Repentance is the common thread that runs through all three readings on this 3rd Sunday in the season of Lent. That’s appropriate. Lent is a season that focuses on repentance. It forces us to take a good hard look in the mirror of the Law, to acknowledge the death our sins deserve. Whether we feel like it or not, whether we think we personally need it or not, the call of Lent is a call to repentance.
Repentance was foremost on Luther’s mind when he penned his 95 theses that set off the Reformation. The first of them reads: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of the believers to be one of repentance.” Not just once and out, but daily, as in daily dying to sin and evil desire and daily rising to newness of life in Jesus.
In the Greek language, the word “repent” carries with it the notion of the mind and the will. To repent is to have a “change of mind.” In Greek, the mind is the seat of the will, so it’s not just a change in attitude or thinking, but a change in will. In Baptism you are given a new “mind,” literally the mind of Christ, and therefore the will of Christ which is now set against your flesh and its desires. St. Paul describes all that in Romans 7 when he says, the good he wills, his flesh doesn’t do, and the evil his flesh does, he does not will. That’s the paradox of living in repentance.
In Hebrew, the weight of repentance is carried by the word for “turning” or “turning back.” To repent in OT terms is to turn, or better, to be turned, from sin to righteousness, from death to life, from self to God. And that too is a constant thing, as the life of Israel demonstrates. Those who have been turned to the Lord constantly need to re-turn to the Lord who is their God.
Before we can properly hear the call to turn to the Lord, we have to be certain that the Lord to whom we are being turned is gracious, slow to anger, abounding in mercy. What’s the point of returning if you are only going to be rejected, beaten, and condemned? Who would want to return to that? Would the prodigal son have returned from the pigpen knowing that his father was going to beat him up when he returned? That’s why the prophet Ezekiel begins by declaring the gracious will of God, who vows, “As surely as I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
This is the good and gracious will of God, who would have all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. He is patient, not wishing any to perish but that all would come to repentance. Anyone who refuses to turn to the Lord does so entirely against the will of Him who is turning him. Unbelief is not simply passive apathy toward God; it is active rejection of the will of God to save you.
Ezekiel speaks of two kinds of turning – one to life, the other to death. If a wicked man turns from his wickedness and walks in the way of life, he will live, and “none of the sins he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.” This is the turning to life, to the love of God, to His mercy and undeserved kindness.
This is the turning that happens when we say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” when we tell the truth about ourselves and our thoughts, words, and actions. This is the repentance God works in us, killing us with the conviction of the commandment that says, “You are a sinner, and you deserve eternal death.” And He turns us away from the ugly reflection in the Law’s mirror, away from our selves and all the ways we try to measure and evaluate. He turns us to face Jesus, crucified for you, raised and glorified for you. Turn and look to Him. He is your righteousness; He does justice to your sins. Look to Him and not to yourselves.
This is the return to Baptism, as Luther pointed out. “Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun but abandoned.” And the good news in all of this: Forgiven sins don’t get in the way. They are forgiven and forgotten.
Sin doesn’t damn you; unbelief does. Refusal of forgiveness, life, and salvation. For that matter, works can’t save you from your sins. “The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins.” Our works of righteousness cannot save us, no matter how spectacularly righteous they might be. No one is justified for being good.
But the opposite is not true, however. Ezekiel speaks of a turning to death: “When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it.” Occasionally one hears it muttered in Lutheran circles, usually in self-justification: Sin as much and however you please, you are justified. That notion comes from those Luther bumper sticker slogans like “sin boldly” a personal note to a depressed and doubting friend Philip Melancthon. Remember the same Luther wrote publicly that those who sin as David did when he committed adultery and murder cannot in the same breath claim faith and the Holy Spirit (see Smalcald Articles). While it is true that our righteousness cannot save us (only Christ’s righteousness does that), it is not true that sin cannot bring us harm.
St. Paul had to contend with the same notion, which is a logical (though incorrect) conclusion from hearing that God justifies the sinner freely be grace. “Shall we sin so that grace may much more abound,” Paul asked rhetorically. “Of course not. By no means. How can we who died to sin still live in it?” That’s like a person who has been pulled from the rip tide by a lifeguard only to dive back into the water. Or the person who has been pulled from a burning building only to return to the fire.
There is a difference between certainty of salvation and security in sin. The certainty of salvation lies totally in the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was put to death for your transgressions, and raised to life for your justification. Of that you can be certain, just as certain as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. As you fix the eyes of faith on Jesus, who is the beginning and ending of your faith, you can be as certain of your salvation as anything in your life. You are baptized, you have God’s personal Word of testimony that Jesus atoned for your sins and embraced you in His death.
But that certainty can never be a source of sinful security. You are dead on account of sin, and alive to God in Christ. You have the mind of Christ and His will, which is set against the desires of your flesh and all that you inherited from Adam.
The apostle Paul used the example of OT Israel for a Corinthian congregation that was in danger of living in a smug, spiritual security. They figured, “It doesn’t matter what we do with our bodies. We’re spiritual people. Food for the stomach, the stomach for food. What counts is our being spiritual.” Perhaps you’ve heard people talk like that today. And Paul says, “Don’t kid yourselves. The Israelites were all baptized into Moses in the Sea; they all communed at the same table, ate the same food, drank the same drink (who happened to be Christ Himself, by the way). They were “good, churchgoing types.” They had the sacraments. Nevertheless God was not pleased with most of them, and they perished in the wilderness. They thought it didn’t matter, that day the Israelites had their little orgy around their golden calf, and they were dead wrong. 23,000 died.
It’s an example for us, Paul says. If you think you’re standing tall and riding high in the saddle, watch you, lest you land on your posterior. You will be tempted, tried, tested. It’s the way of all the baptized. Jesus was tempted out of His baptism too. You may be as sure as can be of your salvation in Jesus, but you can never rest secure in yourself. The phrase “once saved always saved” works only if you add the words “in Jesus.” Once saved in Jesus, always saved in Jesus. But the gift of salvation, like any gift, is rejectable.
Some people came to Jesus with the news of a terrible atrocity. Apparently, Pilate had killed some Galilean worshipers in the temple and mingled their blood with the sacrificial blood. Desecrated the sacrament. What did Jesus think? He doesn’t have much to say, except to say that you can’t use it as a measure of their goodness or badness. Bad things happen to the good and bad alike. The response, “Repent, lest you likewise perish.”
Jesus sees their political atrocity and raises them a construction accident. Some tower in Siloam fell on some people and killed eighteen. What about that? Again, it’s no measure of their goodness or badness, contrary to what some TV preachers would have you believe. There is no hard connection between sin and disaster. Much of it appears to be dumb luck. Those eighteen were standing at the wrong place at the wrong time, and offers no decent explanation for why these things happen. The response to disaster manmade and natural, the hurricanes and tornadoes and terrorists and earthquakes and collapsed buildings and all the other disasters that clog the nightly news is the same: Repent, lest you likewise perish.
Some will say this: I can sin today and repent tomorrow. But how do you know you have a tomorrow? And how do you know the Lord will grant you repentance tomorrow? (Repentance is, after all, the work of the Holy Spirit who works “when and where He pleases). That’s security of the flesh talk not certainty of faith talk. Jesus told a little parable about a fruitless fig tree. The landowner had run out of patience and wanted to chop it down. But the gardner pleaded for mercy. ‘Let it be. Forgive it (aphete). One more year of digging, feeding, and watering, and if there’s still no fruit, then cut it down.
The parable was spoken against Israel, whose time of stewardship was quickly running out. Soon the nails would be driven through Jesus’ hands and feet, soon the cry would ring out over Jerusalem, “It is finished,” soon the curtain of the temple would be torn in two from top to bottom. For now a silent moment of grace before the storm of judgment. Repent. Turn to the Lord who has turned His face to Jerusalem to save her. And all.
You are a child of God, dear baptized believer. God has changed your mind to be conformed to the mind of Jesus. He has baptized you into a death that conquers your death. He has delivered you from the Law and its death sentence. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And you are in Christ Jesus by virtue of your baptism, as surely as those people who walked through the Sea were in Israel. Your life, in this life, is one of constant turning and returning, daily turning from self and sin, daily turning to Christ and His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. You can never be secure in your sin, nor would you want to be. That would be the way of death, but you are on the path of life, the way of the justified, living in a season of gracious feeding and watering to be the fruitful figs God created you to be in Jesus Christ. Of that you can be certain.
“Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness, because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.”
In the name of Jesus,