The newest release in the Theological Commonplaces of Johann Gerhard presents two commonplaces.
On the Gospel defines the Gospel carefully as the proclamation of God’s promises and forgiveness of sins for the sake of Jesus Christ. Since confusions continually arise on the relationship of the Gospel to the text of the New Testament, Old Testament, and the Law of God, Gerhard carefully distinguishes Law from Gospel and explains how the Gospel is found in both testaments. Against the Roman Catholic idea of “supererogation,” Gerhard explains that Christ revealed the same moral Law as had been given in the Old Testament, but did not add new laws that are supposedly optional for Christians.
On Repentance deals with salutary turning-away from sins, which Lutherans commonly define as including contrition (grief over sins committed) and faith in the promise of forgiveness for Christ’s sake. Much of this commonplace takes apart the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance, defined as consisting of contrition, confession, and satisfaction, as well as the concept of indulgences that is bound up with this. At the same time, Gerhard supports and defends private, individual confession and absolution of Christians before their pastors as a practice fully in accord with Holy Scripture.
The following excerpt is taken from On Repentance.
Other ways of saying “repentance,” from the ancients.
§ 12. The adjectives and circumlocutions by which the devout ancients describe repentance and stir us up to repent should be placed here. Justin (QQ. et resp. ad orthod., q. 98, p. 351) calls it “the approved remedy for sinners.”
Tertullian (De poenit., p. 553): “Repentance is life.” Page 555: “The price for which the Lord decided to give pardon.”
Lactantius (Instit., 6, ch. 24, p. 377): “The medicine of repentance is the harbor of salvation.” [Lactantius again] (Epit. div. instit., ch. 6, p. 541): “The great aid and comfort of repentance, it is the healing of wounds and the cleansing of sins; it is hope; it is the harbor of salvation.”
Nazianzen (Orat. 15, p. 236): “The great medicine for wickedness.” [Nazianzen again] (Orat. 40 in s. baptisma, p. 641): “The second cleansing.”
Ambrose (De fuga seculi, ch. 6, tom. 4, p. 316): “The good flight.”
Augustine (De vera et fals. poenit., ch. 1): “The way which leads people back to the angels and returns the creature to the Creator.”
** He calls it (De civ. Dei, 17, ch. 20): “The very healthy humility of repenting.” **
Isidore (De summo bono): “Repentance is the medication for a wound, the hope of salvation through which death is destroyed and life discovered, through which hell is closed and heaven opened, through which the devil is put to flight and God is found.”
Chrysostom (Orat. quod unus et idem legislator): “Repentance is the root of piety.”
Tharasius (Letter ad Johann. Prebsbyt., vol. 2, conc.): “Repentance is the great armor, the way of salvation, the dispenser of the hospitality of the kingdom of heaven, the leader of the incorruptible way, the equipment for the martyr’s contests. It points the way to God and causes us to be with Him. It is the crutch of the human race, the resurrection of the fallen and the lapsed,” etc.
Bernard (on Song of Songs, sermon 30, col. 587): “The tears of sinners are the wine of angels.” [Bernard again] (on Song of Songs, sermon 68): “The tears of the repentant are the delicacies of the angels.”
Briefly, the heart of a sinner, humbled and drenched with daily tears, is a rich burnt offering.
Is repentance the second plank after shipwreck?
§ 13. It is customary for Jerome to call repentance “the second plank after shipwreck” (Letters 8 and 47; on Isaiah 3). Ambrose does the same (Ad virginem lapsam, ch. 8, vol. 1, p. 137): “You who have entered the agony of repentance, stand bravely, miserable as you are. Cling to a plank like a shipwrecked sailor, and hope that you will thereby be freed from the depths of your sins.” Both of them are imitating Tertullian, who writes in this way (De poenit., p. 553): “You, O sinner, similar to me (and, in fact, no less a sinner than I, for I know how I excel in sins), step onto repentance and embrace it in the same way as a shipwrecked sailor embraces faith in a plank. It will lift you up when you sink in the waves of sins and will carry you into the harbor of the clemency of God.”
But this should not be understood as if the covenant which God has entered with us at Baptism were frail and temporary, as if the ship of Baptism were completely breaking up. Rather, it is an unmoving, constant, and eternal covenant (Hosea 2:; Rom. 11:29; 2 Tim. 2:12) to which a way back is always open to us through repentance, because the power of Baptism lasts throughout life, as will be shown in its own place [On Holy Baptism (Commonplace XXIII), §§ 154–64]. Thus through sins against conscience we leap off the ship of Baptism into the depths of the sea of damnation. Therefore if we do not wish to perish in the deep sea of sins, there is a need for a second plank by means of which to return again to the covenant of grace and the ship of Baptism. In fact, the shipwreck after which we need a second plank is most correctly understood as a reference to the shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience which we lose through sins against conscience but which we recover again through serious repentance. “Some people, by rejecting a good conscience, have made shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim. 1:19).
The Theological Commonplaces series is the first-ever English translation of Johann Gerhard’s monumental Loci Theologici. Gerhard was the premier Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century. Combining his profound understanding of evangelical Lutheran theology with a broad interest in ethics and culture, he produced significant works on biblical, doctrinal, pastoral, and devotional theology. Gerhard interacts with the writings of the church fathers, Luther and his contemporaries, and the Catholic and Calvinist theologians of his day. His Loci is regarded as the standard compendium of Lutheran orthodoxy, with topics ranging from the proper understanding and interpretation of Scripture to eschatology.
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