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Repentance and Justification

Raimo Österberg | The Voice of Zion January 2020 --

Installment 11 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)

In all cultures, people have always sought God, for God has placed the longing for eternity in people’s hearts. The Christian Doctrine [of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland] states: God has created humans to live in His fellowship. Thus a human’s heart finds peace only in God (Christian Doctrine, item 1).

In the world of our time, materialist ideas prevail, but material wellbeing is incapable of providing security to people. Even a person who is estranged from God needs something to believe in and worship. It can be a high standard of living, some ideology, one’s own body or something else. Such idols are as far removed from the living God as ancient idols made of stone, clay, wood or gold.

Repentance and justification are matters of which one hears less and less spoken. In the latest [Finnish] translation of the Bible these words appear much less frequently than in the older translations. Repentance and justification, however, are core questions of Christian faith. Therefore, it is necessary to examine and study them on the basis of the Bible, Confessional writings and Luther’s writings. What kind of repentance is right according to the Bible? What kind of righteousness is acceptable before the almighty God? Can a modern human, who in his or her distress seeks God, find Him and be saved? Many people with a bothered conscience yearn for answers to these questions yet today.

What Does Repentance Mean?

The Finnish word parannus [repentance in English] can be understood in many ways. It can mean a physician’s intervention to heal the patient. The atmosphere at a workplace or revenue of a business can be improved. However, the Finnish word parannus is still most often understood as a concept associated with spiritual life. When Jesus began His public ministry, He said, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).

Nonetheless, repentance according to the Bible is not a human’s work, but rather it is God’s work and His gift. True repentance occurs when God strips a person of his or her own possibilities and affects such that the person consents to accept the gospel that is offered to him or her. This is a grace gift, the grace of repentance. Jesus left His disciples the authority to forgive sins and promised, “He that heareth you heareth me” (Luke 10:16). Apostle Paul wrote, “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).

The Greek word for repentance means a change of mind, a change of direction in life and conversion. It is not a question of a person himself or herself correcting his or her life to be more according to God’s Word, avoiding sin and doing good works. Such an attempt only leads to self-righteousness. Instead, repentance means a complete reversal, going in the opposite direction and building on a whole new foundation. In fact, it means even more than that: new birth. Jesus explained to Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

According to the Augsburg Confession, repentance consists of two parts. The first of these is contrition, meaning terror afflicting the conscience through the knowledge of sin. One feels he or she has transgressed against God and feels that he or she has no possibility to gain peace in one’s heart on one’s own: “For mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me” (Ps. 38:4).

The other part of repentance is faith, which is born of the gospel when a person hears the absolution: “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). When one hears the absolution, one can trust that sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ. This gives comfort to the troubled conscience, frees a person from fear and brings peace and joy into the heart. As a fruit of repentance, a life change follows: the person renounces sin.

Penitence is necessary, but it in itself does not yet signify repentance. Penitence without faith is despair. Luther had experienced that in his life as well. Only when the gospel is believed is one freed from beneath one’s burden of sin and led to new life in fellowship with God and His congregation. Then the person can experience righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Luther described his own experience: “Under the authority of the Pope, I was a beaten-down monk and always in the greatest distress. Finally I was able to receive comfort from one brother by these very words, ‘He Himself [Christ] has offered hope. Our salvation is faith in God: why would we not trust in God, who asks and commands us to hope.’ With these words he made me alive again” (Table Talk, spring 1539). The gospel was conveyed to Lars Levi Laestadius by Milla Clemensdotter, whom Laestadius called “Mary of Lapland.”

Repentance and Confession

Due to the merit of Christ’s perfect atonement work, all people are born as God’s children despite the fact that they are partakers of original sin due to the fall into sin. Original sin affects such that no one can avoid sin. If the Holy Spirit is unable to care for a child’s faith in the fellowship of the congregation, sin eventually leads the child to unbelief and separation from God. God, however, can awaken such a one and through His Spirit and Word call him or her back into fellowship with Him (Christian Doctrine, item 70).

According to Christian doctrine there are times in a person’s life when God is especially calling the person to Him. This is called a time of visitation (Christian Doctrine, item 68). God often calls a person in his or her youth, but He can speak to a person later as well, even into old age. Prophet Isaiah nonetheless admonishes, “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near!” (Isa. 55:6).

A believer knows that sin attaches. It takes the form of evil thoughts, words and deeds. Therefore the believer needs forgiveness. At times there are matters that especially weigh on the conscience. Then the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer exhorts him or her unto repentance, i.e. to mortify the deeds of the flesh in order to preserve the gift of faith in a pure conscience. This kind of repentance, in which the sin-fallen one confesses his or her transgressions to another believer and is able to hear the absolution, is called confession. It is the everyday endeavor of a Christian in fellowship with the congregation. Confession does not mean that a person should try to list all his or her sins in order to have them forgiven. Rather, confession is a grace privilege in which the most important thing is to hear the assurance of the forgiveness of sins from the confessor father.

The Message of Repentance Narratives in the Bible

In both the Old and New Testaments there are many examples of people who were able to experience the grace of repentance. These include a variety of different people who had grown up in different cultures and in different levels of society – from a high priest to a thief (Zech. 3:1–7; Luke 15:11–24; Luke 23:40–43; Acts 8,9).

Bible narratives show that a Christian deceived by the enemy of souls can go astray to the “right” or “left” – into self-righteousness as easily as ungodliness. Repentance, meanwhile, is always God’s work. God calls and awakens a person’s conscience. He is a merciful and forgiving Father to one who acknowledges his or her sins and feels remorse over them. God has always used His servants – believing people – to help Him and deliver messages. During the Old Testament time they were often prophets who warned people of a sinful life and proclaimed the sermon of faith, the message of salvation, to remorseful listeners.

When Jesus proclaimed absolution to the paralyzed man, the Pharisees said, “Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?” (Mark 2:7). They did not understand that Jesus was the Son of God and that He had the power to forgive sins. When Jesus was rebuked for talking to sinners, He answered, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).

Jesus promised to give to His own the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19). Before He ascended to heaven, He gave His disciples the duty of forgiving sins: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:22,23). Jesus’ followers are servants, whose duty is to dress the penitent sinner in the pure robe of righteousness (Luke 15:22). God gives as a gift His Holy Spirit to one who has received the grace of repentance. Then a triple joy is experienced: the person himself or herself rejoices, the angels in heaven rejoice and the congregation of God rejoices with the person (Luke 15:9,10).

Paul described this God-given duty: “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19). He declared, “The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach” (Rom. 10:8).

A person cannot repent unless he or she hears the sermon of faith and unless God allows him or her the opportunity to receive it. Peter’s Pentecostal sermon culminated in his exhortation, “Repent!” (Acts 2:38). Paul preached at Areopagus, “God…commended all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30). The Bible tells how the inhabitants of Nineveh repented when they were affected by Jonah’s sermon (Matt. 12:41).

When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul realized that He had persecuted Christ in capturing Christ’s followers. Jesus Himself, however, did not justify Paul, for He had already left this duty to His disciples. Paul was freed from the shackles of unbelief and self-righteousness only after Ananias proclaimed the gospel to him (Acts 9:1–8).

What Does Righteousness Mean?

Righteousness is one of the most central concepts in the Bible, but also one of the most difficult. The complete meaning of the Old Testament Hebrew word cannot be expressed with any word in the Finnish language. The basic meaning of the root word is “right” or “to be right.” The particular meaning, which no synonym can replace, is “being right and innocent.” As a legal term, the word meant unconditional justice. For the accused, righteousness meant innocence.

In many languages, the word righteousness is derived from that language’s word for right. However, the Finnish reader may not automatically understand that righteousness (vanhurskaus in Finnish) has anything to do with the word right (oikea in Finnish). The Finnish word vanhurskaus is a combination of the words vakaa (“steady”) and hurskaus (“piety”). So the Finnish word for righteousness is simultaneously steady (honest and trustworthy) and pious (wise and understanding).

In the Old Testament time, justice was not understood to be a relative concept, but rather an absolute concept, one based on the world order ordained by God. That which is according to the mind of God is right. This is the core of the concept of righteousness. Righteousness is a basic attribute of God. He always judges correctly and is absolutely trustworthy. The righteous Lord loveth righteousness; his countenance doth behold the upright” (Ps. 11:7).

Righteousness also means God’s salvation work in the life of an entire nation as well as in an individual person’s life. When He made a covenant with Abraham, God promised that Abraham’s descendants would have their own land. Because God is faithful and trustworthy in His covenant, He saved the people of Israel from Egypt and led them to the promised land of Canaan. But God’s righteousness also signifies His saving will toward all humankind. Already in paradise, God gave the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman who shall crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15).

A person cannot be righteous in himself or herself, but rather God can justify him or her – deem him or her righteous – because of Christ’s merit. This happens when one receives by faith the salvation prepared by Christ. Paul stated, “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” (Rom. 5:18). Jesus described people who long for righteousness as blessed: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6).

The righteousness received as a gift from God is manifested as a mind to serve and as love toward other people. Jesus said, “He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward” (Matt. 10:41). The reward of righteousness is everlasting life with God in heaven (Matt. 25:34).

Four Forms of Righteousness

Martin Luther explained the concept of righteousness in his commentary on Galatians. He distinguished earthly righteousness and heavenly righteousness from one another. He considered both of them necessary but emphasized that each of them must remain within its own borders.

Luther identified four different forms of righteousness. These were societal righteousness, ceremonial righteousness that is based on traditions and teaching good manners, and the righteousness of the Ten Commandments, i.e. righteousness of the law. All three of these forms of righteousness require a person to be active and lead him or her to attempt to fulfill the demands of righteousness with his or her own actions. The person is subject to government, obeys the law, treats others respectfully, helps those in a weaker position and attempts in every way to live such that he or she would not transgress God’s commandments.

The fourth form of righteousness according to Luther is revealed in the Bible, that righteousness that is acceptable before God. It is not active righteousness, but rather passive. Paul described it as follows, “A man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28). The righteousness of faith is the opposite of the righteousness of the law. Its basis is not human works but rather God’s grace, not the law but rather the promise of the fulfillment of the law. Christ fulfilled the law when He died as an innocent, atoning sacrifice for our sins and rose from the dead for our justification – in order to make us righteous. The righteousness prepared by Christ can only be received through faith. The psalmist marveled: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Ps. 32:1).

Earthly, secular righteousness is needed for temporal life. If a person, nevertheless, attempts to reconcile with God by striving for such righteousness with his or her own works and achievements, that is self-righteousness, which God hates.

How Does God Justify a Person?

The core message of the Reformation was the doctrine of how God justifies humans. Luther defined this according to the Bible: by faith alone, by grace alone, for the sake of Christ alone. He based his understanding on Paul’s teachings: “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness” (Rom. 10:10), and “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 3:8).

The Fourth Article of the Augsburg Confession teaches that we cannot gain righteousness before God with our own merits and works. Instead, we receive the forgiveness of sins and are justified – become righteous – by grace when we believe that Christ has suffered on our behalf and that because of Him our sins are forgiven, and as a gift we are given righteousness and eternal life. In the letter to the Romans, Paul described that God wishes to count this faith unto us as righteousness (Rom. 3–4).

According to the Augsburg Confession, in the gospel God offers for Christ’s sake the forgiveness of sins and righteousness, which is received by faith. Faith is therefore something that God counts as righteousness. It is counted as ours only as a gift, and it could not be considered a gift to us if it were based on our works. By faith we are justified before God, reconciled with God and are born again. Faith holds fast to God’s grace promise and makes the heart alive. For the sake of Christ God’s wrath has abated and He is merciful to us.

Free or Bound Will?

According to the Bible, a person must turn, repent and return to union with God. Based on this, one could think that a person himself or herself has the possibility to make such a decision. Martin Luther disagreed with this. When he was in the monastery, he had tried to save himself by doing good works, but this led to despair. Luther experienced that the individual himself or herself has no strength to repent. The individual cannot connect with God through his or her own seeking. As Luther says in the Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot of my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith” (Explanation of the Third Article of the Creed).

Because of the fall into sin, each person inherits corrupt human will. Therefore, we can learn to know God only when He reveals Himself to us. Paul taught that through the law, a person gains knowledge of sin, but not the ability to fulfill the law (Rom. 3:20). Nonetheless God seeks people who have fallen under the power of sin. God wants people to find Him and attain rest for their souls.

God’s deepest essence is love. In the 15th chapter of Luke, Jesus tells three parables of God who loves a sinful person: a shepherd leaves his flock to go search for the lost sheep, a woman looks for a coin she lost, and a father happily receives his son who wasted his inheritance. In finding God, a person is always the helpless and passive party, whereas God is the active, working party. God reveals Himself everywhere, but He justifies humans though His congregation. Jesus made His disciples fishers of people (Matt. 4:19) and described the kingdom of heaven as a net that gathers people from the sea of the world (Matt. 13:47).

According to Luther, humans have free will, but their power to make decisions is bound. They are free to make choices and decisions in the matters that have been given to humans to decide. Meanwhile, humans cannot determine their own relationship with God. Humans cannot heal themselves because repentance is a change of mind in the heart in which a person receives faith as a gift. It cannot be had unless it is given. No one can believe by force (Bondage of the Will).

The law accuses and condemns. It exposes sin and strips a person of his or her own possibilities. The person feels he or she should repent but is incapable of doing so. Nonetheless God wishes to give the person “slain” by the law a new life through His gospel, the preached Word. When a person receives God’s grace, he or she accepts that message by faith. The heart is comforted and filled with thankfulness, love and the hope of eternal life.

Righteousness of Faith

There have always been people who have attempted to obtain righteousness before God, or at least part of it, by their own efforts and endeavor. Because God’s law demands a flawless endeavor, love toward one’s neighbor and good works have become compulsory demands. Many think that when they try their best, God will certainly forgive those things in which they fail.

Martin Luther made a great discovery when it opened to him what these words from the letter to the Romans mean: “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). A person is unable to fulfill the law of the Ten Commandments. But the person does not have to fulfill it because Jesus has done that on our behalf (Preface to Luther’s Latin Works). In Paul’s words, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:4). Even Abraham’s righteousness was not based on works, but on his faith: “And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).

Paul explained righteousness of faith as follows: “Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…[thus God] declares his righteousness…he [is] just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus… therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:21–31).

Significance of the Doctrine of Justification

In Commentary on Galatians, Luther dealt extensively with the doctrine of justification. He showed that the congregation is born and preserved only on the basis of the correct doctrine of justification. If one rejects that, then one simultaneously rejects the entire doctrine of Christianity. There is no middle ground between righteousness through the law and gift righteousness through Christ. The difference between these two must be clearly understood and this difference needs to be emphasized to people again and again, because at the moment of death or other times the conscience is struggling, these two forms of righteousness often come close to one another.

If righteousness could be attained through the law, Luther stated, Christ would have died in vain. A person who tries to become righteous by his or her merits, works or obeying the law is hypocritical. Such a person rejects and nullifies God’s grace and scorns Christ’s death, even if he or she makes claims to the opposite. According to Luther, the duty of the law is to expose sin, terrify a person and make him or her humble and thus prepare the person for justification. In this way the law drives a person to Christ, to rely on Him alone.

There are two points in Christian righteousness: faith of the heart and justification by God. A person’s faith is always weak and imperfect, but for the sake of Christ God counts it as perfect righteousness. A Christian is simultaneously righteous and sinful, holy and defiled, God’s enemy and a child of God.

Luther strongly criticized the Sophists of his time who tried to combine Christian faith and Greek philosophy: “Sophists force people to do good until they no longer feel sin at all.” Christians, on the other hand, needed to know that in this life it is impossible to live such that one would remain without blemish. It is important to know one’s own sinfulness, but one need not sink into despair over it. “Hurry to Christ, the Healer. He heals those distressed in heart and saves sinners. Do not listen to your rational mind’s criticism, because it will make you believe He hates sinners. Rather, kill reason and believe on Him. When you believe, you are righteous, because you give God the glory of being almighty, merciful and truthful” (Commentary on Galations 1535).

A person who is afflicted and distressed by sin finds Christ in the midst of His own, in His congregation. When the disciples had gathered for the last time for the Passover meal, Jesus promised to send them a Defender (Comforter in KJV), the Spirit of truth. He continued, “I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you” (John 14:20). Jesus dwells through the Holy Spirit in the midst of His congregation. His work in the world continues in His congregation as the work of the Holy Spirit (Christian Doctrine, item 44). Jesus continues to have the grace gospel proclaimed so that people may receive the grace of repentance and the Holy Spirit and become partakers of that righteousness which is acceptable before the almighty God.


Christian Doctrine Briefly Presented. Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, 1948.

Martin Luther

  • Augsburg Confession.

  • Bondage of the Will. Original work “De servo arbitrio” 1525.

  • Commentary on Galatians. Original work “In epistolam S. Pauli ad Galatas commentarius ex praelectione D. Martini Lutheri collectus” 1535.

  • Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works. Original work “Vorrede zum 1. Bande der Gesamtsausgaben seiner lateinischen Schriften” 1545.

  • Table Talk. Original work “Tischreden. Weit Dietrichs Nachschriften. Frühjahr 1533.”

  • Small Catechism.

Kristinoppi lyhyesti esitettynä. Suomen evankelisluterilainen kirkko 1948.

Aho, Teuvo. Löytäjän ilo. – Armon voimin. SRK:n vuosikirja 1995.

Jussila, Heikki. Elämän ihme. SRK 1974.

Kallunki, Hannu. Kadonneet tahdon etsiä, eksyneet tuoda takaisin, haavoitetut sitoa. – Palveleva rakkaus. SRK:n vuosikirja 2008.

Kinnunen Pekka et al. Raamatusta en luovu. Martti Luther ihmisenä ja uskonpuhdistajana. SRK 2017.

Kiviranta, Jorma. Vapauteen Kristus vapautti meidät. SRK 2008.

Paananen, Antti. Onko meillä vapaus valita. – Kristityn vapaus. SRK:n vuosikirja 2014.

Palola, Jukka. Vanhurskautta, oikeutta vai uskollisuutta. Helsingin yliopisto 2011.

Reinikainen, Erkki. Näin on kirjoitettu. SRK 1986.

Seppänen Markku. Jumalan hyvyys kutsuu parannukseen. – Suurin on rakkaus. SRK:n vuosikirja 2015.

Särkiniemi Seppo. Sanan valkeus. – Rauhaan ja vapauteen. SRK:n vuosikirja 1997.

Uljas, Juhani. Peltoon kätketty aarre. SRK 2000.

Voittonen, Olavi. Parannus on mielenmuutos. – Jumalan huoneen ihanuus. SRK:n vuosikirja 2002.

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