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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Repentance: Change of Mind or Change of Motivation?

I have heard oodles and oodles of talk about repentance over the years. Most of the definitions are based on a denuded, bare-bones explanation of the Greek word μετάνοια (metanoia). Literally this word means “a change of mind, a change in the inner man” (Alexander Souter, “A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament,” 157). The way this gets played with is at times quite drab and disappointing. For example,

Repentance is from a Greek word meaning “to change one’s mind.” When it is applied in a biblical sense, it doesn’t mean changing your ways (or else!). It means that you recognize God is God and you aren’t. It means that you don’t get a vote on what is right and what is wrong. It means that when you recognize God’s authority, you go to God sand tell him so. In short, repentance is knowing who you are, who God is, and what you’ve done or haven’t done, and then going to God in agreement with him and his assessment” (Steve Brown, “Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You,” 38).
Now that statement is fine, as is. But then the author goes another step further:
“Repentance isn’t changing; it’s God’s way of changing us if that is what he wants. Changing, though, isn’t even the issue. If the Bible is right in that all our sins are covered by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and Christ gives us his righteousness in place of our sinfulness, change may happen, but it isn’t what this whole thing is about” (Ibid).
But biblically, repentance is about change. More than a change of cognitive ability, it’s a change in direction, a change in motivation and intent that works its way into our existence. God does desire all of us to change from our destructive, damaging direction to become increasingly what he made us to be.


How do I know this? Here are three evidences:

1st-Almost half of the New Testament is about change. That troubling language of “put off… and put on” (Ephesians 4.22-24, Colossians 3.5-11, etc) fills out much of the New Testament. So if change is not “even the issue” why do the New Testament authors spill so much ink on change?

2nd-John the baptizer proclaimed a sign called “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3.3). He declared with the sign that people were to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (v.8). Then, when three groups of people came to him and asked, “What then shall we do?” he didn’t say, “changing … isn’t even the issue.” He said, “change!” (see Luke 3.10-14, where the proposed changes where very group specific).

3rd-For us pesky Presbyterians, the Westminster Shorter Catechism should clear the air, and filter the water:
What is repentance unto life?  Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience” (Question and Answer 87).
Repentance is a new-found abhorrence of what we used to love (sin), a new found love for what we used to abhor (God and his mercies in Christ), and a new motivational direction (“turn unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience”). It’s more than cognitive; it’s also will, desire, ambition, longing, and stretching toward a new direction, and endeavoring after new obedience.


That means that being sorry is only an initial step in the right direction; and being sorry that the thing (or things) you did and were are terribly wrong, is a giant leap in the right direction. But contrition (remorse, regret, etc) is not repentance. Paul writes,
“As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7.9-10).

Nevertheless, the source of change is not ultimately in you. Change is the gift of God, because God wants us to change!
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippains 2.12-13).
It’s because Paul is confident that God wants his people to change and empowers them to change that he can say to God’s people, “Change! Work out the consequences, implications and applications of your salvation!” There’s no sitting around and saying, “Well, if God wants me to change he’ll have to bring change.” It’s biblically “God wants me to change, he’s given me a new heart and motivation for change, I’m gonna make that change!”


But the change doesn’t make God love you more. If you are his, then he already loves you deeply and unendingly; “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5.8). Change, repentance, trickles or gushes forth (as the case may be at times) from the reservoir of God’s full-blooded love for you! As you are gripped by this great news, then you find you have a truly new way of being and desiring, so that you can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2.20).

Therefore, turn away from yourself and your achievements or failures, look to Christ Jesus, entrust yourself to him, and stretch toward what he is loving you to be.


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