What is repentance? Since we have entered the season of Lent, and Lent is traditionally a season of repentance and sorrow for sin, it might be worth considering what repentance actually is and what it is not. The summary of the Gospel of God, which Jesus preaches, is this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom [or “reign”] of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15, ESV). And Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47, ESV).
In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (written in response to the Roman Catholics in 1530/1531), Philip Melanchthon writes, “For these are the two chief works of God in human beings, to terrify and to justify the terrified or make them alive. The entire Scripture is divided into these two works” (Apol. XII, 53). First, then, we see that repentance and forgiveness are both works of God in us humans through His Holy Spirit. Though there is a command to repent and a command to believe, we are not able to accomplish either of these things in ourselves. They are the “two chief works of God.” The most we can accomplish on our own is to make ourselves feel “bad.” But that is not true Christian repentance.
True repentance actually contains both the results of the Law as it accuses us of sin, and of the Gospel, as it creates faith in Christ. So the Augsburg Confession (presented to the Emperor on June 25, 1530) says, “Now properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror about sin, and yet at the same time to believe in the gospel and absolution that sin is forgiven and grace obtained through Christ” (AC XII).
Though we are directed more clearly toward repentance during Lent, it is actually the daily working out of our Baptism, which continues our whole life long. Thus Luther instructs Christians in the Small Catechism: “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” (Small Catechism, Baptism IV). And in the Large Catechism: “What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into a new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in baptism, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and exercises it. In baptism we are given the grace, Spirit, and strength to suppress the old creature so that the new may come forth and grow strong. … Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to baptism, to resume and practice what has earlier been begun but abandoned” (Large Catechism, Baptism, 75-79).
To “resume and practice what has earlier been begun but abandoned.” Begun first in our baptism, but abandoned. Begun again and again, and abandoned again and again. So how can we resume and practice repentance, or baptism, during this Lententide?
One way would be to practice private confession and absolution. It is easy to pretend that our sins are “not so bad,” or that they haven’t really affected us. To speak them to the God-given representative of Christ and to hear the individual absolution of Christ directed at me and me alone, is an excellent way to continue the destruction of the Old Adam.
Another practice to begin again during Lent is the practice of daily prayer. There are many resources available for this, but I would highly recommend the new Concordia Publishing House book, The Treasury of Daily Prayer. It has everything you need to practice daily prayer individually or as a family (we have recently begun using it and though it takes some practice-what is worth doing that does not require practice?-it is still user-friendly. See the website at www.cph.org or see Gladys Wagner at the Trinity Resource Center to order one. Even if you don’t use that particular book, the hymnal has an order for daily prayer or you can ask me for a laminated copy of that order of daily prayer.
Lent is also a good time to focus on regular attendance at the Divine Service (including regular reception of Holy Communion) and Bible study, as well as worshiping at our weekly Lenten services. What better time to renew that practice, especially if you have fallen into the unhealthy habit of not receiving your Lord’s gifts when they are offered.
Other traditional Lenten practices are fasting (with prayer) and giving to those in need. We will be doing the latter on March 24 at the Care and Share in Crookston (mark your calendar, and watch the bulletin for more information).
Whatever our individual Lenten practices, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:23-25, ESV).
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”