As those of you who read this blog regularly (thank you, by the way) will know, I grew up Catholic. I grew up super Catholic, if we’re being honest. I wore veils in church. The entire service apart from the announcements and sermon were spoken in Latin. There were rules and rituals for absolutely everything, and I found that deeply comforting. Liturgy and ritual bring rhythm, and they fill a deeply human need. I prayed in highly liturgical ways throughout my childhood, even in school. I managed a proper novena once in high school without being noticed (pray a set of prayers while meditating on a particular desire/request once per hour for nine hours). Super Catholic, okay?
I am an evangelical Lutheran, but I miss some things about Roman Catholicism. I think Western Protestantism has concerned itself too greatly and for the wrong reasons with “not looking like the Catholics.” Protestantism has tossed out some things it shouldn’t have, and for no discernible reason other than, “That’s what Catholics do, so we don’t do it.” I want to talk a little bit about that through the example of the sign of the Cross, and I hope you’ll see my logic when we move over to the topic of repentance.
The Sign of the Cross is an outward sign of one’s Christianity, a public declaration. It is also a deeply personal connection to prayer for anyone who grew up making it. I still make the sign by reflex when I pray. I spent years fighting my own hand in my dad’s house and in Protestant churches so as not to offend anyone. Now that I’m a grown-up, I have stopped trying to suppress it. If we pray together, I might end up reflexively making the sign of the Cross at the end. I don’t feel ashamed of that anymore, and it shouldn’t make you uncomfortable if I do it.
The sign of the Cross is a physical motion attached to the words, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” Think of it the way you think of someone saying, “In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.”
That’s what Catholics are doing and thinking when they make that sign. Unlike the offensive Hollywood portrayals, Catholics are not making that sign to ward off evil or using it like some kind of magical spell. That isn’t what the sign of the Cross is, and it isn’t how Catholics use it. It isn’t a superstition. It’s an honorific at the beginning and end of prayer.
I’m not suggesting that Protestants take up making the sign of the Cross. It isn’t necessary or even important, and if you didn’t grow up with it, it won’t mean anything to you, anyway. My point is that Protestantism threw out the sign of the Cross, and they did it more for appearance and separation from Catholicism than for any other reason. If you read up on it, they will list, “it wasn’t part of the Apostolic generation’s observance in the New Testament, so it isn’t biblical,” as the main reason for stopping its use, but there are many things we do in church that the Apostolic generation didn’t do. The sign of the Cross is an outward declaration of one’s Christianity (like a Cross necklace or a “not of this world” bumper sticker), and it is a blessing and addendum to prayer.
In Jesus’ name we pray.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
That’s all it is.
Okay, Enough About That…Let’s Talk about Repentance
This isn’t a blog post about the sign of the Cross, but I did rather wax on, didn’t I? Sorry about that. No, it’s a blog post about repentance and how I think Protestantism has lost a bit of focus on it. Like with the sign of the Cross, I think it’s something we tossed away because Catholics are super into repentance, and we didn’t want to look like the Roman Church.
Roman Catholic doctrine links repentance heavily with salvation, and Reformers of the 16th century wanted to distance themselves from what they perceived as a dangerous conflation of the rituals of repentance with works-based salvation. Clearly, I agree with them on that point. I am now a Lutheran, and sola gratia et sola fide was the biggest reason.
I believe the Reformers were right, but again…I think we went a little too far for the sake of separation. Repentance, in and of itself, is extremely biblical, but despite the list of biblical exhortations to repent, including many from Christ himself, we Protestants don’t seem to spend a lot of time talking about repentance or observing it in our daily lives.
We spend a lot of time talking about removing shame, exposing fear as a liar, and reminding each other that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. These are good things. They are true things. They are biblical things. They aren’t the only things.
Lent is an excellent season for getting in touch with biblical repentance and practicing it in spiritually healthy ways. Repentance inevitably increases both humility and gratitude. Humility and gratitude focus our gaze on Jesus and allow us to desire sanctification. Repentance means feeling sorrow for having sinned, recognizing that we needed God’s mercy to be forgiven of our sin, and actively participating in God’s Kingdom by conforming our lives to Christ’s example. We don’t love God so that he will love us. We love God because he loved us first. We don’t repent to gain forgiveness. We repent because we have been forgiven.
Will we be perfect at any of this? No. We’re corrupted by a sinful nature, and all men fall short of the glory of God. We’re going to suck at this. We’re going to mess up. A lot.
If you give up lattes for Lent, you’re going to find yourself in the Starbuck’s drive-through on autopilot at some point, and you’ll have drunk half of it before you realize what you did. And you’ll repent.
If you give up social media for Lent, you’re going to find yourself shaking with the need to check Twitter or Instagram before the end of day 3, and you’re going to resent that you made the choice to abstain. And you’ll repent.
Whatever you give up for Lent, you will almost certainly fail to remain joyously and victoriously faithful to that abstention the entire 40 days. That is part of the point. You can’t make yourself holy by force of human will. You just can’t. And when you’re faced with that, you’ll repent.
Repentance is for these moments. It is not about beating yourself with a flail. It is not about lying prostrate on the floor condemning yourself as a faithless worm. It is about recognizing your sin, feeling sorrow for that sin, and then going back to God saying, “I am unworthy and I am incapable, but I want to keep trying…because you loved me first.” It’s about desiring to take some small part in Christ’s suffering because we know that we deserved it and He didn’t.
So the next day, you’ll drive right past Starbucks. You’ll grit your teeth through the social media itch, and you’ll make it through the day without drinking a latte or opening your phone. You’ll do those things consciously this time. On purpose. It will still hurt a little, but you’ll be joyful about it. You’ll be present with God in those moments of victory over your flesh, and you’ll talk to Him in the middle of it. That’s what repentance is about. It reminds you that we are weak, but God is strong. It reminds you to draw near to God and invite Him into the struggle with you.
Lent teaches us repentance through sacrifice & suffering. Not for salvation–only Jesus saves. For sanctification. For holiness. For conformity to the image of Christ we were made to embody. For closeness and relationship with our Holy and Almighty God.
Some Scripture to Bookmark about Repentance
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!” 3 For he is the one spoken of through the prophet Isaiah, who said:A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight!
4 Now John had a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then people from Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the vicinity of the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. 9 And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove his sandals. He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Matthew 3:1-10, CSB, emphasis added is mine
Versification copied from BibleGateway.com
3 I know that you have persevered and endured hardships for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary.4 But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first.5 Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
Revelation 4:3-5, CSB, emphasis added is mine
Versification copied from BibleGateway.com
“Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 The five who were foolish didn’t take enough olive oil for their lamps, 4 but the other five were wise enough to take along extra oil. 5 When the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight they were roused by the shout, ‘Look, the bridegroom is coming! Come out and meet him!’
7 “All the bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. 8 Then the five foolish ones asked the others, ‘Please give us some of your oil because our lamps are going out.’
9 “But the others replied, ‘We don’t have enough for all of us. Go to a shop and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were gone to buy oil, the bridegroom came. Then those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was locked. 11 Later, when the other five bridesmaids returned, they stood outside, calling, ‘Lord! Lord! Open the door for us!’
12 “But he called back, ‘Believe me, I don’t know you!’
13 “So you, too, must keep watch! For you do not know the day or hour of my return.
Matthew 25:1-13, CSB, emphasis added is mine
Versification copied from BibleGateway.com
So produce good fruit. Confess. Repent. Fast. Pray. Repentance isn’t a Catholic notion. It’s a biblical command. That’s what we’re doing in Lent. We’re getting back in touch with our sin–the sin that put our Savior on the Cross. We’re getting back in touch with feeling sorrow for that sin, for publicly displaying our faith (the wearing of ashes, the abstention and fasting, the community prayer), and for conforming our lives to the life of Christ. As we mourn Good Friday and anticipate Resurrection Sunday, we make sacrifices, and we prepare our lives for Christ’s return. These are good practices, and we should all embrace them during Lent.
I’m giving up Amazon for Lent. It’s gonna hurt a little. That’s a good thing.