Saturday, November 28, 2009

Repentance a Prerequisite for Forgiveness?

I thank you dear God, that I have learned not to begin faith by my own efforts, nor attempt to destroy my sin with my own repentance.
Martin Luther, "Luther's Prayers" Edited by Herbert Brokering.

This is an issue that has been bugging me for quite some time.

I've been hearing this argument that we earn God's forgiveness through our repentance for quite a while but it has become even more prevalent with the recent sexuality debate. And it was expressed in a letter to the editor in the most recent Lutheran magazine.

"Yes we are all sinners….but but but….you have to REPENT and THEN God will forgive you." Or even worse, "Yes we are all sinners, but WE are REPENTANT sinners" Yes indeedy there are now two categories of sinners – Plain old bad sinners who if they aren't going to hell, they at least aren't very good Christians… and "repentant" sinners who are better because, well, at least we're TRYING to be better.

If this isn't semi-pelagianism rearing it's ugly head I don't know what is. 

Remember Pelagius never denied that we were saved by God's grace. He just argued very sensibly that we should at least COOPERATE with God's grace and you, know help it along a little. 

Because certainly God should not be expected to save us all by HIMSELF without even a little bit of participation on our part. We have to at least REPENT.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for repentance. 

Yes indeed that was Jesus' Gospel – "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" But what exactly did he mean? 

The Greek meaning of repentance is to literally turn around, change directions. In Hebrew it means to "go back" – to return to God. It doesn't have anything to do with being sorry for you sins. I still remember this being pointed out to me in my first bible class in seminary in Acts 2:37-28. 

 After hearing Peter speak, his hearers were "cut to the heart" and asked what they should do. He tells them to "Repent and be baptized" I take it that being "cut to the heart" meant they were sorry and yet Peter STILL tells them to repent and be baptized.

 What should we do? Be baptized!

Whose act is baptism? Not ours, God. What should we do? Turn to God! That's very nice that you are sorry for your sins, but that ain't gonna save you. Put your life in God's hands. 

Depend upon God to save you, not your own damned repentance.

But but but, we HAVE to confess our sins first. Because God is just sitting around with his hands tied, waiting for us to confess before he can save us. Confession saves us. Really? Salvation depends upon me confessing? 

 So I actually am responsible for my own salvation? Well, crap, if that's the case I am damned. And so are you.

In the 6th Chapter of Isaiah Isaiah is brought before God. It is in the presence of God that he confesses

Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!'

I am an unclean man and yet I have seen the Lord of Hosts. 

 I think having confession before worship has given us a warped sense of the purpose of confession. It's given us the impression that confession is something WE do to make ourselves worthy to be in God's presence. 

 And yet it is only in the presence of God that we are able to confess. We can confess till the cows come home, and we will still find that we are still an unclean people who have in spite of that been welcomed into the presence of God. Not because we've confessed. But because God wants to bring us into his presence.

Luke 5:8 is always paired with the Isaiah text in the lectionary, Jesus directs Simon Peter to put out his nets and after seeing the miraculous catch of fish-- THEN Peter falls down before Jesus and says 'Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!' Confession is a RESPONSE to grace; it is not a perquisite to grace.

Continue reading Luke 5:17-26 – the healing of the paralytic – Jesus sees the faith of the man's friends…not a word about the man's faith, confession or repentance and says "Your sins are forgiven." 

I have argued this with the "no forgiveness without repentance" crowd and they simply say "well it's implied".  It is NOT implied! They have written it into the script because they cannot conceive of a God who forgives without any effort on our part. And they call ME a revisionist.

The prodigal son? You think HE repented? 

He's coming home rehearsing a speech that will get him some food. But before his father even has a chance to hear the rehearsed speech, he's hiked up his robe and is running in the most undignified manner to welcome home his sorry excuse for a son.


If you think your salvation depends upon your repentance, you are just plain screwed. 

Thank God for all us you are wrong. Thank God we have an undignified God, who doesn't wait to hear our silly rehearsed speech, crafted to get us out of trouble, thank God he's already hitched up his robe and met us more than half way to forgive us, his sorry excuses for children.

And if after all that God has done for us, if we can make some sorry attempt at repentance in response to that unexpected, undeserved, and unimaginable grace, even that is not for God's sake, but for our sake, as we work together with other sorry excuses for Christian brothers and sisters to work together for the Kingdom of God.


  1. It is funny, I have been thinking about composing a blog post about this very topic, but you beat me to it. I have been looking at passages where repentance did not happen, as far as we know. I found a couple of passages about Jesus forgiving someone even though the person did not repent. Thanks for the post.

  2. I think it is a timely topic and we need more folks to speak and blog and preach about the UNDCONDITIONAL love and forgiveness of God.

  3. absolutely. One of my colleagues has a quotation, "To repent is to give up the notion that you can save yourself by your own actions." Also, I have a story that I use to illustrate repentance, that I call "Storm Home." I talk about being stuck on the road during a white out, and seeing the lights of one of my parish members in a teeny town, and knowing that I would be safe there, so turning in to that driveway. We don't repent in order to be forgiven. We repent because we have been forgiven already....

  4. I saw that one coming. Glad you got it written.

  5. Oh, that this message would be preached - how did things get turned so far away from this?

  6. Yea as Anita says, this has been in the works for awhile now but it was the letter in the Lutheran that screamed WRITE THIS ALREADY!

  7. Thank you for that; I, too, have struggled with this. I think one of the things about repentance is that we can't receive forgiveness if we don't agree we need it - is anything more annoying than one's nearest and dearest "forgiving" us for having been right in an argument?

    And confession is, I am increasingly convinced, as much about being honest with ourselves as it is about being honest with God - who knows what we're like rather better than we do anyway!

  8. Ah yes, well receiving it is quite different than God giving it. But doesn't it require grace even to receive a gift?