Conversion consists of faith (discussed last week) and repentance. Without one there can’t be the other. Repentance exists not only initially in Conversion (Indicative) but continually through the Christian life in Sanctification (Imperative). This Indicative is described the Shorter Catechism as “a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” (WSC 87)
However repentance is also an imperative in the life of the Christian. The Reformer Martin Luther penned in his first of the historic Ninety-Five Theses that Jesus willed the whole life of the Christian to be one of repentance. Initially this seems to be a rather daunting task for the Christian, equivalent to running on a hamster wheel. Sin is frustrating in the life of the Christian and the idea of continual failure is not encouraging either. The reality of the Christian life is that at times we cry along with Paul “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” I believe Martin understood this. Rather than seeing repentance as a sign of defeat it was a sign of victory. He pointed to repentance throughout life as a sign of progression not recession. A daily death to sin based off the promises of God. “Claiming God’s promise to us in baptism, we die daily to sin and rise anew in faith and repentance.” (Horton, The Christian Faith)
This continual act of repentance can be a dangerous place in the Christian life. We must remind ourselves (and often times each other) that the daily act of turning is a turning to Christ rather than our own experience or piety. Repentance doesn’t lead the Christian to asceticism (severe self-discipline from all indulgences) nor monasticism (living under religious vows in communities or buildings). Rather repentance comes from the hearing of the Gospel, the ordained means through which the Spirit works. In pagan religions, repentance is to assuage the wrath of an angry God. However for the Christian this has been done already by our Savior. The Christian now is reminded of the joy they have from their union with Christ, causing a dying of our need to act contrary to our new nature.
Repentance is not us suffering for our sins, one of Martin’s complaint of the Roman view of Penance. But the Christian is reminded in the Gospel that the heinousness of our sins is never enough to separate us from the love we have in Jesus. (Rom 8) Therefore our repentance must be Christ-centered and distinct from the pagan form of repentance which is self-centered. We don’t need to convince ourselves how miserable we are for our sins but be reminded that Jesus was miserable for our sin. Therefore we can rejoice all the more when the minister declares we are forgiven not because we have grieved so heavily but because God is “just”. (1 John 1:8)