The Blessing of Repentance
On All Hallows’ Eve 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses or Statements to the door of the parish church in Wittenberg. Luther had little idea at the time of how incendiary these Theses were to become. But in God’s sovereign providence the Theses ignited a movement of protest that became the Protestant Reformation, and the rest is history. My concern in this pastoral letter is to consider with you the first of the 95 Theses: When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Some weeks ago a friend and I were reflecting on why once faithful ministers of the gospel fall into sexual sins. My friend said something that immediately and deeply resonated with me. He said, ‘I think the sins of . . . were due to him failing to make repentance a daily reality in his life.’ In the evangelical world we hear much about the paramount necessity of repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21), and rightly so. Such once-for-all repentance and faith brings us into vital saving union with Christ, rescues us from the dominion of darkness, and brings us into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13). But – and it is a huge ‘but’ – sin yet remains within us; the world continues to be an alluring, seductive enemy; Satan still prowls around looking for someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8). Not a day passes but the most favoured child of God sins. Paul’s exhortation that we ‘put to death the deeds of the body (so that we) will live’ (Rom. 8:13), is solemn and needful. Repentance is not therefore a once-for-all, never to be repeated act. Indeed, initial transformative repentance reveals its true colours in constant, continuing transformative repentance. Luther was only too right, When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Every Christian is vulnerable to the assaults and seductions of the evil one (read Luke 22:31). The sin that yet remains within us no longer reigns over us, but it continues to trouble us. Daily, indeed moment by moment, repentance is a precious spiritual grace. It reveals that we are not self-deceived as to our spiritual state. It reveals that we are conscious of our Father’s promised, daily, forgiving love. Day by day, even moment by moment, repentance is the sign of a healthy spiritual life.
Of course, repentance is not the mere acknowledgement that we have sinned and done that which is evil in God’s sight (Psa. 51:4). Repentance is much more than acknowledgement and confession. Repentance is a positive turning away from sin to God in Christ – or, better, a turning away to God in Christ from sin (1 Thess. 1:10).
Christian ministers in particular can only too easily think more highly of themselves than they ought to think. Our congregation’s praise can go to our heads. We can too easily, and eager!y(!), believe the kind and generous things people say about us. We can tragically drift into spiritual schizophrenia, being one thing in public when people are watching and listening, and something else in the recesses of our hearts.
I am conscious that what I write applies to all Christians. But I have no doubt that ministers are perhaps more vulnerable to the great sin of neglecting day by day heart repentance before God. Luther was only too right, When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. Have you, have I drifted from such repentance? Is our entire life a life of repentance? Are you, am I, acutely, even more acutely, aware of the sinfulness of sin today than we were when first converted to Christ? Jesus said to his vulnerable but truly converted disciples, ‘Watch and pray lest you enter into temptation.’ Do you watch? Do you pray?
One last word: If you have allowed sin to overtake you and heart repentance is not the fundamental spiritual grace in your life that it should be, don’t, please, despair. God is rich in mercy. I have often found these words of great encouragement:
O Jesus, full of truth and grace,
More full of grace than I of sin;
Yet once again I seek thy face,
Open thy arms and take me in;
And freely my backslidings heal
And love the faithless sinner still.
Thou knowest the way to bring me back
My fallen spirit to repair;
O for thy truth and mercy’s sake,
Forgive and make me sin no more;
The ruins of my soul repair,
And make my heart a house of prayer.
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church, now worshipping God on Sunday mornings in All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge and in the Lutheran Church, Huntingdon Road, on Sunday evenings.
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