I spoke at our recent annual church dinner on the subject of repentance. A cheery night then? For sure people were thoughtful after I spoke. But a handful sought me out to express their appreciation at dealing with the issue. What follows is the text from which I meandered as the mood took me!
The theme I’d love us to think this year is the subject of repentance.
When I mentioned this to Alex, he gave me one of those looks with which I’ve become increasingly familiar over the last few months. Though very much unspoken, it clearly said ‘we won’t be doing that in Streatham!
And he might be right.
Repentance is one of those Bible words in the same category as remorse or regret. They don’t exactly conjure up a vision of the Christian life that’s instantly attractive, do they? Words like that colour the Christian life in grayscale. And who wants grey when you can have colour.
And yet, repentance is essential. In Acts 20:21, the Apostle Paul is recorded telling the Elders of the Church at Ephesus that he had ‘declared to both Jews and Greeks that they (simply) must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus’. He knew that repentance is fundamental to our Christian life.
The reason I want to talk about repentance is because I don’t think we’re very good at it! ‘But we do it every week’ was Alex’s reply when I suggested that. He was referring of course to that moment in every one of our Church meetings when we confess our sins and say words such as
Heavenly Father, you have loved us with an everlasting love, but we have gone our own way and broken your laws. We are sorry for our sins and turn away from them. For the sake of your Son who died for us, forgive us, cleanse us and change us. By your Holy Spirit, enable us to live for you, and to please you more and more; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
And I believe we mean them. But that’s corporate (it’s what we do together) and public (it’s hard to dissent) and verbal (it’s just words). We all say it because it’s the kind of thing you say in church. But I want us to think about individual, private and actual repentance. That’s much harder to do every week!
I think we’re much better at self-justification – presenting reasons why we don’t need to repent and self-deceit – pretending to everyone else that there’s nothing we need to repent of! But perhaps you think I’m being unfair or unduly harsh. Perhaps I’m just confessing my own sins. I am. But I don’t think I’m the only sinner in our church! So let me ask you some analytical questions.
- Do you think our church is a place where it’s easy to admit that you’ve got something wrong? If so, when was the last time you confessed to something and asked for help in repenting? And if you’re struggling to think about when that was, ask yourself why!
- Could you confess to a big sin and be as confident of receiving support and acceptance as if you’d committed a small sin? Or do you think you’d be shunned and side-lined?
- Do you feel that you could be open about a besetting sin and get the encouragement you need to help you to repent? Or would you fear being viewed as a lesser Christian for doing so?
- Let’s get really real for a moment. Could a wife commit adultery and be helped to repent here? Could a man be convicted for some form of abuse and be helped to repent here?
I hope so. But I’m not absolutely certain. Are there some sins that we’d find manageable but some that would be simply beyond the pale?
If a bloke in your small group confessed to struggling with pornography and asked for your help in repenting, how would you respond? Initially we’d all be incredibly discomforted at his honesty. Deep down we might admire him. Some of the women might think he’s a borderline sexual pervert. But we’d all want someone else to be the first to respond, wouldn’t we?
Very briefly in the few minutes that remain let me define repentance, and describe what it might look like in practice
Repentance: what is it?
In his Systematic Theology, the theologian Wayne Grudem defines repentance as
‘a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ’
It involves our intellectual understanding that rejecting God’s rule over our lives is really wrong. It involves our emotional response of regret and a hatred of what we’re doing when we sin. And it involves our personal decision to turn from our sin. It’s nothing short of a complete turnaround and the reinsertion of the rightful rule of Jesus Christ into our lives.
Repentance: why does it matter?
It matters for two reasons. First and foremost, we cannot be saved without it. Scripture puts repentance and faith together as the one act of coming to Jesus Christ for salvation. Conversion involves both faith and repentance. They are two sides of the same coin. If faith is turning to Christ then repentance is turning from sin. And so when we receive Jesus as Saviour, at the very same time we’re submitting to him as Lord. When the Bible speaks about one, the other is invariably assumed. Repentance and faith can be distinguished from one another but they are never separated. They’re like the spiritual equivalent of Ant and Dec.
But I think we already knew that. Not the bit about TV’s finest early evening entertainers. The bit about the inseparability of repentance and faith. What we may not have thought about is not so much the initial act of repentance but the ongoing necessity of repentance. Repentance isn’t simply the way in to becoming a Christian it describes the way of living as a Christian. And whilst the decision to give our lives to Christ at conversion is not easy, doing that consistently is much more demanding.
And so we need a church culture in which repentance is encouraged and it’s commonplace. It ought to be normal that we repent. We’re Christians. That’s what we do. We don’t want to be a church where we’re all very good at justifying why we’re never in the wrong. And we don’t want to be a church where we all pretend that we’re not doing anything wrong.
And wonderfully we don’t have to be. Because the gospel not only requires our repentance it encourages it. Jesus assumes that we’re sinners, which is why he died for us. And he assumes that we’ll carry on being sinners, which is why he sent his Spirit to help us to live for him.
Prison Chaplains tell me that there are no guilty people in prison. Everyone says they’re innocent. That can never be the case in church, can it?
Repentance: what does it look like?
What would it look like for us to create a culture of repentance?
- It looks like the man who’s failed to read the Bible with his kids or pray with his wife confessing to his Growth Group that’s the case.
- It looks like the woman who’s been dating a non-Christian bloke say to her small group Bible study ‘I was wrong and I need your help to live wholeheartedly for Christ’
- It’s the couple who only ever pitch up at church when it’s convenient making sure that nothing short of a contagious disease saying to their church leader ‘we got that wrong, we’ve been flaky and unreliable’.
I suspect our eyes might be out on stalks the first few times it really happens. But then we’d love the fact that people had been honest. And we’d do what we can to help them. And pray for them. Wouldn’t we?
I want this church to become a place where we’re all about the rightful reinsertion of the rule of Jesus in our lives. I think you do to. Together we can create a culture where repentance is expected and encouraged.