Here’s Your Damn Repentance!

By Paul Koch

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After reading Joel’s post from Tuesday titled “What the Heck happened to Repentance?” I began to feel quite guilty about my own shallow repentance and even began to question my preaching on the subject. In fact, he even took shots at describing the fallen sinner as “broken,” which is one of my default descriptors to describe the brokenness of my congregation (see, I did it again). To be honest even when I go before my confessor and speak out loud my shameful sins I know that there are others I choose not to say, others I’m afraid to speak; my repentance is always defined by my terms.

Then, on the heels of all this comes the mountain of terrorizing adjectives. Not that I have anything against adjectives; they make our language beautiful and creative, but they also have a habit of fractioning and limiting what we say and do. So repentance cannot remain a shallow and vague term which I happily do as the liturgy leads me through the common confession of sins on a Sunday morning. No, now I have to be concerned with a true confession, an honest confession, a fearful confession, a passionate confession, a μετανοέω confession, a changing the way I think and act confession, and on and on the list goes. And just when I mark one form off the list there will no doubt be another qualifier that I never considered.

Just as one can fall into terror because of the enormity and shame of his sins, so I think he can become consumed by a different terror, the terror of wondering if his confession was genuine enough. Take my own confession as an example. As I said above, it is admittedly defined by my own terms and always comes across as half-assed. The sins I confess I know to be sinful, I am ashamed but I don’t always do much of anything to stop them in the future. In fact, there are sins I have confessed out loud full of shame and disgrace and after hearing that Word of pure Gospel spoken to them, I’ve been entangled in that very sin again within hours.

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Was it not a genuine confession? Was it not real repentance? What then does that mean about the Gospel proclaimed? Was it limited by my failure? Could that even happen?

What to do? I could return to my confessor full of shame and guilt. I could write a blog article justifying my own actions (coincidence?). Or I could just struggle on with my life and vocation. Well, what I did initially was just get back to work. The thing is as a pastor my vocation places me quite often in moment where my hypocrisy, especially regarding repentance, is staring me in the face. It is difficult to avoid this issue when one of the vows I made when I was ordained was to give a resounding “yes” to the question, “Will you forgive the sins of those who repent, and will you promise never to divulge the sins confess to you? Will you minister faithfully to the sick and dying, and will you demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel?”

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So with all these things swimming around in my head, I grabbed my little portable communion kit and visitation liturgy and headed off to make a few calls on some shut-ins who cannot make it to church on Sunday due to old age or sickness. Now the form of confession that I use at these times is a little more involved than what we do corporately on a Sunday morning, but a much less intense than individual confession and absolution. Basically it converts the common confession of sins to a question and answer format and it look like this:

Me:      Do you confess to almighty God that you are a poor, miserable sinner?

You:     Yes.

Me:      Do you confess to our merciful Father that you have sinned against Him in thought, word, and deed?

You:     Yes.

Me:      Do you confess that you justly deserve His temporal and eternal punishment?

You:     Yes.

Me:      Do you believe that our Lord Jesus Christ died for you and shed His blood for you on the cross for the forgiveness of all your sins?

You:     Yes.

Me:      Do you pray God, for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of His beloved Son, to be gracious and merciful to you?

You      Yes.

Me:      Finally, do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?

You:     Yes.

Usually when I go through these motions I’m focused on how this person will answer that last question. It still amazes me that God’s children willingly answer yes to that one! However, this time I was watching her face, especially through the first three questions. Could I discern a genuine heartfelt conviction to her positive answers to such questions? Were we simply going through the motions? Was this just a shallow and confusing practice allowing this wretched sinners off the hook, or even worse promoting sin?

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“Do you confess to Almighty God that you are a poor, miserable sinner?” And with a look of sudden shock and curiosity she answered “Yes.” “Do you confess to our merciful Father that you have sinned against Him in thought, word, and deed?” Here she seemed to settle into it. Her face was still serious but a little more relaxed and she answered with a strange confidence, “Yes.” “Do you confess that you justly deserve His temporal and eternal punishment?” To this question, a question that gets to the heart of her deserving eternal death because of her sin, she answered, “Yes.” The thing is, she said that with what almost looked like a half smile. And I thought, at last, here is the proof; it is all just a game, a going through the motions (and at least I’m not the only one).

But the next shut-in I visited did something very similar. I began to think about other times, and those I could remember seemed to fit to some degree this pattern. I wondered if perhaps this wasn’t a shallow confession at all. Perhaps this is what it looks like to live in the assurance of the Gospel that is not beholden to what we do within, but can only be received. Perhaps the culprit behind our going through the motions is not that we don’t think our sins are terrifying but that we know the Gospel is coming. We’ve gotten used to the absolution ringing in our ears. We know it’s coming, and we simply can’t wait to get to it one more time.

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The only way we can agonize so much over repentance is when we do it in the abstract, apart from the Gospel proclamation. In other words, repentance is either a cause to champion on the one hand, or it consumes us in terror on the other – until the final line is spoken:

Me:      Finally, do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?

You:     Yes.

Me:      Let it be done for you as you believe. In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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