Which Came First: Forgiveness or Repentance, Part Two

More from Dennis Ngien. Part one is here.

Hearing God’s pronouncement of his forgiveness can be a very powerful motive for us to seek reconciliation with him. For instance, when someone has broken a relationship, the word that the wounded party has forgiven the guilty one can serve as a strong impetus causing the offender to seek reconciliation. Our repentance is not a condition of grace, but only a response to grace. Whereas “legal repentance” takes the form, “Repent, and if you do, you will be forgiven,” “evangelical repentance” takes this form, “Christ has given himself for you for the forgiveness of your sins; therefore, repent! Receive his forgiving grace in repentance.” The latter is Luther’s – the gift is primary, and the response secondary. By putting the emphasis on the primacy of the word, Luther gave priority to the responsive rather than causative character of faith.

The justifying word, “I forgive you,” is the content of the gospel, whereas repentance is our response to the gospel, not our causing it. “[O]nly as the word is maintained as the work of God, does faith retain the character of receptivity or reception of other gifts” (Charles Arand, “That I May Be His Own“, page 167). This, too, is in accord with Luther’s sacramental theology, in which God gives himself in his Son. In the Eucharist, Christ spoke the justifying word which effects forgiveness in us. The words of Christ’s institution summon from us an unconditional response of faith and repentance; they foment a sacramental piety, which is not contingent upon any human invention of pious works or pious desire. A conversion (repentance and faith) that is not rooted in God’s justifying word-act, specifically in the mass, is not true conversion. The sacrament is purely God’s action on our behalf, to which we respond with gratitude and thanksgiving. Unlike Zwingli who stressed the signifying character of the sacrament for which thanksgiving was rendered, Luther saw the causative character of God’s word in it as the source of gratitude. We thank God for coming into our lives and redeeming us as the recipients of the inestimable benefits promised in Christ’s last will. It is precisely by our unworthiness that we become the object of God’s grace. Therefore when faced with doubts or a lack of assurance, Luther did not ask, “How is your devotional life or prayer life? How about your good works?”, instead he exhorted believers to heed Christ’s words, the very “sum and substance of the whole gospel.” He encouraged believers to accept and affirm God’s word of promise given in Jesus Christ through the mass (and other means), quite apart from any emotions they might experience. We are to hear Christ’s words, by which our identity is forged and by which we are transformed into images of the one whose innocence we receive in a happy exchange for our sins. In the mass, we experience the power of his re-creating word at work. In Pannenberg’s estimation, “We (thereby) receive a new identity, but we do not possess it separately, in our separate existence apart from Christ, but only ‘in Christ’, which is to say in faith that unites us with Christ, with the Christ ‘outside ourselves’.”

With his emphasis on the objective nature of God’s work for us in Christ, Luther shunned the inward experiences of a subjective nature as a legitimate basis of assurances of any place before God. Not by introspection but only by ex-centricity – by looking outside ourselves (extra nobis) to God’s “speech act” in Jesus Christ can we find assurance. Our inner experience must not become primary, in which case we begin to turn away from faith in Christ to trust in ourselves. When this happens, we are reverting to righteousness by works as the outcome To Luther, the objective word of Christ is the anchor of faith, and the landmark of true piety. Faith cleaves to the sacrament, trusting that God’s word be done unto it. It is an anathema to attack Christ’s words, for to do so is to attack the gospel itself; to deny Christ’s words is to deny his justifying action on us, thus nullify the power and use of the sacrament.

Everything depends on these words. Every Christian should and must know them and hold them fast. He must never let anyone take them away from him by any other kind of teaching, even though it were an angel from heaven [Galatians 1:8]. They are words of life and of salvation, so that whoever believes in them has all his sins forgiven through that faith; he is a child of life and has overcome death and hell. Language cannot express how great and mighty these words are, for they are the sum and substance of the whole gospel. (Luther’s Works Volume 36, page 277)

Dennis Ngien, “Luther As A Spiritual Adviser“, pages 101-104

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