And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
Lent is a time of particular focus on repentance, which does not mean that we atone for our sins, or even that we feel deep shame about them. Repentance is our response to the fact that Jesus atoned for our sins and bore our shame on the cross.
The word “repentance” has a negative connotation in our culture. To say that someone needs to repent implies they have done something really bad, and should feel really bad about it. While that may be true in some respect, the call to repentance is fundamentally good news. One Bible commentator says, “Repentance from the beginning of time to this present hour has been, and remains, the most positive Word from the heart of God.”
Because God made us for himself, our highest good is to repent and turn to God.
In the Old Testament, the sins of God’s people and their lack of repentance led to their exile. God ordained their ruin and captivity at the hand of Pagan nations. It was horrific at every level: physical, national, cultural, and spiritual devastation. As awful as it sounds, it was actually a demonstration of God’s love. As a father disciplines his children, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). The point of discipline is correction and restoration. It is an invitation to fellowship.
Paul says it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). God calls us to himself, convicts us of our sins, comforts us with his love, and changes us by his grace. Our repentance begins and ends with God! When we make it about what we will do to make things right with God, we veer off the road of faith into one of two ditches.
On one side of the road, we express resolve: “I will never do that again!” We act as if we can wipe the slate clean with our sincerity and earn a pardon with our passion. When we promise to never do that again, we are saying that we really can be good enough, and we’ll prove it this time. But repentance is not a do-over. Nor is it a system of works- righteousness. Rather, it is a means of experiencing the abundant grace of God toward us in Christ. Grace exposes our desire to be good enough and digs to the root of our sins. Who we really are—that is the realm in which grace intends to go to work, to renovate our lives and help us work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Mere resolution defrauds repentance of its lasting true fruit.
On the other side of the road, we express remorse: “I can’t believe I did that.” Feelings of shame and guilt are natural, but the Bible says there are two kinds of grief: worldly and godly (2 Corinthians 7:10). “Worldly grief” turns us in on self so that we are primarily concerned with our feelings and self-interests. So we feel bad, but only because we got caught. We are troubled, but only until the negative attention goes away. A common symptom of worldly grief is self-loathing: If we can just feel bad enough, or punish ourselves enough, we can make up for what we’ve done and appease God’s wrath against our sin.
“Godly grief,” on the other hand, “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
The one who has godly grief understands that her sin is against God as well as others, and that it reflects a deeper wickedness in her heart. She knows that admitting and regretting are not the same as repenting.
True repentance always terminates on Jesus. It does not wallow in self-loathing or delight in self-flagellation. Rather, it allows an honest sense of our sinfulness to drive us toward the depth of Christ’s mercy in the gospel.
In what areas are you feeling shame, guilt, a need for a do-over, or drive to “do better”?
Take a few moments and confess these areas to God. Thank him for his grace and mercy in the gospel that frees us from being slaves to these things.
Gracious God, out of your love and mercy you breathed into dust the breath of life, creating us to serve you and our neighbors. In this season of repentance, restore to us the joy of our salvation and strengthen us to face our mortality, that we may reach with confidence for your mercy, in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.