Love does Mean Having to Say 'I Repent'
It was the 1970 movie "Love Story" that popularized the saying
"love means never having to say you're sorry." Then Precious Moments made it a cultural icon enshrining it on cutesy, collectable knickknacks. Trouble is I don't think it's true. And I know love does mean having to say, "I repent."
Well, isn't repentance the same thing as feeling sorry? No, the Greek word repent' doesn't have the emotion of sorrow as a primary or even prominent concept. This should be a comfort to you who get wrapped around the axle of "being sorry enough." You plumb the depths of your heart to see if you have enough sorrow going on to be forgiven. How much sorrow you feel or don't feel isn't an issue with repentance. Truth is you can be so very sorry without being repentant. Judas was. Mt. 27:3 uses a specific Greek word that emphasizes Judas felt regret, remorse, sorrow. Judas said in anguish, "I have sinned; I have betrayed innocent blood." Yet, Judas wasn't repentant in the sense Peter was. The same is true of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They participated in the ceremonies of the Temple mourning their sins, but they weren't repentant. And you? You have a lot of sorrow for your sins, do you? They really bother you, huh? You still might not be repentant!
What to watch out for is what Luther called "gallows repentance." This is that sorrow felt by a person standing on the gallows about to be hanged. He would give anything not to be standing there. And here is the point: anyone would. Gallows repentance is sorrow over sin worked by the gallows not by God. It's not a divine thing; it's a human, emotional thing. Yet, you find it in church. Sharp preaching against sin, like John the Baptist did, drags everyone up on the gallows of God. When you hear that the ax of God's judgment is against your legs. and if He finds a lack of faith, hope, or love, He's going to whack you off at the knees, don't your knees start to tremble? When you're told that God has His bow bent, and aimed at your lustful, prideful, greedy heart, and that any second He'll let go, and when you hear the bow string twang, don't your knees start to knock?
This is gallows repentance: Being overwhelmed by the punishment at hand; saying, "I repent, I repent," in hopes of avoiding the punishment; hating the penalty not the sin; willing to do anything to avoid punishment, but not wishing to be free of your sins. John thunders against an emotional gallows repentance. He preached Law to the Pharisees and Sadducees even though they were coming to him for a Gospel baptism. He gave them Law because they were fleeing from the coming wrath. They were trembling at the judgment that awaited them, but they produced no fruit in keeping with their repentance. They didn't see any sin that they needed to turn away from like the crowds did who in Luke 3 asked John what fruit of repentance he meant. The church leaders, in contrast to the crowds, didn't care about putting away sins of greed, stealing, or not serving God in their calling. Do you? Or do you just scurry here every Advent because you're reminded judgement comes? Will you promise anything, feel as bad as necessary just so you can feel God has removed the axe from pressing on your knees? Unbent His bow? Do you really think it's okay to go on living in your sins just so long as you feel bad about them?
Beware, beware of gallows repentance. It's all around us. Nearly everybody has it when faced with judgement, but note that in our text it's particularly found among the church-going, church-leading types like us. And also note, judgement is not delayed by it. God doesn't turn away His ax merely because someone is boohooing over their sins. God wipes such tears away with the head of His ax. God doesn't pity every sorrowful heart; He sometimes pierces them like He did Judas, Saul, and others.
But wait. Don't turn away yet. Sorrow, tears, feelings can lead to repentance. II Corinthians says, "Godly sorrow produces repentance which leads to salvation." Peter had godly sorrow when he went out and wept bitterly after denying Christ. David had godly sorrow when he "watered his couch with tears" over his sin with Bathsheba. The people in our text had godly sorrow when they asked John not how to escape judgment but what freedom from their sins looked like. Godly sorrow mourns over its sins. It says to God, "O wretched man that I am who will deliver me from this body of death?" Yes, there is terror over the approaching judgment of God, but there is also retching over your sinful state. There is a longing to be different. There is a hating of the sin that besets you.
But sorrow, even godly sorrow is not the mark of true repentance. If you dwell too much on your sorrow, you will be drawn into debating whether you are sorry enough or about what type of sorrow you really have. No, the mark of true repentance is receiving absolution. We say in our Catechism about Confession: "The first part is that we confess our sins, the second part is that we receive absolution." The first part of repentance is sorrow over sins; the second part is God's grace in Christ covering your sins. The first part is admitting you're a sinner; the second part is seeing Jesus was holy in your place. If you only have the first part, even if that first part is godly sorrow, you're still lost. What you need is that second part: the absolution which sends your sins away and says to you, "Here sinner is the grace of Christ for you to cling to! Here is the answer to your wretched sinfulness: the forgiving of your sins for Christ's sake." Sorrow that drives you to absolution is godly sorrow. Sorrow that drives you to the tree of the Cross where you see God's ax laid at Christ's holy feet and His arrows stuck in Christ's perfect body, that's godly sorrow.
I know you're still bothered. You're wondering if perhaps you have only emotional sorrow over your sins not godly sorrow, gallows repentance not true repentance. Let me put your mind at ease. There is no way you can have godly sorrow or true repentance unless God Himself gives it. A repentant person is not someone who makes himself penitent; that's a faker; that's a hypocrite. A person can only be made repentant by God. And because God loves us He won't let us go without making us repentant. You see love, God's love, means He won't rest till we say, 'I repent.'
Repentance is a miracle. It's not a matter of mere words or feelings. It's a matter of a change of mind, literally. Even brain surgeons can't change minds. This God must do, and it's a great a miracle. Hear how Isaiah saw it in the OT lesson: It's a wolf living with a lamb or a leopard laying down with a goat. Repentance is a miracle on the order of calves, lions, and yearling lambs being led by a little child. It's a bear saying, "I'd rather not eat that plump, juicy cow." No, repentance is even a greater miracle than that, says Isaiah. It's the lion eating dried up straw like an ox and liking it!
Now do you see why you haven't been able to lead your parent, spouse, kid, or friend to repent of not coming to church regularly; now you know why you can't make yourself repent of your own neglect of spiritual things; now you know why people can live on and on in their sins even with God's ax biting into their leg and His arrow pricking their heart. Repentance is a bona fide, God-produced miracle. That's why we pray in the Collect today, "Stir up our hearts, O Lord..." If God doesn't stir up our hearts by His Word, nothing in heaven or earth, not judgment, not fear, not tears can make us repent. But if God does it through His Word, it doesn't stop. When John calls us to repent, he literally says, "make it a policy of yours to repent always." Luther in the 95 theses said the same, "The life of the Christian is to be one of constant repentance." Man-made repentance searches the heart to see if there is a reason to feel sorry, guilty or bad. If it finds nothing, it feels Christian. But God given repentance says ever and always: "I am a poor, miserable sinner."
Only God can bring this sort of confession out of you. Your pride, your fear, your self-esteem won't let you make it on your own. Only God can lead us to throw everything in our life in a heap and confess it to be sin. Not just the things we feel bad about, but even the things we feel good about. Not just the bad things we know but even the bad things we don't know. "Before God," our Catechism says, "We plead guilty of all sins even those we are not aware of." That's because our confession is not based on our feelings or conscience but it's based on God's Word which declares no one is righteous in any way, shape or form, apart from Christ.
God through the Word wills to work repentance in you. Don't try it on your own. Only God can work a repentance that leads to godly fruit. Man-made repentance leads to pride or despair. The church leaders made themselves repentant and they were proud of it. The crowds were also made repentant by men but they were in despair. Pride or despair results from manmade repentance because it leads to manmade forgiveness. The church leaders believed their repentance was their work which pleased God so much He forgave them, and so were proud. The crowds believed their repentance could never be good enough for forgiveness and so despaired.
Repentance isn't your work, it's God's. It's not something you do for God; it's something God does for you. It's not something you do because you love God so much; it's something God does in you because He loves you so much in Christ. And He doesn't just want to do it in you, but in everyone you know no matter how wicked they might be. II Peter 3 says, "God doesn't wish any to perish, but wants all to come to repentance." God doesn't want to use His ax on any tree, His bow on any heart. For His part God chopped down His last tree on Calvary; He pierced His last heart there too. Now He wants to give everyone His gift of repentance this Advent. His love means He won't rest till everyone says, "I repent." Amen.
Rev Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20191208); Matthew 3: 1-12