David Yeago: The Way Forward (1) Penitence

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I’ve been gratified by the positive responses to “In the Aftermath” – it seems that it struck a chord with some. In hope of continuing to be useful, I will be writing a series of posts on “The Way Forward,” elaborating on the concluding paragraphs of that essay, in which I briefly sketched a possible future for traditionalists in the ELCA. In this first post, I want to begin expounding the proposition that penitence is the gateway to any worthwhile traditionalist future.

In a sense this is obvious, or should be: as long as we carry the flesh around our necks, penitence is always and at every moment the only gateway to a worthwhile future, no matter where we happen to be standing. But as Aquinas might have said, what is most obvious in itself is not always most obvious to us. Therefore in this post I’ll back up and look at the meaning of penitence, and in the next post apply these thoughts to the situation at hand.

“Our Lord and Teacher Jesus Christ, when he said ‘Repent!’ intended that the whole life of believers be penitence.” There are still many Lutherans – fewer than there used to be, I fear – who would recognize this as the first of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. But how do we stand towards the claim it makes? Our whole life – penitence? I’m deliberately translating penitentia as “penitence” and not “repentance” to keep alive the Latin word’s association with penalty and pain, which is clearly alive for Luther. “For penalty/pain (pena) remains, as long as hatred of self (that is, true inner penitence) remains – until we enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Thesis 4).

To repeat the question: our whole life – penitence? Willing acceptance of a “penalty” – God’s No to our sin – as the “pain” of inward “self-hatred” – our whole life long? I have only my own observations to go on, but I have to say – this doesn’t sound like Lutheranism as I know it. I shudder to think what would happen if an ELCA ordination candidate told her committee that her goal in ministry was to teach parishioners to hate themselves. And the committee would be right to be spooked – Luther’s thinking has become so alien to us that anyone who parroted his words today would very likely mean something awful by them.

But why has the thinking become so alien to us? One reason is that we don’t think much about the corruption of sin. We tend to assume that “sinfulness” is inevitable and to that extent “normal,” and that the real problem is the condemnation of the law. Luther, however, was convinced that the gospel overcomes both the two great evils that plague sinners (cf. Against Latomus), both condemnation by God’s wrath and the inner corruption, the distortion of desire, the blindness and confusion, to which God has “handed over” those who do not acknowledge him as God (cf. Romans 1:24, 26, 28). The gospel overcomes condemnation all at once by forgiveness and at the same time initiates and sustains a protracted conflict with the flesh, a lifelong struggle in which there is, however, hope for genuine change and renewal.

If this is so, then corruption of the heart is not inevitable, though it is very difficult to combat. It is not “normal” but shameful. It betrays us into being and thinking, saying and doing ugly things that in our right minds we hate. God loves the spiritually ugly and makes them his children but his love intends to bring them to the beauty of holiness. His gospel brings us the gift of the Spirit, and promises that he will reward our struggle: “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).

Something like this lies behind Luther’s talk of life-long penitence. Yes, God accepts sinners into his fellowship and justifies the ungodly – that’s us — and in that we rejoice. But our rejoicing is inevitably accompanied by sorrow, because we are not all at once capable of receiving all that God is giving. There is still something hateful woven deep into the fabric even of the believing self, something that resists what God gives. The self-hatred of which Luther speaks is not morbid, however, but hopeful. It arises in the presence of the divine generosity that loves us and wants us to shine. It is a steady and militant refusal to settle for less than the glory and honor with which God means to crown us in Christ.

There is a specifically Christian sense of our situation that goes with this spirituality of penitence. God has started something holy in each believer, but that new thing is like a oil-lamp on a raft tossing on an ocean of craving and confusion – the Old Adam, the “flesh.” Christ can walk across the sea to bring oil for the lamp and save the raft from capsizing. He is the master even of this ocean. But our ability to stand against it is as tenuous as Peter’s, always dependent on his word and always threatened by distraction. We are not hopeless – given Christ. But we can’t trust ourselves, neither our passions nor our reasoning, which is subverted by our cravings in so many cunning ways. At every moment, from every juncture, a broad and easy road stretches out attractively towards destruction. The narrow road is hard for our eyes to see and uninviting when we find it. We lean towards destruction.

This is why Christians of old schooled themselves to self-distrustful watchfulness and self-examination with a rigor that we tend to find, well, scary. And this is why penitence is always and at every moment the only gateway to a worthwhile future, no matter where we happen to be standing.

Next post: applying these thoughts to the situation of traditionalists in the ELCA.

David Yeago
(The “by Michael Root” just means it went through his computer.)

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2 Responses to “David Yeago: The Way Forward (1) Penitence”

  1. Pastor Travis Norton Says:

    This is helpful especially in light of this coming Sunday’s scripture from James and the need to confess our sins to one another, and work to bring back those who have wandered from the truth. I have encountered a widespread resistance to the idea of mutual accountability because people fear “judging” one another. We need a teaching that helps us understand the difference between judging and calling(and first accepting) one another to repentence.

    Thank you Dr. Yeago for offering this reflection on penitence not just in light of the traditionalist circumstance, but also in the life of the church as a whole.

  2. David Charlton Says:

    Along with Pastor Norton, I find this article helpful. Your previous article, “In the Aftermath,” helped me as well as I prepared to preach on James over the last few Sundays. Ironically, I used the same quote from the 95 Theses in my most recent sermon. My congregation, in turn, has responded very positively to those sermons. Thank you for your contribution to this blog.

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