In our Word of the Week we continue to focus on a Lenten theme as Pastor Rob Sauers looks at the words “contrition” and “repentance.”
Repentance was a major theme in the preaching of both John the Baptism and Jesus (Matthew 3, 4:17). The Lenten season is called a “penitential season,” that is, a season of repentance, and so it’s good for us to ask, then, “What is repentance?” The Dicitionary defines repentance in this way: “to feel or express sincere regret or remorse.” This definition really describes the first part of repentance, namely, contrition. According to the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, contrition is, “the true terror of conscience, which feels that God is angry with sin and grieves that it has sinned. This contrition takes place when sins are condemned by God’s Word.” So contrition is that internal condition of fear and terror in the conscience that feels God’s wrath against sin (Psalm 38:4,8).
Repentance starts with contrition. Sometimes this sorrow is more like fear – fear of being separated from God. This sorrow is not a worldly sorrow. That’s the kind of sorrow that Judas had after he betrayed Jesus. His was a self-centered remorse and despair that wrongly concluded that all was lost in this life, that there was no hope, and that there was nothing God could do. True contrition is godly sorrow that is worked in us by God’s Law. That’s the first part. But there is a second part of repentance. The word translated “repent” in Greek means to turn or to change one’s mind. There are many who think and teach that repentance is about turning from sinning to not sinning. In other words, they believe that repentance is about trying to do better. So according to this definition, the second part of repentance is good works. The problem with this definition is that it leaves us with no hope that we’ve done enough to turn away from our sins. Scripture teaches us that repentance isn’t about turning from doing bad things to doing good things, but it’s about turning away from ourselves and our own righteousness and turning to Jesus and His righteousness. Repentance is not saying, “I’ve sinned and so I’m not going to sin anymore.” Repentance is saying, “I’ve sinned and I can’t save myself, so I trust in Christ to forgive me and save me.”
Think of the thief on the cross at Jesus’ crucifixion. He turned away from himself and to Jesus. And Jesus replied, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Repentance is a turning – not from sinning to not sinning, but a turning from trusting in one’s own righteousness to trusting in Jesus to save. And so, the second part of repentance isn’t good works, but it’s faith. When we understand repentance as Scripture teaches it, we have the true comfort that as we repent of our sins, we have God’s forgiveness. Because true repentance takes our eyes off of ourselves and our own efforts, we’re not left to determine on our own if our repentance is genuine enough to obtain forgiveness. Instead, true repentance turns us to Jesus who tells us from the cross, “It is finished.” The work of our salvation has been completed. True repentance, then, is a wonderful gift from God in which He works in us through His Law and Gospel. Though the Law, God brings us to contrition, a true, godly sorrow over our sins. Though the Gospel, the Lord works faith in our hearts to turn away from ourselves and turn to God for forgiveness and salvation. So rejoice in this wonderful gift of repentance. Rejoice to confess your sinfulness and inability to save yourself as this confession is a gift from God. And then rejoice that the Lord has turned you from unbelief to faith, from life to death – because you are forgiven of all your sins.