True Repentance: A Sermon for Ash Wednesday
A sermon by The Reverend Doctor, Benjamin Mayes.
“For this is certainly true that in genuine conversion a change, new emotion, and movement in the intellect, will, and heart must take place, namely, that the heart perceive sin, dread God’s wrath, turn from sin, perceive and accept the promise of grace in Christ, have good spiritual thoughts, a Christian purpose and diligence, and strive against the flesh. For where none of these occurs or is present, there is also no true conversion” (FC SD II 70).
Luther, too, had some clear words to say about repentance: “And they all claim to be fine ‘evangelicals’ who can do no wrong that might bother their conscience. They operate on this formula: That poor fellow, our pastor, it’s his duty to forgive! Yes, my dear squires, we are obliged to forgive you, if you admit that your actions are sins and if you intend not to commit those sins again. But if you refuse to admit that such conduct is sinful and if you go right on doing the same things, then it is our duty to inform you: You are dealing unjustly with me, and you refuse to admit that it is sin; therefore I cannot forgive you. If you laugh it off, my response is: May your sin be a fire in your soul! And when plagues, hard times, and the grim reaper come, and when you ultimately are confronted by hellfire, then God will hold an accounting” (Luther, House Postill, 22nd S. a. Trinity, Klug 7:145, cf. p. 144).
This is the side of the horse that most people fall off on: thinking that my repentance is sufficient; I don’t really have to give up my sins; God won’t mind if I continue to live with my girlfriend; God won’t be angry at my laziness and shirking of duty; I don’t have to control my temper; There’s no need to attend church every Sunday; There’s no need to help others. These are false ways of thinking, and this is what I call the side of the horse that most people fall off on.
But there is another side of the horse. Here’s how this one goes. People take seriously God’s call to repentance. They realize that they must change their ways. And then, when they have curbed some outward sin, when they no longer fornicate outwardly, when they have stopped cursing, when they attend church every Sunday, and so on and so forth, then the temptation is near to think, “Because I’m doing this, God will be gracious to me.” But that is the language of merit, the language of earning your salvation. Friends, this is why repentance is so hard for us. On the one hand, we are tempted to do nothing and claim that our repentance is good enough. And on the other hand, we are tempted to make some changes in our live and to think that we have caused God to forgive us because of how we’ve changed for the better. But this is the opposite of repentance. Repentance is despairing of our sins, being crushed, lying in the proverbial dust and ashes, saying words like “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner,” and truly meaning it from the heart. To live in repentance is to live with a crushed spirit, and casting your only hope for salvation on the mercy of God in His Son Christ.
Yes, this, too belongs to repentance. Not just sorrow over your sin, but also faith. God has sent His Son in the world to save sinners—people who really think that they have sinned and are sorry for it. God sent His Son to bear the punishment you deserved, to walk the Lenten road that leads to the cross, to bear the bitter words, scourge, nails, spear, and rejection. All for you, to reconcile God to you. This, too, belongs to repentance. Believe that God has done all this for you. Receive the forgiveness He gives you in His Gospel and sacraments each Sunday. And then you, too, can have a joyful and thankful heart.
We here in this country are like the people of Nineveh with regard to our sins. But we do not have a king who will call for a national fast, who will give up food, dress in rough burlap, and sit in ashes. But God has given us each other, pastors and people, together as His Church. On this day the Church proclaims to you a repentance, marked by fasting and ashes, a repentance consisting of true sorrow for sin, and true faith in Christ. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Rev. Benjamin T. G. Mayes
St. Louis, MO USA