Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Life of Repentance

“Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” ~ The first of Martin Luther's 95 Theses

Traditionally, Reformation Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. The first is something I often need to be reminded of even though it may look bleak. It does seem like Luther is saying Christians will never make progress in getting better so they always need to be repenting. What he really meant, however, is that living a life of repentance is the way a Christian actually makes progress. In fact, a persistent life of repentance is one of the best, telltale signs that we are being conformed to the likeness of Christ. (By the way, poenitentiam agite” is the Latin Vulgate mistranslation of Matthew 4:17 that led to the Roman Catholic doctrine of repentance. Luther is saying that it should not be translated as “do penance” but “repent”.)

When talking about repentance we must understand the difference between “religious repentance” (a term I borrow from Tim Keller) and gospel-driven repentance. “Religious” repentance is done basically to keep God happy so He will not punish us, so He will bless us, or to bribe Him to answer our prayers. Gospel-driven repentance, however, comes from deep sorrow for sinning against our God who loves us so much and repeatedly reminds us of our union with Christ, His all-encompassing sacrifice for us, and God’s love for us that can never change. This kind of repentance will weaken our need to do those things that are contrary to God’s heart.

Sin is atrocious and dishonors God but with “religious repentance” we are not sorry for the sin; we are afraid of condemnation or punishment, which is a man-centered way of viewing repentance. The gospel reminds Christians that we are incredibly sinful (Romans 7:7ff) but also that no sin can ultimately bring us to condemnation (Romans 8:1) so we do not have to go to God thinking we must somehow avert His anger. Jesus has already done that for us with His propitiatory sacrifice for us (Romans 3:23-26)! Gospel-driven repentance opens our heart to being sorry for the sin itself and what it has done to God. Gospel-driven repentance is ultimately God-centered, which is how our entire lives should be.

Another problem with “religious” repentance is that when we have this mindset we are often trying to atone for the sin somehow. We think that if we are truly sorry for the sin then we deserve to be forgiven for it. We might even go so far as to do something that will make us suffer for the sin as some kind of act of penance. That kind of thinking is actually quite arrogant and, again, man-centered. We cannot atone for anything! The gospel, however, reminds us that we do not have to atone for our sin. Jesus has already done that! He suffered the punishment for our sins (I John 2:1-2). He earned the forgiveness. In repentance we simply receive with open, empty hands the forgiveness that Jesus earned for us. In gospel-driven repentance, forgiveness is a just/righteous thing for God to do (I John 1:9) because Jesus suffered and died for it. Think about that for a second. It would be unjust for God not to forgive us when we come to Him for forgiveness on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice for us because Jesus merited acceptance for us! Again, this makes gospel-driven repentance humble and God-centered.

Gospel-driven repentance also makes confession of sin easy. Listen to John’s words in I John 1:8-2:2:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
In “religious” repentance we only ask for forgiveness when we are really feeling guilty about something. There must be tremendous pressure for us to repent. In gospel-driven repentance, however, we run to God with all our sins because 1) we know we have to and 2) we know that we will be accepted. John tells us that if we say we have no sin we are a liar. Harsh words but true words. But, he says, if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us! Not only that, John says, “…if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” This should make us run to the throne for repentance any time we sin, no matter how “big” or “small” the sin seems. We can run to the throne because we know that God is faithful and just to forgive us and Jesus, the sacrifice that earned our forgiveness, is our advocate! Gospel-driven repentance reminds us of how sinful we are, yet also reminds us that we can freely, quickly run to God for forgiveness and be certain that He will grant it.

This is why repentance is a way of life for believers, as Luther says. We will always have sins to repent but at the same time repentance is one of the ways that God helps us grow and become better. Look again at what John tells his readers, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” Wait, he is telling them that they are sinful and that they can confess their sins so they will not sin? That seems odd. It seems like telling people they are going to sin (no doubt about it) and that they can get forgiveness from God when they confess would make people sin more. That kind of radical grace opens the door for more sinning, right? No, John does not see it that way at all. He says that he is telling them the radical grace of the gospel so that they will not sin. Why? I like Steve Brown’s answer, “The only people who get any better are those that know that if they don’t get any better God will still love them anyway.” Gospel-driven repentance based on radical grace does not encourage sin but helps conform us to the likeness of Christ, which changes our hearts to be after God’s.

By His Grace,


Anonymous said...


I came across this while preparing a sermon on repentance. This is really helpful stuff. Thank you!


A. Taylor Rollo... said...

Glad you found it helpful, Brandon!