Words like repent or repentance are common in Christian vocabulary. We hear it in sermons, scripture, and in casual conversation. But how often do we take time to reassess what it actually means?
I’ve personally had to rethink this concept as I’ve picked up ways of relating to the term that have been less than helpful.
Common Misperceptions About Repentance
Repentance as a Necessary Evil
Let me start off by saying that I’ve never heard anyone say that repentance is a necessary evil. Respectable Christians know better than to be that frank. However, what we profess and what we embody are not always congruous. In my own life and based on what I’ve seen and heard, repentance is the last thing we often want to do. Of course we begrudgingly do it because we have too. Not because it’s a welcomed practice in our life.
The mature repent less and less as time goes on
The basic idea here is that having to repent again and again is a sure sign of immaturity instead of maturity. Repentance is what the immature have to do but over time we should be getting “better and better”, needing to repent less and less. In cultures with this mindset, living a visible life of repentance actually subverts our moral authority instead of establishes it.
The Gospel Flips this Assumption
When I read the gospels, especially the beginning of Mark’s gospel or the gospel according to Matthew (e.g. Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17), I’ve always found it interesting that Jesus invites people to repent after proclaiming good news. This is not how I’ve experienced the average street preacher with the message of ‘turn or burn.’ Their message of “good news” is sandwiched between the alpha and omega of God’s retributive anger.
Jesus starts his ministry with the proclamation that God’s Kingdom of rescue and healing has begun. I like to call it “God’s New Creation Project.” Literally, in Jesus, a whole new world is breaking into the present evil age. The ‘eternal kind of life’ that God has always desired to share with humanity is being made available. The gospel is not news about going to heaven after we die. It’s a declaration that life with God, under the rule of Jesus, in his ways is being made available now.
With that said, as God’s new world is being unfurled, we find that it is both attractive and frightening. The light of his beauty exposes the world as it truly is. Under the power of sin and death: violent and divided. We are all complicit victims. Bound by faux visions of what it means to be human. We’re invested in the world as it is even as we lament its present condition.
What is Repentance?
Repentance is an embrace of God’s vision for the world. It is a life long practice by which we begin reorienting our lives in step with the good news of Jesus. At the heart of repentance is responding to the grace and truth of God as revealed in his Son with embodied loyalty.
As one hears the royal announcement of this new King who has launched this new world, with a distinct and unique way of being human, we are invited to respond.
Three aspects of repentance
Lifelong reckoning of reality
Repentance is a reckoning that we do not have the resources to live the abundant kind of life Jesus came to offer. Our perceptions and the things we do are actually near the core of our predicament.
This is what makes repentance so painful. We are so invested in how we see the world and in how we currently live. And the gospel itself with the revelation of Jesus as the true human exposes the hollowness of our collective visions of what it means to be human. Nothing short of a death to self is in order. Truly, repentance hurts because who we try to define ourselves as apart from Jesus, our intellect, our achievement, our physical beauty, and our jobs must die.
Receptive to God’s voice
As Brian Zahnd has said, Jesus is what God has to say. A vital aspect of repentance is hearing the grace and truth of God as revealed in Jesus. God’s voice is good, is light, is love. God’s voice sounds like Jesus.
Yes, there is at times a severity to God’s mercy. Our stubbornness shapes the way we experience the purifying love of God. It exposes the false identities we live in and calls us back into the fold. It flips our world upside down and exposes the things we found solace in as mere idols. In this sense, our lives experience a gracious ruin. God’s voice interrupts us as we walk on the wide and crooked path of death and invites us to live in the narrow path of self emptying love.
Repentance as James says is about receiving the good news, which is able to save our very lives from our own destruction.
Responsive in obedience
As we hear and receive the life, love, and truth revealed in Jesus as God’s very words, we are invited to respond. Responding in obedience is not a one size fits all. It looks like doing whatever we are called to do in the moment.
We need not see this in terms of perfectionism where God is most concerned about us living up to a moral code. God is holy not a perfectionist. Rather, I suggest we see obedience as each step toward mature humanness as embodied in the life of Jesus. It’s learning to live in light of the Father’s abundant love for us. Obedience is not something we master but something we practice and learn continually.
Repentance in this paradigm is not a necessary evil or something we should aim to do less and less. It is the only way forward as we learn to be human as God intends as embodied in the life of Jesus our Lord.