if they do these things in the green wood, what will be done in the dry?”
During these midweek evening services we consider the theme of Lent, the theme of repentance. Last week we asked: What is repentance? This evening we ask: Who must repent?
When Jesus came into this world he came to his own people. Jesus was born a Jew and he came to the Jews to call them to repentance and eternal life. Repentance and eternal life go together. And it is as Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, “Salvation is of the Jews.” (John 4, 22) God chose Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah. Of the twelve sons of Israel, God chose Judah. As Jacob lay dying he said:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,
Until Shiloh comes;
And to Him shall be the obedience of the people.
Shiloh, the man of peace, the prince of peace, came. His name was Jesus of Nazareth. He came to his own and his own rejected him. Not all of them, but most of them. They cried out for his blood. They lobbied for his crucifixion. The daughters of Jerusalem wept over the abuse that Jesus received. They knew who he was. They knew he was an innocent man. They knew he was a kind and gracious man. They knew he had done nothing to deserve such abuse. Now they saw him being led away to be crucified. With a huge crowd of people following him they mourned and lamented, crying out in sorrow for Jesus. They cried for Jesus. Poor, suffering Jesus!
But that’s not repentance. No, it’s not repentance to cry over the suffering of Jesus. It’s not repentance to confess that he is innocent and doesn’t deserve to die. Jesus doesn’t need your tears. They don’t do him any good. Don’t cry over Jesus. Cry over yourself.
Save your tears, daughters of Jerusalem. Cry for yourselves and for your children. The day is coming when the Romans shall lay siege to you and utterly destroy you. Not one stone will be left upon another. Judgment Day is coming! Weep for yourselves. Weep for your children. Weep for the religious leaders who despised the grace of God in Christ and taught others to do so as well. Weep for the city and the nation. But don’t weep for Jesus. He doesn’t need your tears.
Who needs to repent? You do! Regardless of who you are or what you have done or where you have been or who you know or whose blood runs through your veins, you must repent of your sins or you will be destroyed. Weep for yourselves and your children! Don’t weep for Jesus.
There is a popular version of Christianity that evades the real teaching of Jesus while wallowing in emotionalism and sappy sentimentalism. Jesus is celebrated as the supreme example of love, devotion, purity, and kindness. When he is betrayed, arrested, abused, whipped, held up for scorn, led away to be crucified, and then nailed to a cross we are led to cry out in sorrow for the poor innocent man. Fellowship with Christ is seen as fellowship in bemoaning injustice.
What does Jesus say? He tells us to save our tears for ourselves and our children. Crying over him isn’t what repentance is all about. Repentance cries over us, our children, our church, our nation, indeed, it cries – not over the suffering of the innocent man who died on the cross – but over the sins of the guilty men, women, and children for whom he died.
Who must repent? Everyone! This is brought into bold relief by our Lord’s words to the daughters of Jerusalem. Clearly, they were pious ladies with a deep sense of morality and justice, lamenting the suffering of innocent Jesus. Jesus was the green wood. Jerusalem would be the dry wood. Jesus suffered as the innocent man. Jerusalem would suffer as a guilty nation. When Pilate ordered Jesus to be crucified, he had to take the time to wash his hands, knowing that Jesus was an innocent man and it wasn’t right to execute an innocent man. Pilate was a heathen and a coward and a hypocrite and a few other things; but he couldn’t burn green wood.
Within a generation the wood would be dry. Jerusalem without Jesus is nothing but kindling, just waiting, indeed asking to be burned up into ash. And so it would be. God used the Romans to do his holy will. Having Jesus suffer under Pontius Pilate was the green wood. Having Jerusalem destroyed by the Roman General Titus a generation later was the dry wood.
Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead. It’s like trying to burn green wood. It doesn’t burn so well. But dry wood is a different story. And so it was when Jerusalem was destroyed. The suffering was unspeakable. Mothers saw their children starve before their eyes and the siege kept out of the city the basic necessities of life. And then when the Romans entered the city they desecrated it and completely destroyed it.
If the holy city, the holy people, the chosen city, the chosen people, the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah would suffer utter destruction without Christ, what will happen to the rest of us? What will happen to the modern day church that ignores the preaching of the gospel for a cheap imitation? Who needs to repent? We do! If the Jews who rejected Jesus at his first coming were destroyed, what will come of the nominal Christians who cry over his suffering but not over their own sins?
Jesus does not need pity. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. He suffered willingly. He wasn’t the victim of religious envy, political intrigue, or the passions of mob incited violence. What does the Bible say about his suffering? Isaiah writes:
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
And the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.
It pleased the LORD to put him to death on the cross. It pleased God to make his life an offering for sin. Do not cry for Jesus! He shall see his seed, prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He is risen from the dead, lives, and reigns to all eternity. Don’t cry for Jesus! Cry for yourself and for your children.
Repentance is for everyone. If anyone could claim religious pedigree is was the Jews of Jesus’ day. But it counts for nothing in the eyes of God. What does God want from us? The Psalmist writes,
For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart—
These, O God, You will not despise.
The tears we shed for our sins are shed in sorrow and weakness. They are tears of helplessness. Peter shed those tears. They earn nothing. As the hymnist wrote,
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone,
Thou must save and thou alone.
Since all have sinned all must repent. All must weep. While the sorrow over sin doesn’t take away sin it does prepare us to rely on Jesus alone for the forgiveness of sins. That’s what the suffering of Jesus was for. It was for our forgiveness. It’s not just a symbol of goodness suffering at the hands of evil. In fact, it is goodness overcoming evil and providing us with a permanent home with God.
The holy city of God’s chosen people was indeed destroyed. It was burned to the ground. But out of its ashes a new city was founded. It is a city that cannot be destroyed. It is a city where God’s grace flows like a pure fountain, washing us clean of every sin. It is a city where Christ the Savior rules over us by forgiving us our sins and filling us with the Holy Spirit. The sorrow we feel over our sins is, in the end, so very short. But the joy with which God fills us by the gospel lasts forever and ever. It’s the joy of heaven. Who must repent? We must all repent. As we repent together and are forgiven together so we rejoice together and together we inherit the eternal kingdom in which there is no pain, no sorrow, and no death. Amen
Why Must We Repent?
March 6 & 7, 2012
Luke 13, 1-5
There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Luke 13, 1-5
We listen to what our Lord Jesus says about repentance. Two weeks ago the topic was, “What is Repentance?” Repentance is two things joined together: contrition and faith. We are sorry for the sins we have committed against God. We believe the gospel that tells us that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. Last week the topic was, “Who Must Repent?” The answer is clear: Everyone. Regardless of your religious pedigree, history, what you have done or not done, you must repent.
Today we consider the question: Why? Why must we repent? Jesus tells us why. Unless you repent you will perish.
People have a basic understanding of cause and effect. If you do what is bad then bad will happen to you. This was the assumption of those who came up to Jesus and told him about what Pilate had done to certain Galileans. What happened is that Herod had acted illegally when he had John the Baptist beheaded. Only the Roman authorities had the legal right to put anyone to death, but Herod had made a foolish vow to give a girl whatever she wanted and she wanted the head of John on a platter. Herod had John killed. That was an encroachment on Pilate’s authority. Pilate couldn’t act directly against Herod, but in retribution for Herod’s highhandedness, Pilate committed an unspeakable sacrilege against the Jews who were present at the dinner where Herod obligated himself to kill John the Baptist. They were later gathered at the temple to offer sacrifices. Pilate sent in his soldiers to murder them and then to mix their blood with the blood of the animals they were sacrificing. To die under such circumstances was a terribly shameful thing to experience. The people who questioned Jesus about it thought that those people must have been particularly bad people to suffer such a disgusting fate.
No. Jesus said no. They weren’t worse sinners than any other Galileans. Unless you repent, you will also perish. And just so they wouldn’t misunderstand, Jesus gave another example, one of a natural disaster that killed eighteen people. Some people assumed that they must have done something to deserve such a fate. Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Repent or perish.
We do not believe or teach that repentance takes away sin. The very idea is absurd. How can a sinner take away his own sin? How can being sorry for doing wrong make the wrong go away? A child is misbehaving, running around and goofing off in the living room after being told repeatedly to settle down and behave. Ignoring his parents, he keeps on doing what they have told him to stop doing. He breaks an expensive figurine that was on the mantle. He knocks it down where it shatters into a thousand pieces. He is sorry. He is genuinely sorry.
But all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put that figurine back together again. Repentance can’t fix it. To put it into theological terms: repentance is not meritorious. We do not merit or earn forgiveness by repenting. To be sorry is necessary, but it won’t put things back to where they were.
The reason we must repent or perish is because repentance is the context – call it the place – where God comes to rescue us and take away our sin. The whole world is on the slippery slope, sliding down to hell. The world is perishing. This is what we must recognize. To perish is not unusual. It is not reserved for this or that category of sinners. To perish is the lot of all humanity.
To perish is to suffer eternal death. It is not just to die; it is to die under God’s judgment and to be cut off from God’s mercy. It means hell. The world is headed to hell. That’s what Jesus is saying. The whole world is perishing and we cannot rescue ourselves from eternal death and hell. We can only come to God in sorrow over our sin and cry out to him for his grace. We can only beg for mercy for Christ’s sake, throwing ourselves on the fatherly grace of God in Christ the Savior of sinners.
During an election year we get to listen to politicians brag and promise. This politician brags about what he has achieved in the past and why you should vote for him. That politician promises what he will do in the future and why you should vote for him. They hold themselves up for admiration while they attack their political opponents as incompetent, dishonest, foolish, and unfit. For those of us who love civics, care about good government, and want to be involved in promoting it, it becomes wearisome to listen to braggarts parading as statesmen. How about some humility? Ah, but there are no George Washingtons running for office and if there were they couldn’t get elected. Humility is definitely out of style for a politician, and for everyone else, for that matter.
But for us Christians, humility is not only in style – it is vital to our lives. We live as those who deserve to die. And we admit it. We confess it. In the Catechism, under the explanation of the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we confess that we are worthy of none of the things for which we pray because we daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment. In the confession of sins in the liturgy of the Church we call ourselves poor, miserable, sinners. We do not argue with God when God says we deserve to die for our sins. In fact, when Jesus says, “Repent or perish,” we say “Amen.”
This is not a popular position to take, and while Jesus is still pretty popular here in America, his teaching certainly is not. The very idea of perishing is revolting to a generation that affirms itself over against God and his truth. Our generation mocks the sentiments of our Lord Jesus who died for us. He said repent or perish and they jeer. Blithely ignoring the evidence before their eyes that they are all headed for death they deny God’s word on the subject and pretend that everyone goes to heaven.
You see it every time a celebrity dies. They all go to heaven. Everybody goes to heaven these days. It’s automatic. Nobody perishes. There’s no need to repent. There’s no sin to be forgiven. No need for a Savior to suffer and die. No need for faith, except for the kind of generic one size fits all faith that can accommodate any creed or no creed at all.
Jesus says something different. He says that he is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the truth. So we listen to what he says and take it to heart. He says that if you do not repent you will perish. He knows what he’s talking about. And he happens to be the One who makes repentance worthwhile. On account of Jesus perishing in our place, our repentance is more than simply bemoaning the wrong we have done and wishing we hadn’t done it. For the sake of Christ suffering the fate of the damned we who were damned have found in repentance deliverance from damnation.
Why repent? We repent because it is in our sorrow over our sins that we are led to faith. We repent because it is through our faith in the gospel that we receive God’s absolution. We repent because when God absolves us, when he forgives us, when he justifies us, he rescues us from the threatening perils of our sins. We are no longer in danger. We are safe. We no longer must face the consequences of our sinful acts. We are delivered. As St. Paul the Apostle put it, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Repent or perish! So says Jesus who suffered. And it is as we repent that he who faced eternal damnation in our place on the cross brings to us the forgiveness of sins he thereby purchased for us. With forgiveness, he gives us the Holy Spirit who fills us and comforts us and moves us to live holy lives. Repentance entails sorrow over sin, it is true. But that temporary sorrow cannot compare with the eternal joy in store for those who, through faith in Christ the sin-bearer, receive from him forgiveness of sins and peace with God. Amen
How Do We Repent?
March 13 & 14
Matthew 27, 3-5
Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that He had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” And they said, “What is that to us? You see to it!” Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself. Matthew 27, 3-5
“You see to it,” they said. So he saw to it. He went and hanged himself. That’s seeing to it, alright. That’s the only way we can see to it. Were repentance our own doing we would have to do as Judas did. What he did was really the only sensible thing to do if it were up to us to see to it.
Jesus gave Judas no reason to hate him, to despise him, or to regard him as a means to an end. That Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver is no reflection on Jesus. It reveals the heart of Judas. Jesus loved him, was loyal to him, taught him the truth, and entrusted to him his money as well as the money of the other disciples. Jesus loved Judas. Judas loved money. He sold his Savior for thirty pieces of silver.
Judas knew he sinned. Judas knew the wages of sin. But Judas did not know how to repent. He knew only half of it. Repentance entails saying Amen to God’s word twice. We say Amen to God’s law that condemns us. We say Amen to God’s gospel that forgives us. Judas made it through the first Amen. He agreed with God’s law. St. Matthew records:
Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that He had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”
He agreed with God’s law. He was full of remorse. He knew he had sinned. He knew what his sin was. And he knew what his sin deserved. He took his own life. The wages of sin is death. God’s law condemned Judas and Judas agreed with that condemnation. Judas confessed this by going out and killing himself.
Judas did not know how to repent. He knew only half of it. He understood remorse. He understood sorrow over sin. What he did not understand was the forgiveness of sins. He had no faith. He could confess his Amen to God’s law but he could not confess his Amen to God’s gospel.
Most people don’t make it to the first Amen. Judas at least understood the law. He understood his sin. He betrayed an innocent man. The injustice of Jesus’ suffering was bad enough. Even to witness it was bad enough. But to know that you were instrumental in bringing it about – that was too much for Judas to bear. And he couldn’t bear it.
But no one can. It’s true that Judas’ sin stands out as particularly heinous. Those who wanted Jesus to be killed were driven by envy. They resented Jesus’ popularity with the people. They were jealous of the love that Jesus elicited from the hearts of the sinners to whom he showed mercy. Envy and jealousy brewed into hatred as they plotted to have him killed. Judas knew this. And knowing it he took their money and betrayed Jesus into their hands. There is no question that Judas’ sin was sin.
Jesus said that it would have been better had Judas never been born. Judas died unforgiven. The sin that condemned him was not his betrayal of innocent blood. It was despair. It was unbelief. He rejected the forgiveness of sins. He resisted the Holy Spirit and refused the forgiveness of sins that God graciously provides in the gospel.
Despair is not repentance. Open your eyes to the consequences of your sin! Look at its fruit. Listen to what God’s word says about it. See that when you do wrong you cannot make the wrong right again. You must know that you are powerless to make amends, powerless to correct the wrong, and powerless to raise yourself up out of the guilt that you made for yourself. What does this knowledge do for you? It leads you to despair! This is why people deny their sin with excuses, rationalizations, and accusations against others. They avoid an honest accounting of their sins. Who wants to despair? Who wants to end up at the end of the rope with Judas Iscariot?
But despair just might be good for you. Saying Amen to God’s condemnation of you is a good thing. It’s always good to agree with God. To despair of yourself is good. To despair of your ability to make right what you made wrong is good. To despair of your ability to wash away your sins by acts of contrition is good. But to despair of God’s grace is a great evil.
To despair of God’s grace is to accuse God of being less than he is. It is to turn the gracious, loving, and merciful God into a small minded and mean spirited bully. That’s what small minded and mean spirited people do to God: they remake him in their own image, denying that he is who he is and does what he does. They despair of God’s grace because they reason within themselves that if they were God they would not show mercy to the likes of them. But they are not God and God is not a man that he should demand his pound of flesh.
God loved the world. That’s why he offered up his Son. Judas, it’s not about you. It’s about Jesus! Your sin is yours and you must acknowledge it – yes! But how could your sin be more powerful than God’s grace? Look at what God has done with your sin! You betrayed innocent blood, it is true. But that innocent man you betrayed is none other than your loving and gracious God! Look at who he is and what he is doing for you. He is your God and brother. He is true God and true man. You call him innocent blood. You’re right. He’s the only genuinely innocent blood, for when God became a man he was preserved from any taint of original sin. Now look at what this God-man is doing for you. He is going to the cross willingly. He is bearing your burden willingly. Your betrayal didn’t force him to the cross. He willingly embraced the cross.
And why? Because it is his Father’s will.
“Yea, Father, yea, most willingly
I’ll bear what Thou commandest;
My will conforms to Thy decree,
I do what Thou demandest.”
O wondrous Love, what hast Thou done!
The Father offers up His Son!
The Son, content, descendeth!
O Love, how strong Thou art to save!
Thou beddest Him within the grave
Whose word the mountains rendeth.
You think it was your betrayal that put him on the cross? It was his love! Your sin is no match for his love. Your sin leads you to death and the grave. His love rescues you out of it. The love that is strong to save is the love that sent his Son to the cross to pay for the sin of the betrayer. Listen to how Martin Luther describes the love of Christ suffering for us. He writes:
When the merciful Father saw that we were being oppressed through the Law, that we were being held under a curse, and that we could not be liberated from it by anything, He sent His Son into the world, heaped all the sins of all men upon Him, and said to Him: "Be Peter the denier; Paul the persecutor, blasphemer, and assaulter; David the adulterer; the sinner who ate the apple in Paradise; the thief on the cross. In short, be the person of all men, the one who has committed the sins of all men. And see to it that You pay and make satisfaction for them." Now the Law comes and says: "I find Him a sinner, who takes upon Himself the sins of all men. I do not see any other sins than those in Him. Therefore let Him died on the cross!" And so it attacks Him and kills Him. By this deed the whole world is purged and expiated from all sins, and thus it is set free from death and from every evil. But when sin and death have been abolished by the one man, God does not want to see anything else in the whole world, especially if were to believe, except sheer cleansing and righteousness. And if any remnants of sin were to remain, still for the sake of Christ, the shining Sun, God would not notice them.
Judas did not receive this forgiveness. Jesus loved Judas and died for Judas and took away Judas’s sins on the cross. The reason Judas did not receive this forgiveness is because he did not believe the gospel.
How do we repent? We confess our sins and say Amen to God’s law that condemns us. Then we listen to the gospel that tells us that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By God’s grace we say Amen to the gospel and we receive what it gives. Amen
When Do We Repent?
March 20 & 21, 2012
Matthew 26, 69-75
Now Peter sat outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came to him, saying, “You also were with Jesus of Galilee.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you are saying.” And when he had gone out to the gateway, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, “This fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth.” But again he denied with an oath, “I do not know the Man!” And a little later those who stood by came up and said to Peter, “Surely you also are one of them, for your speech betrays you.” Then he began to curse and swear, saying, “I do not know the Man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the word of Jesus who had said to him, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” So he went out and wept bitterly. Matthew 26, 69-75
It has almost become a cliché to say that repentance has gone out of style, but it is so. Compare the United States of the twenty first century to the Germany of the sixteenth century. In 1541, Martin Luther wrote an “Appeal for Prayer Against the Turks.” The “Turks” were the Muslim invaders who had already conquered most of the Middle East and a good portion of Europe. The leader of the Muslim empire, Suleiman the Great, had invaded Hungary the previous year. The threat that Islam posed against the Germany of the sixteenth century was far greater than any threat posed against America in the twenty first century. The German nation was in imminent peril. Luther was no pacifist. He supported Germany’s right to defend herself against the invaders. But most of his pamphlet was devoted to the topic of repentance. He called on his countrymen to repent. And he was quite specific about the kinds of sins, public and private, that needed to be acknowledged and confessed. Luther understood what most Christians today seem to have forgotten: repentance is always in style for the Christian. The time for repentance is always now.
Peter’s case is obvious. Jesus warned him against his spiritual self-confidence. Peter, whose name means “rock”, thought of himself as a rock of steadfastness, courage, and true faith. When Jesus told him that he would deny him three times, Peter replied: “Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you.” So he said. So he promised. So he boasted. And then he turned around and denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus said he would do.
What a coward! The first denial was not to a Roman soldier looking to arrest him. It was to a servant girl. She was no threat to Peter. But Peter was afraid of his own shadow. He saw what they did to Jesus and he didn’t want it to happen to him. He saw and he heard the abuse that Jesus received and he reasoned within himself that there was no point in him suffering the same fate. So he distanced himself from Jesus. He denied he even knew him. Each subsequent denial became more vehement, accompanied by cursing and swearing. Sin tosses its arrogance up in the air as a cloud to disguise itself.
Peter heard the crow of the rooster. That reminded him of what Jesus had said. “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Then he went out and wept bitterly.
Judas did not repent. Peter did. Judas felt remorse. He confessed that he had betrayed innocent blood. He brought back the thirty pieces of silver. He refused to profit from his sin. He was genuinely sorry for what he did. But he did not repent. He did not believe. He rejected the gospel of the forgiveness of sins and died in unbelief and faced eternal condemnation.
Peter repented. He did not just cry bitter tears. He believed the gospel. The Gospel of St. John provides us with an account of how Jesus absolved Peter. Three times Peter denied Jesus. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three times Jesus asked Peter to feed his sheep. Peter’s repentance was immediate. Jesus did not place Peter on probation. He did not deny him forgiveness until he had made a good act of contrition. He forgave him without any hesitation. Peter repented immediately. Jesus forgave him immediately. When do we repent? We repent immediately. We don’t wait. We repent as soon as our sins are revealed to our conscience.
King David addressed the problem of waiting and holding onto the sin, refusing to confess it. After he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and covered up his sin by having her husband, Uriah, killed, he refused to confess his sin to God. He later described this intransigence:
When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groaning all the day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was turned into the drought of summer.
I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I have not hidden.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
And You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Psalm 32, 3-5
We repent right away. We repent every day. Repentance is not something that will wait until a suitable moment. The moment for repentance is always right now. When do we repent? We repent everyday because we sin everyday. Repentance is the constant feature of our lives.
Peter’s repentance came immediately upon his recognition that he had sinned. There is no good reason to put it off. Holding on to our sin will ultimately grieve the Holy Spirit and drive him right out of our lives. Living in unrepentant sin is spiritual suicide. This is why we learn the significance of our baptism by memorizing these words:
What does such baptizing with water signify? It signifies that the Old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
As Peter was denying his Lord Jesus, humiliating himself, displaying to the world the vanity of his boasts, Jesus was winning for Peter full forgiveness for his shameful denial. Repentance does not bring about forgiveness. Forgiveness of sins was won by Christ’s suffering and death for us. It was precisely when and where Jesus was denied by his disciples that Jesus was gaining forgiveness for all of us. Forgiveness is freely given but it was purchased at a great price. The price of forgiveness was not Peter’s bitter tears. It was Jesus’ bloody sweat. The sorrow of a sinner never took away a single sin. It was the sorrow of the sin-bearer that took away the sin of the whole world on the cross.
If the forgiveness of sins that we need is won by our struggles, prayers, contrition, bitter tears, or even by our faith, then it would be up to us to ensure by our struggles, by our contrition, by our bitter tears, or by our faith that we are indeed forgiven. But if the forgiveness of sins that we need was won for us all by Christ going to the cross to suffer and die for the sins of the whole world, then there is never anything that keeps this forgiveness from us. It is always available to us in the gospel, in our baptism, in the word of God that points us to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Cry bitter tears. You’ve done wrong. Peter went out and wept bitterly. He went out. He left the courtyard. He went out where he was alone. He didn’t display his sorrow to the world. What good does that do anybody? His tears of sorrow over his sins were tears of a broken heart. Only God can see it. Only God can heal it. Peter saw his own unworthiness. He felt his guilt. He had been ashamed of Jesus. Ironically, it was Jesus of whom he had been ashamed who was bearing his shame and would, by his innocent and vicarious suffering, take that shame away forever.
When do we repent? Whenever we sin! We never do a perfectly good deed, for there is always sin clinging to us. Since we cannot rid ourselves of our sinful nature as long as we live in these dying bodies, we must confess to God that even our highest and holiest works are tainted by sin.
But the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin. This means that God is constantly forgiving us. He’s not excusing sin. He’s not winking at it. He’s not saying that it is not sin. He still speaks his law in thunder and condemns those who worship false gods, abuse his holy name, despise his holy word, disobey and dishonor their parents, do bodily harm to their neighbors, commit adultery in thought, word, or deed, steal, lie, and cheat. Whenever we Christians do any of these things we must run from the condemnation of God’s law to the gospel and confess our sins to our gracious God, imploring him for forgiveness for the sake of the bitter suffering and death of Jesus.
God never fails to forgive us for Christ’s sake. So we never fail to repent. Repentance will not go out of style for us Christians. Forgiving guilty and unworthy sinners will not go out of style for our gracious God. Amen
Where Do We Repent?
March 27 & 28, 2012
Psalm 32, 1-5
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer. I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Psalm 32, 1-5
During these midweek Lenten services this year we have listened to what God’s Word teaches us about repentance. This evening we listen to the inspired words of King David recorded for us in Psalm 32 to answer for us the question: Where do we repent? When I ask you to consider with me the question, “Where do we repent?” I am not asking the question, “Where are we when we repent?” I am asking the question, “Where is God when we repent?”
What a question! God is everywhere! Is he not? He’s where he’s always been. But there is a difference between confessing that God is everywhere – something all Christians confess – and knowing where God is in relation to me. What is God saying to me? What is God telling me about him and me? This is what I am asking when I ask, “Where do we repent?”
The Psalmist speaks for God and God’s people when he says: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” David describes here the most wonderful condition a human being can experience in this life. He uses the word “blessed” because there is no better word to describe the condition of being set at peace with God, being forgiven of all sins, and knowing that God does not impute any kind of wrongdoing.
We distinguish between forgiveness as it is gained, given, and gotten. It is gained on Calvary. It is given in the gospel. It is gotten through faith. We get only what is given. We are given only what was gained. If Jesus had not gone to Calvary there would be no forgiveness for God to give us. Forgiveness had to be gained. Only Jesus could gain it. This is why Jesus is the Savior of the world. All people are sinful. All people need a Savior. Jesus is the Savior of all people.
When he offered up his life on the altar of the cross he located once and for all where the forgiveness of our sins is to be found. And that’s where we repent. We repent of our sins where those sins are taken away, blotted out, forgiven, and dismissed forever.
Ah, but to get to the cross – that’s the problem for us. Our problem is not getting God to forgive. And let me tell you: It’s a fool’s game to try to get God to forgive. It’s the most insulting and blasphemous activity with which any sinner can be engaged. Think about it! A sinner tries to get God to forgive him his sin. How? What can we offer? Promises? Atonement? Faith? Prayer? Can our promises to God take away the sins we’ve committed against him? Can we make atonement for our own sin? Can our faith undo what our sin did? Can we by praying cancel out the debt we owe to God? And if not, if neither our promises, nor any act of atonement, nor our faith, nor our prayer can get God to forgive us, then of what value are such things?
It’s not that they have no value. We ought to promise God that we will turn our backs on sin. Even if we’ve done the same sin a thousand times, we should promise God that we will stop doing it. The drunkard who gets drunk, wakes up feeling pain in body, soul, and spirit, and confesses his sin to God should know that God most surely wants to hear his confession, and God welcomes his promises to do better, and God encourages him to do whatever he can do to right the wrong. Surely, God hears and welcomes the prayers of drunks, adulterers, men who mistreat their wives, children who show disrespect to their parents, employees who cheat their employers, bullies, liars, cheats, thieves, and idolaters. He forgives them. But he does not forgive them on account of their prayers or faith or promises or future obedience. God forgives for the sake of the holy, bitter, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ, his beloved Son, our God and our brother. Jesus has gained forgiveness for us all.
God gives the forgiveness that Jesus gained. He doesn’t give it where he gained it. The cross is long gone. Christ’s suffering is over. We cannot go back to the cross. The cross is where God gained the forgiveness he gives. The cross is not where he gives it. God gives us this forgiveness in Holy Baptism. God gives us this forgiveness in the preaching of his Word. God gives us this forgiveness in the absolution that we receive from the pastor as from Christ himself. God gives us this forgiveness in the Holy Supper where we kneel before the altar and eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of all our sins.
Where do we repent? We repent where God forgives us. We cannot return to Calvary. God brings Calvary to us.
When David kept silent and refused to repent, God was nowhere to be found. Of course, God is omnipresent. But he won’t reveal himself graciously to the sinner who holds onto his sin in stubborn impenitence and unbelief. That’s what David was doing. He saw Bathsheba bathing. He wanted her and took her. She conceived. He tried to cover up his sin of adultery by sending her husband back to her from the field of battle. Uriah, her husband, was too faithful a soldier to take leave while leaving his men out in the field. Since David couldn’t cover up the evidence of his sin by getting Uriah to be with his wife and then to assume that he was the child’s father, David had Uriah killed. Then he married his wife. It was murder. He murdered to cover up adultery.
The blood of Jesus Christ was shed for all sins of all sinners and that blood took away the guilt of David’s sin. The power of Christ’s blood to take away all sin applied equally to sin committed before and after he died for the sin of the world. But David was in no position to hear the gospel as long as he held onto his sin and refused to confess it.
God sent the prophet Nathan to David to confront David with his sin. Nathan told David a story about a rich man who had many flocks and herds and a poor man who had only one little ewe lamb who had become as a daughter to the man. When the rich man had a traveling guest visit his home and needed to prepare for him a meal, he did not slaughter one of his many animals for the feast. Instead, he took the poor man’s beloved little lamb and slaughtered it and fed it to his guest.
When David heard the story he responded in anger, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this shall surely die!” Nathan replied to David, “You are the man!” He then exposed to David’s conscience David’s terrible sins. David replied to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” There were temporal consequences of David’s sin. The child died. There are always consequences of our sin. But as soon as God’s law convicted David and showed David the sin he had been desperately trying to keep hidden, Nathan spoke to David the words of the Gospel that gives the forgiveness of sins. Those words of Gospel that gave David the forgiveness of sins also gave David the faith to receive the forgiveness of sins.
Where do we repent? We repent where God forgives. We repent in Holy Baptism because that’s where God first gives us the forgiveness Jesus gained for us on the cross. We repent where God forgives us. We repent where we hear God’s gospel preached to us in church. We repent where we hear God’s absolution spoken to us by his minister who, in the stead and by the command of Jesus, forgives us all our sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. We repent where we eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for us, for the remission of sins.
Jesus gained forgiveness of our sins on the cross. We repent where God gives us what he gained. We get what God gives through faith. David writes, “Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” He’s not talking about someone who has no sin. If we had no sin we’d have nothing for which to repent. He’s talking about someone who does not hide his sin from God but confesses it and is sorry for it. He believes the gospel. Faith looks to what Jesus did to gain forgiveness for us and listens to God’s gospel that gives forgiveness to us and believes what God says.
We repent where God forgives. When we hold onto our sin and stubbornly refuse to let go of it God lays his hand heavy upon us and brings us misery. This suffering is good for us. When we confess our sins God hears us and from heaven he answers us. But since none of us can jump up to heaven to listen to God there, God graciously deigns to speak to us in language we can understand here below.
We confess our sins to God. From the lips of sinful men who themselves need forgiveness from God, we hear God speak and we hold onto what we hear and we know as surely as we know that God cannot lie that our transgression is forgiven, our sin is covered, and that the God who sees every bad thing we have ever done imputes no sin to us but regards us as saints. This is where we repent. This is where we live. Amen