Why is it our failures always stay in our memory long after our successes have faded? I remember a Christianity Explored group I was involved with years ago where one of the members pushed me on my definition of repentance.
I said, “Sin is about living in God’s world as if he wasn’t there—living as if the God who made us has no claim on our lives, failing to thank him for the breath we breathe and, instead, making up our own rules to suit us and what we want. Repentance is the opposite. It means re-thinking. Turning around. Living with him at the centre and with Jesus as King.”
“Yes, that’s all very well”, said one. “But what does it look like in practice?”
It was a fair question. The trouble was, every time I tried to answer it, we ended up drifting into what looked and felt a lot like legalism: “Well, it might affect the way you spend your money, or the way you conduct your relationships”, I said. Oh dear.
I think of that group from time to time, and I wonder whether they ever really understood repentance. I have to keep trusting that God, in his kindness, still works, despite my mistakes. But that experience had a significant impact on the way I now think about teaching repentance to those who are in the process of becoming Christians.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being specific about what it means to repent. The Lord Jesus encourages would-be disciples to count the cost in specific terms in Luke 9:23-24 and 14:25-33. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 are full of concrete examples of what it means to repent. But in these examples the practicalities are linked closely with knowing and following Jesus. I suspect that this link is one we don’t always make. Instead, we teach the gospel, then quickly reach for our spiritual checklist (money, marriage, family life, etc.) and teach it as if it had nothing to do with knowing and loving Jesus personally—nothing to do with the Bible. We lay down God and his word before we pick up our list. But unless we see repentance in the context of a loving relationship with Jesus where we seek to love what he loves and hate what he hates, we will end up teaching grace as an abstract concept and legalism as a lifestyle.
So I’ve ditched my checklist, though I have to confess it feels risky. I try not to start with where Ithink my friend needs to change; instead I just keep reading the Bible with them, whether they’ve turned to Christ or not. As they see more of the Lord Jesus, they’ll see more of what it means to please him and more of how to flee from what he hates.
I sometimes read Ephesians one-to-one with people who aren’t yet Christians. It teaches more about the greatness of the gospel and earths what it means to respond, both in terms of knowing more of Christ and the resulting implications in the everyday. I studied it with a friend who came from an almost completely pagan background. She’d already been through Christianity Explored and so had read Mark, but she needed some time to understand more of the gospel and what it meant for her. It was fantastic. Together we saw the purpose of the gospel in drawing all sorts of people together under Christ (Eph 1:9-10). We saw the gospel’s power to rescue people from death and alienation through the work of Christ (Eph 2:1-22). And we saw what it means to respond to the gospel—that knowing Christ means putting off the old self, re-thinking and putting on the new (Eph 4:20-24). I’d been worrying about talking to her about her lifestyle, which was complicated to say the least, but when I plucked up the courage to mention it, she said, “Oh, we’ve already thought about it. We’re going to get married.” She didn’t need me and my checklist; reading God’s word, she’d seen what he had to say about relationship with Jesus and others, and she saw the need to change because she’d understood the gospel.
Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:15-23 is that his readers will know God and his purposes more. That’s his top priority. Of course he goes on to talk about the practical outworkings of this, and actually ends up covering most of the issues that would have been on my checklist of Christian dos and don’ts—relationships (marriage and children), church life (gossip and quarrelling) and living in the world (sex and materialism). The difference is that Paul starts where I haven’t always started: with knowing Christ. Unless I use his starting point—praying for and teaching about a growing knowledge of the Lord as the basis of repentance—rather than my own checklist, I run the risk of becoming an evangelical Pharisee. Knowing Jesus and working out what it means to respond in repentance are inseparable, and living as a Christian isn’t all that different from becoming one.
This article first appeared in Briefing #338, and has been republished with the author's permission.