AC XII: The Often Forgotten Article

In all the discussions surrounding the Third Use of the Law and antinomian leaning tendencies, we would do well to not forget about Article XII of the Augsburg Confession, Concerning Repentance:

“Concerning repentance, it is taught that those who have sinned after baptism obtain the forgiveness of sins whenever they come to repentance and that absolution should not be denied them by the church. Now properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror about sin, and yet at the same time to believe in the gospel and absolution that sin is forgiven and grace is obtained through Christ. Such faith, in turn, comforts the heart and puts it at peace. Then improvement should also follow, and a person should refrain from sins. For these should be the fruits of repentance, as John says in Matthew 3[:8]: ‘Bear fruit worthy of repentance'” (AC XII.1-6).[1]

God’s message for preaching has always been a matter of repentance. There is no concept in Scripture or in our Confessions of a Gospel that is not connected with turning from sin. “So turn, and live”, declares the Lord God (Ezek. 18:32). “Repent and be baptized every one of you” (Acts 2:38). “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). Thus we also confess that the life of a Christian should be a daily drowning of the Old Adam; of daily repentance (SC IV.4). Luther also writes as the first of his 95 Theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (AE 31:25).

Repentance is the turning away from sin to God, which comes about solely by the power of the Word of God. Where there is no turn away from sin to God, there is no repentance, which means there is no faith (recall that repentance consists of contrition and faith). Where there is faith, improvement follows, and a person should refrain from sins (AC XII.6).

While it is true that man is not made righteous but is rather declared righteous on account of Christ, repentance is not entirely outside of us. It is also a work that the Holy Spirit does within us. The Holy Spirit gives us a new heart (Ezek. 36:26); He gives us a new will and new desires (Rom. 7:22). The Gospel actually turns lives around. Thus, we confess that after conversion “the reborn human will is not idle in the daily exercise of repentance, but cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit which he performs through us” (FC Ep II.17). God says, “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek. 36:27). The Formula says, “When… people have been converted and thus been enlightened, and the will has been renewed, then such people desire the good (insofar as they are born anew and are new creatures) and ‘delight in the law in the inmost self’ (Rom. 7:22)” (FC SD II.63). If repentance is only outside of us, then contrition and faith are only outside of us. Then we are still in our sins.

The preaching of repentance is thus paramount in our pulpits. Preaching the Gospel without repentance is preaching “peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jer. 8:11). The teaching about repentance is the chief topic of Christian teaching (Ap XXIV.46). To our doom, the preaching of repentance is often unheeded. Yet, it is the very teaching of faith. “The faith about which we are speaking exists in repentance, that is, it is conceived in the terrors of the conscience that experiences the wrath of God against our sin and seeks forgiveness of sins and deliverance from sin… Therefore, it cannot exist in those who live according to the flesh, who take pleasure in their lusts, and who succumb to them… ‘If you live according to the flesh you will die’ [Rom. 8:12]” (Ap IV.141-143). “Therefore the faith that receives the forgiveness of sins for the heart that is terrified and fleeing sin does not remain in those who succumb to their lusts, nor does it coexist with mortal sin” (Ap IV.144).

“Repentance means nothing else than to recognize sin truly, to be heartily sorry for it, and to abstain from it” (FC SD V.8). “For the gospel proclaims forgiveness of sins not to crude, secure hearts, but to those who have been crushed or are repentant (Luke 4:18)” (FC SD V.9). “Further, making alive should not be understood as a platonic image. But as consolation that truly sustains a life that flees [sin] in contrition” (Ap XII.46). “Since this faith is a new life, it necessarily produces new impulses and new works” (Ap IV.250). “Faith exists in repentance and not in those who walk according to the flesh” (Ap IV.319D).

This then leads us to the question of how pastors should rightly deal with the sinners they have been called to shepherd.

Not through silence. Isaiah 56:10-11 rebukes those watchmen who are silent dogs and are lazy to call those in their charge to repentance since their real concern is their own gain. They fear losing income should the people not like God’s message.

Not by absolving the impenitent. Those who refuse to be brought to repentance are to have their sins retained (Mt. 16:19; Jn. 20:23). There are many warnings in Scripture to not speak peace when there is no peace; for the prophet not to heal the wound of the people lightly when they are not ashamed of their abominations (Jer. 8:11; Ezek. 13:10). Those prophets are liars who “say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’” (Jer. 23:17).

Not by excusing their sins or misleading them. “My people—infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, your guides mislead you and they have swallowed up the course of your paths” (Is. 3:12). God says He will punish those spiritual leaders who mislead His people by not speaking His Word; those who strengthen the hand of evildoers so that no one turns from his evil (Jer. 23:14-40).

Not by befriending them. “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (I Cor. 5:11).

Not by defending them. “They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:29-32).

How then should a pastor rightly deal with those they have been called to shepherd? “Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins” (Is. 58:1). “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth, and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:2-4). “Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul” (Ezek. 3:18-19). “Thus says the Lord: Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the Lord all the words that I command you to speak to them; do not hold back a word. It may be they will listen, and every one turn from his evil way, that I may relent of the disaster that I intend to do to them because of their evil deeds” (Jer. 26:2-3).

A pastor is called by God to preach repentance. If he does not, he is not a faithful pastor. As Urbanus Rhegius wrote, “A pastor who ignores the article of repentance is no more useful to the flock of Christ than a wolf is to the sheepfold.”

However, the Law alone will not bring about repentance. It will not turn anyone towards God in faith. The Gospel is necessary to grant faith. The Gospel is the promise of remission of sins, justification and eternal life for the sake of Christ (Ap IV.5). Thus, to the contrite, broken heart, speak peace. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Is. 40:2). It is necessary to be “taught that those who have sinned after baptism obtain the forgiveness of sins whenever they come to repentance and that absolution should not be denied them by the church” (AC XII.1-2). Pastors are to absolve and restore those who repent (Mt. 16:19; Jn.20:23). The conscience cannot find peace without faith, and it is faith alone that makes alive (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Ap XII.47). Only the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). It is the Gospel that bears the fruit of faith (Col. 1:5-6).

What about those persons, who, after having heard the Law and the Gospel, still remain in their sins without turning away from them? The only conclusion to which we can arrive is that the Word of God has not yet brought about contrition and faith in them. Where there is no fruit of faith, there is no faith. “As if true faith and the evil intention to remain and continue in sin could exist in a single heart at the same time! That is impossible. Or, as if they can have and retain true faith, righteousness, and salvation while being and remaining at the same time a rotten, unfruitful tree that bears no good fruits – yes, even when they remain in sin against their conscience or intentionally give themselves over to sin! This is improper and wrong” (FC SD IV.15).

Those who do not repent must be warned, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 6:9-10). By Christ’s command, such persons are to have their sins retained.

Thus, as Scripture and our Confessions teach, the Law and the Gospel actually do something. The Law kills us and the Gospel makes us alive. This is not our work, but God’s work. Through the Gospel, we also receive the Holy Spirit, and He instills in us a new will. This results in a change in a Christian’s life for the better. This is both an internal and an external change. There is a necessary new obedience. Good works follow faith. Faith gives the believer new impulses and desires. Those who do not turn from their sins and remain impenitent have not been converted. They do not have faith. Thus, no faithful pastor will absolve or commune them, but will rather lovingly call them to repentance.

For the repentant there is forgiveness. Yes, we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment (SC III), therefore our entire lives are lives of repentance. We are not forgiven on account of our avoidance of sin but solely on account of Jesus’ death in our place. Through daily contrition and repentance, we die to sin and live to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Christ will not break a bruised reed or quench a faintly burning wick (Is. 42:3). He sympathizes with our weaknesses, as He was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15).

When you feel all alone in temptation and think that no one understands; when it seems like your whole life is taken over by some desire, know that you are not alone. Jesus is there and He sympathizes with your weaknesses. He knows what it’s like to be tempted. He suffered when tempted, so His heart aches when He sees you suffering in temptation, and He helps you in temptation (Heb. 2:18).

Jesus sympathized with your weaknesses to the point of His death on the cross. It is for you that Jesus suffered and died. It is for you that He rose again. It is for you that He lives and reigns to all eternity.

[1] All quotations from the Book of Concord are from Robert Kolb & Timothy J. Wengert (eds.), The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

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