During the time of the 16th century Reformation the emphasis and understanding of sin was primarily on the series of actions that one did or did not do. Sin wasn’t based upon evil thoughts or inclinations of the heart but upon the actions that manifested themselves physically and visibly. As a result of this narrow view of sin some people did not consider themselves to be guilty of sin. The reason being, they ran to the monasteries and religious communities and diligently worked on repenting of external sins in order to be in the good standing of holiness. In the Smalcald Articles Luther comments on his days in the monastery saying,
“We fought against evil thoughts by doing such things as fasting, staying awake, praying, saying Mass, wearing coarse garments and sleeping on hard beds. According to our teaching, some monks were regarded as holy, without sin, and full of good works. Also, since we had more good works than we needed to get to heaven, we could communicate and sell our good works to others.”
The problem with seeing sin primarily in the dimension of a series of external actions is that it leads to what the Reformers called ‘False Repentance.’ Through all the diligent work of external repentance, “these holy ones did not need repentance. What would they repent of, since they had not indulged their wicked thoughts? What would they confess about words they never said? What should they render satisfaction for, since they were so guiltless that they could even sell their extra righteousness to poor sinners?.”
The crux of the problem in the 16th Century was how people understood sin. Is sin a series of actions (i.e. what I do) or is sin a condition of the heart (i.e. who I am)? In other words, do my sinful actions make me a sinner or am I a sinner that sins? To be perfectly clear the scriptures teach that unholy actions as wells as the condition of mankind’s heart are both sin (i.e. actual sins and original sin). Both views are taught biblically. The only question is which one has the heavier emphasis, which one has the primary and foundational focus in Christianity… outward actions or an internal condition?
As previously stated, people in the 16th century primarily saw sin in the context of evil actions. The neglecting of teaching sin as a condition of the heart resulted in repentance not being taught correctly. Consequently this produced false repentance or what can be called partial repentance. Without considering the ramifications of the internal heart problem, people of the 16th century resorted to believing the falsehood that all they needed to do was to polish up their external actions through tireless self-effort (i.e. external repentance) and ‘bam’ they would arrive at holiness! This kind of partial repentance only scratched the surface and did not touch the fundamental issue of sin.
Seeing repentance primarily in the external realm can be equated to putting a band-aid over top of a cancerous internal tumor and saying, “all better!” In using a biblical phrase from Jesus, this kind of external repentance results in becoming a whitewashed tomb. It also leads to a mess of works righteousness and man-centered theology. The reason being, focusing primarily upon external repentance of sin never addresses the deep-seated core of our sin problem, namely the sinful nature.
The Reformers of the 16th century shifted the emphasis and primary focus of sin from external actions to the internal condition of mankind. This shift resulted in a fuller and more complete understanding of repentance. In looking at repentance through this new lens one “does not debate what is or is not sin. Rather it (i.e. true repentance) hurls everything together and says: Everything in us is nothing but sin! What is the use of always investigating, dividing or distinguishing? For we cannot think of any good thing to pay for sin. There is nothing left. There is only a sure despairing about all that we are, think, speak and do, and so on.”
“This repentance teaches us to discern sin: We are completely lost; there is nothing good in us from head to foot; and we must become absolutely new and different people.” Seeing sin as an internal problem levels the playing field that we are all guilty alike. Seeing sin as an internal heart problem also drives us to despair of our own perceived ability of being able to do spiritual surgery on ourselves. In other words, it undercuts and destroys the idea of works righteousness as a solution to our sin problem and drives us to receptivity so that we might receive the all sufficient Savior of Souls, Christ… the Gospel. Luther comments on this saying,
“In a Christian, this repentance continues until death. For through one’s entire life, repentance contends with the sin remaining in the flesh. Paul testifies that he wars with the law in his members (Rom. 7:14-25) not by his own powers, but by the gift of the Holy Spirit that follows the forgiveness of sins (Rom. 8:1-17). This gift daily cleanses and sweeps out the remaining sins and works to make a person truly pure and holy.”
Confessing and acknowledging that we are the problem is the heart of repentance and this is a beautiful thing! The reason being, God will not despise this status of brokenness and helplessness. “God does not cast aside sinners, that is, those who recognize their sin…” For it is in this very brokenness and fallen-ness that God meets us with His tender Word of Gospel, that all has been forgiven and completed by His Atoning Son, Jesus Christ.
May God’s holy and precious Word of Law continually convict us and expose to us our ingrained sinful condition as well as our ongoing series of sinful actions (i.e. repentance). May God’s holy and calming Word of the Gospel daily absolve and heal us in the declaration of the cross that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (i.e. assurance.)
— On Repentance, by Pastor Matt Richard, & noted from http://joecruzmn.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/fire-fire/