Repentance is not a work of the Law. That thought came to me today, and I’ve been mulling it all afternoon. Repentance isn’t something we do as a duty to meet the requirements of the Law. True repentance, which involves a change of behavior, isn’t something we can do entirely in our own strength. Repentance doesn’t earn us forgiveness.
I’m not sure what to think about that. On the one hand, I don’t think I can argue with it. I’ve learned well that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. I know that we are utterly unable to be good enough to please God by our own effort, and thus that we are utterly dependent on the grace of God in Jesus at every moment. If nothing we can do can earn God’s favor, how can there be an exception for repentance? Repentance must ultimately be not our gift to God for his sake but his gift to us for our sake. He doesn’t stingily withhold forgiveness until we can repent well enough or thoroughly enough to satisfy him. Rather, he enables us to repent so that we can admit and confess our need for his forgiveness, and thus receive the forgiveness he gives.
Repentance can’t be a work by which we earn our salvation, even in part, but as I look at myself, I think I’ve understood it that way most of the time. I suspect most of us do, even those of us in churches where grace is faithfully, powerfully, and consistently preached. Were I of a different temperament, that would be a source of pride for me, and I would guess it is for many in the church. As I am, it is instead a source of anxiety, and I know it is for many others. My anxiety never quite rises to the level of doubting God’s ability or willingness to hold on to me, but it causes me to expect judgment from him rather than forgiveness. I ask for his blessing, but I often feel extremely presumptuous in doing so. I know God has every right to dismiss my requests with disdain and punish me instead, because I’m still a sinner, and part of me is always watching for him to do exactly that. I don’t think I’m the only one who functions this way, and it’s a shame.
On the other hand, I don’t want to take God’s forgiveness lightly. The German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine is reported to have said on his deathbed,
Of course [God] will forgive me. That’s his job.
A more cynical iteration of the same attitude is also sometimes attributed to Heine (perhaps because of his deathbed joke):
I love to sin; God loves to forgive.
Really, the world is admirably arranged!
That gets things exactly backwards, in that it makes the whole matter about what we do; God simply responds to what we do. Since the same is also true of the idea that we earn God’s forgiveness by our repentance, they are equal and opposite errors. Rejecting one is likely to flip us over into the other.
The only way to avoid this is to shift our focus off ourselves. In part, we need to recognize that our repentance and forgiveness are primarily about what God does: he takes the initiative and we respond. If our primary concern is still for ourselves, however, that recognition will only encourage us to take his forgiveness lightly. As with everything else in Christianity, if our understanding of our faith is centered on ourselves, we’ll end up either in legalism or in lawlessness. It’s only as we love the Lord our God with all that is in us, and before all earthly loves, that we escape that trap.
Which I guess is where this all comes out. Repentance isn’t a work of the Law, it’s a response of love. The question Jesus asks us is the one he asked Simon Peter: “Do you love me more than these?”