Repentance

Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12-14
February 10, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Lent is a time of repentance. Not that it’s the only time of repentance; when the Lord Jesus said, “Repent,” He willed that our entire lives be that of repentance. Repentance is the starting point for the apostolic message: Thus it has been written of the Christ to suffer and to rise on the third day, and of the repentance and forgiveness of sins to be preached in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). Repentance is the beginning of the Christians message.

Repentance is metanoia. It means, “a change of thinking,” “a change of mind,” “a change of heart.” It’s not, strictly speaking, a change of behavior. Civil authority can change behavior, but it can only do so by force and coercion. You’re never happy about it. But repentance has to do with the mind and the heart. It’s as the Lord speaks through the prophet Joel, “Right now,” says the LORD, “return to Me with all your hearts, with fasting, weeping, and mourning.” Tear your hearts and not your clothes, and turn to the LORD your God because He is gracious, merciful, slow to get angry, full of kindness, and relents from disaster. Who knows — He may relent and leave behind Him a blessing — gifts of food and drink for the LORD your God? (Joel 2:12-14 AAT).

The prophet sets repentance before us in beautiful simplicity. God’s expectation is not a change of behavior, but a change of heart. And this is not accomplished by anything you can do—it’s the work of God in you and for you. The Lord is the one who does the repenting work, and

Repentance has two parts: contrition and faith in forgiveness.

I.

One part [of repentance] is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin (AC XII.4). Contrition is the beginning of repentance; without it, there can be no repentance. It’s sorrow over sin, terrors of the conscience and it comes through knowledge of sin. Repentance begins with contrition, which is born of God’s Law.

Terrified consciences. I know most of you well enough now that I would not describe most of you as “terrified consciences.” There are not many of you who openly weep over your sins. Maybe a few of you harbor some deep, hidden sorrow that comes out at night as you struggle to find a couple hours of sleep, but for most of you, I think you’re more like me and can’t ever really remember a time that you were mortified by something awful that you had done.

Now, I do think most of you are terrified of other people’s sin. You’re terrified of the Muslim threat. You’re terrified of the gay agenda. You’re terrified of secular liberals redefining American ideals. You’re terrified your children getting hooked on drugs. You’re terrified of everything around you, but your own sins do not terrify you.

Repent. Change your way of thinking. It’s not the people around you who are the sinners. It’s your. You’ve convinced yourself that you’re without sin—at least without any sins of consequence. And so you’ve deceived yourself, the truth is not in you. Sure you confess the general confession each week as a formality. You mouth the words, but I’ve never once in my entire life seen anyone weep openly while saying, “I a poor, miserable sinner confess unto Thee.”

The beginning of repentance cannot begin with you. Although it is an active verb, it’s passive in its meaning. Repentance isn’t something you do, but something that’s done to you. Contrition and sorrow is not something that you conjure up inside of yourself. It comes through the knowledge of your own sin. Repentance means “a change of thinking.” This change takes place only the holy Law of God shows you just how much you should terrify yourself. It reveals that all of the sins that terrify you the most, you also are capable of committing.

I remember the first time I realized that I was capable of murder. Not just joking around, not in the toothless sense of, “Well, everyone gets angry.” But actual murder. It wasn’t because I was plotting a murder, or that I got so angry with someone I lost control of myself. But it was after contemplating the Fifth Commandment. Never before had I really considered that the Fifth Commandment was given for me. The Fifth Commandment is only for murders, so I thought. And that bit in the Sermon on the Mount was so that I could mouth the confession without being a complete hypocrite. But after really contemplating what Jesus says about anger, I came to the knowledge that murder—which I never considered myself capable of before—was something that I was just a half-step away from. And that terrified me.

Repentance is a change of thinking, to know that the worst sinner the Law reveals is the one who looks at you in the mirror. It’s not an outward show or change of behavior—not tearing your clothes—but rending your hearts. It’s an inward change that God works in you by revealing the depth of your sin. It is, at its heart, an article of faith.

II.

Which brings us to the second part of repentance. 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 (AC XII.5). If repentance is only sorrow over sins, then it’s not complete, and not true repentance. Repentance is completed by faith in the forgiveness of sins, which is born of the Gospel.

When Judas betrayed our Lord Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, he was remorseful for his sin. He was sorry. He even tried to change his behavior and return the money and try to make things right by his works. But he ended in despair, hanging from a tree. It was a tragic irony, because Jesus allowed Himself to be betrayed so that He could be the One who hung on a tree to bear Judas’s punishment.

The cross of Jesus Christ shows not just the depth of your sin—that you deserved every whip, thorn, and nail that pierced Jesus—but even more the depth of His love for you. He endured the punishments for your worst sins—the things that keep you up at night—so that you would not have to hang cursed upon your own tree.

Good works cannot complete repentance. Faith completes repentance, and faith is not your work, it is the gift of God. This is because faith, at its core, is not something that you produce. You don’t just decided to start believing in something, but rather you believe that which is trustworthy. Faith is created by its object. And Christian faith—the faith that completes repentance—is created by the Lord. Return to the Lord, says the prophet, for He is gracious, merciful, slow to get angry, full of kindness, and relents from disaster. If it were not for the Lord’s grace and mercy and kindness, there could be no faith.

Repent. And believe the Gospel. That’s the second part of repentance. And again, it’s not your work, but the Lord’s. Your faith is not a work, but a gift. Repentance is not preached apart from the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He is your ground of faith. And to be doubly sure, our Lord repeats that repentance and the forgiveness of sins is the content of the apostolic preaching.

Your sins are forgiven—both the ones that terrify you and the ones that should. He bore your sins in His body. And He is trustworthy, His Word is true, because a man who promises to rise from the dead, and then does it, is a man that you can trust.
The prophet ends with a question: Who knows — He may relent and leave behind Him a blessing — gifts of food and drink for the LORD your God? The question is answered in Christ with a definitive Yes! Because of Christ, not only has the Lord your God relented from the disaster you have earned, but He’s also left behind Him a gift. In the old pagan religions, sacrifices of food were given to the gods to placate their wrath. But the Lord God’s wrath was placated by the faithfulness of His Son, and so the gift of food and drink is given to you.

He has left behind Him a memorial—a Holy Supper—by which His death is not only remembered but also delivered to you. The Sacrament of the Altar is your participation, your communion in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s His offering for you—that’s what a sacrament is. This offering is for you to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of your sins.

And then, with repentance begun in contrition and completed in faith in the forgiveness of sins, a change of behavior is bound to follow this change of mind. You are now free to live like no work can save you, like no sin can damn you. For Christ has done it all. Far from being an excuse to sin more, this change of mind, this change of heart produces real fruits, true works that are pleasing to God. And just as repentance is God’s work in you and for you, the fruits of repentance are also God’s work in you—and for your neighbor.

Lent is a time of repentance. Both parts of repentance. It’s a time to remember the severity of our own sins. But even more it’s a time to remember the mercy, love, and kindness of our Lord who does not punish us according to our sins, but forgives us according to Christ. Contrition and faith. Forgiveness of sins. All of it:

In the name of + Jesus.

Rev. Jacob Ehrhard
VD+MA