“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
The Westminster Larger Catechism offers that “repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby, out of sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.”
This excerpt from the catechism, coupled with our passage in Luke, provokes some interesting yet crucial thought about repentance. What is Jesus really saying here? Is he demanding repentance from these people? Or, on the other had, does God’s grace reign supreme whether we repent or not? The answer, I would contend, is both, and it strikes at the full scope of what the gospel is.
Repentance is “a saving grace.” It is a free gift of God through the power of the Spirit to the heart of every believer. “All of life is repentance,” said Martin Luther! This means we should savor repentance, and pursue it with utter freedom and confidence in our God who himself gives it to his children. We have no reason to come sheepishly or fearfully to our Father, for he longs for our whole lives to be a coming to him in repentance. After all, repentance is a gift of saving grace.
Yet, perhaps held in congruent tension with this truth, Jesus commands our repentance. He calls every one of his children to consider the “filthiness and odiousness” of their sin, and to rest in his grace. To hate sin and to love God, these are the fruits born out of repentance. And God’s promise is that they will come to the repentant hearts of his children.
The great news of the gospel is that God’s action toward us is unilateral, he is the sole actor. Nothing we could ever do counts for or against our account before God. Our righteousness counts for nothing, as does our unrighteousness. Yet his gospel proceeds bilaterally. That is, the fruit of the unilateral gospel is an ongoing love for repentance and faith, a turning from sin and resting confidently in God’s grace. This is the new creation that begins to unfold in us through repentance. And so, as part of the richness of the unfolding good news in our hearts, repentance need not be feared, it can be embraced and sought after by every child of God. Hallelujah, what a Savior!