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I repent in dust and ashes

Lent is a season for acknowledging with sorrow that our sins caused the Son of God to suffer and die.

Job was terrified. He had come to realize the error of his ways. He had made accusations against God. In his grief and pain, he charged God with denying him justice (Job 27:2), with turning on him ruthlessly (30:21).

Following Job’s barrage of accusations, it was the Lord’s turn to speak: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?” (40:2). As God spoke to Job out of a storm, this much-afflicted believer was convicted: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. . . . Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:3-6).

The season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is a reminder that we too must repent of our sins in dust and ashes.

The need for repentance

It may or may not be the custom in your congregation for your pastor to trace a cross of ashes on your forehead, but the sorrow for sin that’s at the heart of Ash Wednesday is not optional. Without repentance, we certainly will perish eternally. The apostle John wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” A little later, he added, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8,10).

The Lutheran Confessions call repentance “the chief topic of Christian teaching” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XXIV, 46). However, the background to that statement was mass confusion about the nature of repentance and widespread false teaching that turned repentance into a human work to earn God’s grace. As a result, Christ and his gracious work on our behalf were obscured. At its heart, repentance is two things: contrition and faith.

Contrition: Sorrow over sin

Contrition is commonly defined as sorrow over sin. The Augsburg Confession puts it even more strongly. Contrition, it says, is “terrors that strike the conscience when sin is recognized” (XII, 4). God’s law, whether written on our hearts or in the Scriptures, brings about this contrition. It certainly did that for King David. “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear” (Psalm 38:4). He pleads, “LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Your arrows have pierced me, and your hand has come down on me” (38:1,2). Sorrow, mixed with fear, is the soul’s reaction to realizing how sinful we are and the fierce punishment our sin deserves.

As we focus on Christ and his suffering during this Lenten season, even the image of our Savior suspended from the cross leads to contrition. Ordinarily, the message of the cross is life and peace, but the cross also reminds us of the intensity of God’s anger for our sin. Only the bloody death of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, could atone for our sin. As the hymn writer put it, “If you think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great, here you see its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate. Mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load; ‘tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed, Son of Man and Son of God” (Christian Worship [CW] 430:3). Lent is a season for acknowledging with sorrow that our sin caused the Son of God to suffer and die.

Faith: Confidence in forgiveness

The second part of repentance is faith, the confidence that Jesus Christ offered his holy life in full payment for our sin. In the Bible, the word repent sometimes includes faith. For example, when Jesus began his public ministry by preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17), he was calling for more than sorrow for sin. He was encouraging both the confession of sin and the confidence that he is our Savior from sin. This is repentance in the broad sense.

At other times, the Bible uses the word repent in the narrow sense, that is, it “means nothing else than to recognize sin truly, to be heartily sorrowful for it, and to abstain from it” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article V:8). When the crowd in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost was “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37) by the knowledge that they had crucified the Lord and Messiah, Peter counseled, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). In Peter’s reply, “repent” refers solely to the sorrowful confession of having put the Lord of glory to death. The gospel’s promise of forgiveness through Holy Baptism calls for and creates faith.

Through his prophets and apostles, through his Son, Jesus Christ, God calls us to repent because he is concerned for our salvation. “[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God terrifies us with his law so that he can comfort us with his gospel. God reduces us to tears of heartfelt sorrow to bring us to the joy of knowing that we will be with the Lord forever. By faith, the image of Jesus crucified no longer rebukes our sin but comforts our souls. “Jesus, crucified for me, is my life, my hope’s foundation, and my glory and salvation” (CW 405).

The sinful nature always resists repentance. Fighting sin is hard work. No one likes to be accused of sin, even if the accusation is on target. Examining our lives in the light of God’s law is not pleasant, because under that glaring spotlight, we are sure to see the appalling ugliness of our sinful thoughts, the cruelty and thoughtlessness of our sinful words, as well as the shameful consequences of our sinful actions. There’s no escaping the fact that we are wretched sinners. With Job we must say, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

But God has good news for those who repent of sin and believe in Jesus. Through his prophet Isaiah, God says, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15). And later the Lord says, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (66:2).

God terrifies us with his law so that he can comfort us with his gospel.

The ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of our mortality. “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). The ashes also are a sign of our grief over our sin. But it’s never God’s intent to leave us smeared with the soot of Ash Wednesday. He speaks his absolution in the gospel and sends his messengers “to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:2,3).

As we observe Ash Wednesday in dust and ashes, we do so confident that through repentance and faith in Jesus, joy and glory await us.

Author: Paul Janke
Volume 110, Number 2
Issue: February 2023

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