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Crucial Words in the Christian Vocabulary: Repentance (4)


 Isaiah 30:15       Jeremiah 24:7       Mark 1:14-15       Romans 2:4


Some words in the Christian vocabulary have acquired a “bad press.” As soon as such a word is mentioned negative associations surround it. “Repentance” is such a word. For many people the word is off-putting because of the images that accompany it: breast-beating, tears, self-accusation, self-rejection. Repentance is commonly thought to be a matter of fishing around in the hidden depths of spiritual sludge, dredging up whatever might be there and staring at it unhelpfully. And to be sure, among some people whose zeal outstripped their wisdom it’s been thought that the worse we can appear to ourselves (at least) the more virtuous we are supposed to be.

“Repentance” has a bad press, again, in that it’s frequently linked to an exaggerated feeling of guilt. We’ve all heard preaching that attempts to precipitate a crisis of repentance (so-called) by artificially magnifying guilt. The fires of guilt are stoked until repentance is seized to extinguish them. Coincidentally I have noticed that mental health experts tend to be suspicious of “religion” if not downright hostile to it. I have long thought too that their anti-religious sentiment appears to be fed by the distressed people who seek them professionally, the distress of these people quickened by religiously fanned emotional torment. If repentance presupposes emotional shipwreck, who needs it?

Repentance is often confused, in the third place, with remorse. Unquestionably the remorseful person feels dreadful. Remorse, however, is depression-ridden regret over what one has done or over the consequences of what one has done. Remorse, depression-riddled regret, is never the same as repentance (as we shall shortly see.)

It’s easy to understand that “repentance” is a word our society prefers to forget. No one is going to be helped by anything that rubs our nose in our personal garbage pail or artificially magnifies guilt or soaks us in depression.

Nevertheless, we Christians can never delete the word from our vocabulary. After all, we know that Jesus Christ comes only to impart wholeness, healing, helpfulness, and yet he summons people to repentance every day of his earthly ministry. Not only is the summons to repent always on our Lord’s lips; it’s always an urgent summons. “Don’t put it off,” he insists; “What are you waiting for? Can’t you see this is what the physician prescribes? Can’t you see that you need this as you need nothing else?” The summons to repentance is one of the major building blocks of our Lord’s ministry. If we pull it out, his ministry becomes unrecognizable.


I: — Repentance, at bottom, isn’t garbage-pail picking. It is a change of mind with an attendant change in life. Both are needed. If there’s only a change in our thinking then we are racing our motor with the gears in neutral: lots of impressive-sounding noise pouring forth (from under the hood) but no advance. I remember sitting with a suffering man, an alcoholic still a long way from contented sobriety, at 3:00 a.m.    He knew he had a problem. His pain was intense and unrelieved. He knew the progression of the ailment, the consequences for himself and his family. He had also been told time and again what help was available. Sitting alongside us was another habituated fellow who had been sober for several years. As our suffering friend insisted (utterly unrealistically) that he had his situation turned around in his mind, the sober fellow kept asking him, “But what are going to do about it?” Racing the motor with the gears in neutral gets us nowhere. A change of mind without a change in life-direction falls short of repentance.

On the other hand if there’s a change in behaviour without a profound transformation of mind and heart then we have merely conformed outwardly to peer pressure. Inwardly we are no different. As soon as a changed environment changes the peer pressure our behaviour will alter again – even as we remain the same inwardly. This chameleon-likeness is obviously not the repentance Jesus urges. He insists on both a change in how we are thinking, how we understand ourselves before him, and a change in the course we are pursuing.

Foundationally, repentance is a turning toward God. The Hebrew mind understands such turning to be a returning to God, an about-face. When the Israelite people heard the prophets summon them to repentance they immediately saw three vivid pictures that the prophets were forever holding up before the people.

[i] The first is that of an unfaithful wife returning to her husband. She has violated their marriage covenant. She has disgraced herself and humiliated her spouse. She has rendered their marriage the butt of cruel snickering and bad jokes. If she isn’t publicly ridiculed, she is privately whispered to be treacherous. Yet her husband’s love for her, however wounded, remains undiminished and his patience unexhausted. As she turns to him she returns to longstanding love.

[ii] The second picture the Hebrew prophets paint is that of idol-worshippers returning to the worship of the true God. In the Hebrew language, the word for “the idols” is “the nothings.” Idols are literally nothing: vacuous, insubstantial. Yet nothing is never merely nothing. In some sense nothing is always something. Nothing, never merely nothing, is always something; paradoxically, something with terrific power. Think of a vacuum. By definition a vacuum is nothing and yet is possessed of such power that it sucks everything around it into it.

Think of a lie. By definition a lie is nothing. A lie is a statement that corresponds to nothing. Yet a lie has immense power. Think of slander. Slander is a statement that ruins someone’s reputation, ruins her future, ruins her earthly fortunes when in fact the statement is wholly insubstantial, vacuous, nothing. But the damage nothing does isn’t nothing; the damage that nothing does is everything: ruinous.

Or think of a statement that isn’t slanderous but is merely untrue. If I were to say, in the course of this sermon, that a huge snowstorm was on the way most people would stop listening to the sermon and begin plotting how they were going to get home. Some would get up and leave right now. Others would move their car from the parking lot to the street so as not to be ploughed in. All would lament that we hadn’t worn our winter boots to worship and would make a note to purchase another pair tomorrow. In other words all of us would be orienting our lives around the statement that record snowfall is imminent – when the statement is a lie. Nothing, our Hebrew foreparents knew, is never merely nothing. Nothing – vacuity, hollowness – it’s oddly ‘something’ with destructive power.

When idol-worshippers turn from idols to the true and living God they return to truth, reality, substance, solidity; in a word they return to blessing so weighty that nothing can inhibit it or frustrate it or dissipate it.

[iii] The third picture from the Hebrew bible is that of rebel subjects returning to their rightful ruler. To rebel against rightful rule, fitting rule, appropriate rule, is always to move from order to chaos. We must be sure to understand that groundless rebellion is revolt against legitimate authority, not against arbitrary authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is no more than a bully’s coercion, enforced by gun or club. Authority, on the other hand, is that which ensures our greatest good. When rebel subjects rebel not against authoritarianism but against proper authority they plunge themselves into disorder and chaos. When they return to their rightful ruler they return to trustworthy wisdom, to that which ensures their blessing, their greatest good.

To repent, then, is to return to longstanding love, to truth, to legitimate authority.

We can know all of this, at least be aware of it in our head, and yet remain unaware of specific areas of our lives where (re)turning is needed. Since we are unaware of what’s needed now no amount of looking in upon ourselves will tell us what’s needed. We need someone else to tell us, someone whom we trust, someone from whom we can hear the truth about ourselves without exploding or denying or “retaliating.”

For years I assumed that I had privileged access to myself. In other words, I assumed that not only did I know more about myself than anyone else knew about me, I necessarily knew more about myself, knew more about myself in all circumstances without exception, than anyone else could know about me. I clung to this illusion and folly for years, Little by little, amidst much pain and no less public embarrassment, I came to see that while there are certainly some situations where I know more about myself than others do, there are many situations where anyone at all has better insight into me than I have into myself. There are situations where a five-year old has better insight into me than I have into myself. Finally I surrendered my illusion: I don’t have privileged access to myself. None of us has.

For this reason we need someone we trust to hold the mirror up to us, someone whose gentle word we know isn’t an attack upon us; we need some such person to help us see what we are never going to see by ourselves. Such a person says to us, “Why do you keep putting your wife down when in fact she needs affirmation?” “Why are you so harsh with your children at home but pretend such affection in public?” Because the mirror has been held up by someone we trust we aren’t going to “fly off the handle” and flee into our fort with all guns blazing. Instead we shall soberly admit what the mirror reflects: we must turn to face the truth about ourselves and the claim of our Lord upon us, even as the face of longstanding love shines upon us ceaselessly.


II: — What moves us to repentance? Why would anyone gladly make a “u-turn”, eagerly turn around? One thing above everything else moves us to repent: the mercy and kindness of God. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome , “Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”

John the Baptist spoke much of repentance. His motive for it was fear, sheer fear. “The axe is laid to the root of the tree. The chaff is being burned in the fire. Repentance is the only route to survival.” It’s the big threat.

Yet we falsify Jesus if we pretend that he never threatened. He did. And besides, didn’t Jesus say he endorsed cousin John’s ministry without reservation? Yet Jesus differs from John the Baptist in one important regard: for Jesus the decisive motive for repentance is the overwhelming, all-encompassing, incomprehensible mercy of God. We joyfully repent as God’s mercy floods us. Jesus speaks three unforgettable parables in Luke 15 of the lost coin, lost sheep and lost son. Each parable concludes with a repentance throbbing with joy.

I think that our foreparents (or at least some of them) may have erred in thinking that the big threat engineered repentance. The big threat, however, doesn’t change the human heart. To be sure it does coerce tolerable conduct, even as people hate the one who threatens them. How many adults are there who were emotionally bludgeoned into being models of middle-class convention and hated their parents for it? And how many adults, for the same reason, have grown up feeling the same way about God?

Before we write off our foreparents we should understand that our contemporaries (particularly our religious contemporaries) err in thinking that repentance is genuine only if we first disparage ourselves or purge ourselves or induce an unusual mental state. But to think we have to undergo a technique-ridden, psycho-religious initiation is to cast aspersion on God’s mercy and soak ourselves in anxiety: “I can’t seem to get into the right spiritual space.” Nowhere does Jesus prescribe self-disparagement or psycho-religious self-preparation. He simply stands before us and assures us that his arms, the arms of the crucified, embrace everyone without exception, without condition and without hesitation. His mercy is simple, profound, transparent, effectual.

Repentance, says Jesus, is coming to our senses, as the son in the far country came to his senses when he thought of the waiting father. Repentance, says Jesus, is to become a child again, because for a child everything is received as gift. Repentance, says, Jesus, is so far from anything miserable that it calls for a party, for celebration, for dancing.


III: — I want to conclude the sermon today with a glance into history at three of our foreparents who did get it right, who did know what scripture means by “repentance.”

First is Martin Luther (1483-1546.) On Hallowe’en, 1517, Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg . In those days it was the custom to post publicly any item on which you were inviting public debate. Luther had much in mind that he thought should be debated publicly; he had ninety-five matters (at least) in mind. And the first? “When scripture says ‘Repent’ it means that the life of the Christian is daily, lifelong repentance.” To say that the life of the Christian is daily, lifelong repentance is to say that every morning when our feet hit the cold floor we orient ourselves afresh to the truth that is before us. Every morning we re-check our course to ensure that we are on course. Every morning we resolve that this day we are going to live as those who are re-orienting themselves to persistent love, to truth and substance, to rightful rule and authority. The life of the Christian is a daily, lifelong reaffirmation of this.

The second person I want us to think about is John Calvin (1509-1864), another Sixteenth Century Reformer. In his Commentary on Deuteronomy, in the course of discussing the Ten Commandments, Calvin argued cogently that the form in which God’s command comes to us is invitation. On the one hand the command to repent is just that: a command. On the other hand, in light of God’s all-embracing mercy, the form of the command isn’t a sergeant-major’s bark but a winsome invitation: “Why don’t you repent? Isn’t it better to re-orient your life than not to? Your Father is waiting for you to RSVP the invitation.”

The third person is really a cluster of persons: Seventeenth Century Puritans. The Puritans insisted that all God’s commands are covered promises. All God’s commands are promises in disguise. To be sure, God does command us to repent, return. At the same time, by his Spirit God guarantees the fulfilment of his command. If ever we doubt that we can repent, can repent adequately, all we need do is look to our Lord who submitted to John’s baptism of repentance not because he, Jesus, needed to repent but because we need to. In other words, if we doubt the adequacy of our own repentance we must cling afresh to Jesus Christ in faith, for in clinging to him we are one with him who gathers our defective repentance into his sufficient, effectual repentance and thereby ensures that ours is adequate. All the commands of God are covered promises.


Mark tells us that Jesus came into Galilee with a very simply message: “The Kingdom of God , the reign of God’s mercy, is on your doorstep. So why not repent, turn into it, and cast yourselves upon the best news you will ever hear?”

Why not?

                                                                                                   Victor Shepherd                                                                                            

 February 2004