Aristotle’s teaching on virtue was not that it was the opposite of vice, but rather that virtue was the mean between two opposite vices, the mean between an excess and a defect of the same feeling. Courage, for example, is virtue not because it has no fear, but rather that it takes a stand despite fear. It has the proper proportion of fear so as not to lead cowardliness—an excess of fear—and rashness—a defect of fear. So also temperance is virtue not because it lacks all feelings of pleasure, but because it has the proper proportion of feeling pleasure that it neither leads to intemperance—an excess of pleasure—or apathy—a defect of pleasure. Aristotle does this for all virtues and vices, showing how virtue is not vice’s opposite but rather mean between two opposite but equally pernicious vices.
What Aristotle said of virtue, the church, too, has said with regard to doctrine. The opposite of heresy is not orthodoxy, but rather another heresy just on the opposite side. It’s what Luther, among others, calls falling off the horse on the other side. Or as we might call it: running into the opposite ditch. The point is that by overcorrection, we go from one ditch to the other one. The problem, of course, is that we’re still in the ditch. In other words, we don’t fix error with error, by overcompensating. Error is fixed when one follows right behind the Lord and His Words, when we abide in His teaching, shifting neither to the right or to the left.
And so a parable about the virtue of zeal for the lost AND found. The angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents. And here is where the vices of Jesus’s day and ours enters. For the Scribes and the Pharisees, their vice is a defect of joy over one sinner who repents. They don’t rejoice because they don’t see a need for repentance. They are already righteous. The reality is quite different. The Scriptures are replete with examples of how all men are sinful from birth and are in need of repentance. And thus the final unstated question in our Lord’s parable: If the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents, why don’t you? They don’t because they see no need for it because being righteous in God’s sight in not about being lost and found by God, but by never getting lost. The problem is that sinful man is always lost unless he is found, he is a sinner in need of repentance.
But this is not our vice. Our vice is an overcorrection to that of the Scribes and Pharisees. It is not in the defect of joy over one sinner who repents. It is in the excess of joy over the sinner’s sin. This leads to the same outcome as the vice of the Scribes and the Pharisees. There is no rejoicing with the angels over one sinner who repents because there is no sin that needs to be repented of. The sinner is not lost and found. The sinner in this case is never lost and is not in need of being found because he has done nothing wrong.
Consider the world’s acceptance of same-sex marriage. It’s not enough that we must be tolerant of it, we must rejoice in it. Celebrate it. The acceptance of those with same-sex attraction is not on the basis of being lost and then found, of a sinner who repents of his sin. Rather by the sleight of hand, the stroke of pen, the sin is no longer a sin and made into a good—a transformation of darkness into light, falsehood into truth. It’s a changing of identity not by the Word of God but by the will of the man. It is the polar opposite of the Scribes and the Pharisees, but just as destructive.
But that’s the world, you think. That’s society, our culture. It’s not us. This is true. But we do something similar by our own sleight of hand. And it is always preceded by three little words: “but at least . . . .” The parents in response to the couple living together against the clear Word of God, not to mention, the clear findings of study upon study regarding the detrimental effects of this, “but at least” they’re being honest and not hiding it from us. As though mere brazenness atones. To the girl giving birth out of wedlock, “but at least” she didn’t get an abortion. Yes, this is good. But does the refraining from a second sin atone for the committing of the first?
“But at least” theology blinds us to our sins. It makes us comfortable with breaking God’s law. It dulls our ears and our hearts to hearing not only God’s holy law, but also His life-saving Gospel. It makes Jesus’ death and resurrection completely unnecessary because atonement can be achieved by our own works. It gives us the ability to soothe our own consciences, not by God’s Word of forgiveness, but by rejoicing in the sin the sinner could have done but didn’t. And it still doesn’t rejoice with the angels over one sinner who repents because in our eyes there is nothing to repent of.
Repent! For this is the same sin as the Scribes and the Pharisees but in a different direction.
And that is where the parable leaves the Scribes and the Pharisees. It’s where it leaves us. The end is left open. What will they do? What will we do? Will we continue to go our own way, either in excess or defect? Or will we follow right behind Jesus, without wavering from His Word and promises? Will we rejoice with the angels over one sinner who repents? Will we rejoice with the Good Shepherd who at great cost to Him seeks to find the one who is lost, carry him on His shoulders so that his friends and neighbors can rejoice with him that what He lost is now found and restored to His fold? Will we rejoice with God who at great effort to Him turns His house upside down and inside out to find the coin that was under His charge for safe keeping? Will we rejoice with the Word of God made flesh, who for the joy that was before Him endured the cross and despising its shame sought to save those who were lost in sin and death? This is how we love one another. For love does not rejoice is wrongdoing. It does not rejoice in evil. Love rejoices with the angels over one sinner who repents, who was lost but now is found, who was dead but now is alive.
That is what repentance is: being found by God through His Word when we are lost in our sins because of the temptations of our own flesh, the world, and the devil. He finds us. He comes into our mess. He breaks in to hinder every evil plan of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature by the proclamation of His Word. Repentance is simply admitting that you’re lost when God’s Word says that you are. It is confessing, saying the same thing as what God’s Word says.
And God’s word says this: You were once lost but now you’re found. You were once dead in your trespasses and sins, but now you are alive in Christ Jesus. You were once not a people, but now you are God’s people. For by water and Word, you bear upon your brow the sign of His victory and our redemption. And now the God of all grace will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you with His own body and blood. Rejoice with me, he says, for what was lost is now found, what was dead is now alive. For you are, and we do, with the angels and all the company of heaven, with shouts of thanksgiving “for though you were angry with us, your anger turned away, that you might comfort us . . . for the Lord God is our strength and our song, and he is our salvation.”