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 sink 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 the human heart and the duplicity of sin. In reality, Christian repentance demands as much from our minds as it does from our hearts. (Matt. 22:37, Rom. 2:4, 10:9, 12:2) Human emotions like guilt, shame, anxiety, humiliation, stress, and remorse often serve as psycho-spiritual barriers between sinners and God. Mark records that Christ’s very first words of ministry to a broken world were in fact a command: “repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) So what does it mean to repent?
In many ways, Protestantism began with a debate over the nature of repentance. With its lack of assurance, the corrupt Roman Catholic system of simony, indulgences, and ex opere operato sacraments wreaked havoc on the human conscience 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 famous 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 Rev. 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 also 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 become extinct in many churches, or has been replaced with more palatable words that circumvent the real heart problem. But John the Baptist got straight to the point 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 biblical repentance. It’s simply impossible to articulate a genuine call to repentance without the concept of judgment. This is no doubt why the word “repent” has gone wanting in the modern sermon. John’s super-illustrative admonishment of the Pharisees was designed to vividly bring them face to face with the fruit of their sin. Conversely, as John the Baptist and Martin Luther emphasized, repentance also bears godly fruit in everyday practice and cannot be relegated to private “penance” as Hester Prynne believed. The deceitfulness of sin manifests itself in double-minded logic aimed to appease the troubled conscience, but repentance corrects the dysphoria under which condemned sinners naturally dwell. (James 4:8) Instead of exchanging the truth about God for a lie, a repentant believer joyfully accepts the truth of God’s justice…even when it hurts. (Rom. 1:25, Gen. 18:25)
One of the most powerful elements to the deceptive psychology of sin is presumption. John the Baptist eliminated presumption 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. Christ 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. (Phil. 1:21) Repentance is consenting to God’s righteous judgment of sinners, or in other words, agreeing with our sentence to Hell. Understanding the good news of Jesus means first understanding the bad news of sin. Christ died for your sin, but He also died because of your sin, taking our penalty as the perfect substitute upon whom the curse of sin was laid. In turn, our sorrow over our sin is the stimulus for our turning away from it. (Matt. 5:4) Seen rightly, sin isn’t just a falling short of God’s glory; it’s also cosmic treason against the high King of heaven. (Rom. 3:23, Ps. 51:4) In light of God’s condemning our sin in the flesh of Christ Jesus, repentance becomes a conscious hatred of sin. (Rom. 8:3) In the words of Baptist theologian John Dagg, “To be at ease in sin, is a proof that the heart is dead.” 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 subtle, double-minded psychology of sin in order that they might have their eyes opened to the freedom of repentance. When sinners submit to God’s righteous judgment, they can then treasure the righteousness of Christ on our behalf. (Phil. 3:9) When they have more fully beheld the evil of sin, they can then flee from its iniquity. This is repentance.
In the end, repentance should never be completely separated from faith itself. Christ is both the aim and engine of repentance. 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 or phases of a linear ordo saludis. As Sinclair Ferguson avers, “We cannot divide faith and repentance chronologically. The true Christian believes penitently, and he repents believingly.” We decrease while increasing Christ. (John 3:30) We deny ourselves while following after Him. (Matt. 16:24) We wear the scarlet letter while being clothed in righteous robes. Before the throne above, repentance isn’t optional for the life of faith; it’s essential to it.