The Lord has planted you in His Vineyard by your Baptism into Christ Jesus. He has brought you out of Egypt and grafted you into the fellowship of His Church. And even now, on your journey through the desert, He is with you, caring for you, providing for you, and keeping His Covenant with you. He is your great God and Savior, and by His grace you are one of His own people.
But what good are you doing in the Vineyard of the Lord? What fruits are you producing?
Do not look around to compare yourself to your neighbor. How and what he may be doing and producing is not the standard by which you are measured. You and he both answer to one Lord, one Master, but you are not your neighbor, and your neighbor is not you. By the same token, do not presume to weigh your successes against your neighbor’s sufferings, nor vice versa, as though such outward experiences in this body and life were any indication of where you stand with God.
To live by faith in the promises of God, and in loving obedience to His commands, that is the only standard that concerns you. What you do matters. But apart from faith it is no righteousness in the sight of God; it is not the fruit that He requires of His Vineyard. On the other hand, faith in the heart will not remain, nor is it actually faith in the Word of the Lord, if it does not bear the fruits of love. A so-called faith without works is dead. But works devoid of faith and love are empty.
Outward appearances are thus deceptive and uncertain, though not to God who knows the heart.
Suffering, too, is no decisive indication of faithfulness or sin, of righteousness or wickedness. It may be the discipline of the Lord, who in love calls sinners to repentance. Or it may be the glory of His Cross, borne by His disciples who follow after Him in holy faith and holy love. The point is not that you should attempt to decipher and discern the why and wherefore of your neighbor’s suffering, but that you must repent of your own sins, lest you perish in your unbelief; and that you should bear the Cross in patience, and hope in the Lord, and care for your neighbor in his need.
There is no arguing the matter. There can be no legitimate debate, nor any excuse for your lack of love. The Lord’s own judgment is clear and unequivocal, that all have sinned and fallen short of His glory and His righteousness. So, if you do perceive your neighbor’s sins, or if you see that he is suffering the consequences of his sins, you should there recognize the evidence of your own shortcomings and predicament. The Word of Jesus is blunt: Unless you repent, you will perish.
The fact that you do not believe it, that you do not fear God and take His warning seriously, is all the more reason for which you must repent.
But what exactly is repentance? What does it look like? And how are you supposed to do it?
Our young catechumens will correctly tell you that repentance is to be turned around away from your sins back to God. It is to be turned away from the path of death to the Way of Life in Christ. Which means dying to yourself and living unto God in the righteousness of faith and love.
To repent is more than simply feeling badly, guilty, or ashamed, all of which can stem as much or more from unbelief as from the fear of God, especially if you persist in doing what you know to be wrong. Deliberately to sin is neither safe nor right, and it is certainly not repentance but the very opposite. Rather, to repent is to cease doing evil, to resist your temptations and addictions, and to flee for help against them instead of giving yourself over to your weaknesses. It is to make amends where you are able, to fix what you have broken, to pay back what you have borrowed or taken, and to apologize for whatever harm you have caused, even if you are not able to undo it.
And to repent is not only to keep your nose clean, but to begin doing what is good and right — not according to your own imagination, but according to the Word of the Lord and your station in life.
So, repentance is fairly simple and straightforward. It is no strange mystery. And yet, it is the hardest thing for you to do and the most painful experience for you to undergo, because it does involve the death of who you are and of all that you have prized in your heart and in your life. But such repentance is actually nothing you are able to do or bring about by your own power, precisely because you are the problem. Your heart and mind, your flesh and spirit are at odds with the Word and will of God. Despite your extravagant self love, you are your own worst enemy, because you resist and run away from the Way of the Lord, which is the way of righteousness and life.
You cannot turn yourself around. You are not able to die to yourself, even though you’re already dead in your trespasses and sin. Neither can you raise yourself from death to life, nor can you heal yourself. You do not become a fruitful and productive tree by trying harder to do better: Trying and better are not the righteousness that God requires; they only serve to betray your failure. Of course, that is no reason to give up or do worse, either. You can and should discipline yourself, your actions and behavior, for God’s sake, and for your neighbor’s sake, if not for your own. But you cannot break the death grip that sin has on your body and soul from the very depths of you.
Adorning your dead branches with fresh fruits would not address the underlying futility, which comes down to this: Instead of faith and love, you are driven by idolatrous lust and selfish greed. You not only crave what God has not given, but you indulge yourself in what He has forbidden. And when you are warned of the danger and called to repentance, you excuse yourself, sometimes on the pretense of the Gospel itself, and you grumble and complain against the Lord’s watchman. But if you presume to protect your pet sins and to hide your unbelief by redoubling your efforts to do and say everything else just right, to be overly polite, and to obtain approval on every other front, you have only managed to whitewash your tomb. You are still a dead and useless tree.
Do not blame God, and do not argue that He is unfair. He has done everything that could be done for you and for His Vineyard. He feeds you with Manna from heaven. He quenches your thirst with Water from the Rock. He clothes you and protects you. He cares for you in every way.
And yet, for all of that, instead of figs and grapes and the good fruits of faith and love that He has every right to expect from your heart and life, from your words and actions, there are only weeds pretending to be wheat, and thorns and thistles infesting the ground. You’re taking up space, but you’re wasting the soil, the sun, and the rain that your God and Father in heaven freely provides.
For all of this that is lacking, and for all that is wrong, He calls you to repentance, and to bring forth the fruits worthy of repentance. But of yourself, you cannot and do not repent.
If you are to be saved and not perish, and if you are to remain in the Lord’s Vineyard and become fruitful, there must be some other remedy than personal rehab or strategies of self-improvement. For there is no righteousness of your own that will ever be able to rescue or redeem you from the axe and from the fire. Thanks be to God, His Gospel is a different and far better Word than that.
As the Lord alone is righteous and holy, and as there is no might of man that could save you, He has come down from heaven in love to become your righteousness and holiness by grace alone. He has produced the fruits of holy faith and perfect love on your behalf and in your stead. And in the Lord Jesus Christ the entire Vineyard is fruitful to the glory of God, to the praise of His divine mercy, and to the great benefit of His people. He has lived righteously, in order to give you life.
But that is not all that He has done. For it remains the case that, unless you repent, you will perish. There must yet be your death to sin, to yourself and your idolatry, and the new life that is lived in faith and love, in heart and mind, in body and soul. You must pass through the water, through the cloud and the sea, out of your slavery to sin and death, into the true freedom of the sons of God.
Therefore, Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son, has also suffered your repentance for you, and He has thereby opened the way of repentance to you and to all by His Cross and Resurrection. It was for this, indeed, that He submitted Himself to St. John’s Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. From those waters of the Jordan to His Cross and Passion, He bore in His Body the sins of the world, including all of your sins, in order to suffer and die the death of sin within Himself, to break its powerful hold on you, to rob it of all claims against you, and to bring you to repentance.
He is the truly righteous Galilean, whose blood was shed under Pontius Pilate, not against His will, but as the Lord’s own voluntary sacrifice of Atonement for all the sons and daughters of Adam. He has thus made satisfaction for your sins and reconciled you to His God and Father in heaven, so you are not removed and cast away from His presence, but you abide in peace in His Vineyard.
The tower of God’s righteous wrath and judgment has fallen upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is quieted. By the stripes across His back, by the scars upon His hands and feet and in His side, you are spared, you are rescued, and you are raised up from the dust and the dirt. For He has perished in your stead. Though He alone was fruitful, He was cut down and thrown into the fire for your failures, so that you should obtain mercy and be given the time and opportunity for repentance.
By the watchmen whom He calls and sends to you in His Name and stead, He calls you to repent, to become His disciple, to take up His Cross and follow Him through death into life everlasting.
This preaching of His Cross, of repentance and forgiveness, of faith and life in Him, accomplishes in you what you could never have done or managed on your own. His Word puts you to death, to be sure, but so does it also preserve and protect your body and soul, your heart, mind, and spirit in His own crucified and risen Body. For He who suffered and died on your behalf, bearing all your sins in His holy and innocent flesh, has also risen from the dead and lives and reigns forever.
Because His Bloodshed on the Cross has indeed made Atonement for the sins of the world, His death has not only sufficed as a substitute for yours, but it has actually conquered the power of death over you and all who believe and are baptized into Christ. His Resurrection from the dead is the Father’s justification of His Son. It is therefore also your righteousness by faith in Him.
It is into this faith and righteousness of Christ, into His holiness and life, that you are brought by the preaching of His Gospel, and by His Holy Spirit through the Gospel. Which is to say that you are brought to repentance and to faith in Christ by His Spirit through His Word of forgiveness.
That Word of the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe — and it bestows that very faith which it calls for — because it bears and conveys the power of the Cross of Christ.
It is by His Cross that you are cultivated, and with the Fruits of His Cross that you are fertilized, unto repentance, unto the righteousness of faith and love, and unto the life everlasting with God. For your sins are not counted against you, but the righteousness and life of Christ are now yours.
Though you journey for now through the wilderness, you are planted in the Vineyard of the Lord of Hosts, and you abide in Him, and you thrive as a fruitful tree after the same kind as the Cross.
Here, too, appearances are deceptive and uncertain, and the wisdom of the world will fall short and fail you. The Cross is not outwardly impressive. It does not look like the living and life-giving Tree that it is. And when you bear and suffer the Cross as a disciple of the Lord Jesus, it seems that God would cut you down and cast you away because of your sins.
But take heart. At all times and in all places, repent, and believe the Gospel. For the scandalous Cross of Christ does not damn you but saves you. The Lord your God does not destroy you but bears the good fruits of faith and love in you. And so shall you not perish but live for Jesus’ sake.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.