Preached during the week of Misericordias Domini 2014
The article from the Augsburg Confession that we have before us this evening is a crucial one: the article on Repentance. The Roman, papist teaching on repentance was at the heart of Luther’s complaints against the Church. To the Roman church, repentance meant going to the priest so that he could give you works to do to make satisfaction for your sins. Repentance was turned into a set of works so that you wouldn’t have to spend so long in purgatory. And then, to help even more, you could purchase indulgences as a form of repentance. What a wicked lie that was!
Martin Luther’s very first of his 95 theses had said way back in 1517: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” And Luther was right: even the form of the word Jesus used when He said, “Repent!” means that it was a command for something ongoing and continual. Not: “Oops, I just committed a sin. I’d better repent of it.” But rather: “Oh. I am, by nature, sinful and unclean. And I have sinned against the Almighty God in my thoughts, words, and actions. There is no excuse for my sin, no justification of it, and nothing I can do to make up for it. I deserve to suffer here on earth. I deserve to die. I deserve to have God punish me eternally in hell.” That’s the ongoing repentance Jesus was talking about—at least, the first part of it. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
First, let’s go back to the beginning of Art. XII and take it section by section.
1 Our churches teach that there is forgiveness of sins for those who have fallen after Baptism whenever they are converted.
So, we’re really confessing two things there. First, that it is possible to fall away from faith, and therefore, from justification and salvation, after Baptism. Toward the end, in the doctrines-we-condemn section, we’ll see the opposite teaching condemned: 7 Our churches condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that those who have once been justified can lose the Holy Spirit. The Anabaptists then, just like Baptists and Calvinists and the Reformed today, taught a doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” If you were ever truly converted to faith in Christ, they said, you can never fall away. You may “backslide” a bit, but you never lose your salvation.
But that’s a lie. Over and over again the Scripture presents the real danger of Christians—baptized believers in Christ—falling away from the faith and falling back under God’s wrath and condemnation. The writer to the Hebrews puts it very strongly: For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Now, understand. You don’t fall away from faith and trample underfoot the Son of God with every sin you commit. Penitent believers in Christ live under grace, with our sins being continually covered by the blood of Christ. But you fall away from that faith and from that forgiveness through “mortal sin” —sin that leads to death, as St. John puts it.
The papists have botched that teaching, too, labeling certain kinds of sin as mortal sin. Lust, gluttony, greed, etc. Those are sins, but they don’t condemn a person any more than other sins. It’s not the severity of the sin that causes a person to fall away from faith. It’s the person’s stubborn impenitence. A person falls away from faith and from salvation and casts out the Holy Spirit when a person sins intentionally, knowingly, persistently. As we confess in the Apology, Faith cannot exist in those who live according to the flesh who are delighted by their own lusts and obey them. Accordingly, Paul says, Rom. 8, 1: There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. So, too 8, 12. 13: We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye, through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. Wherefore, the faith which receives remission of sins in a heart terrified and fleeing from sin does not remain in those who obey their desires, neither does it coexist with mortal sin.
So, we confess that you can fall away by following after your sinful desires. You can fall away by turning aside to false doctrine. But we also confess that those who fall away can be converted again and receive forgiveness again and be justified again. Not that a person can bring himself back to repentance once he has lost the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit can call people back to repentance through the Word. That’s what conversion is—being turned away from impenitence to penitence, turned away from love of sin to sorrow over sin, turned away from unbelief to faith.
To those who repent—who recognize and mourn their sin and who again look to Christ and His merits for forgiveness—we confess, 2 The Church ought to impart Absolution to those who return to repentance. This came up very early in the ancient Church with the Novatians. Christians were being persecuted at that time. Some were given the ultimatum: deny Christ or be put to death. Many chose death. Some chose to deny Christ. But then, later, they wanted to come back to the Church. Novatian was a priest who taught that no one who falls away from Christ can be forgiven ever again. But the Church condemned Novatian and his followers at that time, as we do, too. The Novatians also are condemned, who would not absolve those who had fallen after Baptism, though they returned to repentance.
Now, on to the definition of repentance:
Now, strictly speaking, repentance consists of two parts. 4 One part is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin.
What does it mean to repent? It means to be sorry—or better, sorrowful—over your sins, to be terrified by them. We see that godly sorrow in Peter after he denied Christ three times and went out and wept bitterly. We see it in the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. We see it in King David after his adultery and murder, when he finally confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Sorrow over sin is not an indifferent “oops” where someone just shrugs off the evil they did. It’s sorrow and terror in the conscience. That’s the first part of repentance.
5 The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel or the Absolution and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven. It comforts the conscience and delivers it from terror.
Faith, born of the Gospel. And what is the Gospel? You heard it tonight from Jesus’ own lips: Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. There is the Gospel, that God forgives sins for Christ’s sake. To the terror-stricken conscience, there is no better news. Christ has suffered and died for your sins. God forgives sins for His sake. All who believe in Him receive God’s forgiveness. As we confess, this faith “comforts the conscience and delivers it from terror.”
Those are the two parts of repentance. Nothing else. No works. No penance. Repentance is contrition and faith in Christ, and with that, there is forgiveness and absolution. But wherever there is true repentance, there will also be a change in the person’s life. As we say, 6 Then good works are bound to follow, which are the fruit of repentance. Faith makes alive. It’s accompanied by the Holy Spirit. It gives birth to love, every time. The church skipper who repents will come to church to hear the Word and receive the Sacrament. The thief who repents will stop stealing and seek to restore what he took, as Zacchaeus the tax collector did. The adulterer will stop committing adultery, and will, as Jesus said to the woman whom they were about to stone, “go and sin no more.” The penitent sinner who believes in Jesus cannot say, “I’m just going to go ahead and keep indulging my flesh.” It’s impossible. It can’t happen. The penitent sinner who believes in Jesus says, as Joseph said long ago, “How can I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”
The rest of Art. XII deals with the doctrines we oppose. We already mentioned the Anabaptists and the Novatians. 8 They also condemn those who argue that some may reach such a state of perfection in this life that they cannot sin. That’s really where Methodism came from, and there are still Methodists and Pentecostals who teach that error today.
10 Our churches also reject those who do not teach that forgiveness of sins comes through faith, but command us to merit grace through satisfactions of our own.
That’s the Roman Catholics. They seek forgiveness in their works, in their penance, in their satisfactions, when all along, there is Christ, with His merits and His righteousness, calling out, “I am the One who died and rose again. Whoever believes in me receives forgiveness of sins.”
Finally, They also reject those who teach that it is necessary to perform works of satisfaction, commanded by Church law, in order to remit eternal punishment or the punishment of purgatory. That’s the Roman church again, adding Church laws to God’s Word, and making obedience to the pope a requirement for escaping the torture of purgatory.
Luther was right to condemn that doctrine of the devil, and we give thanks to God for the simple, biblical teaching of repentance that he taught. Where there is sorrow over sins and faith in Christ who died for sin and rose again, there is repentance. And where there is repentance, God directs the penitent to His Word and Sacraments, where He will surely forgive. And our church, as a church of the Augsburg Confessions, stands ready at all times to hand out God’s forgiveness to those who repent, and to hand out such a forgiveness that doesn’t just give you time off purgatory. It cancels sin, death and hell for you completely and makes you an heir of eternal life. Amen.