Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Repenting of repenting

I have had a change of heart - excuse the pun - about the word repent. I used to think of it primarily in terms of sorrow, tears, confession and a determination to change the course of one's life - with God's help of course - but now I see another side to it. The actual word means to "change one's mind" and I find that probably the more prevalent meaning of it. I am thinking of Jesus' first 'sermon' as he leaves the wilderness and full of the Spirit calls people to "repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). He wasn't asking people to repent of their sins - not directly - but rather to open themselves up and be prepared to change their way of thinking about God and how he works among us.

He then follows this through by calling disciples to him (Matthew 4:18-22), healing sick people (Matthew 4:23-24) and casting out demons (Matthew 4:24). He then goes on to deliver Kingdom of God preaching which takes what people have learnt and turned it all on it's head (Matthew 5-7). In other words he calls for a change of mind and then asks them to consider what the change is that he is bringing.

So this call to change one's mind seems to fit in with this understanding of repentance rather than the other understanding which focuses more on sin and sorrow. That is NOT to say that sorrow for sin etc does not figure at some point, but our minds are changed and we begin to see God in His beauty and perfection and then see our own sin in that context then repentance leads to sorrow etc as in Isaiah 6 and Luke 5.

Incidentally the great Austrian theologian Karl Barth taught this. There is a story about him where it is reported that Barth was once asked what he would say to Hitler if he ever had the chance to meet the monstrous man who was destroying Europe and who would ruin the whole world if he were not stopped. Barth’s questioner assumed that he would offer a scorching prophetic judgement against the miscreant’s awful politics of destruction. Barth replied, instead, that he would do nothing other than quote Romans 5:8 to Hitler: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” in the words of Ralph C. Woods: "Only such unparalleled mercy and forgiveness, such unstinted Gladness, could have prompted the F├╝hrer’s genuine repentance. To accuse him, though justly, of his dreadful sins would have prompted Hitler’s self-righteous defence, his angry justification of his “necessary” deeds."

That's the point. Denouncing someone and calling them to repent of their sins is pretty pointless. It is only when they 'see' God's grace, mercy and love that they then will be able to become conscious of their own. Then the change can take place.

A biblical example may help us here. In the story of the prodigal son the young man leaves home and in a distant land squanders his share of his inheritance having insulted his father by asking for it before his father has died, which was the usual way of doing things. But he falls on hard times and realises when all his money has gone and he is starving that even the life of a hired servant in his father's house would be better than starving to death where he was. So he composes a speech expressing his sorrow and regret for his actions and starts for home. The first aspect of repentance here then is the decision to turn around and set out for home.

But the question everyone asks at this point is whether this speech is genuine or self-serving? Usually the answer is yes it is because then we see his father accept him and welcome him home. But I believe the answer is actually 'no'. It's too composed and rehearsed and, in some ways too calculating. It is only as his father runs out to meet him and throws his arms around him and kisses him that, overwhelmed by grace, love and mercy he then does repent in genuine sorrow and says the speech FROM HIS HEART.

So we must preach love and grace and wait to see God at work in those who, maybe for the first time, see what a wonderful God he is. That - rather than condemnation - is what leads a person to faith.

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