Gospel Psychology 101

“We cannot divide faith and repentance chronologically. The true Christian believes penitently, and he repents believingly.”

In order to bring a sinner face-to-face with his or her own darkened mind and heart, the light of the Gospel is the only illumination powerful enough to expose the evil of a double-minded sinner. (James 4:8) The humility of the cross shows our arrogance for what it really is. In a world of labored minds, a preacher of the Gospel must be ready to confront the psychology of sin in order to deliver the good news of Jesus to the heavy laden.

 

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a young priest named Rev. Dimmesdale privately carries the shame of adultery for seven years while his mistress Hester Prynne is forced to publicly wear an infamous red “A” for her crime. Witnessing the conscience-stricken minister sinking beneath the weight of his secret sin, Prynne attempts to convince Dimmesdale that his guilt is absolved. His anxious reply is nothing short of a lesson in Christian repentance: “Of penance I have had enough! Of penitence there has been none! Else, I should long ago have thrown off these garments of mock holiness, and have shown myself to mankind as they will see me at the judgment-seat. Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years’ cheat to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am!” Despite the obvious fact that The Scarlet Letter is a creative piece of fiction by an author with little love for Puritan religion, Hawthorne’s tale offers remarkable insight into human psychology. Christian repentance demands as much from the mind as it does from the heart. (Rom. 2:4,10:912:2) Human emotions like guilt, shame, anxiety, humiliation, stress, and remorse affect the way that we think about God and ourselves. Therefore Christian preaching isn’t simply Gospel proclamation; it’s also Gospel psychology.

In many ways, Protestantism began with a debate over the way we think about faith and repentance. With its lack of assurance, the corrupt Roman Catholic system of simony, indulgences, and ex opere operatosacraments wreaked havoc on the human psyche and failed to cultivate the kind of repentance necessary for authentic faith. When salvation is considered a work performed or a grace “infused,” repentance becomes more like a slot machine rather than a posture of humility. In his 95 Theses, Martin Luther immediately addresses the issue of repentance in his very first thesis: “The whole life of believers should be repentance.” Echoing Rev. Dimmesdale, Luther’s second thesis states, “This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.” Luther then indicts Dimmesdale’s cowardly half-confession with his third thesis: “Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not inwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.” Luther describes this as a process that continues “until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.” So important was the issue of repentance that it came first on Luther’s list of Gospel grievances. For Luther, repentance wasn’t just theological; it was deeply existential.

Like the guilty Rev. Dimmesdale, Christians today battle the same kind of psychological affliction and depression. Luther even had a special word for it: Anfechtungen. This sense of doom or despair is what drove the German Reformer to the cross of Christ.

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