John Mark Reynolds, 2005.
One of the glories of Christianity is the way the Holy Spirit has provided for the integration of practical piety, the life of the church, and theology. No place is this more evident than in the issue of repentance. According to Williston Walker, the early Church faced a difficult issue with the lapse of some converts to the faith during times of intense persecution. What was the status of such men following the persecution? Was there hope for those who committed grave sins after baptism? To avoid the danger of such sins, many people put off receiving baptism until as late in life as possible. The Roman Emperor Constantine did not enter the Church until he was essentially dying.
Such issues led to a close examination of the Bible. It was discovered that a profound grace was available to aid those who sinned after coming to faith in Christ. This grace, through repentance, was a continuing work of the grace received by the Christian at the time of his salvation. Salvation, in the forensic sense, was a one time declaration of righteousness. However, God’s grace continues to work in the Christian through repentance on the part of a Christian as he is sanctified. In my own life, I deeply regret, and have daily sorrow, for sins done since becoming a Christian. What can be done, as the late Keith Green used to sing, “with an old heart like mine?”
The historic church saw that repentance was not simply a one time affair confined to the moment of salvation. Escaping sin is not just about escaping hell. Divine grace transforms and from this divine effort comes holiness, naturally like fruit from a tree. Repentance is not merely something leading to salvation, though it is that. This “change of mind” is not just remorse, but a conversion. A mere, “Sorry,” is not enough when one faces the enormity of the nature of any sin. For the Christian genuine repentance from sin after salvation (justification) involves a recognition of the nature of sin. Modern culture takes sin lightly, because it does not recognize that is rebellion against a Good God. The Christian knows that even the smallest sin impedes his becoming “like Christ.” He looks into the mirror of Sacred Scripture. The sinner sees that he does not measure up. He has missed the mark. Even though he is saved in terms of avoiding the penalty of Hell this is not enough to a person in love with Jesus. He longs to be like his Lord. His saving faith drives him to holiness.
Second, genuine repentance in the Christian life involves sincere contrition. Sincere contrition leads to a firm resolve to not repeat the sin. This is where the synergistic relationship between the Divine and human will is vital. Many people, not just Christians, find any process of positive change difficult without divine help, just ask any person involved with an AA group. At the deepest level, no human condition can be treated without divine grace. In the end, it is all God’s grace. Only the co-operating grace of God in conjunction with sincere contrition can save the day. Conjoining one’s repentance with that grace is the most important step in true repentance for the Christian.
Finally, the actions of the repentant Christian should match his intentions. The idea that Biblical faith does not lead to good works has no place in Christianity. Repentance is not mere assent to a new truth, but a quite literal metaphysical turning around. Of course, a real metaphysical change of direction always leads to a physical difference in the life of the subject of the change. Theology is not, for the Christian, merely about mental exercise, but about doing. A great weakness in what is now sometimes called “spiritual formation” is that it can attempt to be passionate and mental without being a “doing thing.” True mystics, for example, are always demonstrating great personal piety that is both a reflection and a cause of their great religious experiences. One way this living, active, positive repentance can be shown is public advocacy for the culture of life. A true spiritual person battles for the unborn and for the dying. Like everything else in Christianity, repentance has a critical public component. Repentance must be continuous, because the process of sanctification is always exposing more sin and evil in the soul of the growing Christian.
The alternative to true and continuous repentance is hardening of the heart. There are no other options. One is either growing into a mature Christian or is becoming worse than a beast in a hardening of heart. Only close fellowship with believers in the church, the refreshing work of the Holy Spirit, and frequent tears of confession can keep the heart soft.
What is “hardness of heart?” This is the state when sin and wickedness in the individual’s life no longer stir the conscience. Pharaoh acted unjustly toward the children of Israel and so God, when He came on the scene in the ministry of Moses, hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This was not the fault of God. A heart tender from frequent confession and repentance will soften when God appears. The vain heart of Pharaoh, who never does confess to actual fault in the destruction of his nation, hardens like mud in the sun before the brilliance of God. Practicable Christian piety that drove this profound discovery was also dependent on it. Saint Maximus the Confessor believed the Spiritual Way, the pathway to union with God, began with the “praktiki.” This was the practice of the virtues. This practice begins (and ends) with the life long habit of repentance. Without such repentance, the devoted Christian could never hope to reach a meaningful contemplation of God.
No one can reach purity and holiness without gaining the condition of a repentant heart. The paradigm Biblical example of such a heart is in the parable of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15: 11-32) The wicked son leaves the Father and squanders his fortune. He eventually comes to see, however, the folly of his ways. He then takes the most important step. He leaves the pigs behind and comes back home. At that point, only the Father can restore the right relationship. The Father co-operates with the turning of the son and meets him on the road. More than that the Father lavishes gifts and favors on the repenting child. The son goes from a pig sty to a party. This is a wonderful example of what happens in the personal life of a Christian when he turns back home. Though he will continue to rue the error of his ways, that he ever left home, he will also receive great joy.
An interesting fact is that the joy in the parable was communal. The entire community, except the hard hearted older son, was part of the joy of Christian growth. Why do modern Christians think they can be godly without a growth in holiness? The daily devotional is an excellent example of the daily integration of repentance with life. Central to the piety found in such important books as My Utmost for His Highest or The Way of the Pilgrim, holiness is not an option to a growing Christian. All great Christian devotional works call for repentance. The daily life and religious practice of repentance are, therefore, a major part of genuine Christian practice. Such devotion to repentance also has a possible eschatological significance. Luke 24: 47 says, “. . . and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” This is part of the task of the Christian church. This was almost the last command Jesus gave in Luke’s gospel account. Such a message requires the full attention of the church. What are the best ways to carry it out?
The answer, in my opinion, is in the common practices of the church. As is usual in the Christian church, repentance was made part of the daily life of the church. Almost all churches, from those with informal services to those with very formal liturgies, frequently call members to personal reflection and repentance. No Christian ever walks alone. In many senses, the life of the Christian is captured within the fellowship of the church.
As can easily be seen, therefore, repentance is no exception to the usual integration in Christianity between private piety, the work of the church, and the dictates of theology. It is a weekly part of the liturgy of most churches, the private devotional life, and a grace in its own right for public services.