Gospel Repentance

Let’s play a word association game.

What comes into your mind when you see or hear the word “repent”?

You might think of a street preacher wearing sandwich sign blazoned with “Turn or Burn.”

Perhaps you think of hell. Maybe the familiar illustrations of doing a U-turn or an about-face come to mind.

While any of these associations are understandable, none of them quite hit the biblical mark. If the only thing we think about when it comes to repentance is escaping hell or changing our ways, we’re still missing the most important part of repentance.

We’re still missing Jesus.

For repentance is not merely turning from sin. Repentance is also turning to the crucified and risen Savior. And if we miss this, we will fall into the “worldly grief” that “produces death,” that Paul describes 2 Corinthians 7:10.

There is a kind of sadness over sin that doesn’t lead to Jesus, doesn’t produce joy, and doesn’t end in life. But that kind of grief over sin is not genuine gospel repentance.

Theologians from an older generation distinguished between legal repentance and evangelical repentance. By legal repentance they meant a kind of repentance that had its eye on the law and its condemnation. But this is sharply different from evangelical, or gospel, repentance. Gospel repentance fixes its gazes less on broken laws and threatened judgments and more on the weeping, wounded, sin-bearing Savior.

Calvin said that in evangelical repentance, “the sinner, though grievously downcast in himself, yet looks up and sees in Christ the cure of his wound, the solace of his terror; the haven of rest from his misery.”[1]

St. Bernard’s old hymn beautifully captures the ethos of gospel repentance:

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.

Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;

Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,

For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?

O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.[2]

Gospel repentance, you see, is the reflex of our hearts when, captivated by the dying love of Jesus, we throw ourselves whole-heartedly into the embrace of his mercy and grace.

Gospel repentance is Peter back on the boat following the week of Jesus’ passion, toiling again with the old nets. But, suddenly aware that Jesus stands on Galilee’s shore waiting for him, he jumps head first into the water and swims with all his might for land.

Gospel repentance is the prodigal son with the smell of pigs lingering on his clothes and the taste of husks still in his mouth, astonished at the joyous indignity of his father running to meet him and squelching his well-rehearsed confession with kisses, tears, and a bear hug.

I wonder if the negative associations we make with the word repentance are because we too often think of repentance in terms of escaping the consequences of sin, and too seldom in terms of returning to the outstretched arms of our welcoming Father in heaven?

Yes, there is certainly a place for self-examination. We should all pray with the Psalmist,    

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting![3]

But introspection also has its hazards. We should especially beware of so fixating on our sins that we lose sight of the Savior himself.[4]

This post was originally written for Gospel Connections, the blog of Tim Merwin. Be sure to check it out. 


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (III.3.4). Translated by Henry Beveridge. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
[2] “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, 1153 (Salve caput cruentatum); translated from Latin to German by Paul Gerhardt, 1656 (O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden), and from Latin to English James W. Alexander, 1830.
[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Ps 139:23–24). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[4] For more on gospel repentance, see the helpful Tim Keller’s helpful essay, “All of Life is Repentance,” (http://download.redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/All_of_Life_Is_Repentance-Keller.pdf.) and “Don’t Seek Repentance or Faith as Such; Seek Christ
“ in John C. Miller’s The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller (p. 244). (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004) p. 244.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Brian (from Dan S in India)