When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

-first of Luther’s 95 Theses nailed to door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church 505 years ago

Shepherds often deform the Church by healing the souls under our care superficially. We commend the grace of God without condemning sin. We preach forgiveness without preaching repentance.

Luther said this was true of the shepherds of his day, also:

In regard to doctrine we observe especially this defect that, while some preach about the faith by which we are to be justified, it is still not clearly enough explained how one shall attain to this faith, and almost all omit one aspect of the Christian faith without which no one can understand what faith is or means. For Christ says in the last chapter of Luke (Luke 24:47) that we are to preach in His name repentance and forgiveness of sins. Many now talk only about the forgiveness of sins and say little or nothing about repentance.

Luther continues:

There neither is forgiveness of sins without repentance nor can forgiveness of sins be understood without repentance. It follows that if we preach the forgiveness of sins without repentance that the people imagine that they have already obtained the forgiveness of sins, becoming thereby secure and without compunction of conscience. This would be a greater error and sin than all the errors hitherto prevailing. Surely we need to be concerned lest, as Christ says in Matthew 12:45, the last state becomes worse than the first.

Therefore we have instructed and admonished pastors that it is their duty to preach the whole gospel and not one portion without the other. For God says in Deuteronomy 4:2: “You shall not add to the word…nor take from it.” There are preachers who now attack the pope because of what he has added to the Scriptures, which unfortunately is all too true. But when these do not preach repentance, they tear out a great part of Scripture.1

Concerning the ministers of the Reformation at his time five centuries ago, Luther judged that “almost all omit preach(ing) repentance.”

This is shepherds’ besetting sin and the reason Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Gregory, Peter Waldo, Luther, Edwards, Wesley, Lloyd-Jones, and Machen were hated. When other shepherds were jabbering “gentle and lowly” and “grace,” these few faithful shepherds were repeating Jesus’ warning: “Unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish.”

Knowing our Lord will hold us accountable for the blood of our sheep, what is it that makes us heal them falsely? We’ve been warned such faithlessness will not escape our Master’s judgment:

But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet and the people are not warned, and a sword comes and takes a person from them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require from the watchman’s hand. (Ezekiel 33:6)

Concerning his own flock, the Apostle Paul declared he was innocent of their blood (Acts 20:26). How many of us would make the same claim? I’ve only heard it once from my contemporaries. Twelve years ago I worshipped on Lord’s day with an historic Presbyterian congregation on the east coast. As it happened, it was the Sunday morning their pastor preached his farewell sermon, during which he declared to his flock:

I can confidently say that every soul who has died during my ministry here at (this church) was prepared to meet His Lord.

It was astounding. Knowing the man, I sat there in stunned disbelief.

Fellow pastors, how many of us can read the Apostle Paul’s description of his own preaching and pastoral care without grief and repentance?

Looking back over thirty-nine years of pastoral ministry, I can think of a number of souls whose wounds I’ve healed superficially; any number of sermons I’ve avoided preaching the Law, repentance, the necessity of confessors producing fruit, the sanctification without which no man will see God, the Day of judgment, the eternity of hell torments, the holiness of God.

I recall a number of pastoral visits when sin has been confessed and I’ve given an assurance of pardon without working in the power of the Spirit to pierce to the marrow of the matter. I recall a number of session meetings when, as moderator, I’ve allowed us to skip lightly over a sin tearing apart marriages and families within our flock. There have been any number of times when I should have warned or rebuked fellow shepherds, but chose not to because I didn’t want to suffer my peers’ disapproval.

And you, dear brother: what about you? Can you claim to be innocent of the blood of all men? What about you, fathers and mothers of sons and daughters? You, husbands of wives? You, teachers of students? You, mothers of Israel? You, older women who teach your church’s younger women?

Coaches, judges, senators, Sunday school teachers, deacons, doctors of the body, doctors of the church, physicians of the soul, job site foremen; every one of us will soon give an account for the care we have taken with our flock.

Have we said “peace, peace where there is no peace?” Have we taught, preached, and counselled grace without law? Forgiveness without repentance? Heaven without Hell? God’s love and mercy without His holiness, justice, and wrath? Do we remind the souls looking to us for help—leading to eternal life—that our God is a consuming fire?

One of the reasons I have firmly opposed the belligerating of churchmen during MAGA and Covid is that it derails Christians living the life of repentance, replacing it with Christians living the life of self-righteousness as they rant over the sins of their civil authorities and pagans; as they gnash their teeth crying “tyranny.”

The worst tyranny today isn’t outside the church. It’s in our own homes and elders meetings. It’s behind our pulpits. Our fathers tell us we’re good-to-go and it’s other men who are the baddies. Our fathers lead us on protests against abortion and tell us how godly we are for protesting others’ sins while they and we use hormonal birth control, for instance.

Remember, the first of Luther’s 95 Theses was aimed at restoring repentance to the church. To believers. To ourselves. He warned that if we don’t preach repentance, our people will lose any compunction (tenderness) of conscience, and thus in worse condition than the souls under the wickedness of the Roman Catholic mercantile sacramentalism of the high Middle Ages.

Worse? How can he say “worse?”

Because then, souls were conscience of sin and feared God.

Today, we’ve robbed our souls even of this, and they’re worse off than the church prior to the Reformation. That’s what Luther warned against, and today it’s the pastor and sheep who deny this has taken place today I am most worried about.

Just ask yourself whether your church fears God? Your elders? Your deacons? Your wife? Your children?

This Reformation Sunday is a wonderful time to improve the Reformation. Plead with God for help and start by repenting yourself. The life of a Christian is a life of repentance.

* * *

Lord Jesus, make us faithful to your example, calling those without compunction of conscience to Your holiness and repentance that, by faith, they may enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Please forgive our timidity and fear of elders and rich men. Forgive our greed that corrupts our work. Make us faithful to repent so zealously, ourselves, that we are eager for each of our sheep to join us in that joy and its good fruit.

Good Shepherd of our souls, teach us the comfort of Your rod and staff that we may have faith to love our sheep through that same discipline that has convinced us of Your Fatherly love for us.


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1Luther’s Works; Volume 40; Church and Ministry II; Edited by Conrad Bergendoff; Muhlenberg Press; Philadelphia; 1958; “Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors”; pp. 274, 275.

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