I can remember my first time hearing Luther’s famous first thesis: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” While others around me offered solemn nods, the less-sacred thought flashed across my mind, Well, that sure sounds like fun.
I knew the repentant life to be good for me, as I knew going to the dentist to be good for me. I did not look forward to a life of feeling bad about myself. Wasn’t it punishment to bring the dog’s nose back to its mess? My childlike faith heard, “The Christian life is one of sitting in the corner, muttering apologies.” Necessary? Perhaps. Exciting? Far from.
My life of repentance so far had been the same somber note on repeat. Whenever I felt an elevated sense of my own sin, I threw myself into the deep pit of penance. Like Jonah, I marked myself guilty and consented to being cast into the sea. Or like the prodigal, I made my long return home, rehearsing how unworthy I was to be his son, and how I ought to be treated as a hired hand.
I deserved despair. I wouldn’t, couldn’t pursue happiness. I had sinned. I needed to serve my time before I could freely smile again. I did not know — indeed, I am still learning — about the joyful life of repentance.
Have Mercy on Me
King David confronted how I think in his beloved psalm of penitence.
The desperate and fallen king wrote Psalm 51 in the bleakest of days, detailed at the very beginning: “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
In the time when kings go to war, David saw the naked woman from his rooftop. He called for her and took her for himself; she conceived. To cover his sin, David arranged her husband’s death. After Uriah lay dead, God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David about his adultery and murder. Under sin’s thick clouds, David sits to pen this psalm, beginning the only way sinners can: beseeching God for mercy.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)
Sinner’s Broken Bones
I understood David’s sorrow for sin. I knew how sin upbraids my spirit, sends my conscience to berate me, and lays a crushing weight of God’s displeasure upon my soul.
David describes this experience by saying God broke his bones (Psalm 51:8). The weight of sin pressed upon the very core of him, down to the bones, fracturing his inner man. Sin eroded him, as he describes in another psalm: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Psalm 32:3). I’ve known how sin deteriorates a man.
And while some today might seek to rescue us from feeling the brokenness our iniquity produces, David knows such a severe response to sin as fitting.
You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:16–17)
“The truly repentant heart, the one God will in no way despise, is broken and contrite toward God.”
The truly repentant heart, the one God will in no way despise, is broken and contrite toward God, not unconcerned and insensible. Brokenness I knew; the bitter cup of contriteness I tasted. Thus, when I pictured a life of repentance, I imagined living only in this dark and stormy night, sitting under its pouring rain, rubbing mud on my head remorsefully, waiting for God’s favor to return.
Make Me Smile Again
But David says more. He requests something that changed how I view repentance:
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice. (Psalm 51:8)
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:12)
Joy and gladness? Let the broken bones rejoice?
David, you committed adultery with Bathsheba, and orchestrated the death of her husband — and you ask God to restore your joy? Are you taking your sin seriously? Do you care about the pain you caused? How can you so quickly ask for restoration of joy, while Uriah’s body still lies fresh in the tomb? Or so I am tempted to ask.
Behold the beautiful collage of true repentance: it bows low in brokenness and contrition, leads us to confess gross sin to the God we have offended, and yet it also bids us to request more happiness in this God. With broken bones, David boldly asks for the inheritance of the righteous: joy. He hears accusations and groans and torturing silence, but he asks to hear former music and festive song; he is caught in caves of guilt but wants to again feel the sunshine of salvation.
His repentance before God is a plea for mercy and a return to God for more joy in God. He wants forgiveness, cleansing, a renewed spirit — to walk again with God, as it were, naked and unashamed. This prodigal knows the scandalous love of the Father, and asks to be received as a son, as loved. Though unworthy in himself, he pants to return to his Father’s table, asks for close communion again, for his broken bones to laugh again, according to his Father’s steadfast love.
Restore Me, Then Others
In David’s prayer, I learned that Luther’s vision of lifelong repentance means turning from broken cisterns to the fountain of living water (Jeremiah 2:13). A life of restoration, renewal, happiness, closeness to God. I learned that the life of unrepentance leads us to take steps farther and farther away from God and hides us from happiness. And this joy, rather than being whipped cream atop salvation, is essential to continue in it, the fuel to persevere in faith and obedience.
And lest we assume this is selfish, note how he plans his joy extend beyond himself.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you. (Psalm 51:13)
Though repentance is inescapably personal, it is not only personal.
Unlike a stagnant swamp, true repentance flows onward and outward. Here, David resolves that the cleansing, the joy, the renewed spirit, will send him forth to teach others caught in sin. He determines that if God grants him his pardon and presence, he will go forth and encourage the repentance of others, leading to their return.
New Year, New Repentance
Is your Christian life one of repentance?
Perhaps some of us need to resolve differently this year. Often, we look away from the past year and its failures toward what we hope to be a brighter future. The whole sense of New Year’s resolutions usually gives exclusive attention to what’s ahead — we resolve to do better, be better, live better, starting now.
“Sin needs to be acknowledged, confessed, repented of, not buried beneath a few good intentions.”
But as Christians, we remember that we can’t just leave everything behind us. We have said things and done things this past year — things maybe no person alive knows — that will not die quietly before promises of never again. Some of our sharpest disappointments this past year resulted from sin — and sin needs to be acknowledged, confessed, repented of, not buried beneath a few good intentions.
So let January mark a fresh beginning of repentance. Repentance is, in itself, a kind of January, a newness through which God renews a right spirit within us and restores our first joy in salvation. Take one or two sins to your gracious Father, ask for forgiveness through the blood of Christ, ask for freshness of happiness in your salvation, and go forth, telling others of the joyful repentance you’ve found in your Lord.