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I S S . 1 4 9 ∞ F A L L 2 0 2 3
Isaac, the Syrian of the seventh century said, “This life has been given to you for repentance, do not waste it on other things.”
I am reminded of Isaac’s words when I read the early Anabaptist leader Pilgram Marpeck (1495-1556). Marpeck wrote a letter, “Five Fruits of Repentance,”1 which I would like to introduce to you. By introducing this letter, I hope to whet your appetite to read Marpeck for yourself. This letter gives us a picture of the way to walk united with Jesus Christ and His church in humility, obedience, and love amidst the noise of conflicting and deceiving voices in the world.
Summary of “Five Fruits of Repentance”
In this letter, Marpeck describes the nature of repentance and faith in Christ. He begins by acknowledging that we have cause for thankfulness when someone comes to Jesus Christ in true repentance, grieves for and confesses their sins, and receives grace, forgiveness, comfort, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness is granted in Christ’s sacrifice of death on the cross and the shedding of his blood. “Such forgiveness, however, takes place only in the fellowship of saints, which alone received such power from Christ.”2
“I write this,” he says, “so that we may take careful note of the witness within our hearts so that when we sin, we may perform and complete the true fruit of repentance, in order that the wrath of God and the curse of Christ may not come over us to our destruction.”3
As the story of the fig tree illustrates, unfruitfulness and the curse of Christ—that is, sin and divine judgement—is indeed frightful and alarming. Those who are “earnestly shocked” by it are “prepared for and led to the Lord Christ.” The fruit of repentance “proves itself true in suffering, sorrowing, fear, and pain of conscience, in deep affliction.”4 Marpeck does not want his readers to be ignorant of the path of Christian faith or to expect to take short-cuts. This would be to miss out on the blessedness of eternal life in Jesus Christ.
“The five fruits represent what is needful in repentance when we sin and the shape of the life that follows from it— penitent, humble living in true surrender and joyful dependence on Jesus Christ.“
The first fruit is “that the sinner confesses himself guilty of eternal death under the stern, serious righteousness and wrathful vengeance of God; that he becomes ashamed and completely battered and broken in his own eyes, and with fear and trembling appears before the face of God helpless, without comfort, and completely forsaken of all creatures in heaven and on earth.”5 There is no respect for good intentions or pretension of self-worth. “He has and knows, seeks and recognizes no help in himself or in anything else.”6 Before receiving consolation, the sinner must “taste and eat” this “bitter fruit.”7
This first fruit of repentance is not the suffering of self-pity and flagellation, nor a display of false humility, nor the pangs of deflated pride. It is genuine acceptance and a willing descent, with Christ, into the death and hell that one’s own sin brings. This fruit is not optional to Marpeck. “Whoever does not find Christ in this depth… will not find Him in the height.”8 However, the forgiveness and grace of God are not given us by reason of our drinking “the cup of the suffering of guilt.”9
The second fruit comes as God “allows a small light of hope of His grace to shine along with His condemnation.”10 As hope enters, the sinner can “anticipate that grace with patience and become aware that he cannot rob God of His grace or seize it.”11 Waiting before God is itself a “blessedness,” a grace from God. In fact, the impulse to seize God’s grace or control it reveals to us again the root of sin as the pride of presumption. “Oh, God, how utterly impatient we are to await your comfort! We like to assume that You would prostrate yourself at our feet with Your comfort and mercy.”12 Presuming on the grace of God deceives us and leads us astray.
The third fruit is that the sinner finds more sorrow in “what he has done against God” than in “what he must suffer in consequence.”13 The fruit is manifest as he accepts the consequences of the sin and does not seek a way out “until God’s will has been satisfied in him.”14 Penitents do not desire to be rid of the suffering, but of the sin itself and “commit their guilt to the intercession of the innocence of Christ” and “await patiently the release from their suffering through Him who has delivered them from their sins.”15
The fourth fruit is that the penitent does not allow sin to rule, but “accepts the command of Christ, that he should no longer commit sin” and “lives in the will of God and not in wickedness.”16 Without this fruit of obedience, “repentance is in vain and the Son of God is crucified and trodden under foot.”17
The fifth fruit is that “I do not blame any creature in heaven or on earth for my sin.”18 Marpeck suggests that those who blame another creature for the source of their sin actually blame God. They wish that the true God and his creatures were the liar and doer of wickedness, rather than regarding God and his creatures as good. Penitents forsake self- justification and resist temptation to blame others, accepting complete responsibility for the impertinence of sin.
The letter concludes, “God our heavenly Father grant us grace, and the Lord Jesus Christ, that we be truly humble before the great majesty and goodness of our Father and that we present and reveal ourselves and confess honestly and truly without any falseness of spirit.”19
Reflections on “Five Fruits”
For a while, I did not understand why Marpeck calls these five points “fruits of repentance.”20 When he refers toJohn the Baptist’s words, “bear fruits in keeping with repentance,” I believe Marpeck is describing a penitent life before God. The five fruits are not early steps of repentance after which one moves on to higher things. They represent what is needful in repentance when we sin and the shape of the life that follows from it—penitent, humble living in true surrender and joyful dependence on Jesus Christ.
Repentance involves humbling ourselves before God and one another. Humility begins in the knowledge of God and is nourished in the fear of God (Prov 3:5-8). The more we come to know Jesus Christ, the more we come to know ourselves truly. As we abide in Jesus, the Father prunes dead branches. James says to the church,
“Confess your sins to another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas 5:16). This takes humility. In fact, it requires constant, penitential self-emptying. The healing James speaks of is not the result of a safe or healthy church culture (though that is no evil), but of the unconstrained activity of the Holy Spirit and our yielding to Him in true surrender.
In public confession, the impulse of self-preservation, particularly the protection of one’s image, is renounced, and the Holy Spirit is free to do His cleansing work, more abundant “than all we ask or imagine.” Satan would deceive us to think that this is the path of death and destruction, but it is, in fact, the way of life and peace in Jesus. Repentance yields “the peaceable fruit of eternal blessedness.”21
The kindness of God does not lead to lawlessness and licentiousness but to repentance, and repentance leads to the obedience of faith (Rom 2:4). Repentance aligns our heart with God, for in true surrender our will becomes one with His and His Spirit kindles pure love in our heart (1 Jn 4:7,19). When we repent, we are freed to extend the same to others, because His love comes into us and controls us (2 Cor 5:14). We are born of God, a new creation. We love our enemies and call all people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, the one who loved us and gave himself for us. We are no longer slaves to corruption and sin but have the Life of God living in us. Our obedience is not perfect, but He helps us in our weakness. He enables us to manifest the five fruits and gives us the free and flourishing life that follows.
In this way, we glory in His might and yield our life to Him in love and obedience. Let’s not waste our life on other things!
- The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, Tr. and Ed. William Klassen and Walter Klaassen, republished by Plough Publishing House, 484-497, hereafter WPM
- WPM, 486
- WPM, 487-488
- WPM, 489
- WPM, 490
- WPM, 491
- WPM, 492
- WPM, 492
- WPM, 495-496
- For anyone interested in further reading, I suggest Hans Hut, “A Beginning of a True Christian Life” and Leonhard Schiemer, “Concerning the Grace of God; Concerning the Little Bottle” both available in Jörg Maler’s Kunstbuch: Writings of the Pilgram Marpeck Circle, edited by John Rempel from Pandora Press, 2010. Marpeck’s influence from these earlier South German Anabaptist preachers is evident. Anabaptism in South Germany, including Marpeck, interacted with and was influenced by the 14th-century text, Theologia Deutsch (for an English translation, I recommend Susanna Winkworth, Theologia Germanica Modern English Edition by Scriptoria Books 2014).
- WPM, 496