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Repentance and Other Forgotten Virtues
Examining the nature of biblical repentance
“For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.” (2 Corinthians 7:11)
One of the great dangers in the Christian life is to become so familiar with certain words or concepts that they become effectively meaningless. Repentance is a word that runs this risk. It is a word we use so often that it sometimes hangs like a cloud in our minds: hazy, formless, and therefore powerless. According to Scripture, however, repentance is less like a cloud and more like a tree: firm, solid, and recognizable by its fruits.
The apostle Paul names some of the fruits of sincere repentance in the text quoted above: eagerness to clear oneself, indignation toward sin, fear at the prospect of God’s judgement, longing for righteousness, zeal for future faithfulness, and a willingness to respond to wrongdoing with measured and careful justice. Thus, where these qualities are lacking we can conclude that true repentance is lacking also and that a counterfeit is running amuck.
Recognizing this is important because it guards us against a “repentance” that is not in fact repentance. It reminds us that true repentance goes all the way: it cuts off the hand (Mk. 9:43), gouges out the eye (Mk. 9:47), makes restitution (Lk. 19:8), and seeks reconciliation (Matt. 5:23–24). True repentance, in other words, leaves nothing undone, so that at “every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.”
In an age of stunning and nauseating self-righteousness, Christians need to once again recover the message of a lethal and liberating repentance — lethal in that repentance demands the death of our entire selves, with all our lusts, ambitions, cravings, and desires, and yet liberating since it is God’s appointed means of raising us from death to walk in newness of life.
There can be no hope for us as a nation, much less as individuals, until we begin to believe this truth again. The way to Christ, and thus to the infinite wellspring of joy and life itself, is through the narrow gate of humble, penitent faith.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17)
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