Many much wiser folks than I have thought and written extensively on Christian repentance. But I was having a conversation the other day which brought some thoughts to mind that I wanted to jot down.
It gets pointed out frequently that repentance isn’t just being sorry, but that it is stopping what you are doing. It is a turning away from sin. The point of this is that you can’t just call a verbal apology repentance if it is not accompanied by a rejection and stopping of the particular sin. And this has been a much needed emphasis for worship, of which confession is a legitimate part, and for parents who rightly demand apologies from their children for misbehavior. Simply saying you’ve sinned without any intention of a different trajectory is as useless as saying to a hungry, insufficiently clothed person “‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body!” (James 2:16) In fact it is worse to go on sinning in full knowledge than to sin in ignorance, “for if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10:26-27) Pharaoh admitted guilt (Exodus 9:27), yet persisted in sin to the destruction of his firstborn son and entire army.
However, it is worth pointing out that repentance isn’t simply stopping what you’re doing, it is also being sorry. It isn’t as though the being sorry is always easy and the stopping is always hard. Church leaders have to pray and wrestle with messy situations to determine the state of a person’s heart because scripture tells them to, not because they are superior or so much cleaner than the person, but because the Lord has established churches and elders to make those calls for the purity of the church and for the shepherding of the sinner. If a person seems to be repentant, yet persists in sin, and if a church is unwilling to go into that dark place with them, but simply drops it, it is to that person’s detriment. It is not love or mercy toward the sinner to stand by as their soul is dragged away and devoured, simply because they assure it that isn’t happening. But making judgement calls on a person’s repentance is frequently no easy task. Scripture contains examples of sinners claiming repentance who in fact were unrepentant, and we should expect the scenario to be no less difficult today. Many sins aren’t of an ongoing nature, but produce major ongoing consequences, such as fornication leading to conception and birth, and infidelity leading to divorce and remarriage. It is not enough to say “What once was sin for me is no longer sin, therefore I am OK.” That sin must be truly owned for what it is and repented for, or it will fester like an infection beneath the skin.
N. T. Wright looks to the usage of first century Jewish historian Josephus for insight on (at least) what Jesus meant in Mark 1:15 when he says “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” When Josephus uses the same words, he means essentially, “give up your agenda and take up my agenda.” Though Wright means far more than I do here, I think the essence of this other way of saying it is good. The reality is that repentance means, not simply an intellectual assent of a violation, and not simply a moral corrective of behavior. Repentance is an utter destruction of an individual’s agenda, and a wholehearted adoption of the agenda of Christ. It is not legalistically trying to check off a list of appeasement items in the hopes of returning life to it’s prior comfortable state. My agenda is my own comfort, my own plans, what make me happy. But if I abandon that entirely in true repentance, than any amount of hardship I face as a result of my sinful actions should not seem in any way an injustice on the part of God or others. Rather, I would see myself as the ultimate perpetrator, Christ as the ultimate victim, and any suffering I receive as my due. Then, even the slightest grace or mercy or good that I receive will be met with humility, thanksgiving, and praise because of my recognition that for all of my so-called suffering, I deserved infinitely more, and death and hell. Repentance is the forsaking of anything I want or think I deserve, the hatred of any part of me which is not seeking first the kingdom of heaven, and the commitment to pursue that kingdom at all costs, even the cost of myself.