Repentance into Forgiveness of Sins
"A Baptism of repentance into forgiveness of sins," is literally what John the Baptist came preaching. In years past, I've talked about the Baptism part; this year I want to talk of repentance. Repentance doesn't necessarily lead to forgiveness. Hearing this, an audible gulp would be appropriate. There are all sorts of repentance and only one kind is into forgiveness. That's the kind John preached; that's the kind Advent leads to.
First, though, let's look at repentance that is not into forgiveness, indeed it leads into judgment and eternal death. The first would be gallows repentance. Luther liked this term. It is repenting because you got caught. Had you not been caught you wouldn't be sorry, so it's in effect, "I'm sorry I got caught." It's repenting that you got caught. This is really your kind of repentance if you think about a secret sin and wonder how you can explain them away if they ever came to light.
Another flavor of the repentance that Paul calls "worldly sorrow" and says it leads to death is the kind that is stuck on, "I'm sorry; I'm sorry." There are two flavors to this. You have the kid who is caught dead to rights being led off to his much deserved spanking wailing, "I'm sorry; I'm sorry." He really is terribly, awfully sorry and he thinks that his deep sorrow should undo the sin, make up for the sin, make the punishment go away.
In adults, it's rarely that crass. With us, sorry is replaced with disgust. Just because you see how horribly, how ugly, how serious your sin is doesn't mean you're repentant. It does mean you're disgusted with yourself. C. S. Lewis advices not to confuse repentance with disgust because while repentance comes from the Lord disgust with your sin or self comes from the Devil (Pilgrim's Regress, 184). Disgust seized Peter and he said to Jesus, "Get away from me; I'm a sinful man." Disgust seized Judas and he went out and hanged himself.
With adults the faux repentance that leads to eternally dying is very sophisticated. It can take the form of the intention to do better next time. This is the American form of imitation repentance (Sasse, Lonely Way, I, 43). You lack the repentance that leads to forgiveness and life if you are living on vows to do better next time or make it right this time. You may be very honorable, very noble, and you're certainly very American, but you do not have repentance into forgiveness.
A less noble kind of American repentance is, "I'm sorry, but that's just the way I am." This sort of repentance is an excuse for the way you are. It's an apology in the sense of the Latin apologia. It's a formal defense of your conduct. It's given to explain to the person why they have to put up with your outbursts. "I'm sorry; I have trouble controlling my temper." You make an apologia to your wife for why she has to put up with your wandering eyes. "I'm sorry; I like to girl watch." There are dozens of ways to explain away your sin or sinfulness and not a one of them is repentance.
Imitation repentance looks and can feel like the real thing, and many there are who think they have the real thing. It's like the fool's gold you found as a kid. Boy did it look like real gold, and for awhile you treated it as if it was. It took quite a lot for someone to convince you that fool's gold wasn't real gold. But being convinced you didn't have the real thing didn't mean you automatically got the right thing. Cubic zirconium doesn't turn into diamonds once you recognize what you have. The genuine diamond still has to be acquired. You go to a jewelry store for diamonds and to God for repentance that leads into forgiveness.
The Greek word for repentance literally means "change of mind." It doesn't mean change of behavior. However, having said that, you do not have repentance into forgiveness if you don't want to change your behavior. Luther is blunt on this score: "Christ did not die for those who do not want to cease from adultery" (LW, 58, 21). Christ didn't die for those living together who do not want to cease fornicating. Christ didn't die for gays who don't want to cease from their homosexuality. Christ didn't die for the drunkard, the glutton, the pornographer, who doesn't want to cease from his drunkenness, his gluttony, his pornography. You can go to each and every Commandment and say the same thing: Christ didn't die for those who do not want to cease from their breaking it.
But where do changes of mind come from? Where does not wanting to do something anymore come from? Not from you but from outside you. Something outside of you moves you to change your mind. Our text doesn't just tell us that John preached "repentance into forgiveness of sins." It tells us what he preached. First he demanded you must prepare the way of the Lord. You must make straight paths for Him. This is where so many go off the rails. They hear this as a command to be sorry that you haven't prepared and have crooked paths, and a command to start doing better. This sort of repentance only leads away from Christ into death.
The purpose of John preaching the Law, of my preaching you the Law, is to show you that you do not have what it takes to prepare for the Lord. You can't make straight the crooked paths of your life. No amount of sorrow for your sins is enough to undo them or even cover them. No amount of trying to do better will satisfy God's wrath over your sins. The preaching of the Law is to kill you, to shut you up under the wrath of God, so that you shut your mouth and make no excuses or promises to do better.
It's sort of, and I do mean sort of, like the Christmas specials. The person wants to have the perfect Christmas for his family. He gets the biggest tree, the best gifts. He prepares and prepares. He straightens out every crooked detail that comes along, but Christmas fails. Santa doesn't come. The family is fighting, and the tree blows fuses. In despair, the man throws up his hands and says, "I quit. I can't make a perfect Christmas." Cue the light snowfall, the sleigh bells, and then the miracle happens. Without any effort on his part Christmas comes.
Are you to that point with your sin and sinfulness? Are you done trying to do better? Are you done trying to make straight all the things you have made crooked in your life? Are you done trying to save yourself? The only thing that can save you is the Gospel. The Gospel not your repentance, not your changing of mind, not your turning brings forgiveness. Actually the figure in the text is deposits you into forgiveness. Think of forgiveness as a place, a state and repentance leads there if it goes by way of the Gospel.
Far off in the distance is the Gospel place, the forgiveness place, between you and there are deep valleys, high mountains, crooked and bumpy roads. There ain't no way you're getting there. It is hopeless. Notice that "prepare" and "make" are imperative commands. They are telling you what you must do to be saved. They are the Law. They show you your sins so that you realize there is a mountain high enough and a valley low enough to keep you from Jesus. But the rest of the verbs are future indicatives. They indicate not what you must do but what will happen. The valleys will be filled in and the mountains will be made low. The crooked roads will be straightened and the rough ways will be smoothed. All mankind will see this is a promise the salvation of God.
These are figures of what Jesus did to redeem the world. They are pictures of Jesus' active righteousness and His passive righteous. They picture what Jesus did to save us or suffered to save us. Your promises to do better and my excuses for not doing as I should will fill in no valleys. Jesus holy life filled in every one. No matter what sin besets you, no matter what sin keeps pawing at you to make it a pet, Jesus kept the Law against it, so that Jesus can cross over to you and claim you sending that sin whimpering away.
Yes, your sin is a real mountain. You have added to it by every lust, every foul word, every shameful deed. You can't erode that mountain with tears of grief. Even your good deeds can only make that mountain higher and higher. The blood that came from Jesus' hands, feet, and side wash that mountain away. Because Jesus' blood is the blood of God it can do that. Not you, not the Devil, not others can find a trace of your sins now that Jesus' blood has swept them away. No one can see what God Himself declares is not there.
Yes, we in our sinfulness have twisted and turned away from God in Christ as He called out to us, as He came for us, as He searched for us. We got lost in a tangle of broken laws, promises, Commandments. We don't even know where to pull to begin to unravel this mess of crookedness. When we try we only draw the tangle tighter. Jesus, by virtue of a sin free life, won the right to reach down through the tangled mess and grab hold of us. You know how it is when you can't think straight? Well Jesus always thinks straight. The sins, the failings, the problems that to us are a Herculean labyrinth between us and God, to Jesus they are a straight, six-lane highway.
What about the rough roads. Yes, even the straight parts of the road are bumpy made so by our sins. You know how a country road gets washboard? Trucks carrying loads too heavy for it go down it. We carried our sins down the road to heaven making them bumpy and impassable. Jesus traveled those same roads. And He was all but beaten to pieces on them being knocked from side to side and roof to floor. By the blood His body shed those roads were made smooth again.
The path to salvation, to forgiveness is wide open by what Jesus did and what He suffered. You know how in driving you automatically steer toward what you're focusing on? If you focus on the guardrail while driving across a bridge you'll drift toward it. So if you focus on repentance, you will focus on it rather than forgiveness. At the end of the day what does our text says John put before the eyes of his hearers? What did he say all mankind will see? God's salvation. There's the proper focus for as Paul says, "The goodness of God leads you into repentance." Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20151206); Luke 3: 1-6