For many Christians, repentance is a confusing topic and a frustrating experience. Let’s take a look at:
- the secular background of the word repent,
- then what the word repent means in the Bible,
- and finally at a particular resource for help and encouragement.
“Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) In that sermon, the word Jesus used which appears in our English translations as “Repent” is μετανοέω (metanoeite). It is a simple word with two parts:
Meta means after and noeite means understand, perceive, or see. In our English word metamorphosis, meta means change and morph means form or shape, so metamorphosis means a change of form or shape. Jesus uses noeite often when asking things like, Do you not understand, or How is that you do not understand. Together, metanoeite is to understand afterward.
In secular usage of the word, understanding afterward often is when it is too late. Hence, there is regret for what one formerly thought. In secular usage, therefore, the word typically means a change of one’s mind.
Lenski explains John’s use of the same word Jesus used, μετανοέω, like this:
In μετανοέω, “be repenting” we are introduced to one of the most important words in the New Testament, the Hebrew nicham, “repent by changing the mind,” and schub, “to turn” or to be converted. Μετανοεῖτε originally means: “to perceive or see afterward”, i.e., when it is too late; “to change one’s mind” and thus “to regret” and “to repent.” The Scriptural use of the term added a spiritual depth that is far beyond the thought of secular writers. The word at once signified that religious change of the heart which turns from sin and guilt to cleansing and forgiveness by God’s grace.
See how Lenski says, “at once.” Two things happen at once. The first is about sin and guilt. The second is about cleansing and forgiveness. This accords nicely with the definition of repentance in the Augsburg Confession:
Now, repentance consists properly of these two parts: One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors.
Repentance is two changes at once: contrition and faith.
How are these two changes metanoeite, changes afterward of understanding? What are they after? What happens to divide time into before and after? At that division of time, what happens to make the changes?
Before, we have our own thoughts about our righteousness. Then we hear the Word of the Law. “He who has ears, let him hear.” When the Holy Spirit grants hearing of the Law, that divides time into before and after. After hearing the Law, our understanding of our righteousness changes. Self-righteous thoughts are cast down and we receive the gift of contrition.
Contrition is the change of mind the Holy Spirit works by the Law, in which, after we hear the Law, we understand our sin and guilt. As Lenski says, this is deeper than in secular uses of the word, because in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, contrite (נֵכֶה) means “ground to powder.” The heart of the broken-hearted is crushed, ground to powder. The Augsburg Confession says contrition is terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin.
Isaiah 66:2 says, “But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word. “ This trembling is a symptom of contrition. After hearing the Law, we tremble.
But look, that is not all that is going on in that verse. That contrite and trembling person also is the one on whom the Lord will look. That is, the contrite is the one whom the Lord will regard and care for. The Lord will be near that one. “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) “The sacrifices of God are a broken heart, a broken and contrite heart – These, O God, You will not despise.” (Psalm 51.17)
For thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
With him who has a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
What is going on here? With the preaching of the Law comes also the preaching of the Gospel. These two Words of God come at once. At once, the Holy Spirit grants contrition by the hearing of the Law, and also grants faith by the hearing of the Gospel. “Faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors.” After hearing the Gospel, our minds change. We believe and are comforted.
In repentance, we change our minds about the Law and about the Gospel. We believe both of these words of God. We believe God’s accusation that we are sinners, and we believe God’s absolution for Christ’s sake.
To avoid confusion about repentance, just do this: Add nothing to it. Repentance has two parts: contrition and faith. It has no third, fourth, or fifth part. The tendency of Christians is to add to it, and this adding is the source of confusion. Just leave it simply contrition and faith.
Frustration with the experience of repentance chiefly arises from two sources. The first is adding things beyond contrition and faith to what we think repentance is. We have covered that above. There is a second source. Though our English translations say “repent,” notice from above how Lenski renders it: “be repenting.” This ongoing repenting, this constant, day after day, hour by hour repenting frustrates us. We want to do it once and be done. The fact that we must continually be repenting fatigues and discourages us. This fatigue and even despair from the relentless struggle subtly tempts us to circle back to the first source of frustration. We think, our two-part repentance must not be enough, because we are continually struggling. We think, if we discover the part missing from our repentance, we could do that part. Then our repentance would be real and we could be done and happy.
But, that is a scheme of the devil, the world, and the sinful self to rob us of God’s Word. God gave us two Words, not three, five, or seven. He gave us the Law and the Gospel. Repentance is a change of mind to believe those two Words. Thus, the helpful thing is to hear, rehear, and keep hearing the Law and the Gospel.
Your feet can carry you to where the Word is preached. You can hear today’s sermon of your pastor. You can hear the Word in the lectionary readings of the day. You can hear the Word in the historic liturgy. You can hear the Word in the sound hymns of the Church. You can receive the Words of Institution in the Sacrament, “This is my blood of the new testament, shed for you for the remission of your sin.”
At home and at any other places, there is something simple and powerful you can do to help with repentance: Read the Catechism.
Yes, read the Catechism.
What is the Catechism? It is a brief statement of the Word. It is a brief preaching of the Law and Gospel. By hearing the Law the Holy Spirit grants contrition, and by hearing the Gospel, the Holy Spirit grants faith. The Catechism is especially designed for this frustration with repentance and for the “be repenting” that must go on continually in this life.
Luther recognized that the believer’s faith relationship with God is ongoing, nourished by receiving of God’s gifts. There was no end (telos) in the sense of ever being finished with the project. Learning continues throughout the Christian life.
As Charles Arand says, “Catechesis imparts the mind of Christ so that we put to death the old ways of thinking and brings to life new patterns of thought.” What did he just say? Look at the pieces of his assertion:
- put to death the old ways of thinking
- bring to life new patterns of thought
What is this? It is repentance. It is change of mind. After hearing Law and Gospel in the Catechism, the Holy Spirit puts to death old ways of thinking. He kills denial of sin. This is contrition. He kills unbelief in Christ as Savior. After hearing the Gospel in the Catechism, He brings to life trust and consolation. This is faith.
The right response to frustration with the experience of repentance is to hear the Word and understand that Baptism is a daily drowning and death of the old Adam and a daily emergence of a new man. (Small Catechism, Baptism, Fourth; Romans 6:4) The Word Christ preached is, “be repenting.”
This does not happen without the means of grace or by our efforts. It happens by Word and Sacrament. “For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith.” (Augsburg Confession, V.1-2) Therefore if you are looking for help with repenting, look to the Word.
The structure and content of the Small Catechism in particular reflect Luther’s understanding of the relationship between God and humans in terms of law and gospel. Luther first leads readers to repentance through the message of God’s law in the Decalogue. Then they hear the gospel in the Creed, which proclaims the triune God’s love and saving work.
The Small Catechism is the most brief and the most simple presentation of the Law and Gospel to help you be repenting.
 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943), 92-93.
 Gerhard Bode, “Knowing How to Live and Die: Luther and the Teaching of the Christian Faith,” Concordia Journal, vol. 44, no. 2, Spring 2018, p. 16.
 Charles Arand, That I Might Be His Own: An Overview of Luther’s Catechisms, (St. Louis: Concordia Academic Press, 2000), 28
 Bode, p. 23.