True vs. False Repentance

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent based on Luke 3:1-14

Dear penitents: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Advent is a season of repentance. But what does it mean to repent? This is what the crowds asked John the Baptist. When they were told to repent, they asked, “What then shall we do?”

John did not suggest today’s typical idea of repentance, which is to respond along the lines of, “I’m sorry, but this is just the way I am” or “I was born this way.” People who have this false idea of repentance may say things like, “I’m sorry, I’m just an angry person; I’m sorry, I just have a bad temper;” “I’m sorry, I’m just a worrier.” But this is not repentance. It is excusing sin. It is attempting to explain why you do what you do, but it is not repentance. True repentance is not an excuse or explanation of your sins. True repentance is a desire to be free of the sin; it is a hatred of the sin; it is turning away from the sin.

This we can see from John’s response to the crowds when they asked him what they should do. John doesn’t tell the crowds, “I see that you are sorry that you are selfish, but I understand that’s just the way you are so whoever has two tunics had better hide his second tunic from his brother in need and whoever has food should gorge himself on it so that a brother in need will starve.” John doesn’t tell the tax collectors, “Hey, I see that you are sorry for charging more taxes than are owed so that you can fill your own pockets, but I understand that’s just the way tax collectors are.” John doesn’t tell the soldiers, “I see that you are sorry for extorting money from people and threatening them and accusing them falsely, but you were obviously born with a little more aggression than most civilians, so I understand, that’s just the way you are.”

No, John tells everyone to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. He says, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Repent! Repent so that God doesn’t cut you off from Himself and condemn you to eternity in the fires hell. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your excuse “this is just the way I am” will cover your sins. Don’t fool yourself into thinking for a second that any explanations or excuses for your sin mean anything before God. Your explanations and excuses will not cover your sin. This false repentance will only get you God’s punishment.

Very well, then. “I’m sorry; I’ll do better,” we say. “Next time, I won’t fall into the same sin. I take full responsibility for my sin and I will try harder.” That may sound noble. That’s bearing fruit in keeping with repentance, isn’t it? Actually no, this also is false repentance. This false repentance seeks to offset sin by doing good. It sets your good works against your bad works as if the good works you do can cover your sin. They cannot. Further, this type of false repentance turns you inward, to look at yourself for the answer to sin. “If only I can do better, then everything will be okay.”

This type of false repentance will also only get you God’s punishment. Your good works cannot turn away God’s wrath. God’s wrath will not be satisfied by your promises to do better. On top of it all, we struggle to do any better. We continue to sin and fall into temptation. We avoid one sin only to fall into another. Even if you could stop the anger, the jealousy, the gossip, the lust, the greed, the worry, and the pride going on in your heart, do you think that would be enough? Nothing we can do can turn away God’s wrath or cover our sin. False repentance clearly gets us nowhere except hell.

What then is true repentance? If true repentance is not to excuse sin, and true repentance is not to promise to do better, what is true repentance? True repentance is the work of God. God works this repentance in us through the Law and the Gospel.

The Law accuses us of sin. The Law shows us that we are guilty of not following God’s commands. The Law shows us that we have rebelled against our Creator. The Law crushes us so that we cease our excuses. The Law crushes us so that we stop our explanations and our rationalizations of our sin. Romans 3 says that the Law speaks to us so that our mouths may be stopped, and the whole world held accountable to God (v. 19). The Law shuts our mouths from excuses. The Law shuts our mouths from promises to do better.

If we respond to the Advent call of repentance by saying, “That’s just the way I am,” we are saying that we are not repentant. If we respond by saying, “I will do better,” we are saying that we don’t need to repent, but only need to do better. Clearly, neither is the answer. Instead, the Law shuts our mouths and makes us offer nothing: no excuses, no whining about unfairness, no pointing to others who are doing the same sin, no promises to do better; nothing.

And that is exactly when the Gospel comes in. The Gospel isn’t Jesus excusing your sin or helping you to do better. The Gospel is Jesus turning away the wrath of God. The Gospel is Jesus taking the accusations of the Law from you onto Himself. The Gospel is Jesus taking your punishment on Himself and dying in your place for all of your sins by taking the wrath of God on Himself. Thus Jesus went quietly to His death, like a Lamb led to the slaughter. “Like a sheep before his shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” (Is. 53:7) He didn’t excuse sin. He didn’t give elaborate explanations and rationalizations of sin. He silently suffered for your sins and the sins of the whole world. Jesus even died for your excuses and your unkept promises to do better.

This is why repentance is the work of God. God silences our excuses and gives us forgiveness that we do not deserve. God quiets our explanations and declares us innocent and holy. There’s nothing we can do to receive forgiveness, but Jesus has already done everything for us and He gives us forgiveness freely.

And that free gift of forgiveness changes us. We are no longer sinners enslaved to sin. We no longer have to follow our every craving and desire. The forgiveness of our sins gives us new desires and impulses – desires to follow God’s will for our lives; impulses to keep God’s commandments – not out of fear, but out of love.

But we will continue to fail. We will continue to sin. We will continue to struggle with doing what we do not want to do, and not doing what we want to do (cf. Rom. 7). That is the Christian life. Thus by daily contrition and repentance our sinful nature should be drowned and die along with all sins and evil desires (SC IV.4). We daily turn away from sin and daily cling to Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. We don’t turn ourselves away from sin, but God turns us. He turns us by continuing to silence our excuses and by continually forgiving us. He turns us by continuing to quiet our explanations and by giving us the body and blood of Jesus our Saviour to cleanse us of all our sins. God turns us by continuing to declare us innocent because Jesus has borne all of our guilt.

True repentance is being killed by the Law of God and being raised to new life through the forgiveness of sins. True repentance is God turning our hearts away from sin to Jesus our Saviour. True repentance is sorrow over sin, but trust that because of Jesus’ death in our place all of our sins are forgiven. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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