As I write, my devotional readings have taken me to the book of Jeremiah, in the Old Testament. When I read and listen to this prophet, I am struck by the determination of God, expressed by the prophet, to bring His people through a process of refining, leading to renewal and restoration. I am struck, too, at the apparent intransigence of a people mired in sin, and the urgent call of God that they should repent, turn back to God. What is repentance? And why is it something we do not often speak much about, in contemporary Christian circles?
Repentance is a two-edged sword: that is one reason we find it hard to handle. It involves both a turning away from and a turning towards. Turning away from sin and practices that displease God. Turning towards God, pursuing righteousness and justice and practices that please God. Which comes first? The question can sound like ‘the chicken and the egg’ conundrum. Yet repentance is a necessary precursor to faith: that to suggest that faith could or should precede repentance is to misunderstand the meaning of faith, in a New Testament sense. Faith, in the way it is sometimes spoken of it, can be emptied of its meaning. It is not a proof of faith, for example, that a person believes or accepts that there is a God who is the Creator: even demons believe this (James 2.19). Nor, it would appear from Holy Scripture, is it a proof of Christian faith that a person recognises that Jesus Christ died for our sins: the call to Christian faith, in the New Testament, is that we should confess Jesus Christ as Lord (Romans 10.9). Christian Faith, we would contend, involves an investment of ourselves in the substance of that faith: Jesus Christ. We shall see more of this in the next section.
The Gospel narratives of the New Testament leave us in little doubt as to their prioritisation of repentance. John the Baptist prepares the way for the Messiah through preaching a message where, announcing that the Kingdom of God was arriving on Earth, repentance was necessary and called for: a turning back to God in renouncing practices that are contrary to the express will of God (Luke 3.10-14), to produce fruit that are in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3.8). The baptism that John baptised people with was one that acknowledged this repentance: John understood that the baptism that the Christ would bring was a subsequent one, a baptism ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Matthew 3.11; Luke 3.16).
At the beginnings of Jesus’ own ministry His declaration, concerning the immanent arrival and manifestation of the Kingdom of God, was accompanied by a call to repentance (Mark 1.15). Later, in the New Testament Epistles, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews would identify the call to repentance as foundational to the Christian message (Hebrew 6.1), as the Apostle Paul did, in giving account of his preaching (Acts 20.21).
What does this tell us about repentance? Repentance is not simply expressed through a private attitude of the heart: it involves turning away from and renouncing practices that are displeasing to God. Why might this prove to be a challenge or a problem for us, today? I would suggest that there are two reasons.
The first reason is a continuing belief in ‘decisionism’, the contention that simply ‘by believing’, a person can become a Christian: that what is involved is basically a change of attitude or inner persuasion. It fits well with a belief in the ability of each and every person to freely choose their identity and ideology; and with societies and cultures that view wider society as being constituted as the sum total of the individual, separated people that come together to constitute it. This, in itself, betrays the crisis of so much contemporary culture: the conviction that society exists only in so far as individuals choose to identify with it and be part of it.
A second reason follows from this. Our Declaration of Principle’s insistence on a call to repentance challenges the way we understand the constitution of a healthy and robust society. The Biblical vision is that a healthy society is made up of communities of conviction; and that the Christian life has a pattern of practices, that indicate and arise from our convictions. Some of these practices are grounded, not in transient cultures and contexts, but in the essential substance of Christian identity that arises out of the humanity of Jesus Christ. That these practices might differ from and contrast to the dominant or politically promoted practices, found in the wider society around us, is not our immediate concern. What matters is that we understand that practices are indicative of convictions; and that convictions constitute communities. Without communities of conviction, with recognised practices and norms, there can be no stable society.
The priority that lies, in the call to repentance, concerns this need to constitute communities of conviction, wherein we demonstrate and model what it means to be part of a society that honours and worships our God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. We lose our sense of the need for repentance when we lose our vision of salvation as being that which God effects for His people: a faithful society, made up of people as constitutive parts, rather than viewed as the simply the sum of individuals who believe. It is possible for contemporary church to fail in preparing people for faith, through repentance, when sight is lost and our focus is moved from an understanding of Christianity’s community nature. The call to repentance is to build church as a society of believers who share convictions, regarding the revealed will of God, demonstrated through practices that are consonant with the authority of Jesus Christ, expressed through the testimony of the Holy Scriptures and the leading of the Holy Spirit, as discerned by the community of the church.
Questions for reflection:
· What has ‘repentance’ caused you to turn away from? What has it caused you to turn towards?
· In what ways can we encourage people to move from their first ‘decision’ to believe, to living as a ‘disciple’?
· How important is church, as community, to you? How could it be better?