Preaching Law and Gospel: Repentance and Faith from the Penitential Psalms in Lent

Reading Time: 10 mins

Luther recognized that in the penitential psalms, God gives us the words to cry out to Him in our distress, lament our sins, and confess trust in the promise of His righteousness in which alone is our sure and certain hope.

The penitential psalms (6,32,38,51,102,130, 143) have long been associated with Lent. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) ordered that all seven psalms were to be prayed each day, while kneeling, during the Lenten Season or if this proved unfeasible at least on Fridays. In the Middle Ages, these psalms were associated with the seven deadly sins: Psalm 6 was said to address anger. Psalm 32 was associated with pride. Psalm 38 with gluttony. Psalm 51 with luxury. Psalm 130 was directed against envy and Psalm 143 against sloth.[1]

Luther lectured on the penitential psalms in 1517 and he revised these lectures and re-published them in 1525. Luther would provide a fuller exposition of Psalm 51 in 1532[2]. Luther would see sinfulness not merely as individual deeds but as a state of being that embraces all of man’s existence which he has inherited from Adam; this is the root sin from which man cannot deliver himself. [3] In this commentary, Luther observes that David confesses not simply his adultery and murderous plot against Uriah but the corruption of all his all of his powers both inwardly and outwardly.[4] Luther writes “He [David] is not saying, ‘My mother sinned when she conceived me’; nor is he saying, ‘I sinned when I was conceived.’ He is talking about the unformed seed itself and declaring that it is full of sin and a mass of perdition. Thus the true and proper meaning is this: ‘I am a sinner, not because I have committed adultery, nor because I have had Uriah murdered. But I have committed adultery and murder because I was born, indeed conceived and formed in the womb as a sinner.’ So we are not sinners because we commit this or that sin, but we commit them because we are sinners first. That is, a bad tree and bad seed also bring forth bad fruit, and from a bad root only a bad tree can grow” (AE 12:348).

Five years later in the Smalcald Articles, Luther is insistent: “The foremost office or power of the law is that it reveals inherited sin and its fruits” (SA III:2,4, K-W, 312). This statement is foundational for Luther’s discussion of repentance. The law is retained, Luther says, in the New Testament in order to work repentance: “Now this is the thunderbolt of God, by means of which he destroys both the open sinner and the false saint and allows no one to be right but drives the whole lot of them into terror and despair” (SA III:3, 2,K-W, 312). Luther equates the law with the hammer of which Jeremiah speaks (Jeremiah 23:29). In opposition to papal theology, Luther asserts that the law does not work an “active contrition” or a “contrived remorse” but a “’passive contrition,’ true affliction of the heart, suffering, and pain of death” (SA III:3,2, K-W, 312). Contrary to the Antinomians Luther argues, repentance is produced by the law not the Gospel. But to the office of the law, “the New Testament immediately adds “the consoling promise of grace through the gospel” (SA III:3,4, K-W, 313). Where the law is preached without the Gospel there is only death and hell. The law never provides consolation. Instead, as Mark A. Seifrid, in commenting on Romans 7:24-25, points out “The law tells us a story about ourselves that we are unable to tell and unwilling to hear. It carries us on the ‘journey to hell of self-knowledge’ – and in the knowledge of Christ back from there to heaven itself. Only those with ears to hear, who know the apostle’s shout of thanksgiving, can listen to the story and see the image of our person reflected in the law.”[5]

The papists do not preach genuine repentance for they fail to see both the law and sin for what they are. They continue to hold out hope for some uncorrupted part of man retaining the capacity to will the good.[6] This leads to what Luther condemns as an “active contrition” where penance is parsed into three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. “In this way, they directed the people who come to penance to place confidence in their own works” (SA III:3, 13, K-W, 314). This Luther concludes is a Christless procedure: “Here we see how blind reason gropes around in the things of God and seeks comfort in its own work, according to its own darkened opinions” (SA III:3,18, K-W, 314).

Luther holds up John the Baptist as the model preacher of repentance for his preaching of the law condemns the totality of sin whether it is inward or outward (see SA III:3,30-32, K-W, 317). The repentance which John preaches is not uncertain or fragmentary (SA III, 3,36, K-W, 318). Likewise the forgiveness which John proclaims is inclusive for he preaches Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (SA III:3,38, K-W, 318). This repentance is not confined to a single episode in the life of the Christian; it is ongoing: “This repentance endures among Christians until death because it struggles with the sin that remains in the flesh throughout this life” (SA III:3, 40, K-W, 318).

“This repentance endures among Christians until death because it struggles with the sin that remains in the flesh throughout this life.”-Martin Luther

The understanding of repentance laid out by Luther in the Smalcald Articles is evident in his exposition of the Psalter[7]. Luther says that the Psalms might be called a “little Bible” for they should us Christ and His kingdom: “The Psalter ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this: it promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly – and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom –that it might be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible. It is really a fine enchiridion or handbook”(AE 35:254). Luther sees the Psalms as God’s words to us; words which we in turn are authorized to speak to him in lament and praise, confession and thanksgiving. Because the Psalms are God’s Word, they give us certainty in our speaking.

Luther sees the Psalms as universal. They apply to all the saints: “Hence it is that the Psalter is the book of all saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find anything better” (AE 35:256). When it comes to the preaching of repentance and faith, the Psalms are indispensable for in them, Luther says, “There you have a fine, bright pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true gnothi seauton, as well as God himself and all creatures” (AE 35:257).

Luther came to understand that the knowledge of self without the knowledge of God leads to despair and that knowledge of God without the knowledge of sin leads to presumption.[8] Psalm 51 gives us both. The preacher may wish to set the psalm in the context of II Samuel 11:1-12:15, unfolding the dynamic of Nathan’s proclamation of God’s law to David which brings about the knowledge of self. See Ps. 51:3, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Here the preacher could explore the connection what is entailed in this self-knowledge. Ash Wednesday is a day for self-examination. Recall the words of the Exhortation in Corporate Confession and Absolution (LSB, p. 290): “…it is proper that we diligently examine ourselves, as St. Paul urges us to do, for this holy Sacrament has been instituted for the special comfort of those who are troubled because of their sin and who humbly confess their sins, fear God’s wrath, and hunger and thirst for righteousness. But when we examine our hearts and consciences, we find nothing in us but sin and death, from which we are incapable of delivering ourselves.”[9]

The somber words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy announce to us what deep down we already know, that we are dust and to dust we must return. But the problem is not merely mortality. It is not just that we die but that we die as sinners under God’s judgment. It is a judgment that is not misplaced; it is justified (Ps. 51:4). It is a verdict of condemnation that falls not simply on miscalculated choices and perverse deeds; it falls on me, my person. It falls on the one who was a sinner before he first cursed, lusted, lied, hated, or killed. It falls on the one who was brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin (Ps. 51:4).[10]

To confess your sin is to agree with God’s evaluation of your life. To confess your sin is to cease the futile attempt to self-justify. Rather it is to join with David in saying to God: “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you might be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4). In confession, the sinner acknowledges that God is right. It is to agree with God’s verdict: Guilty.[11]

In confession, the sinner acknowledges that God is right. It is to agree with God’s verdict: Guilty

But to speak of guilt requires some clarification today for another word has come to attach itself to guilt. So we speak of guilt feelings. Guilt is seen as the subjective reaction of the doer to the deed, i.e., how I feel about what I have done[12]. But this is not the case with the Scriptures use of the word guilt. In the Bible guilt has not so much to do with emotions as it does with what happens in a courtroom when a judge declares the defendant, “guilty.” The criminal may or may not have reactions of remorse, regret or shame. It doesn’t matter. The verdict of the judge establishes the reality. God’s word of law unerring establishes His judgment. There is no appeal.

To deny the verdict means that the truth is not in us says the Apostle John. But denial can never bring release. Only God’s absolution can release from the accusation of the law and unlock the sinner from his sins. Lutheran theology is nothing if it is not realistic![13] Like the Scriptures, Lutheran theology does not start with notions about human freedom and the potential (great or small) that human beings have. Theologies that start with assumptions about human freedom end up in bondage[14]. Lutheran theology begins with man’s bondage in sin and ends up with the glorious liberty of the Gospel. The bondage to sin is not a slight defect that can be corrected by appropriate self-discipline. Neither is it a sickness that can be cured by the appropriation of the medication of regular doses of God’s grace. Sin is enmity with the Creator that carries with it God’s verdict of guilt and a divinely-imposed death sentence. To be a sinner is to be held captive in death and condemnation. The distance between God and humanity is not the gap between infinity and the finite but between a Holy God who is judge and man who is the guilty defendant.

Lutheran theology is nothing if it is not realistic

Confession is the acknowledgment of this reality. The sin is named not in an effort to “get it off my chest” but to acknowledge it before the Lord to whom no secrets are hid. Where sin is not confessed, it remains festering and corrosive, addicting the sinner to yet another attempt at self-justification. Confession admits defeat and so leaves the penitent open for a word that declares righteousness, a verdict which justifies. That word is called absolution. It is absolution alone, says Gerhard Forde that is the answer to absolute claim of God who is inescapably present to the sinner.[15]

It is the absolution, the word by which God declares sinners righteous for Christ’s sake, that the bones which God has broken with the hammer of His law are brought to rejoice. The Gospel alone puts joy and gladness into the ears of sinners (Ps. 51:8). For it is this verdict that the Judge of heaven and earth is hiding His face from our sins and scrubbing us clean from all iniquity (Ps. 51:9). The flipside of God’s hiding His face from our sins, is His causing His face to shine on us (Numbers 6:24-26).[16]

This salvation is completely the work of the triune God. In forgiving sins, the God who created the heavens and the earth is bringing forth a new creation. Just as by His Word God called all things into existence at the beginning, so now by His Word He is creating a clean heart and renewing a right spirit (Ps. 51:10; also see II Corinthians 4:6[17]). Hans-Joachim Kraus observes “The petitioner knows that he is entirely dependent on the merciful activity of God. From God’s mercy alone he expects the blotting out of the guilt which is looked on as corruption (v.5) that totally permeates the human being. Only God can eliminate the threatening, dark wall of separation, sin, that separates God and human beings and blot out what is intolerable. Only by God’s creative, renewing power can the heart be cleansed and led to a new obedience. Also the future is in the hands of God alone. If God sends the spirit of willingness and constancy, then the psalmist is saved from fickleness and unfaithfulness. Even the witness of thanksgiving (v.15) is exclusively left in the hands of powers furnished by Yahweh. Everything is God’s act. The sola gratia shines forth from every verse. No gift, no condition comes between God and man. No sacrifice has an effect on Yahweh. Only the pleading and trusting human being is the sacrifice, he who with body and life surrenders himself to God, who has nothing to offer but a heart that is bruised and broken (v.17). The human being presents himself to God for what he is. For him nothing remains except to plead for forgiveness and confess his guilt. In its extreme of knowledge and wisdom (v.6) which has been won from the prophetic word of the OT, Psalm 51 stands out in the Psalter. Its peak statements are unique. And its fullness of insights is incomprehensible”.”[18]

This salvation is completely the work of the triune God. In forgiving sins, the God who created the heavens and the earth is bringing forth a new creation.

Only where there is the forgiveness of sins can God be rightly honored and praised. Apart from God’s forgiveness, we open our own mouths and we know what spews forth. It is not the confession of Christ’s righteousness, but blasphemous assertions of our own righteousness. The sin of the heart defiles the lips. Here the preacher may wish to draw out connections with the Second Commandment and its explanation in the Small Catechism.[19] Christ’s absolution is the key which unlocks lips to praise His name by confession of His righteous deeds.

In Psalm 51, David links this praise of God with sacrifice (also see Hebrews 13:15-16). Sacrifice is not a means that we use to placate a wrathful God. On account of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice for sin on the cross, the category of sacrifice gets re-located as we see in Romans 12:1-2. Now by the mercies of God, the redeemed offer their bodies as living sacrifices not in order to achieve God’s favor or to merit reconciliation with Him but for the sake of the neighbor. This is nicely put by Steven Paulson: “God is keeping his Christians and their churches in this old world as a sacrifice of the body for the neighbor. He does this along with the appeal that they endure suffering, not for their salvation, but for the sake of the old world, that it might be sustained for now, and that the preacher arrives in time to those who have not heard.”[20] Here the preacher could draw out the implications of the Christian life as one of sacrifice as the answer or response of the one who is justified by faith. Good works are completely withdrawn from the equation of justification before God. They are relocated in the world for the well-being of the neighbor. God does not need or want your sacrifice (Ps. 51:16), but the neighbor needs it and so freed from the burden of self-justification we are liberated to live for the sake of the world.

Luther sees both law and Gospel at work in Psalm 51. Through the law comes the knowledge of self, that is, a knowledge of sin which is always directed against God. Repentance is to be crushed with this knowledge imparted by the law. The law allows no space for self-justification. It is the Gospel, however, that gives broken sinners the knowledge of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus. Preaching the Psalms give us a true knowledge of self (repentance) and a true knowledge of God (faith).[21] Luther recognized that in the penitential psalms, God gives us the words to cry out to Him in our distress, lament our sins, and confess trust in the promise of His righteousness in which alone is our sure and certain hope.[22] To preach the penitential psalms is to proclaim both the law and the promise. Luther commentary on Psalm 51 provides preachers with an example of how this is done.