Repentance: A God-oriented Life image

Repentance: A God-oriented Life

Repentance is not primarily a change in behaviour. (... bear with me for a moment!) Repentance is certainly connected to behaviour but there is a danger that we (literally) confuse the two so that we think that a change in behaviour is equivalent to repentance when actually it may not be. This confusion can be seen in the Roman Catholic doctrine of Penance where the command ‘repent’ in Mt 4:17 in the Latin version of the Bible (‘Paenitentiam agite’) is translated ‘do penance’ – that is to say, repentance is doing good deeds in recompense for sin. (Consequently, Luther began his 95 theses by challenging this view.)

However, the Bible makes a clear distinction between repentance and its fruit. The OT puts it this way:

“Return to the LORD your God - and obey him” (Deut 4:30).

The relational change results in behavioural reformation. God never simply demands a change in behaviour without also calling for a change of heart which is the root cause of sin. God is not, nor has he ever been, satisfied with a change in behaviour alone, with no regard for the motivation for the change. The repentance God requires and responds to is essentially relational, an ‘orientation’, rather than merely reformed behaviour. Granted, such reformation should inevitably result, but the two should not be confused.
Likewise in the NT, Luke records Paul’s testimony

“I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” Acts 26:20 (see also Luke 3:8).

Again, a clear distinction between repentance and its fruit is made, and, while the etymology of metanoeō, the Greek word most commonly translated ‘repent’, suggests an ‘after-thought’ or ‘change of mind’, it also maintains the OT relational element of ‘turning to God’. It is this turning (back) to God that results in a changed life.
So, let’s ground this. What do you do and say when you repent?
I would suggest that for many of us it goes something like this: ‘I’m sorry Lord for my sin, and if you’ll forgive me it won’t happen again.’ For Martin Luther this is dangerously close to self-justification. We have moved too quickly on to reformation, before genuinely repenting – genuinely ‘returning to the Lord’. Luther warns:

“... when, under the guidance of the Law, you have come to a knowledge of your sins, beware lest before all else you presume henceforth to satisfy the Law as one who intends to live a better life. [Rather] despair altogether of your past and future life, and trust boldly in Christ.”

Luther’s awareness of the profound human tendency towards self-justification before God, led him to conclude that, while repentance should be a ‘despairing altogether’ of our own efforts and ‘trusting boldly in Christ’, it can easily become the ‘intention to live a better life’. So, whether in your own repenting or in counselling others, don’t rush on too quickly to consider how to change your behaviour. The first and most important step is to ‘return to the Lord’ and change your heart. Then reformation will inevitably follow.

2Sa 24:14 “Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great…”


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