The Story of Repentance: believing vs. achieving

Van Gogh-Sower with Setting SunThis post is part of my 2013 Lent series: Reflections on Repentance.

I almost titled this post “theology in the service of real-life”.

The last time I wrote about repentance, I talked about the difficulties I have with some of the ways people in the Church talk about repentance. I then started researching the topic. And as I did, I found some amazingly helpful realizations about this in the Bible.

So today, I just wanted to take some time and explore this topic throughout the entire story of the scriptures. Hopefully, we can come to some conclusions about what repentance means for us today, and perhaps even some answers to our previous concerns in the last post.

Repentance in the Old Testament story

Early Judaism

In the story of the Israelites, they are in covenant with a God who has promised many amazing things for his people. And, as is appropriate for a Creating and Delivering God, he gets to define the contours of the lives of his people. He offers pictures of what this life is to look like, and eventually these pictures find themselves under the heading “the Law”. This Law is a reflection of God’s character which he wants embodied and reflected in the lives of his people.

The beginning of Israel’s story is marked by a lot of graciousness by God, such that they experience lots of “victory”. They get their land, their temple, their kingship, and their God’s presence among them.

It’s in this context that the idea of “repentance” begins to form. In early Judaism, this “repentance” carries with it more the idea of “relenting” from doing things that it appears one is on a path to do; it’s more generic than turning from sin specifically. (This is why the word is applied to both humans and God.)

This eventually ends up meaning that the early Israelite motivation for repenting is so that bad things won’t happen.

Later Judaism

Well, the Israelites don’t make it a practice to repent, and so, as feared, those bad things happen. The nation splits, conquerors come and take both nations into exile.

It’s around this time that the Prophets really begin rising up en masse. You see the idea of repentance then take a different motivation. Now that the feared bad stuff (that they were trying to avoid with their repentance) has already happened, repentance is no longer how his people try to remain in his favor, but rather as a response to their need.

They’ve lost everything and have nothing else in which to put their identity but the God who is theirs.

Though the motivation may change through the years, one thing that is common in both early and later Old Testament Judaism is how they define repentance: holding fast to “The Law”.

The key to remember: Old Testament repentance is a return to the past declarations, promises, and intentions of God.

Enter: John the Baptist.

By the time John enters the scene, this Old Testament “return to the Law”-sort of repentance has been interpreted between the testaments as primarily ethical.

“Repentance” then was to return to God’s desire to love one’s neighbor and be a “good” Jew, and therefore different from the cultures that surrounded them. In these writings, there is an emphasis on God being the “giver” of both repentance itself and the opportunities to do it.

John takes all this and flips it on its head. He offers an entirely different motivation to repent. He doesn’t stress the past work and words of God, but instead stresses the future judgment of God as the reason to repent.

It’s not about keeping bad temporal things from happening, nor is it about restoring God’s favor, but it’s about preparing oneself for the Kingdom of God that is coming in judgment. He says that God is indeed the giver of opportunities to repent, and that the opportunity is now–and time is running out.

To recap: Old Testament repentance is oriented on the Law of the past. John’s repentance is focused on the Kingdom of the future.

And then Jesus appears.

And everything changes.

John is imprisoned and Jesus takes over all of the “repentance” preaching. The idea of “judgment” is still present in Jesus’ calls to repent, but it’s not nearly as prominent as John’s emphasis.

Instead, where John emphasized the future judgment aspect of the Kingdom, Jesus emphasizes the pesent salvation.

Further, he emphasizes the present reality of that Kingdom salvation. And it’s a salvation that is fully purchased, validated, empowered, and offered to the world on the Cross and at the Resurrection.

So….what does this mean?

I find contemporary talk about repentance looking a lot like the Old Testament and John the Baptist, not Jesus. Now don’t misunderstand me. Those other two are valid dimensions of repentance, even today, but they are prepatory of the fullness of repentance.

The practice of repentance, according to Jesus, does not find it’s primary foundation in the past Law of God, nor the future Judgment of God, but in the present reality of the Kingdom. A Kingdom that is already a reality.

And so repentance is not a bad feeling over sin, nor is it “turning” from sins. It’s turning one’s mind to be in line, in rhythm, and in sync with the Kingdom of God. It’s living in light of a present reality, not trying to make something into a reality.

The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament puts it this way:

Positively, repentance required committing oneself to the words and deeds of Jesus. Repentance must therefore be seen in the context of the proclamation of the kingdom. While already with John repentance was no longer a return to former things (it is indeed a return to Yahweh, but Yahweh who desires to be feared for his future acts of judgment), with Jesus it meant to live in the light of the announced and already present salvation of the kingdom of God, which absolves all former guilt. As a result, the idea that God himself grants repentance is not only an exaggeration but even a distortion, when repentance is made the result of an a priori forgiveness. The traditional concept of repentance, which semantically has been defined completely differently, thus plays a limited role with Jesus.

I had an old pastor that drilled a helpful distinction in my head that, as I get older, I realize applies to more and more of the Christian life: our faith is one of believing more than achieving.

Repentance, therefore, is about believing in Ultimate Reality as it currently is, not achieving life as we think it ought to be.

This is so helpful for me. Repentance is not an external weight and demand placed on my shoulders that I have yet to really taste and experience. It’s a Kingdom reality into which I’m invited. Repentance is, as Augustine would summarize it, “to love God and do what you want.”

Believing that the Kingdom of Forgiveness is truth and then living in light of that is repentance. And yes, I’ll live in that Kingdom with all of my baggage and sin and difficulty with change, but as I “repent” (live in light of truth), I have confidence that I will be met in my weaknesses.

Further, as Karl Barth (my favorite theologian) puts it: to repent is to become human; to come in line with our existence as those whose being is begun and sustained by the God who is both Creator and Reconciler. To come in line with this truth is to come in line with the source and sustenance of our very existence.

And so, “repentance” for me is no longer about changing behavior or “turning away” from actions. It’s about learning how to flourish as fully human in light of God’s Kingdom.

I’ll end with this absolutely stunning statement of this reality by Barth:

Really judged by God, man has simply nothing left except to cling to the One who judges him, and therefore to divine grace. We are really judged only by the grace of God. But if we are really judged, how can we assert ourselves in any way before the One who judges us? How can anything happen but that we believe in the grace which He so forcefully offers? There is nothing arbitrary or hypothetical about this change. It is not we ourselves who bring it about. But on the cross at Golgotha this conclusive judgment has been passed upon us, exposing all men as liars and stopping every mouth. And because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, we are transposed into the Kingdom of God’s grace. This transformation is to be accepted as a fact. It is in the light of it (which means, concretely) that our humanity and the humanity of the Church’s proclamation is to be seen.

[image credit: “The Sower and the Setting Sun” by Vincent Van Gogh]


3 thoughts on “The Story of Repentance: believing vs. achieving

  1. “This eventually ends up meaning that the early Israelite motivation for repenting is so that bad things won’t happen.”

    Stereotypical bronze-age god worshiping motivation if I’m not mistaken.

    “John’s repentance is focused on the Kingdom of the future.”

    Well, predicted kingdom of the future anyway.

    “And then Jesus appears.

    And everything changes.”

    If by “everything” you mean pretty much nothing. A small sect of believers were all there was for the next 80 or so years. The vast vast vast vast vast majority of Jews keep on doing what they were doing while the people of Jesus’s own hometown persecute him.

    But after Jesus has been dead (and who knows, perhaps resurrected) for a good long while, everything changes.

    “A Kingdom that is already a reality.”

    But you can just never observe it.

    “And so repentance is not a bad feeling over sin, nor is it “turning” from sins. It’s turning one’s mind to be in line, in rhythm, and in sync with the Kingdom of God. ”

    And the Modern Americanization of Christianity is now complete. Gone are the firebrand preachings of yesteryear where repentance totally was turning from your sins after confessing them and feeling remorse.

    “It’s living in light of a present reality, not trying to make something into a reality.”

    Except of course for trying to make the “Kingdom of God” a reality. I mean it certainly has never been directly and reliably observed.

    “This is so helpful for me.”

    I’m sure that it is.

    “It’s a Kingdom reality into which I’m invited. Repentance is, as Augustine would summarize it, “to love God and do what you want.””

    Makes it sound like a party.

    “And so, “repentance” for me is no longer about changing behavior or “turning away” from actions. ”

    You really need to hit up your local church house.


  2. Pingback: Reflections on Psalm 51: the People & their Fallen King [intro] | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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