Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1:15
Repentance is necessary to Christian life. It is also impossibly hard. Who among us can accurately name each of our sins? Who can ungrudgingly admit every time we have done wrong? If we even manage to name and admit to our sin, who among us can fully and completely turn away from it? That is what repentance requires.
Repentance, of course, assumes the existence of a Godly standard of thought, word, and deed against which we humans always come up short. Lutherans call this the Law: God’s demanding standard which accuses us of sin. The Law tells the truth about us sinners: that we have fallen dreadfully short of God’s expectation, and that no excuse can get us out of this guilt.
The Law then demands repentance: not only does it accuse us, but it expects us to admit our guilt! In private matters and public actions, no word or deed is exempt from God’s examination. The Law even demands whole groups of people to admit their guilt together for deeds done in their name. No wonder repentance feels so difficult. It gets harder and harder the longer we deny the truth that the Law is shouting at us: that we have gone desperately wrong and can’t do a thing to resolve it. Accept the accusation and admit guilt, too? Is that all? Actually, no. Repentance demands even more.
The word repentance means not only to identify and admit to sin but also to make a complete and utter turn away from sin. Repentance requires us to both tell the truth about our broken selves and fix ourselves up. We cannot do this. We may try. We should try. We will not succeed.
Repentance now begins to feel rather hopeless. We cannot recognize every sin, confess every guilt, fix every brokenness. Who can? Who can bear the weight of the Law’s accusation, tell the complete truth, and repair every breach?
The answer here is the simple Sunday School answer: Jesus. Sometimes the simplest answer really is the best. Jesus Christ tells the truth about us. This can feel rather uncomfortable, even downright painful, when the Holy Spirit speaks to your spirit the undeniable truth that you have failed, fallen short, missed the mark— in other words: you have sinned.
No wonder Christianity is unappealing to so many, since it begins by telling each person that they are not great, good, innocent, nearly perfect, or even moderately okay, but instead that they are plain sinners! For that matter, repentance seems to be out of style even with those who call themselves Christian but are unwilling to hear the truth that they, in thought, word, and deed, continue to sin. This is the truth. No amount of self-improvement or comparison to those other sinners on our part will excuse our guilt or deter our accuser.
So the truth is that we are sinners. If that were the whole truth, it would be too much to bear. Praise God, there is another truth that the Holy Spirit tells us on behalf of Jesus Christ: “I forgive you.” Now the comfort and good news and glad tidings appear! The truth is that “the Holy Spirit daily and abundantly forgives the sin of me and every believer,” as the Small Catechism tells us. Forgiving sins seems to be the chief delight of the Holy Spirit, as it allows a new truth to be told: “Here is a forgiven sinner!” This is the truth called the Gospel, for it is good news to sinners.
Repentance, at its fullest, is then not a task we must undertake, but an act of God that happens to us. In the same divine breath, the Holy Spirit accuses you of your sin and blows it away with forgiveness. No one can be a Christian apart from this divine repentance. If anyone says they have no sin and thus no need of repentance, the truth is not in them. But, when we confess our sin, admitting the truth that the Law has shown us, the sweet Gospel truth declares us forgiven in the name of Jesus.
“But, Pastor,” you may be saying to yourself, “If the Holy Spirit does the accusing and the forgiving and the reforming, all the work of repentance is done without my having done a thing! What should I do?”
Indeed it is God’s work, and if you must have something to do, then do this: repeat the truth. Say that you are a sinner, earnestly and boldly. Confess that you have lied, or cheated, or followed a wicked leader, or gossipped, or spoken maliciously, or held a prejudice against your fellow humans. Name your sin. Then in the very same breath, say that you are forgiven, earnestly and boldly. Declare that you are God’s own, and that you have repented and been forgiven completely. Insist that you are a sinner and a saint, all at once. You are only repeating what the Holy Spirit has already said about you, after all.
It is true: you are forgiven. Even if you cannot say or believe it about yourself, you can trust God’s word: “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong.” (1 John 1:9) I say now to you, who have confessed the truth of your selfishness, your disregard for others, your lies, your sin of every kind: God forgives you. By the Holy Spirit and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, daily and abundantly, you are forgiven.
God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed; by what I have done and what I have left undone. In your great mercy, forgive my sin in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.