I’ve got some problems with repentance (and how you people talk about it)

belle-isle-bridge-long-walk This post is part of my 2013 Lent series: Reflections on Repentance.

Martin Luther famously kicked off the Reformation by saying the whole of the Christian life is one of repentance. In this, he was implying that it was not a singular moment, but rather a lifelong process. Yet, as I’ve lived life in the Church, I have found that this is not quite the way that most Christians talk about repentance, nor does it seem to be the way the Bible itself does.

If you ask your run-of-the-mill Christian convert, or even pastor or theologian, what repentance is, you will usually get some answer that involves the phrase “180 degrees” or talk about a change of your mind or turning away from a sin you do.

Good sermons and books on repentance will usually involve the Luther formula of using the Holy expectations of a Holy God to expose just how sinful we are, and then hitting us with just how radical God’s grace is in light of that. They will show us our need, trying to woo us to a God that forgives us. They try to expose even those sins hidden to ourselves or those that we hide from others or those that have beset us for years, and then invite us to “turn” from those things and instead trust God.

Sermons and books like this have contributed to beautiful moments in my life, drawing my heart to God and convicting me of my sins.

And yet, I have a problem with this. In these articulations of repentance, there seems to be a disconnect. A major, major disconnect.

In short, this beautifully painted picture of repentance, bears absolutely no resemblance to reality for me.

Real day-in, day-out life for me has not been one of seeing sins of mine and turning from them. Even moments that felt like genuine “turns” of one kind or another in my life have, eventually, been shown to be not nearly as impactful on my life as I had expected.

Not only does this reality (that I expect is true for most of us) not represent the normal articulation of repentance, but that above articulation offers no resources in and of itself to help us in those moments.

Is “genuine” repentance always effectual in some way? If you end up doing those same sins from which you have “repented” before, does this mean the prior repentance was not “genuine”? What of those believers whose entire lives are marked in one way or the other by particular sins that do not wane, and struggles that do not relent?

If the call to “repent” is a call to turn from our sins, then it seems that most all of us have never actually repented much, or at all.

I guess my struggle is the whole idea of “turning” that’s inherent to repentance. Not much of my life has been marked by such a “turning”. Perhaps an ever subtle arc that is marked in half- and quarter-degrees, but hardly 180 of them.

I guess I could say it this way: I don’t know how to define or understand the idea of an “act” of repentance that is real. Can it be genuine but not very effective? Can it only be known in hindsight? How do we “do” repentance in a way that does justice to the nitty-gritty of real-life?

Possible responses others might have to this frustration:

True repentance is marked by your heart and affections, more than your actions. Repentance is resetting of your allegiance to Christ.

First, how is this not gnostic at heart? It separates the heart from the body and says that the abstract, “spiritual” intention is most valuable, not the material action. Second, our hearts are by far the darker, more wicked parts of who we are. Of all the parts of us that represent our continued defection from “repentedness”, the heart is probably foremost.

Well, as Luther said, it’s a life-long process, not just one moment of conversion. Of course Christians will continue sinning, but they pick themselves up, repent, and continue on.

I get this, and this is actually how I would have most often addressed my issues. But ultimately, I still find it unsatisfactory and detached from the more mundane realities of life and the human heart.

This perspective tends to redefine repentance as more of a general disposition towards our sins; a sensitivity to them, such that we “re-center” ourselves after doing them. It “psychologizes” repentance, and doesn’t deal with the biblical depictions of repentance as very behavioral. (But then again, many of these behavioral depictions, seem detached from the reality of how people really struggle to change.)

How does this representation of repentance fit with the genuine believer who can’t seem to stop particular sins no matter how much they “preach the Gospel to themselves”, no matter how much they genuinely hate their sins, and no matter the “means of grace” under which they place themselves? I don’t see how it speaks to that reality.

This also seems to redefine what Luther meant. My intuition is that Luther was more trying to say that the Christian life will be made up of many acts of repentance, not just one big one. But this perspective seemingly takes Luther to mean that the whole Christian life is a singular act of one long repentance in which all other acts of “sin” find themselves.

Your turn. Help me!

As I’ve been researching repentance in the Scriptures recently, I’ve come to some tentatively helpful conclusions regarding these things, but I first wanted to open this up to all of you.

When it comes to “doing repentance” or having “acts of repentance” mark your life, how do you view it? What articulations do justice to both the biblical depictions and the realities of the human heart and life?

Sound off in the comment box below.


3 thoughts on “I’ve got some problems with repentance (and how you people talk about it)

  1. Pingback: The Story of Repentance: believing vs. achieving | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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