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Contrition is Essential, But Does Not Merit Forgiveness

One of the hallmarks of the Lutheran Church is its proper understanding and application of the Bible’s two main teachings—Law and Gospel. Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s seminal work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, is the basis for this two-year series. Note: page numbers given are accurate for the 1929 and 1986 editions of the book.

“Thesis XIIIn the eighth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher represents contrition alongside of faith as a cause of the forgiveness of sin.”

The main subject in this thesis is the contrition that precedes faith. There is no ambiguity that contrition is necessary if a person is to obtain forgiveness of sins. After all, Christ Himself said at the beginning of His earthly ministry, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) Likewise, at the end of his earthly ministry He told His followers that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name.” (Luke 24:47) Those believing they are healthy do not need a doctor. Those who think they are righteous need not a Savior. Only a broken heart and a contrite spirit is receptive to the Gospel.

However, it would be wrong to say that contrition is a cause of the forgiveness of sins. Contrition prior to faith is a byproduct of God’s Law alone, not a good work on the part of a sinner. Although typically a false teaching of the Catholic Church, Lutherans at times mingle Law and Gospel by saying either too little or too much about contrition. Walther states, “God does not require contrition as a means by which you are to atone for your sins, but only to the end that you may be roused from your security and ask, ‘What must I do to be saved?’” (pages 250-251). When Luther finally understood the true meaning of repentance, it provided him comfort, knowing that penance (making up for sin) was not required of him, only an acknowledgement of himself as a poor, lost sinner. People do not merit God’s forgiveness because of their contrition.

It is dangerous for pastors to accept partial contrition, that is, contrition over a specific sin, by someone with an unawareness of the depth of his ongoing sinful state. It would also be wrong for a pastor to demand a certain outward demonstration of remorse as proof of true contrition. Only God can know the heart, so we must rely on a sinner’s confession, regardless of the outward appearance.

Many Pietists teach that faith must be preceded by a lengthy period of penance, perhaps even months or years. What a terrible teaching! God would have the assurance of the Gospel proclaimed as soon as possible to those convicted and burdened by their sin.

Walther also speaks of contrition of another type—that which involves the Christian’s daily sorrow over sin. This contrition is a fruit of faith produced by the Gospel in a believer’s heart. It is not only a confession of sins known and unknown, but the trust of forgiveness through Christ for those sins.

Perhaps the most influential false teaching regarding contrition is found in the Catholic Church’s belief that repentance has three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. If sinners can fulfill all three, then they merit forgiveness before God. “Satisfaction” requires the doing of something to atone for sins committed. Only sins enumerated in the confessional box to the priest can warrant redemptive satisfaction prescribed to the sinner. This false teaching only heightens the sinner’s uncertainty about his forgiveness and raises doubts about the surety of heaven–doubts God would not want Christians to have. Luther himself struggled with trying to make satisfaction for his sins, which left him in utter despair. 

What a comfort to know that our forgiveness is NOT dependent on something in us or from us! It is solely based on Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf, as our Substitute. Even our reception of that gift is by grace, an undeserved work of the Holy Spirit. To God alone be praise!

Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.