The Problem with Repentance
This passage of scripture which I just read this morning is the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark, the original gospel. The first fifteen verses exhibit two themes. The first is the bigger one, a theme which sets the stage for the rest of the gospel. The first theme is that Jesus has come onto the scene. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah spoke about one whom God would be sending to announce the presence of God’s unique servant. But his messenger, John the Baptist, was only that: a messenger. It was Jesus who is the big story here. John declares
“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The second theme in these opening verses of Mark is a lesser one, but the one I will speak about this morning. It is a call to repent and be baptized, and so to be a part of the Kingdom of God.
- Let’s start with confession and forgiveness
Let me introduce me subject in this way, with a story of a minister who, while on vacation, attended a church in Ohio on a Sunday morning. He heard the minister of that church say something after the prayer of confession which caught this man’s attention and he began to ponder what he’d heard. During what is commonly called the “Assurance of Pardon” the pastor that morning said to his congregation “Be assured that through Christ your freely and honestly confessed sins are forgiven.”
Rev. William Kenney, the vacationing minister, wrote of his experience afterward, raising several worthy questions for us to ponder as we consider the opening verses of Mark’s gospel. Looking back on that Sunday morning in the Ohio church Rev. Kenney wondered how freely and honestly he had confessed his sins that day. Must sins be confessed freely and honestly before the assurance of pardon takes effect? And what about the sins we commit that we aren’t even mindful of?
Not always, but often at the beginning of a communion service in worship I will say these words from the Book of Common Worship – a resource in the Presbyterian Church used when I was a young child: “All who do truly repent of their sins are welcome to come before the Lord and sit at His Table.” Maybe I need to rethink that. Am I saying that only those who are repentant are welcome at the Lord’s Table? And how can I read a person’s heart to know if they are repentant, and repentant enough?
Let’s spend a minute looking at the weekly practice we have in worship of speaking in unison a prayer of confession, followed by an assurance of pardon. On the one hand, we proclaim a grace of the heavenly Father who loves all people, quite apart from anything that would diminish that love. Psalm 103 says “You have not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” In Romans 5 we read that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us;” and later in Romans 8 we read “nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our theology based on biblical understanding is that God’s love for each and every one of us is unconditional.
But then we come to the acknowledgement of our sinfulness, our human incompleteness which separates us from God the Father, and we seem to set up conditions for the full realization of that love. 1 John 1:9 says “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” IF we confess…God will forgive. That sounds pretty conditional to me! Here’s another example from Matthew, chapter 6 “If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” There’s a mixed message here that the forgiveness which we seek as we transgress against the Lord seems to have boundaries; God’s love which comes in the form of a divine forgiveness may not be as freely given as we thought.
For many years I’ve had a problem with the Prayers of Confession and the Assurances of Pardon which we and most Protestants include in a conventional worship service. I always see the Assurance of Pardon following the Prayer of Confession. Our theology says that God’s loving forgiveness is unconditional; but then we place the prayer and the assurance in a sequence which suggests that the assurance is conditional upon the recitation of the prayer, and I presume the sincere recitation of the prayer. What if the sincerity is missing? Is there still assurance?
Today I have reverted to an earlier practice of mine in other churches, and broken with tradition to put an Assurance of Pardon before the Prayer of Confession. If our assurance is truly that nothing can separate us from God’s love, then let’s not be wishy-washy about that and proclaim that truth ahead of an invitation to test that out through confession. Having the confidence of God’s unfailing love and mercy, we can then with confidence enter into a time of confession.
- Now let’s consider repentance
We find in the opening verses of Mark’s gospel that both John the Baptist and Jesus call for people to repent. But what are they calling for? What do they want to see happen? It’s not clear. If God’s love is unconditional, why do we need to repent? We’re already forgiven. And if God’s love is conditional, then just ask to be forgiven once again, and go on living any way you want. Either way repentance doesn’t seem to be that important. Or is it? Both John the Baptist and Jesus seem to think so.
We’re all familiar with the story of the prodigal son, or as some call it, the story of the loving father. If we turn to that classic biblical story of love and forgiveness we will get a better handle on these matters of confession, forgiveness, and repentance. The younger son asks for his inheritance and leaves the family, only to squander what he has. Coming to his senses, he returns home and finds his father more than ready to welcome him back. The son accepts the mercy of his father, and presumably lives thereafter in the household of grace.
This story correctly portrays the meaning of the terms of confession, forgiveness, and repentance, and more importantly, the correct sequence. We typically get the sequence wrong, so we inevitably misunderstand the meaning of those three terms. The biblically-correct sequence is forgiveness, confession, and then repentance. The son returns home, and is it at that time that forgiveness occurs? Hardly. The father’s attitude toward the son was not changed by the son’s returning home. The father, you remember, ran out to meet his son, and welcomed him with open arms. The forgiveness on the part of the father occurred long before the son came home.
So what led the son to come home? It was the realization of how badly he had messed up his life. When he saw the error of his ways, he acknowledged that to himself, and later confessed that to his father. Think what would have happened if all had gone well for the son living in the far country. He never would have confessed any wrongdoing, and he never would have come home.
But his acknowledgement of his sinfulness, his confession, put him in a position to receive the forgiveness of his father when he did actually fall into his father’s arms. The confession didn’t precipitate the forgiveness. The forgiveness validated the confession, and the two were reconciled.
Then what happened? The father and son lived together in unison and harmony. That’s the repentance stage – the third act of this three-part drama. The son who came to his senses returned home and started to live the way he was supposed to be living. He repented.
“Repent” is an action verb. It doesn’t mean to change your mind, as many people think. Repent means to turn one’s life around, to change direction, to act rightly, that is with righteousness. As Frederick Buechner correctly points out, repentance spends a lot more time looking forward than it does looking backward. It’s our response to the prior forgiveness and confession of sin. Repentance is the direction that our feet go once we come to the realization that we are already forgiven.
I want to finish this morning by asking the question of whether any of this makes any difference. To which I would answer a strong “Yes.” If repentance comes before forgiveness, then we’re living in a world of conditional love. “Get your act together and then you’ll be loved.” But when repentance follows a prior forgiveness, as the Kingdom of God calls for, then our efforts as Christians are all about living to the best of our ability according to God’s righteousness. Each day we’re not trying to rack up more brownie points, but to give our lives over in gratitude to the God who has graciously given Himself to us.
God has already said “I love you, and I forgive you.” Now, for God’s sake, live like you are loved and forgiven.
Rev. Bob McCreight