By Jacob Ehrhard
O LORD God dear Father in heaven, by Your word of law you produce contrition, and by Your word of gospel you produce hope. Grant us right repentance through Your word, that we would ever find our hope and certainty in You and Your Son’s Cross alone, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
After Jesus returns from His temptation by Satan in the wilderness, He begins His public ministry with the preaching of repentance. ”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 Now after John was gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). In Greek, repentance is metanoia. It’s a change of mind, a new way of thinking.
Now, strictly speaking, repentance consists of two parts. One part is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin. 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 (Augsburg Confession XII.3-5).
Knowledge of Sin
The first part of this change of thinking has to do with the knowledge of sin. By nature, we consider ourselves to be generally good people who occasionally do some bad things. And by reason and observation that may be true for all but the worst of the worst. But reason cannot grasp the depth of the problem of sin. It must be revealed to us, and that’s the particular work of God’s Law. “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19-20).
Repentance Begins with Contrition
Contrition is simply sorrow for sin, or as defined by our Lutheran Confessions, “terrors striking the conscience.” This doesn’t necessarily mean a severe emotional breakdown complete with weeping and gnashing of teeth (although it can); it doesn’t necessarily mean dragging ourselves around in sackcloth and ashes (although it can). First and foremost, contrition is a knowledge of sin–acknowledging that even our best and holiest works are sinful works. It’s the admission that, left on our own, we are lost and condemned and destined for destruction.
Repentance Is Completed by Faith
But if repentance stops with contrition, it’s not repentance. It’s incomplete without its second part. And that’s where faith comes in. Faith believes that for Christ’s sake, the sins revealed by God’s Law–the sins we acknowledge and are sorry for–are forgiven. This faith doesn’t just spring up on its own, but is born of the Gospel. It’s a result of Absolution. Faith is not complete until we hear, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The words of forgiveness create faith in forgiveness, and then repentance is complete.
In this way, the word repentance is a figure of speech called a synecdoche (si-NEK-duh-key). This is when a whole thing is referred to by one of its parts. But repentance always includes faith in the forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ first sermon on repentance is to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). When He rises from the dead, Jesus repeats this, but extends it to the entire world. “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”’ (Luke 24:45-47). Peter’s first sermon on Pentecost echoes this theme. “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'” (Acts 2:38).
Is There a Third Part?
Properly speaking, repentance begins with contrition and is completed by faith. But there is also a third part we could add, although it’s not repentance, per se. “To deliver godly consciences from these mazes of the learned persons, we have attributed these two parts to repentance: contrition and faith. If anyone desires to add a third—fruit worthy of repentance, that is, a change of the entire life and character for the better—we will not oppose it” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XIIa.28). This is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Peter proclaims in his Pentecost sermon.
Repentance Must Never Rest on Its Fruits
To make repentance depend on a change of character or a moral improvement in life is to put the sanctification cart (being made holy) before the justification horse (being declared righteous). Faith in the forgiveness of sins drives sanctification; we cannot be holy without first believing that our sins are forgiven. The specific changes in character and life are like a load of apples pulled in the cart. They are the fruits that are delivered by faith and the sanctification caused by the Spirit.
Certainly in this life we should intensify our fight against our Old Adam that makes war against the Spirit in each of us. But let us not stop there. Let us also redouble our reflection on the Gospel, and thus intensify our faith with the comfort and consolation that our sins, no matter how great, are forgiven for the sake of Christ. And by God’s grace, we will even find some fruits of the resurrection in a new life.
Come in sorrow and contrition, Wounded, impotent, and blind; Here the guilty, free remission, Here the troubled, peace may find. Health this fountain will restore; They that drink shall thirst no more. (“Come to Calvry’s Holy Mountain” LSB 435:3)
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago, IL.
This article was originally published in the winter 2016 issue of Higher Things Magazine.