In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a young priest named Rev. Dimmesdale privately carries the shame of adultery for seven years while his mistress Hester Prynne is forced to publicly wear an infamous red “A” for her crime. Witnessing the conscience-stricken minister sinking beneath the weight of his secret sin, Prynne attempts to convince Dimmesdale that his guilt is absolved. His anxious reply is nothing short of a lesson in Christian repentance: “Of penance I have had enough! Of penitence there has been none! Else, I should long ago have thrown off these garments of mock holiness, and have shown myself to mankind as they will see me at the judgment-seat. Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years’ cheat to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am!” Despite the obvious fact that The Scarlet Letter is a creative piece of fiction by an author with little love for Puritan religion, Hawthorne’s tale offers remarkable insight into human psychology. Christian repentance demands as much from the mind as it does from the heart. (Rom. 2:4, 10:9, 12:2) Human emotions like guilt, shame, anxiety, humiliation, stress, and remorse affect the way that we think about God and ourselves. Therefore Christian preaching isn’t simply Gospel proclamation; it’s also Gospel psychology.
In many ways, Protestantism began with a debate over the way we think about faith and repentance. With its lack of assurance, the corrupt Roman Catholic system of simony, indulgences, and ex opere operato sacraments wreaked havoc on the human psyche and failed to cultivate the kind of repentance necessary for authentic faith. When salvation is considered a work performed or a grace “infused,” repentance becomes more like a slot machine rather than a posture of humility. In his 95 Theses, Martin Luther immediately addresses the issue of repentance in his very first thesis: “The whole life of believers should be repentance.” Echoing Rev. Dimmesdale, Luther’s second thesis states, “This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.” Luther then indicts Dimmesdale’s cowardly half-confession with his third thesis: “Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not inwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.” Luther describes this as a process that continues “until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.” So important was the issue of repentance that it came first on Luther’s list of Gospel grievances. For Luther, repentance wasn’t just theological; it was deeply existential.
Like the guilty Rev. Dimmesdale, Christians today battle the same kind of psychological affliction and depression. Luther even had a special word for it: Anfechtungen. This sense of doom or despair is what drove the German Reformer to the cross of Christ. However, like Dimmesdale, many instead seek to hide their transgressions or carefully reason their way out of confessing them. Sin isn’t simply relegated to the heart; it also invites the mind to partake in the rebellion. (Eph. 4:18) Luther’s careful articulation of repentance is evidence to the fact that this essential act can often be perverted in the church and demands an unequivocal word from the pulpit. Today the word repentance has even become extinct in many churches, out of sight and out of mind. So what exactly is repentance? Our souls need a careful answer. John the Baptist certainly gave a robust presentation when he excoriated the Pharisees as vipers: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-10)
Words like wrath, axe, and fire leave us with little doubt that the very idea of condemnation is essential to Gospel psychology. It’s simply impossible to articulate a biblical call to repentance without the concept of judgment. John’s illustrative admonishing of the Pharisees was designed not only to prick their hearts but to stir their minds as well. Both John the Baptist and Martin Luther also emphasized that repentance bears fruit in practice and cannot be relegated to private “penance” as Hester Prynne believed. In order to appease seared consciences, darkened minds can be sinfully and ruthlessly logical. Christian preaching is designed to shed light upon double-minded logic, exposing human deceit. Therefore repentance is psychological warfare, correcting the dysphoria under which condemned sinners naturally live.
Another powerful element to the psychology of sin is presumption. John the Baptist eliminated it almost immediately, and with good reason. Today countless sinners assume that repentance is only saying sorry or simply turning away from their sin. But repentance encompasses much more than mere apology, beginning with the very consequence of not repenting. For instance, Christ explicitly presented his hearers with the idea of death and condemnation when he uttered, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:5) To die in Christ is gain; to die apart is pain. Repentance is consenting to God’s righteous judgment of sinners, or in other words, agreeing with our sentence to Hell apart from grace. Understanding the good news of Jesus means first understanding the bad news of sin. Christ died for your sin, and He also died because of your sin. In turn, our sorrow over our sin is the stimulus for our turning away from it. (Matt. 5:4) In light of God’s condemning our sin in the flesh of Christ Jesus, repentance becomes a conscious hatred of sin. (Rom. 8:3) Therefore Gospel preaching should not only exhort sinners to turn from sin; it should also teach them why sin is contemptible and how it is to be avoided. David boasts, “Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.” (Ps. 119:104) The duty of the preacher is to enlighten sinners to the very psychology of sin, that they might have their eyes open to the freedom of repentance.
In the end, repentance should never be separated from faith itself. Gospel psychology always ends in proclamation. To the troubled conscience, the message that Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden light is the source of relief and comfort. (Matt. 11:30) According to John Calvin, “A man cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God.” In other words, repentance and faith cannot always be partitioned neatly into sections of an ordo saludis. As Sinclair Ferguson avers, “We cannot divide faith and repentance chronologically. The true Christian believes penitently, and he repents believingly.” In order to bring a sinner face-to-face with his or her own darkened mind and heart, the light of the Gospel is the only illumination powerful enough to expose the evil of a double-minded sinner. (James 4:8) The humility of the cross shows our arrogance for what it really is. In a world of labored minds, a preacher of the Gospel must be ready to confront the psychology of sin in order to deliver the good news of Jesus to the heavy laden.