“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it – I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while – yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. So even though I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong or of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are. By all this we are encouraged” (II Corinthians 7:8-13a NIV).
The FaithWalk of Repentance
So my daughter and I were on our way to the mall the other day to watch a movie. I’m not sure why but she asked me a question about something I was writing about and I decided to ask her the “Chicken and the Egg” question. It’s a good question.
“What came first, the chicken or the egg?”
“That’s easy,” she said. “The chicken, of course. God had to create a chicken before you can have a chicken lay an egg.”
I laughed but then she asked me what that had to do with her question. So I asked her another question. I gave her a hint. I told her it was really the same question, but with a twist.
“What comes first repentance or forgiveness?”
She was quiet for a moment and then started to talk it through. “Well, Jesus preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins but, at the same time, repentance has to come out of a grateful heart which only comes once you are forgiven.”
Good so far.
“So what is your answer,” I asked her.
“I’m not done thinking yet. Give me a sec,” she said. Then she did some more thinking out loud. “The chicken or the egg, the chicken or the egg….God always acts first. Ok, I got it. Forgiveness comes first because God is always the actor and we are always the ones who respond.”
Exactly. (She’s fifteen years old.)
We often talk about confession, then repentance, then forgiveness, then reconciliation. I’m not sure why we put it in that order. Perhaps it’s because there are two sides to the relationship. One side confesses and repents and the other side forgives and reconciles. Perhaps. But for most people this is a thorny issue and repentance is often seen as a prerequisite for forgiveness. It becomes performance-based and we know that can’t be right. We either fall into some form of legalism (a bunch of rules and obligations or expectations) or moralism (just be nice) and cheap grace (faith without true acts of love). We need to get it right. It will affect our entire progress of sanctification for good or evil. The answer is easy on the one hand and very difficult on the other. Like many theological truths, it is difficult to understand in theory but so simple in reality.
Next week we will spend considerable time on the topic, starting with the theology and bringing it down into the reality of a simple love relationship between the bridegroom and his bride. But until then, there are some general thoughts I would like to share with you on the topic of repentance.
Repentance is an act of gratitude not an act of penance. We do not change our ways in order to be saved but because we are saved. The call to repentance by John the Baptist was a call given to the people of God who needed to prepare themselves for the coming of the kingdom of God. In the process of sanctification, there may be many calls to repentance.
Repentance is a necessary response but not a necessary cause. Is that possible? Of course. Love is unconditional but it still requires love to be returned to it. That is its nature. Love is the necessary response to love even if it is not the necessary cause of that love. Love is a virtue. God loves because He is love, not because we love Him. At the same time, He wants and expects us to love Him back. Of course.
Love is always voluntary and often optional. “Often” optional, you say? Of course. Between a man and a woman who are just getting to know each other romantically, love is always voluntary and, in this case, also optional. It may be returned or it may not. That is its nature. But I think most people would agree that loving your mother is not really optional. That is also its nature. Loving God, our Father and Creator, became optional (but with natural negative consequences) for mankind, but it is a relationship that, by it’s very nature, is not optional. Our very existence depends on Him and to make our relationship with Him optional is an affront of eternal significance.
Repentance is usually an individual act in the context of a loving group. It is impossible to live out a lifestyle of repentance without the ongoing help of a group of brothers and sisters who disciple us, keep us accountable, love us and encourage us and guide us. In other words, repentance (and our progressive sanctification) is always done in the context of the church and the spiritual unity (and anointing) that we share.
Repentance is also a corporate act for sins of the flesh done either by the leadership or by a group of members in the church. We are all involved and we are all responsible. Even beyond our church, in our community, our nations, our world. Corporate sin is simply the flesh of a group of people whose policies and decisions are contrary to the will of God and have become codified in policies and expectations and behavior that people just take for granted. It is what the Bible calls the “world” and it is often found lurking within the church.
I remember reading about a congregation in the States called The Pillar of Fire. I thought it was an interesting name so I did some digging and found out more about their history. Apparently, they were an all-white congregation that had prominent members involved in the Klu-Klux-Klan. Rampant racists a generation or two ago, still trying to live down their past. The congregation was in decline. No surprise. I don’t think I would join a church with that kind of history. Now they were facing a crisis. They had buildings and a school and a number of churches which were part of this denomination. What should they do with all of these assets? What direction could they go that had some spiritual integrity to it? They had long ago publicly disavowed their heritage but it was only a generation ago that the sin of racism was at the highest levels of their denomination and churches. Some people are still alive who were involved in the race riots of the 1960’s. What should they do?
Talking about repentance is not enough. Saying that you are sorry is not enough. Even tears are not enough. There is worldly sorrow and there is godly sorrow. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (II Corinthians 7:10 NIV), Paul tells us. The Bible uses the word “repentance” but most of us simply see it in legalistic terms. Do it or else. Salvation is dependent on repentance. Change or die. Although that is obviously true, it mixes up the act with the motivation. First there is godly sorrow. Sorrow unto God. Sorrow for a relationship broken with our Father. Not just the worldly sorrow of getting caught, having to face the consequences, of having to face the social shame and relational fallout. No, godly sorrow is first and foremost about our relationship with God regardless of anything else. That is the well from which acts of repentance spring forth. And when we receive forgiveness and are reconciled, there are no regrets, no memories to haunt us, no thoughts or desire to return to the sin.
So, if that is true, what should the Pillar of Fire people do? If they see acts of repentance as they truly are – acts of reconciliation – then the answer is clear (even if difficult). The leadership should step down. The assets of the church, the buildings, the school, the land, the money should be given to a black denomination and the people should be dispersed into black churches, led by black pastors, to serve out their lives in joint ministry (but not in leadership) with their brothers and sisters in Christ. It would be a wonderful challenge for the black community and a true act of reconciliation for the white community. The radical (but totally appropriate) act of reconciliation would show the entire community that God is there in their midst and that he transforms the human heart in ways that are uncommon, unheard of, and life changing. What a wonderful testimony of the grace of God.
Will it happen? Probably not. But at least you are starting to get a feel for what repentance is. It isn’t just stopping something or starting something. It is relational. It is reversing, going in the opposite direction, changing course radically, relationally. Look for the opposite behaviour and do that. It will be difficult, radical, transformative.
Let me give you another example. A Pastor is let go by the board of elders. It was not done very well. No voice was given to the congregation. No reasons were offered. It wasn’t about his calling and the board recognizing it as a calling to their church. It was a simple worldly contract for one year that wouldn’t be renewed. Period. One or two of the key elders didn’t like the direction the Pastor was going so they decided not to renew. Many people in the congregation were hurt. Some moved away and went to other churches. It was not a good nor godly thing to do. The process was all wrong. The spirit of it was all wrong. It was probably nothing more than a power play.
The Pastor got another calling in the same city and when the elders of his first church got together with their former Pastor in the context of a leadership conference, the Pastor made an attempt at reconciliation. It was beautiful but it wasn’t complete. There was no confession of sin. There was no awareness of having offended God. There was no realization of corporate sin, or worldly views of leadership, or unwise decisions. Whether the Pastor was dismissed or not, it was not done well. Still, apologies (and justifications) were given and hugs all around and a nice prayer for unity but true reconciliation? Doubtful.
What would have been an appropriate act of repentance (or reconciliation) in that situation? First of all, someone should be discipling those elders and teaching them from the Word of God what it means to call or release a Pastor. Secondly, there needs to be brokenness and humility before the Lord in godly sorrow (not justifications). Thirdly, forgiveness needs to be extended (as it was) based only on their brokenness and humility before the cross of Christ. Fourthly, acts of reconciliation need to be done to bring healing to all those involved. On a practical basis that would mean inviting the Pastor to come back to the church and preach once in a while and setting up a congregational meeting, or small group meetings, or one on one meetings where people would get an opportunity to talk to the Pastor and also reconcile or express their sorrow at his leaving. Healing for the entire congregation is necessary. It is a MINISTRY of reconciliation. It isn’t just about the Pastor or the elders but about the entire congregation.
But it wouldn’t stop there. The elders would also need to confess their sin to the congregation in how they handled the situation. Tears of godly sorrow and brokenness would be present and opportunities for the leadership to be reconciled to their people. Perhaps the leaders need to step down for a while and new leaders put in place but only for a couple of years while these leaders come to terms with their worldly view of leadership in the church and ready themselves for a more productive time of using their gifts in the church.
These acts are transformative and will lead to other people seeking reconciliation and offering acts of reconciliation. It is a chain reaction of grace that can transform a church or break out into revival and affect other churches and even society in general. Anything can happen.
Do you start to see the power here? When acts of repentance are rightly understood in relational terms as acts of reconciliation, done in the context of forgiveness and in the power of spiritual unity, transformation happens. Of course, all of this takes faith. That’s why we call it the faithwalk of repentance. All of the power and resources of heaven are available to us when we walk the way of the cross.
There is far more to say about repentance and the way that God uses our sin to reveal to us our idols, our other lovers, our fortresses still standing strong in our lives. And each time he reveals it to us, we must give Him permission to tear those idols down, to root them out of our lives, to burn them in the fire of His presence.
It is a process of progressive sanctification that will make us every day more like Christ and every day more effective in our work of ministry. When we understand that repentance is always in the context of grace, we will embrace it and it will transform us and our families, churches and nations.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God…..
Lord, teach me to live a lifestyle of repentance. Help me not to fear your revelations of my guilt and sin. It shouldn’t surprise me after all. But I need your help with my acts of reconciliation between me and you and with other people. Lord, I want to be effective in my ministry and pleasing to you with my life. In your name I pray. Amen.
Tundrac was terrified. He didn’t want to admit it, and around his own captains and troops he blustered and bullied and scowled at every slight infraction of his discipline, but he was scared. Nobody minded, they were all scared.
The Evil One had returned from the Desert and he was not happy. Tundrac had hosted his Master once before and knew enough to keep out of his way and obey instantly any command thrown his way. But he had never seen him in such a towering rage before. Lucifer was normally cold and calculating and devious beyond subtlety. He devised strategies within strategies, plans within plans so that one never knew exactly where one stood.
It was bad enough that he had arrived unannounced so quickly after the baptism of Jesus. Tundrac had sent the report off to Rome, but even he didn’t expect such an immediate response. Now Lucifer had returned from the desert and he was angry, and when he was angry, he was coldly dangerous, his undisguised power simmering beneath the surface threatening to erupt in unthinkable terror and pain. (Read more….)