by Rev. Mark Bestul

The word “repentance” is so misunderstood, even within Christian circles. While we often think of repentance being poorly understood because of Papist emphasis on man’s efforts, the Reformers (and we still to this day) also recognized that many are burdened in conscience by the notion that Christians shouldn’t need to repent. Luther uses this third article of the Third Part of the Smalcald Articles to address both errors and yield a great comfort that Christians may repent and be freely forgiven by our heavenly Father for Christ’s sake.

This article can be divided into three sections. In the first nine paragraphs, Luther wonderfully and succinctly defines repentance correctly according to a right wielding of Law and Gospel. In paragraphs 10-41, he then refutes the Papists’ ‘false repentance’. In paragraphs 42-45, he warns the Christian of the rising sects that believe repentance is not for the Christian. Following Luther’s layout, let’s study each section:

Section 1: True Repentance According to Right Wielding of Law and Gospel

Para. 2: “This is God’s thunderbolt. By the Law He strikes down both obvious sinners and false saints.”

1. How often do we (perhaps even subconsciously) see the Gospel as God’s Word, but not the Law? Though it may be His ‘alien’ work, it is still His work! How does a low view of “God’s thunderbolt” lead to repentance being interpreted as man’s meritorious work rather than sinner’s terror-stricken sorrow?

Para. 3: “This is what true repentance means.”

Luther reminds us that if ‘active contrition’ is manufactured repentance, then ‘passive contrition’ includes “true sorrow of heart, suffering, and the sensation of death” (para. 2). The sinner is convicted by the thunderbolt: “You have to become different from what you are now… whether you are as great, wise, powerful, and holy as you can be. Here no one is godly.” This is a sweeping condemnation, which leads us to ask,

2. How well does today’s preaching preach the Law? While we admit that the whole world needs ‘the Gospel,’ can the Gospel be preached in its full sweetness – can sinners know their need for the Gospel – if the Law is not preached in its full severity?

3. Is the following proper Law and Gospel preaching?: “You are a sinner, but God loves you anyway because Jesus died for you.” Does that include or overlook God’s call to repentance?

Para. 4: “But to this office of the Law, the New Testament immediately adds the consoling promise of grace through the Gospel…Whenever the Law alone exercises its office, without the Gospel being added, there is nothing but death and hell, one must despair…On the other hand, the Gospel brings consolation and forgiveness.”

Here we see the purpose of the Law: God’s desire to call to repentance, that He might have mercy on all. So then, as Luther points out, John the Baptist is called a preacher of repentance, but for the ultimate purpose of conveying the forgiveness of sins.

4. How does this bring us to cherish the call to repentance as a divine act of love?

Section 2: False Repentance of the Papists

Para. 10: “It [is] impossible for them to teach correctly about repentance, since they [do] not know what sin really is…. Rather, they say that the natural powers of human beings have remained unimpaired and uncorrupted… and God certainly bestows His grace when a person does as much as he can…”

5. Make the connection: How does a wrong view of original sin lead man to see repentance not as ‘despairing of one’s self,’ but as ‘pleasing God through my efforts of humility’?

Para. 12-21: “They divide repentance into three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction.”

Read the rest of the paragraphs that describe Roman Catholic teaching and define each part: contrition, confession and satisfaction. Then consider these fundamental differences with Lutheran understanding:

6. How does Luther’s Small Catechism define repentance (“confession has two parts…”)?

7. What is glaringly omitted from the Papist teaching of repentance? Absolution! How does this illustrate the false notion of repentance as man’s effort, whereas Lutherans see it as a result of God’s Law preparing us for God’s Gospel?

Para. 22-27: “For the rest of their repentance, they were directed to purgatory” (end of para. 21).

Here, Luther spells out the ‘snowball effect’ that leads from a wrong understanding of sin and repentance.

8. Trace the path from a poor understanding of repentance to purgatory to indulgences to the despair of the sinner.

Para. 28-34: “Now some did not believe themselves guilty of actual sins in thought, word, and deeds… These holy ones did not need repentance…But here comes the fiery angel of St. John, the true preacher of repentance. With one bolt of lightning, he hurls together both. He says, ‘Repent!’”

The false saints of Rome (monks, nuns, etc.) believe themselves to be above repentance because they have not ‘acted out’ upon sinful thoughts. Yet, the Law strikes at all sinners in deed and thought.

9. How does the corporate confession of sins in LSB Setting I (“We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone”) defend us from the ‘surface’ understanding of sin that entangled the monks and nuns?

Para. 35: “This [true] repentance teaches us to discern sin: We are completely lost; there is nothing good in us from head to foot; and we must become absolutely new and different people.”

10. When Luther says ‘We must become absolutely new and different people”, why is it important to understand that part of the Law’s crushing condemnation is that it demands what we cannot achieve? How does this drive us to the Gospel?

Para. 40: “In Christians, this repentance continues until death.”

11. Can we ‘grow up in the faith’ (Colossians 2:7) so that we outgrow the need for repentance? What truth about ourselves makes this to be true? (see Article I).

Section 3: The Sects’ View That Repentance Is Not for the Christian

Para. 42-45: “… certain sects may arise… I encountered some who held that those who had once received the Spirit or the forgiveness of sins or had become believers–even if they later sin–would still remain in the faith…. They also say that if anyone sins after he has received faith and the Spirit, he never truly had the Spirit and faith.”

12. Are the teachings of these sects still advanced today? Sadly, yes! What fundamental misunderstandings about sin (both original and actual) do they advance? How do they misunderstand the difference between being “made righteous by Christ” and “declared righteous for Christ’s sake”?

13. The first of the two mistakes Luther describes is better known as “once saved, always saved.” The other mistake is often embodied in those who label Christians as hypocrites. How do both mistakes take their eyes off the hope that is ours in Christ crucified?

14. Does baptism improve your Old Adam? How do the following words about repentance as a part of the baptismal daily life inform us?: “… the Old Adam should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and the New Adam should rise to live before God in righteousness an purity forever” (Small Catechism, VI.4).

Friends, there’s a reason that ‘repentance’ is a term loathed by the unfaithful–it convicts! Who wants a thunderbolt to be aimed at them? And yet, when we learn it aright, we learn that the call to repentance is the call of a God who loves us and desires us to despair of our self-righteousness and benefit from the free forgiveness that is ours through the merits and sacrifice of Christ Jesus. God grant us a love for the preaching of repentance and a life of true repentance, for these prepare us for, point us to, and teach us to cherish and depend upon our free forgiveness for Christ’s sake.

The Rev. Mark C. Bestul is pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in Elgin, Ill.