The Problem With Repentance
by Don Watson
The problem with repentance is that it is something I want YOU to do. I want YOU to be sorry for what you did to me. I want YOU to turn away from doing things that I think you shouldn't be doing. I want YOU to stop irritating me, stop hurting me, stop embarrassing me, stop taking me for granted, taking me for a ride, taking advantage of me. I want YOU to believe what I believe, embrace what I embrace, and condemn what I condemn. I want YOU to repent – turn away from "sin" and do what I think is "right." Only on rare occasions do some of us have the courage and honesty to realize that WE are the ones that need to repent, to change, to forgive, to accept, to overlook, to heal, to give, to admit. Repentance is for US. It is recognition that WE were wrong, WE failed, the direction WE were headed was taking us away from God instead of closer to Him. Now Satan doesn't care where we're headed, no matter how righteous it may appear, as long as it is away from an intimate, honest, open, nothing-hidden relationship with God. My direction may seem ever so religious or "spiritual." I may defend, rationalize, excuse, cover up, re-interpret what I'm doing to convince myself that where I'm headed is good, righteous, and according to God's will, but if it is not making me kinder, more compassionate, loving, and forgiving; If it is not making me more honest about my faults, weaknesses, and failings; If it is not leading me to understand how blind I am about my sins and motives, I am not living in repentance, and I am moving in a direction that is alienating me from God. But if I will live in repentance, I will recognize anything that causes me to slightly turn in a direction away from my intimate walk with God.
Repentance is not (like many of us have thought) something we do in order to be accepted by God and receive eternal life. It is not a requirement to be saved. Romans 2:1-4 explains that it is God's goodness in saving us that leads us to repentance. That why Jesus said when He began His teaching here on this earth, "Repent and believe the gospel." (Mark 1:15) In other words, "Turn around. Stop going away from God, and believe the Good News about who God really is – You are unconditionally loved, accepted, and forgiven by Him."
I used to think that God required me to be sorry for my sins and turn away from them, quit them, and stop doing them! So when I tried to quit and couldn't, when I wanted to be sorry but wasn't, I felt that there was no hope for me. I just didn't love Jesus enough. I loved sin more. I do not believe that is true repentance. True repentance is simply turning towards God as I am with my sins, habits and even my love for them. When I do that – turn towards God – I AM automatically turning away from sin.
But I would never have turned towards God if I had thought He condemned me. Calvary changed that. It took away my condemnation. When I understood that when Jesus died, 2000 years ago, He forgave me (Eph. 1:7) and took away my sin ("Not counting my sins against me" – 2 Corinthians 5:19), I knew that I could turn around and go back home and the Father would be there waiting with outstretched arms. Only when we realize our safety is NOT in our holiness, rightness, sinlessness, or correctness, but in our open, authentic, honesty with God will we live in constant repentance – a daily turning towards God. I believe this is something, however, that we desperately need, not only as individuals but corporately as a church as well.
I have read numerous documents lately about the atrocities we Christians have done to each other as well as to non-Christians – the persecution of protestant reformers like Luther, Wycliffe, Huss, Jerome, and the Waldensians. The crusades to the Holy Land killed thousands of Muslims, and men of science, like Galileo and Copernicus were imprisoned and some were even killed for their "heretical" views.
I also noticed recently that a lot of apologies have been made by church leaders for past and present atrocities – an admission that these things were wrong and should not have been done. Yet they carefully stress that "the church" is not guilty for these sins. They were the acts of sinful men. I thought a lot about that, and I can understand that sometimes, no matter how good an organization is, we leaders can allow our sinfulness and depravity to make it appear that this is what the church is all about. However, if we are not careful, we can be blind to the fact that an institution -our institutions – can have embedded in its very nature, principles more in harmony with the prince of darkness than the prince of light. It may not be totally corrupt or satanic, but just as all people find some of those principles embedded in their own character, every institution has them as well, and the only thing that will change that inner rottenness is persistent, corporate repentance – a constant turning towards God with open hands and heart, non-defensive and totally transparent with respect to all our policies and practices. But I believe there is an enormous reluctance, if not a complete aversion, to embrace that kind of corporate repentance. We have a corporate culture that does not welcome the "revelation of our beasts (Rev. 13)." We are reticent to embrace the powerful truth that our strength lies in the constant scrutiny of our attitudes and practices; the open recognition of our sins, weaknesses, and spiritual adulteries.
If we will listen, God has "prophets" who will reveal our sins and call us to repentance much like Jeremiah and others did in the Old Testament, but their experience bears witness that corporate repentance has not been readily embraced by God's church. We often don't even recognize these "prophets." They're just people who complain or expose a problem or a lie or see some doctrine a different way. They question things that just don't seem right or don't seem to work anymore. These are people who have been hurt, neglected, or damaged by the church. A humble, repentant church will listen carefully to a cry, watch for a wound, and welcome any criticism from any source and lay it out before God. After all, it may have come from "a prophet."
The cost of being a repentant church, however, may be extremely high. The church has never been real supportive of accepting sinners or criticism. The religious leaders at Simon's feast decided to kill Jesus after He allowed the sinner, Mary, to anoint His feet with spikenard and wipe them with her hair. It became clear that sinners like Mary would be "honored citizens" in the Kingdom of Jesus, while the rich and famous were turned away because they weren't ready to give everything they had to the poor. Church leaders like that, who ignored the pious opinions of the powerful and embraced the cries of the poor might well commit political suicide today if they dared to operate the kind of humble, repentant church that Jesus founded.
The Church of Laodicea, the Church of the last days, was noted as a church who would not recognize its poverty. "You are rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing; you know not that you are poor, wretched, miserable, blind, and naked." They didn't think they needed repentance, yet over and over again, Jesus calls for all 7 churches to Repent – not merely sinful individuals, popes, pastors, or conference presidents, but He calls the church, the institution itself, to repent! The church itself can embrace principles that are diametrically opposed to the gospel, diametrically opposed to an intimate, open, authentic relationship with Jesus.
Like the church of the dark ages, most modern day denominations and churches still operate, at times, on a worldly system of force, pressure, intimidation, and coercion. While we teach that we are saved by grace through faith, we have not embraced grace or trust in God in the operation of our corporate body. We believe we must enforce our doctrines and practices by "disfellowshipping" or "censure" or termination, or removal from the governing board or some church office. We don't trust God (Faith) to take care of His church or His truth. We think, if we don't defend it and weed out the heretics, the church will not survive. We have ignored the declaration of Jesus to allow the wheat to grow with the tares, because Jesus knows that if we will water the tares, they will become wheat. I believe God is calling us to repent.
This bleeds over into our understanding and proclamation of the gospel. Someone will accept Jesus and want to be part of our church family, but we will not allow it until they eliminate a certain list of sins first. Or it may be that they love Jesus but don't yet see the Judgment or State of the Dead the same way we do as yet. The GOOD NEWS – the gospel – is: Jesus accepts us, justifies us, and dies for us "while we were powerless and still sinners," (Rom 5:6-8) but the church requires sinlessness [at least in certain areas of our life] and complete uniformity of belief before they will accept us as members. I believe God is calling us to corporately repent and teach a Biblical gospel that causes us to live the gospel and operate our churches and denominations on the basis of the Gospel.
A lot of people think that when grace is the focus, obedience goes down the tubes. On the contrary, operating our lives, our businesses, and our churches on the basis of the gospel is the only way that real obedience takes place. In the safe, fertile soil of grace, repentance takes place naturally and constantly. Real repentance brings everything in our lives to the God of grace because we know there is no condemnation there. It is that "goodness of God (Grace) that leads us to repentance." Whether we are a church or a just an ordinary person, God's grace (His unmerited favor on us) must be the basis of everything we do and the way we do it – giving people, not what they deserve, but what they need in an atmosphere of total acceptance. Every day, every moment, may we constantly turn away (repent)from our sinful ways of living life and doing church, by simply turning to the God (Real Repentance) who embraces us exactly as we are, and changes us by His amazing grace.
Love you all, Pastor Don.