1 John 3:4-6 (ESV)
4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.
Dear Friends in Christ,
“So, what are you giving up for Lent this year?” That’s a question that is commonly asked at this time every year as some people like to commemorate the sacrifice Jesus made for them on a cross some 2000 years ago by making some sort of sacrifice for him. And while that sacrifice can consist of just about anything, most often it takes the form of some kind of food. “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent…I’m giving up potato chips for Lent…I’m giving up beer for Lent.” I remember some years ago I decided that I would give up sweets for Lent, which I’m also trying to do this year. Now that was quite a sacrifice for me, since I have quite the sweet tooth. Interestingly, the real test came after one of our mid-week Lenten services. Though now we have simple suppers before those services, back then we had different groups in our congregation serve refreshments after the service. Those refreshments would usually consist of cookies or coffeecakes or any number of other delectable delights. But the biggest test of my will power occurred the night our choir served its annual array of cheesecakes. As most of you know, that is one of my greatest weaknesses. I remember one year eating 5 pieces of cheesecake following a Lenten service! Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well that night! But much to my surprise, I was able to say no to the cheesecakes that were offered the year I had given up sweets for Lent. Not sure how I will do this year, but I’m going to give it the old college try.
Well, why is it really that some people follow this practice of giving up something for Lent? If it were to simply serve as a reminder of the sacrifice Jesus made for them, I think it’s a very good thing to do. But I think there’s more to it than that in most cases. I believe a lot of people give up something for Lent because they see it as a form of penance, which means doing something to try to make up for sins that one has committed. Without a doubt, the greatest example of this in our culture can be seen in what takes place in New Orleans every year prior to Lent with the festival known as Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is a time of partying and drinking and over-indulging before one begins the supposed penitential season of Lent. In fact, the day before Ash Wednesday is even known as Shrove Tuesday, which means Fat Tuesday. It marks a day of excessive eating and drinking, a day of really over-doing it because once Lent begins those vices and sins will supposedly be put on hold, though I really don’t think that happens with the majority of people who observe Mardi Gras.
Well, since the Lenten season is really designed to be a time of reflection upon one’s life and a time of repentance for one’s sins, I thought we’d get things underway on this 1st Sunday of Lent by looking at the whole subject of repentance and how God uses that as part of his prescription to bring healing to our sin-diseased and guilt-ridden hearts. As we examine this important topic, I thought it would be a good idea to first of all consider what repentance is not. And then we’ll take a look at what repentance – true, biblical, heartfelt repentance – is.
To begin with, repentance is not merely being sorry for what you’ve done wrong, and it’s especially not being sorry that you got caught and are now having to suffer the consequences for your wrongdoing. The teenage girl who caves into pressure from her boyfriend and gets pregnant; the young man who lives a very promiscuous lifestyle and is informed by his doctor that he has contracted a very serious sexually transmitted disease; the person who abuses drugs and becomes an addict; the undependable, irresponsible worker who gets fired from his job – all of these people might be deeply sorry that their wrongdoings have caught up with them and they are now having to face the consequences. But repentance is more than just being sorry that your sins have hurt you. True repentance makes you feel sorry, yes, but sorry because of how your sins have hurt God and your relationship with him.
Then a 2nd thing that repentance is not is that it is not simply a matter of you trying to do enough good things to make up for your sins, like giving up something for Lent. You may recall that that was one of the main reasons for the Protestant Reformation, which was led by Martin Luther back in the 1500’s. People back then were being taught by the church that their being made right with God was dependent upon certain acts of penance that they would carry out: reciting prayers, visiting shrines, making pilgrimages to Rome, depriving oneself of the basic necessities of life, buying indulgences which were pieces of paper that the church was selling and that supposedly guaranteed the buyer the forgiveness of sins. Luther himself struggled with this mind-set for years before the Holy Spirit finally opened his eyes and enabled him to see what true repentance really consisted of.
Then a 3rd thing I want you to understand about repentance is that it is not a matter of hating yourself or beating yourself up. It’s not a matter of carrying around this excessive burden of guilt day in and day out and never allowing yourself to experience the joy that the Lord wants you to have in your life. Sometimes I think we Lutherans can be especially good at doing this, of being so preoccupied with our sins that we miss out on the joy of our salvation. In the traditional confession of sins that many of us were raised on out of the old Lutheran Hymnal, we even say, “I, a poor, miserable sinner.” Now to be sure, we are poor, miserable sinners, especially when compared to our holy and perfect God. And we should feel bad about the times we have hurt our Lord by our stubbornness or selfishness or rebellion against his will. But once we have confessed those sins and shortcomings to him, let us find joy in the forgiveness that he gives us. And let us understand that that forgiveness is ours not because we’re beating ourselves up over what we’ve done wrong, but because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. And let us no longer continue to punish ourselves, but instead rest in his comforting promise that once he has forgiven our sins, he has cast them into the sea of his everlasting forgetfulness.
King David serves as a classic example of one who rejoiced in God’s forgiveness and the new beginning that God gave him in his life. Recall how his sinful and lustful desires led him into an adulterous relationship with another man’s wife named Bathsheba, which was bad enough. But then it got worse as those same desires ultimately led David to arrange to have her husband killed in battle so that he could have her as his wife. But when David was confronted by Nathan the prophet and made to realize that all of those sins that he thought he had done in secret had actually been done in full view of the Lord, he humbly threw himself on God’s mercy and turned to him for forgiveness. In fact, he even wrote a beautiful psalm of repentance in response to all that he’d done wrong. You might want to read that psalm this evening or sometime this week. It’s Psalm 51. Though David had sinned grievously against Bathsheba and her husband, in v. 4 he cuts to the very heart of the matter when he says to God, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” But instead of dwelling on his sordid past, instead of camping there, he looked to the future, to a future that he knew could be radically altered by God. So he prayed: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
And therein we find what repentance really is. It is a turning away from our sin and a turning back to our God. Like v. 6 of our text for today says: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.” Genuine repentance means the willingness, the desire, the heartfelt determination to turn around. It reminds me of what we used to do at times when I was part of our high school marching band. During the fall of the year we would perform a halftime show at every one of our home football games. Those shows involved precise timing and movements on the part of all the band members. And one of those moves that we learned how to do was an about-face. (Explain or show how it was done.)
Well, that’s precisely what repentance is. It is a spiritual about-face, so that if you are headed this way in the direction of a particular sin or sinful lifestyle, you do a 180 and head in the opposite direction. It is a rejection of one’s own will and a total submission to God’s will. It is saying yes to him and no to the world.
Now it’s quite possible that some of you are thinking – “I understand what you’re saying, Pastor Meyer, but boy, that’s sure a lot easier said than done.” And you know what? You’re right. That’s why we need to also understand that true repentance, like true saving faith, is not something that we can somehow magically conjure up on our own. Just like the Bible says “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit,” so also no one can totally and absolutely turn from their sins without the aid and assistance of that same Holy Spirit. That’s why I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that we spend as much time as possible in God’s presence, whether it’s worshiping him in a public service like this or studying his Word in a Bible class or having family devotions in our home or reading the Bible on our own. Because the more we immerse ourselves in his presence and the more we saturate ourselves with him and his Word, the more influence the Holy Spirit is going to have over us and the more we are going to love the things that he loves and hate the things that he hates. And the easier we will find it to turn away from our sins and live the kind of lives that he wants us to live.
Now, does that mean we’ll be perfect? Oh, how I wish I could say that it did. But you know better than that. Until we enter the perfection of heaven, we will struggle here on this earth. We will have to do battle with the devil and his demon hosts, as well as the world around us and our own sinful flesh. Many of those battles we’ll win with God’s help. But some of them, sadly, we will lose. And those are the times that we need to flee to the cross. Those are the times that we need to pick ourselves up out of the pigpens we’ve gotten ourselves into and head back to the Father’s house, just like the prodigal son did. Those are the times that we need to hear and take to heart the precious promises of God who assures us that “the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
So how about it, my friends? Is it time for you to do an about-face in your life? Is there some pet sin that you’ve been holding onto for far too long? Is that sin interfering in your relationship with the One who loved you enough to die for you? Is it making you feel distant from him? Is it causing you to give a poor witness to your faith when people see you caught up in it? If so, there’s no better time than the present and there’s no better season than Lent to do something about it, to take that sin to the foot of the cross and allow the precious blood of your Savior to cover it and cleanse you of it once and for all. And when you leave that cross, I suggest you do 2 things: First, leave your sin there. By all means, don’t pick it up and carry it around with you anymore because once God has forgiven it, he’s forgotten it. It no longer exists as far as he is concerned, so there’s no reason for you to hang on to it. And secondly, when you leave the cross, leave with a heart full of joy knowing that you have a God who is willing to give you a second chance, a new beginning, a fresh start. And thus discover for yourself why repentance, this wonderful medicine for the soul, is part of God’s prescription for your life. Amen.