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Daniel of Doulogos Name:Daniel
Home: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
About Me: I used to believe that evolution was reasonable, that homosexuality was genetic, and that people became Christians because they couldn't deal with the 'reality' that this life was all there was. I used to believe, that if there was a heaven - I could get there by being good - and I used to think I was more or less a good person. I was wrong on all counts. One day I finally had my eyes opened and I saw that I was not going to go to heaven, but that I was certainly going to suffer the wrath of God for all my sin. I saw myself as a treasonous rebel at heart - I hated God for creating me just to send me to Hell - and I was wretched beyond my own comprehension. Into this spiritual vacuum Jesus Christ came and he opened my understanding - delivering me from God's wrath into God's grace. I was "saved" as an adult, and now my life is hid in Christ. I am by no means sinless, but by God's grace I am a repenting believer - a born again Christian.
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Wednesday, July 14, 2010
994: Repent vs. Repent
If you google "define repent", the first link is to a survey of various "web" definitions - a sort of dictionary aggregator that lists definitions for "repent" from various sources: Princeton, Wikipedia, Wictionary, etc. etc. In order of appearance, here are the first ten definitions given (omitting references to things like plays or poems that have the word "repent" or "repentance" in the title):

[1] turn away from sin or do penitence; feel remorse for; feel sorry for; be contrite about

[2] Repentance is a change of thought and action to correct a wrong and gain forgiveness from a person who is wronged.

[3] In religious contexts it usually refers to confession to God, ceasing sin against God, and resolving to live according to religious law.

[4] To cause (oneself) to feel pain or regret; To cause to have sorrow or regret; To feel pain, sorrow, or regret for what one has done or omitted to do; to be sorry for; To feel pain on account of; to remember with sorrow

[5] remorse for your past conduct

[6] a stage in salvation where the believer turns away from sin.

[7] The condition of being penitent; A feeling of regret or remorse for doing wrong or sinning

[8] Acknowledge one's wrong and turn away from it.

[9] Feeling regret for sins committed and asking for forgiveness.

[10] A turning with sorrow from a past course or action

One could easily summarize the list by saying that repentance is "turning away from sin in the wake of personal remorse" or something similar to it.

I think that most people, even many Christians, if asked to define repentance would give an answer that falls in that ballpark. Many look to the NT Greek and focus on the verb "metanoeo" (μετανοηω) which is often translated as "repent" and noting that the most wooden English translation possible is to "change one's mind" they forever after flavor every English instance of the notion of repentance with the lexical salt of changing one's mind.

The verb itself is rather rare in scripture, and means first to make a note to oneself about a thing after it has transpired or is too late to have done it right the first time. It does mean to change one's mind, but in the sense of changing one's purpose or even feelings - that is, changing your mind in the sense that you no are no longer persuaded in the same manner as you previously were. If it is perceived that a previous mind set was wrong, the verb takes on the sense of regret, or remorse and often carries an ethical nuance.

You see, I knew that God granted repentance, so I was wondering why it was, with me at least, that I was not being spiritually manipulated by God into obeying Him.The noun, metanoia (μεταοια) can mean 'later knowledge' or in less clumsy English, 'subsequent emendation'. It more commonly denotes a change of mind, whether in feelings, will, or thought. Again it carries the notion of regret if there is dissatisfaction with the previous mind set and whatever pain or consequences the previous mind set invited.

All of which is to describe what the word itself means. But there is more to biblical repentance than a lucid and accurate definition of the verb or noun used in expressing the whole thought. We all know what the verb "spread" means, but that doesn't mean that spreading a bed sheet and spreading jam on toast are one and the same thing. In other words, knowing what the word repent means is very important, but we also must understand what exactly we are repenting of if we are to understand what biblical repentance is describing.

Here is a bible-reading tip for you. Just because a word is primarily used to describe some theological idea, does not mean that every time it is used it must describe that theological idea. The Greek word for baptize simply means to immerse fully. Pickling recipe's from Christ's day in Palestine speak of baptizing cucumbers in vinegar, and burial practices spoke of baptizing the body fully beneath the earth, etc. By the time the NT was translated into English, the word for "immerse" had picked up so much theological baggage, that rather than translate it as "immerse" they instead transliterated it into English - thereby avoiding the controversy that was sure to arise from those who, because of some latter day tradition, had learned to practice baptism by sprinkling.

My concern is not with baptism however, but just to make the reader understand that words can pick up a theological tradition over time, such that in latter days, after a word gains some tradition meaning, latter day interpreters may clumsily (though perhaps well meaningly) replace the original meaning in a text with a theologically charged meaning that is entirely alien to the context, and would never have been assumed by first century readers or writers.

So that when I speak of metanoeo or metanoia, I want to be on guard against projecting 20th century tradition and usage back into my understanding of what biblical repentance really is. I think most of us, if presented with the choice of understanding a text in accord with the intent of its author or in accord with our own some latter day spin on the text would choose the former.

That isn't to say that having a sound definition of the words we use is beside the point, for if one has a poor understanding of these words, one is necessarily going to have a skewed and errant understanding of biblical repentance. Consider the person who thinks of repentance as feeling remorse over something, and presumes the something he is to feel remorse over is the fact that he is condemned by sin. The gospel, under this persuasion, becomes: Feel bad that you're condemned, and believe the gospel and you will be saved!

What of the person who thinks that repentance means to stop doing evil, and to start doing good? To this one the gospel becomes, start doing good, stop doing evil, and also believe, and you will be saved. Can you see how a wrong understanding of what it means to repent can turn the gospel into a man centered, works based effort to save yourself? Don't laugh, there are Christians who reject the notion that repentance is necessary for salvation because they have failed to understand what repentance really is. They will argue till they are blue in the face that you can be saved without repentance, and that repentance is a work, but really they are beating up straw men.

Again, the person whose understanding of repentance is that you stop committing sin, they likewise will end up with a sort of works gospel - stop sinning, and believe, and you will be saved. Has ever a Christian, however pious, zealous, or holy, managed to stop sinning altogether? Some might say, "yes" - but in order to do so they have to redefine sin. The short answer is, "no". The gospel is not "become sinless and believe" not, "stop sinning and believe".

That is why it is important to have a right understanding of what repentance is, because if you don't it messes up your sanctification (drawing near to God in obedience) and can mess up the gospel that you preach.

So what exactly is it that the bible says you are to have a change of mind/purpose about?

I think the knee-jerk answer is actually wrong, and that because most people will say that you have to change your mind about "sinning" - and by sinning they mean, committing sins. They would say you have to decide once and for all that you are going to stop sinning, as a rule of life, so that the gospel is that you turn away from sinning, and believe the promises of God.

But I have a horse/cart kind of problem with that.

You see, sin is rebellion against God, and to speak of sin in terms of "doing" or "not doing" is to cut God out of the equation. I should think that the devil has his hand in any theology that essentially cuts God out of the picture.

Repentance, or so the scriptures say, is something God grants.

I write from the perspective of one who has spent many years as a fool on this front. You see, I knew that God granted repentance, so I was wondering why it was, with me at least, that I was not being spiritually manipulated by God into obeying Him. If repentance meant a stop to all sin, and God granted this - why was it that I was still sinning? When was God going to grant me repentance? How many times have I begged the Lord to grant me repentance? I cannot say.

But while genuine sanctification inevitably and inescapably flows from genuine repentance (and this is granted by God) yet the sort of "sanctification" I was looking for was not actually biblical (though I assumed it was at the time), but rather was my own invention. The idea that God was supposed to pony up and stop me from sinning became a silent thorn in my side. At times I felt like maybe this proved that Christianity was all bunk, that it was all in my head, that I was just kidding myself. At other times I felt like this proved that I was somehow illegitimate - a sad and confused person who was presuming upon his own salvation while having tragically failed grasp it for real.

It was only after I understood what both sin and repentance were, according to scripture, that I was able to understand how God grants repentance.

To start with, I had to stop thinking about sin as a shorthand way of saying committing sins -that is, I had to see sin for what it really was: rebellion against God. Here also I had to think properly about repentance - it was indeed a breaking away from some previous mind set, and wholly embracing a new one - a decisive turning away, but not turning away from "committing sins" rather turning away from rebellion against God.

You might, if you were biblically literate, describe rebellion against God as walking in the flesh, since the flesh, we're told in scripture, in enmity against God, not being subject to God's rule, and worse, being incapable of subjecting itself to God's rule. No one can, without direct intervention from God, respond to God in any other way than to rebel against His rule. This rebellion manifests itself in our lives as committing sins, but it is not the committing of sin that is the rebellion, but the state of the heart that is rebellious. The flesh is, and until redeemed, always will be, in a state of rebellion. Thus in order to "repent" one must be someone else, someone other than oneself, for left to our own devices we would only ever, continue to rebel against God. This someone else, as it turns out, is God in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

God initiates faith in this way: On the day that God chose before the foundation of the world, He imparts to that one whom He has providentially brought to this place, an ability whose origin is not in the person who is considering the gospel, but in the one who Authored it. That ability is the ability to genuinely desire to be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

This change of mind from not wanting to be reconciled to God, to suddenly, and irrevocably desire, with every fibre of your being, to be truly and eternally reconciled to your Lord and Creator, God. This change of mind did not originate in you, for your flesh could by no means produce it. In fact, it is the flesh that remains right now that continues to hate God's rule, and takes every opportunity to exert itself so that you find yourself torn between doing what you want to do on the one hand (indulge some sin) and doing what "you" want to do (obey God) on the other. you're not going mad, you're just experiencing the pull of two warring influences - your flesh, and the Holy Spirit.

The gospel then is simple: Stop rebelling against God, and instead receive that reconciliation which God has offered to all of mankind, and this is the offer, that if you believe that Christ's sacrifice will reconcile you to God, not because of your worth, but because of God's grace, and in the certainty of that truth, you cast yourself upon the Lord - you will be reconciled to God in Christ.

The moment you do so, in truth, you demonstrate that God has worked in you both to will (He made you desire it) and to do (He granted you repentance), what He had planned from the start for you. God granted you this repentance - this turning away from self rule, and embracing as right and proper God's rule, and God seals this with the Holy Spirit who immediately begins to indwell the new believer and continues to cause that new believer to draw near to God, and away from sin.

There are, therefore, several competing understandings of what it means to repent. Common to those understandings which paint repentance as stopping sinning, or doing good, or feeling bad, or changing your opinion about God etc. is the notion that you do something, and God responds to it. But when we understand repentance biblically, we understand that we come to the place of reconciliation because God has drawn us there, and that our change in purpose, from self rule, to God's rule, was not manufactured by our own righteousness, or desires, for such desires are foreign to the flesh, but were in fact put there by God in order to reconcile us to Himself through Christ - then and only then, do we understand that the nature of repentance depends on our relationship to the Author of repentance.

The trouble with language, and shallow definitions is that Person A can say "repent" and mean "x" and person B can say repent and mean "y" - and both can say, "repent and believe the gospel" and in doing so expressing two radically different gospels.

There is a world of difference between the message that, "if you stop sinning and change your opinion about God you will go to heaven", and the notion that God has made a promise that cannot be broken, a promise to accept any and all who are willing to forgo their rebellion against Him, and embrace His rightful rule over their conduct and life, that He will forgive them all their rebellion, and be reconciled to them for no other reason that because they [1] believed His promise, and [2] sought to be reconciled to Him under that promise - then He will, according to His promise, reconcile that person to Himself through Christ, that is, through faith in His promises concerning the Christ.

Hasn't the gospel been watered down in our generation? Of course it has. Say this prayer and you will be saved:

"Dear God, I repent of my sins, and believe that Jesus died for me, and committing myself to you, I embrace Christianity as your child. Thank you God for receiving me, amen."

I mean, ten people could pray that prayer with equal vigor, zeal, and sincerity, and only a few or none be saved. To say that you repent of your sins might simply mean to the one praying that he or she has changed his or her opinion about their sins, from, "you probably overlooked them anyway" to "You definitely were offended by them" , and believing that Jesus died for you can mean that the person believes that Jesus died on their behalf, or maybe that Jesus died as an example for them. Committing yourself to God might mean that you are embracing His rule for your life, or it may mean that you have decided to join God's team, and call yourself a "Christian" rather than say, a "Buddhist". You may say that you are embracing "Christianity" when in fact you are embracing a heresy that rejects the gospel itself.

It isn't a prayer that saves you, it is Jesus who saves you. I don't share the gospel by saying, follow me in this prayer, I say plainly that a person doesn't have the power within Himself to be saved. That he is a sinner at heart, and irrevocably so. That he will never, and can never desire to be reconciled to God, and yet that the gospel is this, that if you will turn away from your rebellion, and call out to God to be reconciled - yet God will save you. If they want to understand how all that works, I am happy to explain it, but the gospel isn't in the explanation, the gospel is in the call to repent and believe that God will keep His promises.


posted by Daniel @ 1:20 PM  
  • At 1:23 PM, July 14, 2010, Blogger Daniel said…

    Some posts are like a plane that can't find the runway to land. Sorry about that.

  • At 9:08 PM, July 14, 2010, Blogger Daniel said…

    I was having some difficulty with a flash header there. I think my image server may have upgraded their site and the flash stuff needed to be recompiled or something. I think I fixed it now.

  • At 8:09 AM, July 15, 2010, Blogger Daniel said…

    Nope. Didn't fix it. Had to ditch the flash. Sigh. I tossed up a quick slap-together header. Maybe I will make something dandy later.

  • At 5:25 PM, September 16, 2010, Blogger Marcian said…

    I keep coming back to this one... thanks for taking the time to write it all out for the fools like me to grasp and use.

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