Two guys were standing at the edge of a great canyon, a huge gaping gash in the earth. They stood on the edge of the cliff, looking down to the tiny ribbon of the great river flowing so far below. It was a bit dizzying and frightening to look over the edge into such a great abyss.
One of the guys said, I bet you I can jump over to the other side! The other looked at him, and said, of course you can’t. Are you crazy? The other man insisted he could do it. Finally, the skeptical man said, fine, go ahead and show me.
The man stepped up onto a large rock, well away from the edge of the canyon. he said, “See! I can jump to the other side !” He jumped easily over a crack that led down to the edge of the canyon, a nice jump of about a foot. “That’s part of the canyon, and I jumped over it!” The skeptic shook his head and smiled, and looked back across the canyon and down into the splendor below.
The man under law wants to redefine the law so that it is doable. This definition ends up reducing the difficulties it presents to a practical human level, ignoring the obvious difficulties that performing the law truly represents. Ironically, putting oneself under the law reduces its message and reach. Grace sees a bigger picture, and recognizes the scope and sweep of true holiness. The man under grace can recognize that his own righteousness is as filthy rags:
“For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Isaiah 64:6, NASB.
C.S. Lewis tells the story of a shrewish controlling overprotective woman, who views her own greatest role in life to be that of a mother to her children. Her own greatest gift to her children was also her greatest failure; she smothered them until they couldn’t wait to get out of her clutches. Her mothering was not for the sake of her children, it was all to serve her own sense of self worth. Her greatest selflessness was completely and utterly selfish.
Even so, it is often true that our own greatest strengths and sacrifices are really nothing but self-serving rottenness. The things we think we most need to repent of are often our least offensive attribute, and the greatest successes we have may be our worst sin in the perfect light of God.
The point of all this is that repentance could never be only about the sins we feel bad about. Not only will we have trouble perfectly conquering these things, but these are the least of our problems in the end. Nothing but a repentance of belief, that God alone knows us and truly loves us, can take us across to sustainable change. Jesus’ message is that of a God who is like a Father who perfectly loves us, washes away our fears of judgement, and removes the impossible task from our shoulders of measuring up to the law’s standards. Our only hope is easy-believism, because that is the only thing we can understand to be honest and true as a point of faith. Anything else waters down the true imprint of the law upon us, and greatly diminishes the scope of the reach of repentance upon our lives and desires.
Repentance and Fruit
Repentance in the New Testament is the English word translated as ‘metanoeo’, which occurs in the NT 54 times. ‘Meta’ means, with, or after, while noeo means to understand, perceive, consider, think. So we can understand the word to mean, to live after pondering, to change after consideration. One might observe simply by the nature of the word that repentance is primarily a change in the mind, such that one begins to live differently. I aim to show that this change of mind is much more than a human resolve to be more moral, instead it is a change of mind about how we think of God and how we believe He perceives us. It is this kind of change, a change in belief rather than a change in mere behavior, which leads to fruit in keeping with repentance.
We find early in John the Baptist’s ministry that he is preaching repentance:
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Matthew 3:8, NIV.
We find that Jesus goes quite far in agreeing with this idea of repentance that produces fruit:
But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig-tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “”Sir,’ the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”” Luke 13:1-9, NIV.
If you look closely at Matthew 3:8 and Luke 13:1-9, it is clear that repentance is not the fruit, repentance is that inward state, that frame of mind, that leads to fruit. Jesus’ parable shows that, even though there is no visible fruit, yet true repentance might be present, and might eventually manifest with fruit; wait a year and see if repentance manifests with material evidence. John uses the idea of repentance and fruit in the traditional law-based sense, which is to say that he uses it as a weapon to beat up his hearers and to prove to them that they haven’t really repented. This was a crucial introduction to Jesus’ sense of repentance as a joyous reconciliation, as we’ll see in a bit; John’s ministry really served the purpose of the law, to show people their true need for grace. We see from John through Jesus’ early ministry to his later ministry, that if you produce fruit in keeping with repentance, that means the repentance itself is not the fruit, but that true repentance brings fruit. There is a false repentance and a true repentance; true repentance is not fruit but leads to certain fruits, certain evidences of repentance. There is a division between what repentance is and what fruit is; they are different but interrelated. This is very similar to Paul’s notion of the fruits of the Spirit:
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:18-23, NIV.
In Paul’s universe, this repentance that leads to fruitfulness is a passage from fleshly dependance on the law to a Spirit-led dependence on grace. This is the interpretation that is consistent with this scripture as well, and harmonizes with the meaning of the word itself. The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.
Repentance as Reconciliation
As His ministry moved forward, Jesus’ way of teaching about repentance caused sinners to rejoice and gather around, and caused the religious to grumble and complain. Here we find that He emphasizes the role of God in our repentance, and we find the emphasis on the bearing of fruit to be only marginally present:
“Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering round to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Luke 15:1-7, NIV.
Please notice this. Jesus addresses the issue of repentance in such a way that sinners flocked to Him. How many times have we seen this in our churches? Generally, teaching about repentance makes us want to slink away and disappear. Jesus depicts repentance as a homecoming, a joyous reconciliation. Not only that, but He puts a great bulk of the responsibility for finding the sinner, the pivot of repentance, upon Himself. The shepherd goes and looks for the sheep and finds it. It is not so much the fruit of human resolve, but the willingness to be carried along after being lost. In fact He rebukes the Pharisees and teachers of the law for making repentance to be all about conformance to their ideas about law. He is saying, in effect, that true repentance is about reconciliation. This is the repentance that brings fruit.
Notice in the scripture that it is not the persistent fruit of repentance that causes rejoicing. It is the pivotal change itself, the change of position of the sinner. The 99 righteous do not elicit a heavenly party, it is the one who repents. How could this possibly work? Do the heavenly party-goers have that much faith in this sinner’s ability to repent and stay repentant? Do they really believe that strongly in his new-found moral will?
It can’t possibly work that way. They really could not be celebrating because he suddenly had a gust of guilt and made a decision to stop doing bad moral behaviors. Paul is clear, and my own personal experience is clear, that this could never ever work. There is no way this is what they are rejoicing in. A call to moral repentance, and some beaten down resolve to stop repeating embarrassing behaviors, can never last. So what is the dynamic at work?
I think it works like this:
The problem with repentance under the law is, the moral change is incomplete, and is insufficient to satisfy the justice of God for the sin. It assumes the justice of God is satisfied with the remission of our sins simply because we promise not to do that sin any more. This is a small and erroneous view of the justice of God. Repentance under law also says that the blood of Jesus has nothing real to do with my ability to enter the favor of God, it has all to do with my own moral change, meaning that with a few embarrassed flawed promises to ‘repent’, we can manipulate God’s very justice. Morals under this paradigm are also seen as something to be done as obligation apart from favor, thus disconnected from the favor of God and performed entirely under human animus.
If repentance means a change in moral behavior, it can only mean a verbal or mental promise of change. It cannot mean a true complete change, because no one knows what will happen or what they will do. They can only promise verbally.
If this verbal promise is the basis of forgiveness, then if one becomes weak or is tempted again in an area of weakness and fails, then forgiveness is forfeit. If one fails a small bit, since the basis of forgiveness is forfeit, the door is no longer immediately open to mercy, and so one continues in sin, whose pleasures become the only comfort available. Under grace, real scandalous grace, the door remains open to enter back into holiness when one strays, and one can expect the help of God instead of the wrath of God, all without sacrificing God’s justice and holiness. Thus repentance as belief in grace is the only door to sustainable holiness, the introduction into a spiral of ever-decreasing sinfulness.
Repentance under grace has far more ability to achieve the lasting fruits of repentance, because it assumes the help of God, which assumes forgiveness PRIOR to moral change. It satisfies the genuine justice of God and beyond, the sentence of death for all we do wrong. Moral change is given as a gift, and is not seen as that which manipulates the favor and action of God. Repentance understood as belief in grace is a true sustainable inward change, the kind of change that can be expected to lead to real fruit. This is the kind of repentance the angels and heavenly host celebrate, because it is an entry into the favor and power of God in a person’s life. It really is more like God finding us, rather than us promising not to leave God.
Notice that we are talking about repentance UNDER GRACE. I am not saying that we are justified over and over again by this process. The idea is that we make behavior affecting mental changes because of grace, not to achieve it. We do not let our repentance, our ongoing purification, our sanctification, intrude into our justification; on the other hand, our justification must constantly inform and empower our sanctification.
Tullian Tchividjian sums the whole idea up very nicely like this:
“We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone, and God sanctifies us by constantly bringing us back to the reality of our justification.” (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/2010/11/18/the-gospel-and-the-law/)
We generally are not comfortable with the idea that repentance means mere belief. Belief is too vaporous, too ephemeral, too easy. Manly religion asks for real repentance, repentance with hair on its chest, full of valor and deeds and proof and grand promises of change. Jesus does not share this idea:
“They said therefore to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”” John 6:28, 29, NASB.
The door to real repentance does not go through the decision and will and persistence of man. If it is based on a man’s moral fortitude and vigor, then we probably wouldn’t need repentance in the first place. The repentant man is a failed man, a weak man, a sinful man. It is a man who has the desire for sin etched deeply into his habits and psyche. The drug addict can drive into a strange town and know by instinct exactly where to go to find drugs. The repentant man is a practiced expert in the art of the forbidden. Sin is powerful and the man’s genius and skill have in his history been fully engaged in seeking sustenance for his desire there. It is no small task to change these things. A man’s singular decision to change cannot depend entirely upon himself. Repentance must include in itself the seed that will grow to consume his life, with the understanding that he will be weak and failing in it at times. It must include room for mercy, for grace, for instant help. It must have God’s favor, it must believe in the kindness of God, right up front, before there is fruit. This belief is true repentance.
We have trouble believing that God is able to accomplish this level of change in us, that we can trust God that the work He has begun in us, He will perfect until the day we meet Him (Philippians 1:6). We want to change ourselves; God only speaks with a still small voice and we demand an earthquake of change. We want to repent ourselves because we actually don’t believe God is able to substantively help. This is why belief is the pivot point, the central issue. The main point of human agency is faith, and repentance does not lie outside of this equation. This transfer of the desire from the gratification of sin over to the love and trust and favor and fellowship of God and His people is the real change that leads to true repentance from the heart, a repentance without regret. Thus Paul says:
“For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” 2 Corinthians 7:10, NASB.