Doctrine of Repentance and Good Works

Did you know that “the doctrine of repentance- because it not only commands new works, but also promises forgiveness of sins- necessarily requires faith” (Apology V pg 123, 151)? Pointing this out is very important for all of us who have said the words, “I’m sorry,” or “I forgive you.”  Without faith, the forgiveness of sins cannot be received because that person does not believe in the forgiveness of Christ won on the cross and delivered in the word of absolution now spoken. Repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, but it is not the Old Man in us who repents. The man who has no faith does not repent for he believes he has no need to repent. One may, of course, force from his lips a confession of sin, but in his heart, he does not find fault with himself. It is the new man who repents of the sins which the Spirit has made known by the preaching of the Law.

The new man cannot stand what the sinner in him has done. St. Paul writes, 7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” And, “15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7).

Now, the old Adam has no faith for there is nothing good that dwells in the body, but the soul that has been regenerated by the Spirit through the water and the word in Holy Baptism has received from the Lord a second birth. Paul asks, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  It is the Lord who delivers the body from death in sin through his resurrection from the grave. Since the soul is saved so also is the body on account of the soul, but it must await the day of the resurrection. While we draw breath, repenting of sins should happen daily for us. It should also follow that we receive from the Holy Spirit daily forgiveness for these sins. This is his promise to us, but this forgiveness can be received in no other way than by faith. It is not that we deserve it nor that repentance is somehow our work to merit it. Just as faith is a gift and work of God in us so too is repentance and forgiveness. It is all a gift from him by grace for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Sadly, this simple doctrine has been lost to so many who believe that by their works they merit the forgiveness of God. They would even turn repentance into their work. Since Christ came while we were still sinners and not after we had a contrite heart created in us, no man merited the forgiveness of his sins. This truth does not negate the necessity of good works to follow in faith. The doctrine of repentance also commands new works be done. For example Matthew 6:14 says, For if you forgive others trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. Does this mean that when I refuse to forgive my brother who sins against me I will not receive forgiveness? Yes, it does. Does this also mean that if I forgive them, then because of my forgiveness God will forgive me? No, it does not.

Your forgiveness does not cause God to forgive you, but your withholding of forgiveness is evidence that you are rejecting the faith in the one who does forgive all sins. Your refusing forgiveness to the one who repents turns the doctrine of repentance upside down. As if the one who has been brought to terror of the conscience concerning their sins must merit in some way forgiveness. Then the second question arises, does it make sense for you to ask for forgiveness from God, when your brother asks and you refuse him? Not at all. Neither you nor your brother merits the priceless treasure of Christ’s precious blood shed for the forgiveness of sins. If forgiveness came by works it could no longer be by grace. Yet, it must be clear that repentance still demands that works be done in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. If your Father forgives freely because of Christ so too you should also forgive because of Christ.

It no easy thing forgiving our brothers and sisters in Christ because it is not just once, is it? “21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18). Those who forgive others are bearing fruit in keeping with repentance, for the one who has been forgiven little loves little, but the one who has been forgiven much loves much (Luke 7).

More could be spoken on the good works which flow from faith and its relationship to the doctrine of repentance in the Book of Concord. The doctrine of repentance is at home in the Word and in faith. Without the Word of God and without faith one cannot understand the way God works to restore us to himself in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord that he has shown us true salvation and restoration by grace through faith.


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