Practical Repentance

Every time I tried to answer the question of practical repentance, we ended up drifting into what looked and felt a lot like legalism.

We tend to teach the gospel, then quickly reach for our spiritual checklist (money, marriage, family life, etc.) and teach it as if it had nothing to do with knowing and loving Jesus personally—nothing to do with the Bible. We lay down God and his word before we pick up our list. But unless we see repentance in the context of a loving relationship with Jesus where we seek to love what he loves and hate what he hates, we will end up teaching grace as an abstract concept and legalism as a lifestyle.

 

Why is it our failures always stay in our memory long after our successes have faded? I remember a Christianity Explored group I was involved with years ago where one of the members pushed me on my definition of repentance.

I said, “Sin is about living in God’s world as if he wasn’t there—living as if the God who made us has no claim on our lives, failing to thank him for the breath we breathe and, instead, making up our own rules to suit us and what we want. Repentance is the opposite. It means re-thinking. Turning around. Living with him at the centre and with Jesus as King.”

“Yes, that’s all very well”, said one. “But what does it look like in practice?”

It was a fair question. The trouble was, every time I tried to answer it, we ended up drifting into what looked and felt a lot like legalism: “Well, it might affect the way you spend your money, or the way you conduct your relationships”, I said. Oh dear.

I think of that group from time to time, and I wonder whether they ever really understood repentance. I have to keep trusting that God, in his kindness, still works, despite my mistakes. But that experience had a significant impact on the way I now think about teaching repentance to those who are in the process of becoming Christians.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being specific about what it means to repent. The Lord Jesus encourages would-be disciples to count the cost in specific terms in Luke 9:23-24 and 14:25-33. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 are full of concrete examples of what it means to repent. But in these examples the practicalities are linked closely with knowing and following Jesus. I suspect that this link is one we don’t always make. Instead, we teach the gospel, then quickly reach for our spiritual checklist (money, marriage, family life, etc.) and teach it as if it had nothing to do with knowing and loving Jesus personally—nothing to do with the Bible. We lay down God and his word before we pick up our list. But unless we see repentance in the context of a loving relationship with Jesus where we seek to love what he loves and hate what he hates, we will end up teaching grace as an abstract concept and legalism as a lifestyle.

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