The Gift of Repentance
ASH WEDNESDAY February 14, 2018
12 “Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare thy people, O LORD, and make not thy heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, `Where is their God?'” 18 Then the LORD became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people. 19 The LORD answered and said to his people, “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.
IN THE NAME OF JESUS.
The prophet Joel gives the call to repentance:
“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”[Joel 2:12]
Joel’s call to repentance comes with the threat of God’s judgement:
Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is at hand; It shall come as destruction from the Almighty.
The call is to repent, to turn away from your sin, to turn back to the Lord. But the call is rejected. Israel does not, will not, and cannot turn back from her sin. We cannot turn back from our sin. Because the sin we must turn back from is not just the sin we do, but the sin that is us—our sinful nature.
It is tempting to reduce our sin to being a mere transgressing of some rule—like a football player stepping out of bounds. When we reduce sin to being a simple breaking of a Commandment, it seems like something we can handle. But sin, the Lord tells us, is of a deeper nature than that. It’s not just a broken rule. It’s enmity against God. It is our heart’s desire to tear down God and build-up ourselves—enmity with God.
That’s why repentance was impossible for the Israelites and is impossible for us. Because even our outward actions of obedience do nothing to cleanse our hearts and remove our enmity against God.
We were born in this sin, we live it each day. It’s original sin. The church’s confessions speak of this as our concupiscence, saying that
since the fall of Adam, all who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin. This means that from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature posses true fear of God and true faith in God. … we have concupiscence and are unable to produce true fear and trust in God … [for our sin] is not only the acts or fruits [of our sinful nature], but is the continual tendency of our nature.[Apology, Art. 2: Original Sin]
So Israel could not turn back from her sin; we can’t turn back either.
Into this hopeless situation, the prophet Joel speaks the Gospel: What we cannot do, the Lord does for us—His gift, His grace. Joel proclaims:
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him.[Joel 2:13-14]
The language is startling—“the Lord repents of the evil.” The evil the Lord repents of is, of course, not his own evil. He is not evil, but holy.
The Lord repents—he turns back from delivering to the sinner the sinner’s own evil, that is, the judgement and death belonging to the sinner. In this repentance, the Lord has turned back from his anger, and he now turns to the sinner in his face of mercy and grace. But it’s the Lord who does the turning, the repentance. He turns back from wrath, turning to the sinner in kindness.
So the Lord’s repentance is good news to the sinner. Now, says, Joel,
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.[Joel 2:15]
Now we see repentance as gift. We don’t bring it on ourselves. It is the Lord’s work.
First, he calls on us to repent. That’s his Law. But we can’t repent from our sin—that’s our concupiscence, our enmity with him. Second, the Lord speaks his Gospel—concupiscence forgiven, shame removed, sin covered by His blood of the sacrifice.
By this Gospel, He creates in us a clean heart. He makes us his own; he bestows every gift of salvation; he kindly invites us to His eternal feast of new grain, good wine, and expensive oil, saying to us, “You will be satisfied.” [Joel 2:19]
This is the way we learn it in the Catechism—
Confession has two parts. The first is that we confess our sins (that’s contrition, the work of the Law), and the second is that we receive Absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in Heaven.
Repentance as gift, as God’s work from beginning to end—his Law bringing us to contrition, his Gospel absolving sins, removing shame, replacing enmity with reconciliation and peace, declaring us to be His own people.
IN THE NAME OF JESUS.