Penitence and Repentance in Lent

The season of Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday is a period of penitential reflection and preparation. Since the early days of the Christian Church this season has been characterized by fasting. The length of the fast varied in early times, finally extended to 40 days after the analogy of the period of the Lord’s temptation recorded in Matthew 4:2.

The Sundays of Lent are named after their respective introits: Invocavit (Ps 91:15); Reminiscere (Ps 25:16); Oculi (Ps 25: 15); Laetare (Is 66:10); and Judica (Ps 43:1). The season of Lent is culminated with Holy Week. Thursday of Holy Week commemorates the institution of the Lord’s Supper and is currently referred to as Maundy Thursday in English, derived either from the Latin words of John 13:34 (Mandatum novum do vobis) or from the custom of carrying gifts to the poor in maunds (hand baskets) on that day. It is followed by Good Friday (In German Karfreitag, a name expressing sorrow) a day of deep mourning. In the history of the church this day often contains a complete fast until 3 or 6 o’clock in the afternoon.

In medieval Europe, the consciousness of sin was greater than in today’s Western societies. The pernicious or deleterious nature of sin was well-known during this period found expression in the sermons of the 14th century mystic preacher Johannes Tauler. A Dominican cleric, Tauler was a noted preacher who’s work was appreciated by Luther who “found in him more solid and sincere theology than is found in all the scholastic teachers of all the universities” (“Explanation of the Ninety-Five Theses”, 1518). The following words to ponder come from Tauler’s Sermon XXIII on 1 Peter 4:9:

“So deeply rooted in this poison of Original Sin in the inmost recesses of the soul that all the experts in the world cannot trace all its ramifications, nor will they ever succeed in rooting it out. This corrupt tendency very often comes to light when one thinks one has found God. There one most frequently comes upon this poisonous self-seeking, for man has his own interest at heart in all that he does…All the world over we observe how men will rob one another of their rights by injustice, fraud, and violence… and will make use of strange texts from pagan authors to interpret Scriptures their own way… Corrupt nature constantly makes its inroads, and before we are aware of it everything is flooded with disordered self-love…Therefore examine carefully whatever virtues you may possess…If they are moral virtues and lofty aspirations, they can cause spiritual stains and signs of aging. Unless they are sharpened by the stone which is Christ, and renewed by inward desire and heartfelt prayers; unless they are dipped into God and reborn and newly made, they are of no avail and will not be pleasing in God’s sight… So immerse yourself in the poverty of Christ, in His chastity, in His obedience, Let Him do away with your frailties.”

When Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the very first thesis was “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This was followed by (2) “This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.” and (3) “Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance, such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.” Luther later explained what this means:

 “First, in Rom.12 [:1], the Apostle enjoins us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; and how this may happen, he sets forth clearly and extensively in the passages that follow, in which he teaches us to be wise and humble, to serve one another, to esteem one another highly, and persist in prayer, to have patience, etc. [Rom. 12:3-21]. In the same manner also in II Cor. 6 he says, ‘Let us conduct ourselves in much patience, in fasting and watchings, etc. [Cf. II Cor. 6:4-5]. But in Matthew 5 and 6 Christ also teaches us to fast rightly, to pray, to give alms. Likewise, in another place, he says, ‘Of whatever you have, give alms, and behold all things are clean for you’ [Cf. Luke 11:41]. 

“…fasting consists of all chastenings of the flesh apart from the choice of food or difference in clothes. Prayer includes every pursuit of the soul, in meditation, reading, listening, praying. The giving of alms includes every service towards one’s neighbor. Thus by fasting a Christian may serve himself, by prayer he may conquer the pride of life and live in a godly manner. By means of giving alms he may conquer concupiscence of the eyes and live righteously in this world…Without doubt good works are the outward fruits of penance and of the Spirit…” (“Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.86-87.)

Finally, the Augsburg Confession also addresses these issues, as recorded in Article XXVI:

“They (our teachers) also teach that everybody is under obligation to conduct himself, with reference to such bodily exercise as fasting and other discipline, so that he does not give occasion to sin, but not as earned grace by such works. Such bodily exercise should not be limited to certain specified days but should be practiced continually.” 

And in Article XII:

“It is taught among us that those who sin after Baptism receive forgiveness of sin whenever they come to repentance, and absolution should not be denied them by the church. Properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror, on account of sin, and yet at the same time to believe the Gospel and absolution (namely, that sin has been forgiven and grace has been obtained through Christ), and that this faith will comfort the heart and again set it at rest. Amendment of life and the forsaking of sin should then follow, for these must be the fruits of repentance, as John says, ‘Bear fruit that befits repentance’ (Matt. 3:8).” 

–Gary Beard