Article XII – Of Repentance

Of Repentance they teach that for those who have fallen after Baptism there is remission of sins whenever they are converted and that the Church ought to impart absolution to those thus returning to repentance. Now, repentance consists properly of these two parts: One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of  the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ's sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors. Then good works are bound to follow, which are the fruits of repentance.

They condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that those once justified can lose the Holy Ghost. Also those who contend that some may attain to such perfection in this life that they cannot sin.

The Novatians also are condemned, who would not absolve such as had fallen after Baptism, though they returned to repentance.

They also are rejected who do not teach that remission of sins comes through faith but command us to merit grace through satisfactions of our own. (Augsburg Confession. Article XII)

Repentance is a confusing topic.  What IS repentance?  Well, the most widely taught view of repentance is that it is our commitment, our promise, our vow to God that we’ll do better, or that we change our life.  So, for example, say that you’ve been absent in weekly church attendance. Okay (well, not okay!), what do you do?  According to the pop-Christian view of repentance, you make your good commitment to God that you’ll stop skipping church and start attending church.  Sunday comes around, the devil makes his ancient spiel, “did God really say that you need to be in boring church every Sunday singing boring hymns and listening to a boring sermon” and suddenly you find yourself watching Joel Osteen on TV telling you that God wants you to have lots of money and that you just need to believe harder to get it.

 But the devil isn’t done with you yet.  Now he comes and accuses you: “You lied to God.  You said you’d go to church, but you didn’t.  You’re not a good person – you’re faithless!”  You’ve done the “backslide”! 

Fortunately, this is NOT repentance!  This is synergism and synergism is one of the oldest and most dangerous heresies in the Church.

First, this sort of repentance (which isn’t repentance at all) assumes that we humans have just enough good in us from birth so that we can cooperate (synergize) with God.  That salvation is a sort of rational agreement with God whereas He provide a few things and you provide a few things; He does His part and you do your part, and in the end, you just might get to heaven with Jesus.

And what IS “our part”?  It’s the commitments, the “I decided to follow Jesus” because of good, rational arguments presented which allowed me to reason it all out and conclude that God is a great benefit to me.  The repentance, then, is the agreement to stop doing whatever sin we are doing, and to work hard to be good.

Second, this sort of repentance (which isn’t repentance at all) leads to grave despair!  Because the moment you break your commitments with God (and you will) is the moment you slide back, and you have to start the whole thing over again.  Make your commitments, do your altar call, get rebaptized, whatever the case may be, but it all starts over again…and again…and again…

I’ve seen and known of too many people, especially teens and young adults, leave Christianity because of this wrong and evil view of repentance.

To understand repentance properly, we must first understand sin.

Sin isn’t just a choice we make.  Sin is nature.  Sin is a corruption of the very DNA of humanity (and all of God’s creation, thanks to the first sinners: Adam and Eve).  We are born sinful, conceived sinful as David writes in Psalm 51.  Without God, without His intervention, there is no good in us to speak of.  100% hostile toward God. 100% evil and with absolutely no desire to please God.  This is human nature, and this is how we’re each born into the world.  We are born enslaved to the devil.  This summarizes the doctrine of Original Sin.

By our own strength, we never get to God.  We cannot “will” ourselves to Him. We cannot choose Him.  As St. Paul writes in Ephesians, we are dead – dead from conception – in our sin.

So, the ability to repent must come from God; it doesn’t start in us.  God gives the gift of repentance.  And where does He give us this gift?  At the same place He gives us faith, salvation and His Holy Spirit – in the Word and in the Sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

Repentance is two things: contrition and faith.  Contrition is the smiting terrors we have knowing that we are sinners.  That we cannot, by our own reason or strength, appease God or satisfy His requirements taught us in the Commandments.  Faith is the confident trust that, because of God’s loving mercy and grace, we are totally forgiven of our sins, thanks solely to Christ and His death and resurrection.

Summary: repentance is law and gospel!  Repentance is preached into us every week when we attend the Divine Service, when we confess our sins and hear the holy words of the Absolution: “By God’s authority, I forgive you all your sins…”, and when we kneel before our Lord’s table and receive His precious body and blood.  Repentance is truly a way of life, a daily part of life.  Repentance is remembering what we were before our baptisms and remembering what God has done for us in our baptisms. 

So, next time you’re tempted to cooperate with God by committing yourself to something in order to make Him happy, stop.  Instead, remember your baptism, and then come to the Divine Service and receive His gifts of law and gospel.  You cannot work yourself into heaven.  It is only by God’s grace and mercy and Spirit that heaven comes to you!  Amen.





Rev. Daniel Carlson
Pastor ~ St. Paul’s Lutheran Church