February 17, 2021
12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.
“Rend your hearts and not your garments!” declares our Lord. This is the same lesson our Lord taught years later when we walked among his people in the flesh, before he was crucified for their sins. “When you fast,” he says, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” With these words, our Lord rebukes both the manifest sinner and the hypocrite, who desires to look penitent before men, while his heart is bursting with pride. With these words, our Lord rebukes us all and urges us to repent.
Everyone must repent. First, because it is true that we are sinners. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” Scripture declares (1 John 1:8). Again, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) To repent means to acknowledge the truth about yourself. The hypocrite, who makes it clear to everyone that he is fasting, moans, and humble-brags about his penitence and fasting is looking for praise from others, and he has received his reward on earth. He will not receive one from God in heaven. And the manifest sinner, who claims no need to repent, but forgetting how to blush continues in his sin as if God cannot judge him, likewise will receive the wages for his sin. Both the hypocrite and the manifest sinner fail to repent, because they fail to recognize God’s right to judge the living and the dead.
It is necessary for all to repent, because all are sinners, who are incapable of saving themselves. Sin separates us from God. Sin is evil. When we recognize how sinful we really are, how much we deserve to go to hell, then we become afraid of sin. We fear God. We desire to escape our sins, to become different than we are. Only such a person, who is terrified of his sin and the consequence his sin brings will recognize the advantage of Jesus and his salvation for us. If you think that you are not that bad, that you can earn salvation by yourself, then you won’t need Jesus. There is no point in trusting in him, if you can trust in yourself. Then Jesus’ death and resurrection are of no advantage to you. But if you recognize that your sins earn you God’s wrath and hell and you are incapable of rescuing yourself, God’s grace and mercy through Jesus Christ becomes the most soothing balm of healing, the sweetest message of hope and salvation.
True repentance is not simply outward show. As Jesus teaches, you can look very penitent while your heart is still proud and not sorry. Yet, outward expressions of sorrow can certainly show the true condition of the heart. The Lord said through the Prophet Joel, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” Jesus said, “When you fast.” Not only are these outward actions the natural response to emotions deep in the heart, such bodily discipline as fasting can help train the soul to reject things of the flesh as gods over you, so that you can focus more intently on your spiritual renewal. But whether you fast or not, whether you weep or wash your face and anoint your head, repentance should take place in your heart. You should not think that since everyone is a sinner, you are safe from God’s judgement. Rather, when you consider your sinful condition, consider yourself alone and how you have failed to love God with your whole heart. Such an exercise from within will teach you to recognize your deep need for Jesus.
This is the primary reason God has given us the Ten Commandments. They are indeed good commandments. No one can honestly deny that! Yet, if we could actually keep these commandments, then God would not have sent Jesus to die and pay our debt against them! Rather, since we are sinners incapable of keeping the Law, God has given us these Ten Commandments so that we may recognize our sin and need for a Savior. St. Paul writes in Romans 7, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ … Did that which is good then bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” (Romans 7:7-8, 13)
The Ten Commandments make us sinful beyond measure, not by increasing the actually sin in our hearts, but by magnifying and exposing the sin that already resides in our hearts. That is why it is a good exercise at all times, and especially during the Lenten Season as we prepare to celebrate our victory over death and hell on Easter, that we examine our lives according to the Ten Commandments.
Do you have any other gods? Do you put other things like money, school, work, sports, and leisure before God and his word? Do you use God’s name as an expletive? Do you call upon God in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks? Do you gladly hear the word of God? Do you obey your father and mother and all others, whom God has place in authority over you? Have you sought to protect your neighbor in his body? Have you hated him in your heart? Have you committed adultery or looked at another person with lust in your heart? Have you been hot tempered or quarrelsome? Have you sought to get what belongs to your neighbor? Have you been lazy or negligent? Have you delighted in harming your neighbor’s reputation? Are you a gossip? Are you satisfied with what God has given you or do you let the desires of your heart rule over you like a master over a slave?
When you are honest with yourself and seek the truth about yourself according to the Ten Commandments, you recognize that out of your own heart have come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, and all uncleanness. You see from God’s law that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9; Galatians 5:21). Such an exercise is essential, not to muster up some phony emotion of sorrow, but to recognize that without Christ you would be cast in hell for all eternity. Without God’s forgiveness, you could not pray to God let alone stand before him on Judgement Day. By examining yourself according to God’s Law, you recognize that there is nothing you need more than Christ Jesus and the forgiveness he won for you on the cross. You recognize that there is no more joyous news than that Christ arose triumphantly from the grave after paying your debt of sin and crushing Satan under his feet.
No, you do not need to enumerate every sin you’ve committed. God knows we are incapable of doing that (Psalm 19:12). But we must confess our sins to God, even those sins which we do not know, we must confess that we are utterly lost in sin without Jesus, and God promises to forgive, for he is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. As we frequently confess with the Psalmist, “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Psalm 32:5)
Repentance is not trying to earn our salvation or to pay back God for our sins. Repentance is crying out to the God who gladly forgives and justifies the ungodly. As our sinful condition makes our damnation certain, so much more does Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection make our salvation certain, as St. Paul writes, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:20-21)
Do you know what that means? It means that God’s grace and forgiveness are inexhaustible. As your sin increased, so God’s grace to forgive you increased. Jesus’s blood is an infinite potion of forgiveness and cleansing. The more we recognize our sin, the more we recognize God’s grace to forgive, the more we see the good in Jesus’ crucifixion for us.
By examining ourselves and our sinful condition, we not only learn to value and appreciate Christ’s passion and death for our sins, but also to long for and cherish the Means of Grace by which God lavishes us with the Gospel. When you recognize your sin, you recognize all the more the priceless treasure you possess in your Baptism! The great relief of the Absolution. The urgency in receiving the Sacrament of the Altar. The value of a pure Christian sermon. The comfort of Christian friends and family. Let us this Lententide rend our hearts, plead guilty before God’s Law, and cherish the Gospel of Christ’s free forgiveness and salvation. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) Amen.