According to John Frame, “Repentance and faith are opposite sides of the same coin”, and thus although repentance is not the grounds of our justification before God, “yet it is of such necessity … that none may expect pardon without it”.
In other words, no one is forgiven by God because they have turned away from sin, yet no one will be forgiven by God without turning away from sin.
This raises a whole host of tricky theology questions. But the most pressing questions, it seems to me, are pastoral. For the simple fact is that change (for make no mistake, that is exactly what repentance means – a change of mind, heart, and life) is both extremely difficult and entirely indispensable.
This issue cannot be evaded by an appeal to the doctrine of divine sovereignty. For however much we insist (and insist we must) that repentance is a gift of God (Acts 11:18), it is a gift that is invariably and necessarily displayed by us in our lives precisely at the moment when it is given. We cannot wave the flag for the sovereignty of divine grace without at the same time recognising that we are called to work out the salvation that God is working in us (Philippians 2:12-13).
Regrettably, as Frame points out, we often have a hard time even admitting that we have a problem:
“All Christians confess in at least a theoretical way that repentance is important. We believe that all are sinners. Practically, however, we find it difficult to admit – whether to others, to ourselves, or to God – that we have personally done wrong and need to change.”
Frame highlights one strategy of evasion that we frequently grasp:
“When someone criticizes our behaviour, our first instinct is, too often, to defend ourselves. Although we confess in general terms that we have sinned, we don’t want anyone to think that we have sinned in any specific way.”
Thus we maintain a superficial image of piety, acknowledging the unavoidable biblical truth that all people – including we ourselves – have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, whilst simultaneously side-stepping the painful and humiliating necessity of actually identifying what we have done wrong.
Alongside this straightforward evasion, however, we sometimes employ another tactic. Rather than trying to evade the personal challenge of confronting specific sins, we sometimes embrace the criticism wholeheartedly, yet still in a manner calculated to avoid doing anything about it.
This strategy appears most often when people are confronted by a challenge to repentance over a sin that simply cannot be denied: “Hey Jenny, why don’t you stop frittering your life away on Facebook and get a job? Hey Jonny, why are you always 25 minutes late for church?” These are not the sort of sins that can easily be denied, since they’re obvious to so many people whose good opinion we value. Instead of denial, therefore, we simply embrace the pain and admit our fault, yet we do so in a way that identifies us primarily as victims rather than sinners.
For example, Jenny the lazy layabout can no doubt point to a whole host of painful and tear-inducing memories of past failures, humiliations, and disappointments which in truth probably weren’t entirely her fault, and which would make any but the hardest heart bleed with her. The effect of this, however, is merely to steer the conversation away from what she is doing wrong, and towards how others have wronged her. Already, Jenny has taken several large strides away from repentance.
To bolster her case, Jenny can probably point to a couple of friends who, like her, spend many long hours on the sofa, but for very good reasons – chronic illness, for example. The entirely legitimate justification for these friends’ comparative inaction will serve as an impressive and impermeable second-hand get-out-clause for her: after all, once you’ve found a godly friend who’s living (however superficially) the same kind of life as you, you’re off the hook.
Jonny, on the other hand, will need to portray himself as a victim in a rather different way. Unlike Jenny, he no doubt has an extremely busy job, a long commute, and countless other responsibilities at home and elsewhere that demand his attention. He’s a victim of circumstance, right? “I’m trying, I really am – but can’t you understand how difficult is it for me?”
Unlike Jenny, Jonny must studiously avoid drawing comparisons with others, for in his case such a comparison would undermine the justification he has fabricated for himself. The plain truth is that his church is full of people with lives no less hectic than his, most of whom manage to get to worship in time for the first hymn, rather than sneaking in half-way through the sermon. To maintain his case, Jonny must tacitly (never explicitly – that would blow his cover for sure) keep insisting that his is a special case. And so he wrings his hands in despair at his desperate circumstances: “Please believe me – I’d really love to change, but I just can’t.”
All of these strategies fall woefully short of the biblical picture of repentance. To repent means not merely to recognise that people generally do bad things; nor to include yourself among them; nor to feel sorry about your sins; nor to shed tears over them; nor to wax lyrical about the agonising personal psychology, family history, and present circumstances that lie behind them. It means quite simply to stop doing them.
Rev Dr Steve Jeffery is Minister at Emmanuel Evangelical Church, London, England (Blog, Facebook, Twitter)
- Doctrine of the Christian Life, 331 (back)
- Westminster Confession of Faith, 15.3 (back)