The Five Fingers of Salvation: Repentance

“Repentance” is not popular today. One internet blogger called repentance, “the most unpopular message in the history of mankind.” Why is this? What is it about calling people to repent that rubs us the wrong way?

Biblical Idea of Repentance

In Walter Scott’s Five Finger system, the first finger was Faith. The second finger is Repentance

Scott based this on Acts 2:36-38:

36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”  37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit

We cannot repent without or before faith, for repentance is an act of faith, a move of trust. We are saying, “O God, I’m wrong and you are right.” It seems fitting to me that this is represented by the “pointer” finger, for repentance is pointing us in a new direction, we are pointed to God and not to ourselves. We are saying, “That’s the way I’m going to go. I’m going to follow Jesus and serve him, not myself.”

There are four things that happen in repentance.

1.    I experience deep sorrow or regret for my sin

Job 42:6 Therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

This is where our pride comes in. We must lay down our proud ways and submit to God and his ways. We must feel a pain for our sin. Repentance is not simply a logical exercise, it is a condition of the heart. This is what Joel is talking about when he says, “Tear your hearts, not your clothes.” Repentance is an emotional response.

2.    I turn away from my sin and turn to God

Ezekiel 14:6 “Therefore say to the people of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!

This is a matter of allegiance, of loyalty, of orientation. It is not turning from one sin and replacing it with another. It is repenting on the broadest level: turning back to God, resolving to serve him with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. Repentance is an act of submission.

3.    I align my thinking with godliness

Luke 5:32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.

The idea of metanoia (translated “repentance” here) is to “rethink,” to think a new way in regard to sin. This is Peter’s famous call in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized.” When we repent in this way, we admit our error. We admit that our acceptance and enjoyment of things that displease the Lord were wrong and destructive. We seek holiness and righteousness. We have new standards by which we measure our decisions in every area of our life.

This is the attitude that was expressed in the WWJD movement, based on the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. For some it might be helpful to ask, “What would Jesus do?” in a given situation, but more important and focused is to ask, “What would God have me do?” Repentance is an act of mental renewal.

4.    I claim a promise

Acts 3:19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord … 

Two terms are given here, both representing repentance. First is metanoia again. We re-evaluate our lives with tears and sorrow. We give up our pride and our love for things that are ungodly.

The second idea (epistrepho) is very clear here. It has the sense of turning around, turning to God. We were walking away from God, and we turn around and walk toward him. This second word is equivalent to the Latin-based term, conversion. Conversion is not accepting a new religion. It is not joining a new church. It is an act of asking for forgiveness.  Repentance leads to the freedom of forgiveness.

Then and only then, Peter promises that we will be refreshed and renewed. How can we feel forgiven if we have not repented? If we are in denial about our guilt, about our sin, how can we feel forgiven? How can we be set free?

Repentance is not a one-time act. It is a life. We are called to be people of faith and repentance. It is like the old advice on how to quit smoking: “If at first you don’t succeed, quit and quit again.” We as believers are called to repent, repent, and repent again.

Repentance begins and ends with humility, a humility driven by our sense of unworthiness. It moves to a deep regret and sorrow for the ways we have offended God through our pride, our greed, our selfishness, and our lack of love. Repentance is complete when we resolve in our heart to change, to leave behind the sins that separate us from the love of God. Repentance is an act of faith, spiritual contrition, and confession. It is a cry for forgiveness.

To repent, you must first see yourself as God sees you—as the Bible describes you. We don’t like what we see: prideful, rebellious, selfish, defiant, moral ugliness. We can change when we repent. We can begin to clean up the filthy garments of our lives. And God will help us. He does not expect us to clean ourselves up so that we will be acceptable to him. He wants us to give him our hearts, to yield to him, and let him begin the transformation.

Prayer

Change our hearts, O God. Where we have loved sin, may we love you. Where we have loved ourselves, may we love others. Break our hearts and change our minds. More of Jesus, less of us. By your power, transform us into your image. We pray in the name of Jesus, AMEN.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Note: I am preaching this series at the Acts 2 Church in Gretna, NE. We did the first one on April 29 (Faith) and the second one on May 6 (Repentance). This week (May 13), Derek Beebe is preaching on the third finger (Baptism). You are welcome to come. For more info, follow this link.

Giant Theology: Confession of Sins

My class in Johannine Letters has been focusing on a promise passage from 1 John1:8-10:

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts.

Our class has examined several aspects of this. Should confession of sins be private or is there a place for public confession? If public, how should this be done? An accountability partner? Is there a place for group/congregational confession? Can this be done through worship songs or liturgy? If confession is merely private in prayer, will there be any change? Are there folks who actually claim to be without sin? Why is the claim to sinlessness both self-deception and insulting to God?

Many questions, and we had good discussion in class and through a reflective essay they all did. One thing I tried to bring out for them is the connection between confessing  sin and repenting of sin. For 1 John, these are essentially the same thing, but this is not necessarily so. To confess means to acknowledge, the opposite of denial. We can certainly confess a sin defiantly with no remorse or shame. I used a little clip from the 4th Harry Potter movie to illustrate this, the scene where Barty Crouch, Jr. is revealed to be a “death-eater” (a servant of the Dark Lord). This is a dramatic moment in the movie, because the judge at this hearing is Barty Crouch, Sr., apparently unknowing of his son’s guiltiness.

Although Junior’s confession is wordless (except for an ironic “Hello Father”), it is clear that he is not in denial mode. Yes, he is guilty of being a death eater, but there is no remorse or sorrow over this. There is no repentance. There is only defiance.

How do we deal with sin in our lives and the guilt it brings? Do we just deny it? Do we find a therapist who will tell us “You’re OK”? In the passage above, John links the denial of personal sin to a denial of God. Anyone who would call God a liar is denying the God who created the universe, the God of the Bible, the God who is the judge of the living and the dead, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Not a good idea. Much better that we admit, we acknowledge, we confess our sins to God with a spirit of repentance. Don’t pray a prayer of confession with a snarling “Hello, Father” and expect to be cleansed from all wickedness. Remember that Barty Crouch Sr. responds to this by saying, “You are no son of mine.”

Pray humbly, admitting your sin and asking for God’s help to overcome. Then you will be cleansed and restored. You will be freed from bondage. You will be more than a conqueror through him who loves you. And that, my friends, is Giant Theology.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Limits to Forgiveness?

Can God forgive anything? Will God forgive anything?

In a class I recently taught, we were doing a discussion board that moved toward a consideration of repentance and forgiveness. I was scheduled to give a presentation on the Bible’s teaching about divorce that week, and when I mentioned this, it brought forth a range of responses and opinions. One of the students shared a ministry experience with me (privately) that has haunted me ever since. Let me paraphrase it. This man, a pastor, was invited to have meeting at a coffee house. At this meeting, his friend told him quickly that he had decided to leave his wife, file for divorce, and move in with his new girlfriend. He explained this situation to the pastor and then asked, “Can God forgive me for this?”

What a question! My pastor/student responded (somewhat reluctantly), “You know that God can forgive anything.” But it was a very uncomfortable moment. This man was very aware that he was doing a bad thing, a thing that the Bible did not condone, a thing that a Christian should not do, but his decision was made. He seemed to be planning his escape from God’s disfavor.

How have we come to this point? I do not believe that divorce is an unforgivable sin, but I have trouble understanding this man’s thinking. Forgiveness is based on repentance. Forgiveness is based on our willingness to forgive. What had this man’s wife done that could not be forgiven? And was repentance a scheduled event in his plan: infidelity, divorce, personal happiness, repentance, forgiveness, place in heaven? I don’t get it.

This reminds me of my reading of Michel Foucault, the Frenchman who was one of the most formidable and influential of the postmodern thinkers of the 1970s and 1980s. Although the postmodern philosophers are often accused of being without ethics, Foucault taught that the greatest of virtues was “care of self.” This seems like an Ayn Randian celebration of the virtue of selfishness and abandonment of any sense of altruism or concern for others. This cannot be according to the will of Christ our Lord.

It is not my purpose here to beat up on divorced persons. A failed marriage is a tragic thing and the reasons for divorce can be complex. But this man seems to take the grace of God for granted. Remember when Paul asked rhetorically, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” He does not answer this with a simple “Yes” or “No.” He thunders, “May it never be!” (Romans 6:1) In other words, “Don’t even ask that question!”

May God give wisdom and patience to pastors like my student who are called to give guidance in these situations. May the church never abandon a commitment to strong marriages. And, may pre-planned repentance and forgiveness never be acceptable to those who love the Lord and his people.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Theological Mistakes #14: Trusting and Forgiving

In a previous post, I tried to carve some distance between “forgiving” and “forgetting.” Although these two things are often equated, they really are quite different. We may forget things but not forgive, and we may forgive things but not forget them. I don’t think a failure to forget is a spiritual flaw or weakness. It is part of how we are made by our Creator. When we forgive someone, we no longer hold an offense against them, but it would take something more than will power to remove it from our memory.

A similar fallacy comes from linking forgiving to trusting. I recently heard a presentation on forgiveness that instructed people to trust and then forgive. The main point of this speaker seemed to be that if we do not trust a person, we have not truly forgiven.

I disagree strongly.

The Greek word most used for “forgive” is the verb aphiēmi. Its basic meaning is “release.” It was used for the act of divorce, to “release” a wife from the marriage contract (only men could divorce in the New Testament world). The word does not imply a long process. In fact, in classical Greek, the word was used for the act of “releasing” an arrow from a bow. Think of that! When an arrow is released, it is gone! Vamoose! Wiedersehen! Zip! Zoom! Now you see it, now you don’t! Gone and quickly far away! We should always be cautious about doing theology based on the meaning of Greek words (especially using information from the classical period), but I think the idea stands. Forgiveness is not a long process. It is a decision made at a point in time to release, to give up any claim to have been offended or wronged by another person. If we are asked to forgive someone and our answer is “I’ll think about it,” we have not forgiven that person. This only comes when we say, “Yes, I forgive you.” And, as the previous post said, this releasing is as much about our own well-being as it is about the other person. When we release the sins of others, we move on and we can begin to heal.

Trust is another matter. If a trust has been betrayed, it cannot quickly be restored. Let me give you an example I have dealt with several times in ministry. A woman leaves an abusive husband who has beaten her several times. At some point she needs to forgive him, to release any desire for vengeance or claim for redress. This is for her own good. She needs to heal from this broken relationship. But when she decides to forgive her abuser, we should not expect her to trust him. No pastor should tell this woman, “Yes, you must forgive him and move back in with him.” Our act of forgiving does not automatically change the person we have forgiven. Trust must be earned. Trust broken may take a long time to be restored. I can forgive a person, even love that person deeply, without trusting him in any important way.

This may sound callous or non-intuitive to some if you, but when I forgive a person, I accept them as they are and hope they will change. I may need to accept a person as untrustworthy. If so, why would I trust them?

There is another part of this, and that is the teaching that I should only forgive those who express repentance to me. I don’t think it works that way. While God asks for repentance as a condition for forgiveness, I’m not sure we should expect this. Many people sin against us, and if we keep score until each has repented in word or note to us, we will harbor countless grudges, accumulating more and more until we die. I don’t want to live like this, and I don’t think you do either.

Christians are people of forgiveness. But they are also person of wisdom and discernment.So when someone claims you have not forgiven because your don’t yet trust a person, don’t believe them.

Mark Krause