Forgiveness Before Repentance
Provocative titles for blog articles are en vogue. If it doesn’t shock grandma or sound like the devil said it apparently it’s not worth reading. I hear that provocative titles increase traffic, too. And while Gottesdienst is not into church growth in the holy, catholic Church, they are into blog-traffic growth in the internet-produced meta-church. So, for my inaugural post I’ve decided to use a title that might shock some.
So, why is the article title provocative? It really shouldn’t be for a Lutheran. God objectively forgave the world when Jesus Christ died. He did this before any of us repented. Luther teaches us this from the Scriptures. For example, in his treatment of Hebrews 1:3, “…After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” the Reformer writes:
With this brief word he makes useless absolutely all the righteousnesses and deeds of penitence of men. But he praises the exceedingly great mercy of God, namely, that “He made purification for sins,” not through us but through Himself, not for the sins of others but for our sins. Therefore we should despair of our penitence, of our purification from sins; for before we repent, our sins have already been forgiven. Indeed, first His very purification, on the contrary, also produces penitence in us, just as His righteousness produces our righteousness. This is what Is. 53:6 says: “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (AE 29:112-113; Emphasis added).
Luther quotes the same verse of Isaiah in the Smalcald Articles (SA II, I). He taught clearly that our sins are objectively forgiven before repentance.
This might be jarring to read in the context of folks using God’s forgiveness to excuse manifest sin or ignore the temporal ramifications of it. This is, after all, an especially hot topic in the church today. Proclaiming objective forgiveness might sound like we are excusing the shameful who exploit the Gospel for personal gain. It might sound like we are saying repentance is not necessary, let alone the fruits of repentance. It might sound like Gottesdienst needs to backtrack.
But that is not the case. Luther’s point is not that forgiveness is without repentance. Luther’s point is not that we should be without sorrow over sin or the desire to do better or the acceptance of the temporal ramifications for our sin. Rather, Luther’s point is against the papistic idea of penitence, most especially the idea of satisfactions contributing toward justification.
Moreover, Luther’s point is the truth that we cling to as Lutherans daily and rejoice in every Sunday. It is that before any of us ever repented God sent Jesus Christ to purify us by His blood. It is that no amount of tears, great or small, can redeem you and no number of satisfactions can purify you. Only Christ can. And He did. He did so by means of His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. It is finished. Once. For all. That’s what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes. That’s why Luther says what he says too. That’s what our repentant hearts cling to for eternal life.
This summer I spoke with a Gottesdienst editor about how we who have taken pride in this teaching now find ourselves busy defending the third use of the law, Christian virtue, etc. At first it seems annoying. Our first love is talking about what Christ has done for us and what He is doing for us through His means of grace. Then again, it only makes sense that those who cling to this Gospel truth of objective forgiveness would also be the ones who are busy defending good works. After all, if the Gospel is what produces good works—a point many who dislike or despise talk of the third use of the law rightly assert—then those who treasure the Gospel should be busy seeking to do what?
So, Luther’s words can serve as a warning and a comfort. The last thing we need in response to modern antinomians is to sacrifice the purity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to safeguard ourselves from scoundrels who misapply it. It is self-defeating. Defending the integrity of the office of the ministry and the veracity of Scriptures never entails losing the comfort of the Gospel ourselves. One of C.F.W. Walther’s students once told him that if he preached the Gospel so purely then people would take advantage of it. “Preach it anyway,” Walther said, “And let the heathen perish.” Walther got it right. We need this objective forgiveness if we are going to forge ahead. We need Christ crucified for us. Others might take advantage of this message. So be it. We still need it. In the midst of the ongoing debate, let’s never forget that.