And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Martin Luther said the Christian life is a walk of repentance and faith. Understanding the various aspects of repentance and putting them together through reflection helps us keep them together in our theology and practice. So let’s retrace some of our steps this week.
Repentance is a response to God’s grace.
It leads to joy and restoration. Not frustration from trying harder, and not despair from beating yourself up. Those are forms of penance. Jesus is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes, not tries harder or feels worse (Romans 10:4). He condemned sin in the flesh in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1-4). Therefore, repentance is motivated by love for God and a desire for fellowship with him.
Repentance is addressed to God.
King David’s famous confession is a great example of addressing God: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:1-3). His transgressions were adultery and murder, two sins clearly against other people. Yet, he says to God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (51:4). This does not abrogate his responsibility to others, but simply underscores the primacy of God in all things.
Repentance is walking in the light.
There was a time when David walked in darkness, unwilling to see things for what they were. In Psalm 32, he writes: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” (32:3-4). Only when he came clean with God did he experience the grace of God: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (32:5).
Repentance is taking responsibility for our sin.
In Psalm 51, David locates the problem: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (51:4). He does not blame or justify or look for a way out. He goes on: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (51:5). The problem is not just that he sinned, but that he is sinful. It would not be enough to clean the outside of the cup, which is why he seeks a deeper cleansing: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being … Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow … Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (51:6-7, 10).
Repentance is turning to God in faith.
In everyday language, repentance means to “change your mind,” to reconsider how we are living our lives in light of our new identity and purpose in Christ. We are prone to wander, to pursue life on our terms, to locate our sense of worth and joy and peace outside of God. So the call to repentance is a standing invitation to give up our idolatrous pursuits, and turn to the one true God who restores us to the life for which we were made. We cannot save ourselves.
Repentance is initial and ongoing.
You may get in the light, and feel very liberated. But then it won’t be long until you are unmotivated, feeling the disappointment of another rut. This does not underscore the failure of repentance, but merely teaches us that repentance is both initial and ongoing. Real change always requires a clean break, reaffirmed through subsequent decisions. If you are in a mess, and it has happened over weeks or months or years, it is not going to get cleaned up right away. It’s a lifestyle.
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:12).
How has studying repentance this week changed your attitudes and affection for Christ’s work on the Cross?
What is God speaking to you about this week? Where is he bringing conviction? What actions do you need to take in response?
God of compassion, through your Son, Jesus Christ, you reconciled your people to yourself. Following his example of prayer and fasting, may we obey you with willing hearts and serve one another in holy love through Jesus Christ. Amen.