“You must repent and believe!”, cries many a preacher; from pulpits, street corners and social media. The implicit, and even explicit inference is, “If you don’t, you will go to Hell”. It is a method that has been terribly powerful for some generations now, but it seems that the effectiveness of such a mantra is wearing thin. The common disregard for such preaching now should register to those preaching it as an indication that there is a problem with this particular message. But for some reason it doesn’t. This apparent disregard has been seen as a signal to preach the exact same message with even greater fervour. But where it once could bring millions of people into the Church at one time, now it is turning millions away.
The message relies so heavily on guilt and fear that people have had enough. It has been preached at them for so long that they have switched off, and for good reason. Many of them at one time or another bought into this fear and guilt and committed their lives to escaping it through the authorised means of repentance. But it has not worked. They have grown tired of the cycle of sin, guilt, shame, repentance – sin, guilt, shame, repentance. Tired because the effort and striving to live a holy life never actually amounted to any real betterment of their lives or yielded any true alleviation of the struggle. It only served to feed the cycle until it became completely overwhelming.
How is this so?
Guilt and fear do not, and cannot, ever bring about a truly transformational repentance. They only inspire a fear of one’s own eternal destination. Whether we are repenting to avoid going to Hell, or we are repenting to remain close to God (and hold on to your ticket to Heaven), we are still repenting for selfish motives and living out of a worldview completely antithetical to the Kingdom of God's selflessness and humility. Is this something God will be proud of? Repentance is supposed to be about letting go of selfish desires isn’t it? Dying to one’s self in order to live for the Kingdom? Are we really living a life of self-sacrifice and humility if our ultimate goal and motivation is our own glorious, eternal destination?
The motives for this understanding of repenting and believing are largely selfish and sinful. And it leaves so many of us worn down, confused, doubtful and afraid of whether we are are truly saved because it is so heavily focused on our own efforts, no matter how much we dress it up in holy, selfless language.
How long does salvation that comes from this repentance last? For eternity? Or just until the next time you sin? How long can you hold out before you sin again? How often do you feel sorry and repent for your sins? Are you sure that’s enough? Jesus is almost completely forgotten in this approach, until it comes to judgment. Yes, he died for our forgiveness, but the focus is on what we must do to appropriate it. Without our repentance, Jesus is beyond worthless to us; and worse, he will actively work against us to punish our unbelief.
Repentance that works
There is a better way of repentance however, and it has a completely different starting point. True repentance is turning away from our false ways of seeing ourselves and instead adopting God’s vision of who we are. God is Love. Unconditional Love. This is the heart of the good news of who and what God is. We are all loved, forgiven and accepted – unconditionally. True repentance is turning away from the belief that we are unlovable (with all the sinfully depraved actions that come along with that) and turning towards the belief that we are loved, totally and graciously, and that nothing we can do will ever change that.
Unconditional Love is the only thing that can convict us in a healthy and positive way. When we look at our failings and shortcomings and see how much we are still loved despite the ugliness we see in ourselves, we are convicted of the sin of seeing ourselves as unworthy. We might feel bad about letting ourselves down, letting others down and even letting God down but God still offers nothing but love for us. There is no striving to do better, to be better in order to earn it. There is however a deep conviction that we are loved despite our failings, and a desire to simply be present in the presence of God’s Love.
When we turn away from a selfish repentance towards a real acceptance that we are loved despite our failings, not only can we let go of our burdens and sin to find peace and rest, we can begin to allow that same Love to bubble up through us and out into the world around us. We can begin to live by the Higher Law and the New Commandment through no effort of our own, but by the Spirit of Love that has made us whole.
“You are giving people a licence to sin!”, some might say. Not at all. God is patient. God is kind. God will continue to love people in their sin as long as it takes for them to see that they are loved despite their sin, just as God does for you. God knows that when you finally see your true value, despite your own feelings of unworthiness, you will eventually learn to trust such an amazing grace. And when you do, all of Heaven rejoices!
We can only trust Love once we have experienced it. And we can’t truly experience such grace if it we believe we have to earn it. Is biblical repentance something we do to earn love? Or is biblical repentance a response to unconditional love? The transformation may require more patience, selflessness and humility than we would otherwise desire, but Unconditional Love and Grace is an infinitely more authentic, substantial, legitimate and undeniable basis for repentance than a system that requires anything from us before it can become a reality.
Russell has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft