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Reconciling Repentance with Grace and Forgiveness

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Revelation 2:4-5 [God speaking to the angel of the church in Ephesus] But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. [emphasis mine]

Luke 24:46-47 [newly resurrected Jesus addressing two disciples] And said to them, Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. [emphasis mine]

In early February, I met up in-person to explore a friend of a friend's interest in Quicksilver Church. I’ll call him Eli. 

Eli shared his observation that so many churches have ignored Jesus’ teaching about repentance and instead focus solely on preaching mercy, grace, and forgiveness. He saw this trend not just in the West but throughout the world (primarily Asia). Eli did not grow up in the US but came to this country for college.

I asked Eli what evidence he observed in the church that resulted from this evasion of repentance. He said it’s everywhere. The divorce rate among Christians is the same as the rest of society. Christians appear to be no more generous than non-Christians. He painted a narrative arc of education, employment, marriage, children, and retirement that looks exactly the same as the rest of the world. Eli then gave a very specific example that in his church, members attempt church activity to fit around their schedule of work, leisure, and kids’ events rather than the other way around - placing the church activity at the center and scheduling all other events around it.

I’ve been ruminating on my conversation with Eli for the past couple of months. I even invited two friends to join us for a couple virtual meetings. I wholeheartedly agree with Eli’s observations and sentiment. The topic of repentance is tremendously important and yet often misunderstood. I’m not convinced a correct understanding will immediately change a person’s behavior but I increasingly recognize how crucial it is to integrate our understanding of repentance with the rest of the Christian faith. 

I define repentance as a turning from sin and a turning towards God. Despite the simplicity of this definition, several misconceptions exist in the way repentance is taught and understood. 

On one hand is the myth that repentance is a one-time act that initiates one into the Christian life. Repentance is a decision made upon conversion and is the means by which a person receives his ticket to heaven. Once a sinner confesses his sinful nature and professes faith in Christ, repentance has occurred. A believer from that day forward is no longer required to repent. Rather, he is immersed in unending grace and forgiveness (Love yourself!) and allowed to live however he wants, without facing spiritual consequences such as eternal torment, guilt, shame, or condemnation. Theologians refer to this type of thinking as license. 

Because today's culture idolizes personal emotional fulfillment, license is a great temptation. We only focus on grace and forgiveness and ignore the injunctions towards behavioral change.  Revelation 2:4-5 (referenced above) is quoted from God’s words to the seven churches. Jesus is addressing his followers. The message for the Ephesians is to restore their first love. Jesus addresses them as believers and yet clearly, repentance has an ongoing place in their spiritual formation. The sin of abandoning their first love does not invalidate the works, toil, and patient endurance (Rev 2:2) they’ve exhibited by faith. The Ephesians believers are, like the church today, saints who sin. Repentance is needed for believers not just non-believers and is hardly a one-time act.

On the other hand, repentance can depict a practice of self-flagellation intended to motivate good behavior and outcomes. It recalls instances of worship leaders beginning a service by abasing themselves with generalities. LORD, I’m so unworthy. I’m such a sinner I can’t come into your presence. LORD, I don’t think about you nearly enough. Repentance becomes a kind of degradation Olympics - a competition for who can be regarded as being the worst of sinners. The sense is God’s grace and forgiveness can only be accessed once we sufficiently abase ourselves. The act of repeated abasement is integral to sanctification, the journey towards manifesting Christlike-ness. This kind of self-flagellation is also emotion-driven. It equates spiritual maturity with wallowing in self-pity. In addition, the focus on repentance as self-flagellation includes other incentives. If we would only sufficiently degrade ourselves, positive life outcomes will result - behavioral change, material blessings, freedom from the consequences of sin, and health, etc. Christians refer to this theology as legalism.

One example of repentance as self-flagellation is the evangelical view that COVID-19 is God’s judgment against the sin of the world. If the church sufficiently repents and abases herself, then there’s an implication God will rescue humanity from this self-inflicted affliction. There is biblical evidence to support this view and yet there’s also biblical evidence that counters. Luke 24:46-67 is an example of a counter to this view. Jesus speaks to his disciples, who up until that point, did not recognize him. In this statement, he emphasizes the relationship between repentance AND the forgiveness of sins. These two actions go together. Repentance is the request for mercy and forgiveness is the act of receiving it. Those two must go together. 

License emphasizes turning towards God, without a turning from sin. Legalism emphasizes the turning from sin, without a turning towards God. License emphasizes belief without behavior and legalism emphasizes behavior without belief. Both of these extremes are non-relational. What does it look to place them in the correct proportion? How can we emphasize both?

Repentance emphasizes the inextricable bond between belief and behavior. It is both turning from and turning towards. Repentance is to change one’s ways. Repentance means coming to the end of one’s self and acknowledging the consequences of one’s flesh. Self-sufficiency is a lie and false behavior can be traced back to false belief. Thus, repentance also means coming to terms with the reality of the Spirit and the believer’s substance as a new creation in Christ. Eugene Peterson writes “The usual biblical word describing the no we say to the world’s lies and the yes we say to God’s truth is repentance. It is always and everywhere the first word in the Christian life.”

Repentance is the primary means by which a person accesses God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. It is the most important prerequisite to receiving God’s unconditional love. It is not the only means to experience God’s love but it is the main one. It is not a one-time act but rather an ongoing exercise of faith. Repentance is an activity of faith that opens one’s heart to receive grace and forgiveness. The LORD’s prayer is meant to be prayed daily as an ongoing exercise of repentance. Certainly, there will be times and seasons where personal repentance is experienced more poignantly. And repentance can and should happen both individually or corporately. 

Several weeks after talking with Eli, I spoke with a friend in my Life Group. A Life Group is a group of believers in my church who meet weekly to discuss how to apply biblical values and pray for one another. My friend confronted me for exhibiting a harsh and condescending attitude towards Judy during one of our Life Group discussions. Later that week, the church planter assessment report came back from Acts 29, the church planting network I’m being sent out from. The report was overwhelmingly positive but one of the comments noted that, during a group counseling exercise, I had corrected Judy in front of the group. The report warned me not to correct her publicly. A couple days later, I went on a walk with a friend and he commented that when Judy and I had visited him and his wife, he expressed concerned over how I spoke harshly to Judy. One Sunday a couple weeks later, our Life Group looked at the habit of listening, prayer and obedience, with an emphasis on repentance. 

What do these messages mean? I’m tempted to interpret these messages as an indication that I’m an evil person and a terrible husband. I’m tempted to believe our marriage is hopeless and devoid of love and affection. However, I recognize these temptations as lies. I have patterns due to my personality and family background that encourage pride and a critical spirit. And yet those patterns no longer define me. Judy and I have a good marriage. We do talk with each other quite candidly. However, treating her with harshness and condescension is never good, privately or publicly. In these messages from my peers, I recognize God giving me the opportunity to repent. This was a chance to come to the end of myself and come before Him: to acknowledge my sin, receive grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and commit to believe and behave differently because I am no longer my own. 

I spent some time coming before God, confessing my critical spirit and receiving forgiveness. I apologized to my wife. Then to my kids. Then to the Life Group. In those moments, I had to remind myself of the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection poured out for me. I had to resist the temptation of making a show of making amends and rather allow God to work in the innermost reaches of my heart. It was painful yet freeing. Which of those steps was repentance? I hope all of them. 

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