"Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." James 1:22 (NKJV)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Week 3: "Repent!," Part 1

"From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." ~ Matthew 4:17

I'm long overdue for some repentance. At the outset this week, I wanted a good definition of repentance, and I looked to dictionaries, commentaries, and sermon transcripts. The consensus is that repentance involves sincere regret about past sin and a commitment to turn away from it. I like the way Wayne Grudem puts it in his Systematic Theology: "Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ."

When I first came to Jesus, I felt sorrow over sin in my life, but as years went by that feeling grew weak. True repentance hasn't been a consistent part of my Christian life. I can't remember the last time I felt genuine heartfelt sorrow over my sin. When I ask for forgiveness it sounds something like: "God I messed up. I shouldn't have done that. Please forgive me." There's nothing wrong with a simple prayer like that if it's sincere. The Bible doesn't tell us that repentance involves any magic words. But, I know in my heart that I've become far too casual about receiving God's grace. "Casual" is not the picture of repentance that we see in the Bible. See Jonah 3:5-9 (people of Nineveh proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, with the king proclaiming that everyone should turn from their violent ways); 1 Kings 21:27 (King Ahab repented by humbling himself, tearing his clothes, putting on sackcloth and fasting).

I am committing to a greater level of obedience with this project, but I am now reminded that repentance and obedience must go hand and hand. Obedience without repentance was the formula of the Pharisees, and it led to legalism, spiritual pride and hypocrisy.

Sincere repentance is something that needs to be a regular part of my life. As Grudem says: "It is important to realize that faith and repentance are not confined to the beginning of the Christian life. They are rather attitudes of heart that continue throughout our lives as Christians." His conclusion is supported by several passages in the New Testament:

"If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him." ~ Luke 17:3 (Jesus speaking to his disciples)

"Those who oppose [the Lord's servant], he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance . . . ." ~ 2 Timothy 2:25 (the Apostle Paul instructing Timothy about leading the church)

"I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance." ~ 2 Corinthians 7:9 (the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth)

"Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent." ~ Rev. 3:19(the risen Christ to the church at Laodicea)

Most telling is that Jesus instructed that we should daily pray like this: "And forgive us our sins as we also have forgiven those who sin against us." Matthew 6:12.

So, what now? What am I supposed to do? This project is about doing stuff, after all. Repentance, however, isn't about doing stuff. It is about sorrow over sin and inward change of heart. Outward changes will come as a result of repentance, but repentance is the inward change not the outward. Jesus is commanding our emotions, and a sincere response is not something that we can work up on our own. This is why the Apostle Paul suggests in 2 Timothy 2:25 (above) that repentance is "granted" by God.

It appears then that I can only ask God to grant me repentance---to give me sorrow over sin in my life and a greater conviction to obey Him. I don't think I've ever prayed: "God, please give me sorrow about my sin."

In Biblical examples, repentance is often accompanied by fasting. I don't know whether fasting in those examples is a response to inward change or a practice that helped people become open to God's work. Whichever is the case, I don't think it could hurt to pray and fast. That's how I'll begin.