by Rev. Matthew C. Harrison
Rev. Matthew C. Harrison
The greatest eras in the history of the Church have all begun with repentance. Those times when the Gospel of free forgiveness by faith in Jesus Christ has shone brightest in missionary witness and expansion—in a burning desire to care for the weak and needy with Christ’s own mercy, and in zealous and creative endeavors in church life and organization—have all begun with the preaching of repentance.
It’s hardly a coincidence that John the Baptizer’s first recorded words were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2). It’s no accident that the first words out of Jesus’ mouth when He began His public ministry were likewise, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 4:17). And note that the text says, “from that time [forward] Jesus began to preach” repentance. Jesus, the greatest preacher ever, was throughout His ministry a preacher of repentance. After Jesus’ death and resurrection—the grand payment and absolution for all the sins of the world, past, present and future—Peter repented and was restored following his own miserable defection and denial. And then Peter and the rest of the apostles burst upon the world with a glorious preaching of repentance. At Pentecost, Peter preached the thunder of the Law: “‘This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ.’ Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” Peter responded with the sweet comfort of the Gospel: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:36–38).
The Reformation began the same way. The very first words of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses declare: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ says ‘Repent,’ he wills that the entire life of the Christian be one of repentance.” The Reformation began with a divine call to repentance—with a confession of sin and a rejection of the delusion that human activity can in any way, whole or in part, bring about salvation or divine favor.
Why have we lacked missionary zeal? Why have we been so divided? Why have we failed to love each other? Why have we struggled financially? Why have we failed to convince both those within and outside our fellowship? Why have we been unable to listen to our brothers and sisters? Why has our preaching so often lacked urgency and biblical depth? Are we preachers therapists, or are we prophets of God with a clear message of Law and Gospel? Are we still the Church that preaches Jesus’ own message of repentance? As I write these things, I am thinking above all of myself, of my own sins.
There is nothing for any of us in the Missouri Synod to be smug about. “For what do you have that you have not been given?” Luther reminded the Germans of his day that the precious Gospel can be and has, in fact, been lost by whole nations.
Buy while the market is at your door; gather in the harvest while there is sunshine and fair weather; make use of God’s grace and word while it is there! For you should know that God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been . . . when it’s gone it’s gone. . . . And you Germans need not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay. Therefore, seize it and hold it fast (Luther’s Works 45:352).
The good news is that the Lord delights in having mercy upon sinners, just like us. In fact, “Christ dwells only in sinners” (Luther). That means that Christ dwells only in a Church made up of sinners—people and pastors just like us. If we won’t be sinners (Repent!), we shall have no Savior.
Jesus has given us an astounding gift. We have the treasure of the Gospel so marvelously and biblically laid before us by Luther’s Small Catechism. May the Lord grant us repentance, all of us, that the Gospel not pass from us and that we poor sinners—yes, the Missouri Synod—might be His own tool to preach repentance, forgiveness, and faith in His name—even now, even today.