The Two Parts of Repentance
Lent is called a “penitential season,” a season of repentance. It is good for us to ask, then, “What is repentance?”
The Scriptures say much about repentance. John the Baptist began his public preaching saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” [St Matthew 3:2] Jesus preaches the same sermon, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [St Matthew 4:17] What does it mean to repent?
The Scriptures teach that there are two parts of repentance: contrition and faith. “Properly speaking, repentance consists of these two parts: one is contrition, that is, terror smiting the conscience with the knowledge of sin, and the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, believes that sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terror.” [The Augsburg Confession, XII.3-5] Without these two parts repentance is not complete. It is not enough to be sorry for our sins and our sinfulness, in Christ this sorrow must be and is overcome.
The first part of repentance, contrition, is the result of the preaching of the Law. We hear what God demands, and we see that we don't meet these demands. This creates a sorrow over our sinfulness. The second part of repentance, faith, is the result of the Gospel. We hear of God's love and sure promises for us, and we rejoice in His gifts and believe His promises.
The two parts of repentance are seen throughout the Scriptures in the lives of the saints. Consider, for example, Adam and Eve. After they ate the fruit that was forbidden by God, they saw their nakedness and were ashamed. They covered themselves with fig leaves and hid from God. [Genesis 3:7,8] This is the perfect picture of terror: hiding from God and running from His voice. But then the Lord find them in the garden and speaks the Gospel to them [Genesis 3:15], and they mix that promise with faith and trust.
King David is another example. He sins greatly before God and man by committing adultery with Bathsheba, and then, after she is pregnant, he plots to have her husband, Uriah, murdered. To such great wickedness God sends His prophet Nathan to preach the Law to the King. Having heard the Law, David is cut to the quick, and says, “I have sinned against the LORD.” [II Samuel 12:13a] This is the first part of repentance, contrition. The depths of David's sorrow and contrition can be seen in Psalm 51, the psalm that He composed at the time. To such sorrow God sets Nathan to speak the Gospel, the Absolution, “The LORD has also put away your sin; you shall not die.” [II Samuel 12:13b] David believes the Gospel, this promise of forgiveness, and this is the second part of repentance: faith. This faith overcomes the terrors of conscience and restores peace, comfort and joy and brings forth new life in the heart.
This Lenten season, may the Lord grant all of us true repentance, that we may hear the preaching of the Law and sorrow over our sin, but more, that we might hear and believe the sweet word of the Gospel, and believing it, have life and joy and salvation in the Name and Gifts of our Lord Jesus. Amen.
The Lord's Blessings in Christ,
For Further Study on Repentance, The Seven Penitential Psalms:
Psalm 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143
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