A Laymen’s Commentary on the Smalcald Articles: Repentance

This is part 9 of 17 in the series A Laymen's Commentary on the Smalcald Articles

Part III, Article III. Of Repentance.

1] This office [of the Law] the New Testament retains and urges, as St. Paul, Rom. 1:18 does, saying: The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Again, Rom 3:19: All the world is guilty before God. No man is righteous before Him. And Christ says, John 16:8: The Holy Ghost will reprove the world of sin.

2] This, then, is the thunderbolt of God by which He strikes in a heap [hurls to the ground] both manifest sinners and false saints [hypocrites], and suffers no one to be in the right [declares no one righteous], but drives them all together to terror and despair. This is the hammer, as Jeremiah 23:29 says: Is not My Word like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? This is not activa contritio or manufactured repentance, but passiva contritio [torture of conscience], true sorrow of heart, suffering and sensation of death.

3] This, then, is what it means to begin true repentance; and here man must hear such a sentence as this: You are all of no account, whether you be manifest sinners or saints [in your own opinion]; you all must become different and do otherwise than you now are and are doing [no matter what sort of people you are], whether you are as great, wise, powerful, and holy as you may. Here no one is [righteous, holy], godly, etc.

4] But to this office the New Testament immediately adds the consolatory promise of grace through the Gospel, which must be believed, as Christ declares, Mark 1:15: Repent and believe the Gospel, i.e., become different and do otherwise, and believe My promise. And John, preceding Him, is called a preacher of repentance, however, for the remission of sins, i.e., John was to accuse all, and convict them of being sinners, that they might know what they were before God, and might acknowledge that they were lost men, and might thus be prepared for the Lord, to receive grace, and to expect and accept from Him the remission of sins. Thus also Christ Himself says, Luke 24:47: 6] Repentance and remission of sins must be preached in My name among all nations.

7] But whenever the Law alone, without the Gospel being added exercises this its office there is [nothing else than] death and hell, and man must despair, like Saul and Judas; as St. Paul, Rom. 7:10, says: Through sin the Law killeth. 8] On the other hand, the Gospel brings consolation and remission not only in one way, but through the word and Sacraments, and the like, as we shall hear afterward in order that [thus] there is with the Lord plenteous redemption, as Ps. 130:7 says against the dreadful captivity of sin.

When the Law does its proper work it convicts us of our sins and crushes us to dust (Jeremiah 23:9-40, John 16:4-15, Romans 1:18-32, Romans 3).  The Law produces contrition, which is the first part of Repentance.  In contrition you see your sin and desire to do better, even though you may not be capable of doing so.

This is where the second part of Repentance comes in.  Namely faith that trusts the promises of God. Repentance is always proclaimed along with an appeal to faith (Mark 1:1-5, Luke 24:36-49).  The Law must always be followed by the Gospel.  Else the sinner will be left in utter despair, as happened with Saul and Judas (1 Samuel 31, Mathew 27:1-10).

The Law always kills and will leave a person in death if the Gospel is not proclaimed.  Repentance cannot be complete if there is no promise to hold to. Judas was certainly contrite, but he had no faith in the promise and thus lost his eternal salvation.  If only the priests had done their job properly and preached the Gospel Judas might have heard the Gospel and been saved. After all Jesus died for Judas’s sins as well.

It is a great blessing that the Gospel comes to us in a variety of means in the Word and Sacraments.  It gives consolation against all doubt and gives us the promise of forgiveness to cling to.  The Holy Spirit working through the Gospel even generates the faith that trusts the promise and completes true Repentance. For where there is no faith there is no true Repentance (Psalm 130).

9] However, we must now contrast the false repentance of the sophists with true repentance, in order that both may be the better understood.

Of the False Repentance of the Papists.

10] It was impossible that they should teach correctly concerning repentance, since they did not [rightly] know the real sins [the real sin]. For, as has been shown above, they do not believe aright concerning original sin, but say that the natural powers of man have remained [entirely] unimpaired and incorrupt; that reason can teach aright, and the will can in accordance therewith do aright [perform those things which are taught]; that God certainly bestows His grace when a man does as much as is in him, according to his free will.

11] It had to follow thence [from this dogma] that they did [must do] penance only for actual sins, such as wicked thoughts to which a person yields (for wicked emotion [concupiscence, vicious feelings, and inclinations], lust and improper dispositions [according to them] are not sins), and for wicked words and wicked deeds, which free will could readily have omitted.

12] And of such repentance they fix three parts, contrition, confession, and satisfaction, with this [magnificent] consolation and promise added: If man truly repent, [feel remorse,] confess, render satisfaction, he thereby would have merited forgiveness, and paid for his sins before God [atoned for his sins and obtained a plenary redemption]. Thus in repentance they instructed men to repose confidence in their own works. 13] Hence the expression originated, which was employed in the pulpit when public absolution was announced to the people: Prolong O God, my life, until I shall make satisfaction for my sins and amend my life.

14] There was here [profound silence and] no mention of Christ nor faith; but men hoped by their own works to overcome and blot out sins before God. And with this intention we became priests and monks, that we might array ourselves against sin.

15] As to contrition, this is the way it was done: Since no one could remember all his sins (especially as committed through an entire year), they inserted this provision, namely, that if an unknown sin should be remembered later [if the remembrance of a concealed sin should perhaps return], this also must be repented of and confessed, etc. Meanwhile they were [the person was] commended to the grace of God.

16] Moreover, since no one could know how great the contrition ought to be in order to be sufficient before God, they gave this consolation: He who could not have contrition, at least ought to have attrition, which I may call half a contrition or the beginning of contrition; for they have themselves understood neither of these terms nor do they understand them now, as little as I. Such attrition was reckoned as contrition when a person went to confession.

17] And when it happened that any one said that he could not have contrition nor lament his sins (as might have occurred in illicit love or the desire for revenge, etc.), they asked whether he did not wish or desire to have contrition [lament]. When one would reply Yes (for who, save the devil himself, would here say No?), they accepted this as contrition, and forgave him his sins on account of this good work of his [which they adorned with the name of contrition]. Here they cited the example of St. Bernard, etc.

18] Here we see how blind reason, in matters pertaining to God, gropes about, and, according to its own imagination, seeks for consolation in its own works, and cannot think of [entirely forgets] Christ and faith. But if it be [clearly] viewed in the light, this contrition is a manufactured and fictitious thought [or imagination], derived from man’s own powers, without faith and without the knowledge of Christ. And in it the poor sinner, when he reflected upon his own lust and desire for revenge, would sometimes [perhaps] have laughed rather than wept [either laughed or wept, rather than to think of something else], except such as either had been truly struck by [the lightning of] the Law, or had been vainly vexed by the devil with a sorrowful spirit. Otherwise [with the exception of these persons] such contrition was certainly mere hypocrisy, and did not mortify the lust for sins [flames of sin]; for they had to grieve, while they would rather have continued to sin, if it had been free to them.

As a contrast and to make a point we will now look at how Repentance is seen by the Roman Catholics.  The foundation of it all is a false understanding of Original Sin.  Roman Catholics are semi-Pelagian. They believe that the will can make a start back to God.  To them sins of the mind are not truly sins but rather only sins that you actually do.  Thus one could think lustful thoughts about a woman, but it was not truly sin until one actualized them.  In a brief, they deny concupiscence.

Repentance for the papists has three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction  For them repentance is a work of man not God.  It is the work by which man merits the forgiveness of God.  No mention of Christ or faith at all. For this reason people became monks and priests, as they thought by these works they could pay for their sins. Luther knew this fact all too well.

In the first part contrition for the papists was only an admission that one had done a sin.  Not an actual feeling of being sorry for it or wanting to reform one’s life. You only had to make start.

Thus the vain distinction between attrition and contrition. Luther points out rightly that attrition is completely made up and no one really understands what is meant by it.  So if you said you were sorry, you were forgiven without any intent to reform.  As long you did good works, that would earn your way in.  Because the Gospel was weak and seemed to be foolish, man concocted this insane notion of attrition (1 Corinthians 2).  They did not grasp the depth of their problem or God’s solution.

Attrition essentially excuses the sinner similar to a child saying they were sorry but not really meaning it.  It is another version of ex operae operato (by the work worked). By saying the magic words one could get out of jail free. One would have simply laughed and went on sinning if one was not struck to the heart by the Law.  So in fact contrition by the papists is merely hypocrisy.

19] As regards confession, the procedure was this: Every one had [was enjoined] to enumerate all his sins (which is an impossible thing). This was a great torment. From such as he had forgotten [But if any one had forgotten some sins] he would be absolved on the condition that, if they would occur to him, he must still confess them. In this way he could never know whether he had made a sufficiently pure confession [perfectly and correctly], or when confessing would ever have an end. Yet he was pointed to his own works, and comforted thus: The more fully [sincerely and frankly] one confesses, and the more he humiliates himself and debases himself before the priest, the sooner and better he renders satisfaction for his sins; for such humility certainly would earn grace before God.

20] Here, too, there was no faith nor Christ, and the virtue of the absolution was not declared to him, but upon his enumeration of sins and his self-abasement depended his consolation. What torture, rascality, and idolatry such confession has produced is more than can be related.

Confession under the Roman Catholics required the listing of all sins.  Even ones you could not remember. For while they gave a blanket statement saying your forgotten sins were covered, nevertheless if your recalled them later then you had to confess them.  Thus the first “forgiveness” was not really forgiveness at all as it was only good for as long as you had forgotten the sin. Even then it was questionable if that was efficacious. Thus the more you confessed the more certain your salvation as only the forgiveness given to confessed sins counted.

There is no faith in this, but rather purely the work of the one confessing.  The efficacy of the forgiveness depends on the completeness of the confession.  No Absolution was declared either and no consolation given. If one was truly contrite, there was no promise for faith to hold to other than the promise that if you confess more the more you would be forgiven.  Confession became a work to merit forgiveness.

21] As to satisfaction, this is by far the most involved [perplexing] part of all. For no man could know how much to render for a single sin, not to say how much for all. Here they have resorted to the device of imposing a small satisfaction, which could indeed be rendered, as five Paternosters, a day’s fast, etc.; for the rest [that was lacking] of the [in their] repentance they were directed to purgatory.

22] Here, too, there was nothing but anguish and [extreme] misery. [For] some thought that they would never get out of purgatory, because, according to the old canons, seven years’ repentance is required for a single mortal sin. 23] Nevertheless, confidence was placed upon our work of satisfaction, and if the satisfaction could have been perfect, confidence would have been placed in it entirely, and neither faith nor Christ would have been of use. But this confidence was impossible. For, although any one had done penance in that way for a hundred years, he would still not have known whether he had finished his penance. That meant forever to do penance and never to come to repentance.

24] Here now the Holy See at Rome, coming to the aid of the poor Church, invented indulgences, whereby it forgave and remitted [expiation or] satisfaction, first, for a single instance, for seven years, for a hundred years and distributed them among the cardinals and bishops, so that one could grant indulgence for a hundred years and another for a hundred days. But he reserved to himself alone the power to remit the entire satisfaction.

25] Now, since this began to yield money, and the traffic in bulls became profitable he devised the golden jubilee year [a truly gold-bearing year], and fixed it at Rome. He called this the remission of all punishment and guilt. Then the people came running, because every one would fain have been freed from this grievous, unbearable burden. This meant to find [dig up] and raise the treasures of the earth. Immediately the Pope pressed still further, and multiplied the golden years one upon another. But the more he devoured money, the wider grew his maw.

Later, therefore, he issued them [those golden years of his] by his legates [everywhere] to the countries, until all churches and houses were full of the Golden Year. 26] At last he also made an inroad into purgatory among the dead, first, by founding masses and vigils, afterwards, by indulgences and the Golden Year, and finally souls became so cheap that he released one for a farthing.

27] But all this, too, was of no avail. For although the Pope taught men to depend upon, and trust in, these indulgences [for salvation], yet he rendered the [whole] matter again uncertain. For in his bulls he declares: Whoever would share in the indulgences or a Golden Year must be contrite, and have confessed, and pay money. Now, we have heard above that this contrition and confession are with them uncertain and hypocrisy. Likewise, also no one knew what soul was in purgatory, and if some were therein, no one knew which had properly repented and confessed. Thus he took the precious money [the Pope snatched up the holy pence], and comforted them meanwhile with [led them to confidence in] his power and indulgence, and [then again led them away from that and] directed them again to their uncertain work.

28] If, now [although], there were some who did not believe [acknowledge] themselves guilty of such actual sins in [committed by] thoughts, words, and works,—as I, and such as I, in monasteries and chapters [fraternities or colleges of priests], wished to be monks and priests, and by fasting, watching, praying, saying Mass, coarse garments, and hard beds, etc., fought against [strove to resist] evil thoughts, and in full earnest and with force wanted to be holy, and yet the hereditary, inborn evil sometimes did in sleep what it is wont to do (as also St. Augustine and Jerome among others confess),—still each one held the other in esteem, so that some, according to our teaching, were regarded as holy, without sin and full of good works, so much so that with this mind we would communicate and sell our good works to others, as being superfluous to us for heaven. This is indeed true, and seals, letters, and instances [that this happened] are at hand.

29] [When there were such, I say,] These did not need repentance. For of what would they repent, since they had not indulged wicked thoughts? What would they confess [concerning words not uttered], since they had avoided words? For what should they render satisfaction, since they were so guiltless of any deed that they could even sell their superfluous righteousness to other poor sinners? Such saints were also the Pharisees and scribes in the time of Christ.

Finally there is Satisfactions, which must be done to merit the forgiveness.  However, no one knew how much satisfaction had to be done, as with contrition.  Thus you were directed to do some token satisfaction and the rest of remanded to Purgatory

This entire concept of satisfactions to merit forgiveness and time out of purgatory led to indulgences which then were warped to gain money for the pope and bishops.  The pope, to make more money, would concoct greater and greater indulgences and satisfactions. It even got to the point of mimicking the jubilee years of the Israelites (Leviticus 25).

All of this was in vain as people still doubted their salvation. They doubted that they had done enough or paid enough for indulgences to escape purgatory.  Thus additional works were heaped on.

To make matters worse some did think they had done enough, and had super abundant works.  They had become perfect in this life and thus the works they did could be applied to others.  Even though they still sinned, they hid their sins and showed only their goodness and righteousness.  Adding their merits to the treasury of merits under the pope. These high and mighty men did not need think they needed repentance, similar to the scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s own day (Matthew 23).

30] Here comes the fiery angel, St. John [Rev. 10], the true preacher of [true] repentance, and with one [thunderclap and] bolt hurls both [those selling and those buying works] on one heap, and says: Repent! Matt. 3:2. 31] Now, the former [the poor wretches] imagine: Why, we have repented! The latter [the rest] say: We need no repentance. 32] John says: Repent ye, both of you, for ye are false penitents; so are these [the rest] false saints [or hypocrites], and all of you on either side need the forgiveness of sins, because neither of you know what true sin is not to say anything about your duty to repent of it and shun it. For no one of you is good; you are full of unbelief, stupidity, and ignorance of God and God’s will. For here He is present of whose fulness have all we received, and grace for grace, John 1:16, and without Him no man can be just before God. Therefore, if you wish to repent, repent aright; your penance will not accomplish anything [is nothing]. And you hypocrites, who do not need repentance, you serpents’ brood, who has assured you that you will escape the wrath to come? etc. Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7.

33] In the same way Paul also preaches, Rom. 3:10-12: There is none righteous, there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God, there is none that doeth good, no not one; they are all gone out of the way; they are together become unprofitable. 34] And Acts 17:30: God now commandeth all men everywhere to repent. “All men,” he says; no one excepted who is a man. 35] This repentance teaches us to discern sin, namely, that we are altogether lost, and that there is nothing good in us from head to foot [both within and without], and that we must absolutely become new and other men.

36] This repentance is not piecemeal [partial] and beggarly [fragmentary], like that which does penance for actual sins, nor is it uncertain like that. For it does not debate what is or is not sin, but hurls everything on a heap, and says: All in us is nothing but sin [affirms that, with respect to us, all is simply sin (and there is nothing in us that is not sin and guilt)]. What is the use of [For why do we wish] investigating, dividing, or distinguishing a long time? For this reason, too, this contrition is not [doubtful or] uncertain. For there is nothing left with which we can think of any good thing to pay for sin, but there is only a sure despairing concerning all that we are, think, speak, or do [all hope must be cast aside in respect of everything], etc.

37] In like manner confession, too, cannot be false, uncertain, or piecemeal [mutilated or fragmentary]. For he who confesses that all in him is nothing but sin comprehends all sins, excludes none, forgets none. 38] Neither can the satisfaction be uncertain, because it is not our uncertain, sinful work, but it is the suffering and blood of the [spotless and] innocent Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world.

39] Of this repentance John preaches, and afterwards Christ in the Gospel, and we also. By this [preaching of] repentance we dash to the ground the Pope and everything that is built upon our good works. For all is built upon a rotten and vain foundation, which is called a good work or law, even though no good work is there, but only wicked works, and no one does the Law (as Christ, John 7:19, says), but all transgress it. Therefore the building [that is raised upon it] is nothing but falsehood and hypocrisy, even [in the part] where it is most holy and beautiful.

40] And in Christians this repentance continues until death, because, through the entire life it contends with sin remaining in the flesh, as Paul, Rom. 7:14-25, [shows] testifies that he wars with the law in his members, etc.; and that, not by his own powers, but by the gift of the Holy Ghost that follows the remission of sins. This gift daily cleanses and sweeps out the remaining sins, and works so as to render man truly pure and holy.

41] The Pope, the theologians, the jurists, and every other man know nothing of this [from their own reason], but it is a doctrine from heaven, revealed through the Gospel, and must suffer to be called heresy by the godless saints [or hypocrites].

True repentance, however, is proclaimed most clearly by John the Baptist.  John calls a thing what it is and truly makes straight the way of the Lord by proclaiming Law and Gospel in their fullness.  He is truly the preacher of repentance (Matthew 3:1-12, Luke 3:1-22, Revelation 10).  St. Paul likewise declares repentance (Acts 17:16-34, Romans 3).

This Repentance is not partial nor is it in doubt. The completeness of your sin is sure.  Your forgiveness for your sins is assured.  There is no doubt about what to confess, nor is there doubt about the promise given of forgiveness.

This form of Repentance, true Repentance, utterly destroys the pope and all his concoctions.  The pope builds up a foundation that is flawed, that will not stand the fiery trial and is only hypocrisy.  For Christians this true repentance never ends.  We keep sinning and thus we keep repenting.  As Luther says in the first of his 95 Theses: “When Christ says “Repent” He means that the whole life is one of repentance”.  We are simul justus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner). This is true (Romans 7-8).  The papists know nothing of this but only preach works not true Repentance

42] On the other hand, if certain sectarists would arise, some of whom are perhaps already extant, and in the time of the insurrection [of the peasants] came to my own view, holding that all those who had once received the Spirit or the forgiveness of sins, or had become believers, even though they should afterwards sin, would still remain in the faith, and such sin would not harm them, and [hence] crying thus: “Do whatever you please; if you believe, it all amounts to nothing; faith blots out all sins,” etc.—they say, besides, that if any one sins after he has received faith and the Spirit, he never truly had the Spirit and faith: I have had before me [seen and heard] many such insane men, and I fear that in some such a devil is still remaining [hiding and dwelling].

43] It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them [they cast out faith and the Holy Ghost]. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present. For St. John says, 1 John 3:9: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, … and he cannot sin. And yet it is also the truth when the same St. John says, 1:8: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

On the other hand antinomians, those against the Law, had arisen from the radical Reformation.  They taught that since the Law has been paid for, one could sin all they wanted.  This is sheer madness and against clear Scripture.

Instead we teach this.  When a person commits sin and is not penitent they are outside the faith.  As David was in his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12, Psalm 51, Romans 6).  If sin is present and does whatever it wants then the Holy Spirit is not there (1 John 1, 1 John 2:28-3:10).

Thus we must always contend and fight with sin.  If we continue to repent, God is merciful and will forgive.  But if we sin and we do not have penitent faith, we are outside of salvation.  Thus even if we die in sin, but have faith in Christ, we are saved. Those who do not repent and die in sin are not.  After all repentance is simply contrition and faith in the promise. God covers our moments of weakness, but not our moments of strength in rebelling against Him.  Let us then live our lives continually repenting of our sins and fleeing to Christ for all comfort and blessing.

1 From depths of woe I cry to Thee,
In trial and tribulation;
Bend down Thy gracious ear to me,
Lord, hear my supplication.
If Thou rememb’rest ev’ry sin,
Who then could heaven ever win
Or stand before Thy presence?

2 Thy love and grace alone avail
To blot out my transgression;
The best and holiest deeds must fail
To break sin’s dread oppression.
Before Thee none can boasting stand,
But all must fear Thy strict demand
And live alone by mercy.

3 Therefore my hope is in the Lord
And not in mine own merit;
It rests upon His faithful Word
To them of contrite spirit
That He is merciful and just:
This is my comfort and my trust.
His help I wait with patience.

4 And though it tarry through the night
And till the morning waken,
My heart shall never doubt His might
Nor count itself forsaken.
O Isreal, trust in God your Lord.
Born of the Spirit and the Word,
Now wait for His appearing.

5 Though great our sins, yet greater still
Is God’s abundant favor;
His hand of mercy never will
Abandon us, nor waver.
Our shepherd good and true is He,
Who will at last His Israel free
From all their sin and sorrow.

(LSB 607)

About Dr. Paul Edmon

Dr. Paul Edmon is from Seattle, Washington and now resides in Boston, Massachusetts. He has his B.S. in Physics from the University of Washington in 2004 and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Minnesota in 2010. He is professional staff at Harvard University and acts as liaison between Center for Astrophysics and Research Computing. A life long Lutheran, he is formerly a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle and University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis. He now attends First Lutheran Church (FLC) of Boston where he teaches Lutheran Essentials. He sings bass in the FLC choir and Canto Armonico. He was elected to the Concordia Seminary St. Louis Board of Regents in 2016. He is single and among his manifold interests are scotch, football, anime, board games, mythology, history, philosophy, and general nerdiness. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent Harvard University or Concordia Seminary. Twitter: @pauledmon

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