Sunday, June 16, 2013

Taking repentance seriously

A key part of salvation, a part that is for us to do, is to repent.

In both the Old and New Testament, God makes it clear again and again that one of the things he wants from us is to repent (*see some good references below*). If sin is the fundamental problem between us and God—and it is—then when we desire to come to God and receive his salvation, part of that desire needs to be a resolve to stop sinning, to look at our life and begin to change what needs to be changed to bring us increasingly in line with what pleases him.

God promises us that when we accept his salvation and desire to do this, he will give us the power to live differently. That's one of the things the Holy Spirit does in us.

Repentance does not mean feeling bad about what you have done and how you have lived in the past and thanking God that Jesus' work covers all that so you can now go to heaven, even if you actually do not plan to examine and make changes in your life from here on out. That's not what salvation is all about, and that is certainly not repentance.

No, the Bible is clear throughout in letting us know repentance means stopping, considering our lives, turning from how we used to behave, and living in a new way that pleases God.

I'd argue that you can't tell whether someone's really repented until time has passed and you see how things turn out, because repentance happens over time.

Don't get me wrong—I don't mean the qualification for repentance is that a person never sins again after accepting Christ. That's unrealistic and a ridiculous thing to argue. Come on now.

What I mean is that one component of accepting salvation means you're willing to actually look at your life and not live it the way you've always done in the past. It means you first look to God and what pleases him, and then you see how you have missed the mark (sinned). And you resolve to make changes, and you actually make them, and then you see what else does not line up, and you make changes, and on and on and on until the end of your life.

That's what salvation looks like in practice. That's repentance. And anything else is... not quite salvation, I'd argue. It's both your fault and the church's fault for not being adamant about what the "after" part of salvation entails.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of cheap grace. I think cheap repentance is a component of that. Say the prayer and Jesus forgives your sins... and then just keep on living your life as you have been. I don't see a lot of churches showing people how to repent and what it should mean for their lives afterwards. We are living in an era of cheap repentance.

And I believe the church is suffering internally as a result. Our churches are full of people who've "received Christ" yet still behave in self-interested, dysfunctional, sinful ways that affect not only themselves, their families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, but others in the congregation and the Body of Christ itself. Instead of working for the Kingdom, they're at best non-participants and at worst stumbling blocks and moles, agents of the enemy.

And most of them don't even know it, because most of them have never been told otherwise.

Now, let me be clear. I don't know what God does with folks who "accept salvation" and keep living the way they always have. I'm not going to go there now. Let me just say I trust in God's mercy and his justice, his faithfulness and his righteousness. We'll find out when we get to the Kingdom.

But I do think churches need to do a much better job of being clear about what salvation and repentance mean before the "prayer is prayed" or Christ is confessed. And we also need to do much better at walking alongside new Christians and showing them the ropes once they do join our ranks. Anything less does them a great disservice and is slow suicide for us.

* See—
The Book of Judges to understand a cycle of sin and repentance in Israel. In your opinion, did Israel really ever repent during this time in its history?
1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 7 for God's word to Israel at the dedication of the temple.
Matthew 3-4 for what both John the Baptist and Jesus have to say on the matter.
Luke 16 for Jesus' parable about the rich man and Lazarus.
Revelation 1-3 for the importance of repentance within the Body of Christ.

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