So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm. Joel 2.13
Lent has a two-fold emphasis. It is a season of penitence. That means we look at our lives in the light of God’s holy Law. We see that we do not do the things He commands us to do. We do the things He has forbidden us to do. We see that we sin against the Lord in thought, word and deed. We hear His voice of condemnation. We know and feel that by our sins we have earned nothing but His eternal wrath and punishment because our sins are sins against the one true holy God.
In Lent we also hear Jesus saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem” (Lk. 18.31). In Lent we, as it were, also go to Jerusalem and see Jesus betrayed, suffer and die. Precisely in Jesus’ suffering and death we see that He is the long promised Savior who would take away the sins of the world and reconcile us with God (Isaiah 53; John 1.29).
When Jesus went to the cross loaded down with the sins of all people, we then see both God’s holiness and anger over sin and also His love and mercy. With Jesus on the cross suffering God’s wrath and punishment for sin, we see how seriously God takes our sin and what we personally earn and deserve for each and every one of our sins—God’s wrath and punishment in hell.
But, at the cross we also see God’s love for us sinners. We see that He Himself, in the Person of the Son, came to earth to be our Savior, to suffer for us and in our place what we rightly earned for ourselves. He Himself rescued us from what we rightly deserve. He reconciled us to Himself. That’s grace! That’s love!
Can we, then, regard our sins lightly, since, after all, they’re all forgiven? Hardly! Look at how seriously God takes our sin! But we are strengthened to examine our hearts and lives and earnestly and sincerely to confess our sin, because God is gracious and merciful.
Luther rightly points out: “For no one is justified [declared righteous by God] through faith except one who has first in humility confessed himself to be unrighteous” [AE, X, pg. 290]. We can only boldly confess our sin because we are certain of the forgiveness of that sin in Jesus.