Repentance – Specific and General

Sermon the Third Sunday after the Epiphany based on Mark 1:14-20

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

“Repent and believe in the Gospel,” Jesus preached. The Holy Spirit does not give us any more content of Jesus’ sermon here, or a list of any specific sins of which the people were to repent. The Holy Spirit simply had Mark record that Jesus preached a general call to repentance.

There is a need to preach about specific sins so that we would recognize those sins to be sin and repent of them, but there is also a need to preach general repentance. This is because we tend to think that our problem is a specific sin. Maybe it’s a bad temper. Maybe it’s discontentment. Maybe it’s gossip. We think, if only I could keep my cool a little better; if only I could find a little more contentment in life; if only I could say less bad things about others, then I would have my sin under control, then I’d be a moral person, then I’d be a good person.

We tend to think of our sins very specifically, as if the solution to our sins is to do better in the areas we struggle. I’m going to show more love to my spouse. I’m going to drink less. I’m going to be more patient with the children. I’m going to go to church more.

However, doing better with specific sins is no solution. The problem with us is not our specific sins. The problem with us is that we are sinful in general. All of us, all our being is infected with sin. Our very nature is corrupt. Our flesh is sinful to the core and has not one good desire. We are sinful from conception and will remain that way until we die.

Specific sins are merely a symptom of what is wrong with us. We aren’t sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. Working on committing less of a particular sin is like dealing with a symptom of illness, without treating the illness itself. Working on committing less of a specific sin as the solution to sin is like having cancer but getting no treatment other than an Advil for your fever. Even if your fever goes down a little for a while, it doesn’t help your overall situation at all.

Now don’t get me wrong. Turning away from specific sins is part of repentance. Striving to do better in the areas we struggle is what God commands us to do. The point is that we need to repent in general. We need to repent not just of what we have done and left undone, but of who we are and what we are. We need to repent of our sinful hearts, which is where all our sins of thought, word, and deed originate. Jesus says, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matt. 15:19) These specific sins come about as the result of general sin of the heart.

It’s not that a pretty good person commits murder and thus becomes a bad person, or a moral guy commits adultery and becomes an immoral sinner, or an essentially honest man steals and thus becomes a dishonest man. The problem is the heart. We sin because we are sinful. Because we are bad, immoral, and dishonest, we break God’s Commandments.

We can work on individual sins all we want, but it will not help us unless we address our general situation – that we are by nature sinful and unclean.

This is why the general preaching of repentance leads into the specific preaching of the Gospel. Repent and believe in the Gospel, but not just any gospel. There is only one specific Gospel that saves us from sin – the specific Gospel that Jesus died on the cross for our sins so that we have the promise of eternal life.

This specific Gospel is the cure for our illness of sin. It doesn’t just treat symptoms, but it makes us new from top to bottom. It gives us a new heart and new desires to do what is right. It makes us clean from sin in general, so it makes us clean from specific sins also. Every specific sin is wiped away from us. Every sin of thought, word, and deed that we have committed was put on Jesus and He paid the price for them. That is the specific Gospel for you, but it still gets more specific and more personal.

The Gospel is not just out there somewhere for you to find. Christ has instituted specific places where He gives you the forgiveness of sins. Those places are Baptism, Absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar. These are the specific ways God gives you forgiveness.

Baptism is a washing away of your sins. It washes away the guilt of specific sins you have committed, but it also washes you generally clean of sin. It forgives individual sins, but it also forgives your sinful heart. All of you is washed clean, and all of you is claimed by God as belonging to Him.

Baptism is very specific. Your name was spoken along with God’s name. You, personally and specifically, became a child of God in Baptism.

Absolution is God’s forgiveness spoken to you. It declares you righteous. It declares you forgiven. Absolution is God’s Word, spoken at His command, and with His promise.

Absolution can be spoken in general, as it is every Divine Service, or it can be specific, personal, and individual. Yet, the forgiveness is the same, and specifically for you.

The Sacrament of the Altar is Christ’s true body and blood given to you for the forgiveness of sin. It gives forgiveness for specific sins, general sin, all sin. You yourself receive it. You eat, you drink, so you know that you, specifically, receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of all your sin. This specific meal strengthens and nourishes your faith until you are at the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end.

Repent and believe in the Gospel. Yes, repent of specific sins that you commit because of your weakness, and strive to do better. But the only solution for sin is the Gospel – the good news that Jesus suffered and died for your sin and freely forgives you all your sin; the good news that your sinful heart and all the sins that flow out of it are covered with the blood of Christ; the good news that your general sinfulness as well as your specific sins were put on Christ, and you will not be punished for them because Jesus was punished for them.

Repent and believe in the Gospel. Amen.

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

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