Tag Archives: repentance

Reflecting on Repentance

In June of 2016 I preached a sermon entitled, “Fear, Faith, and Confusion.” The sermon was rooted in Judges 6:33 – 7:23. In the context of that sermon, I suggested the following:

The confusion of God that has been described in Romans 1 is settling upon us. Christian professors with terminal degrees no longer can discern the difference between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who became flesh in the Person of Jesus and the gods of other religions. We are now seeking God’s will for us in our natures, in the desires of our flesh, and in the passions of our own hearts.  Trust in words to communicate meaning has been so eroded, that many literary critics believe that texts and stories are simply mirrors which reflect ourselves.

Many, even believers, no longer can comprehend a difference between the teachings of the Prophets of Israel and the Apostles of Jesus and our own–essentially universalizing the idea of inspiration and God-breathedness, emptying the Christian Scriptures of their authority and their uniqueness.  These confusions are not just in the world.  They have permeated Christian communities, as well.  God’s judgment has come, and it is manifesting itself in our confusion.

I have been convinced for some time that the judgment of God has been falling upon North America. For me, the spirit of confusion that seems to have descended on both secular and Christian culture alike is fairly compelling evidence for this suspicion. However, the ‘coincidental’ nature of the complete solar eclipse crossing the continental United States, terminating in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of northern Africa followed by the fires in the northwest and in California combined with the magnitude 8 earthquake in Mexico combined with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Katia, and Jose have led a number of pastors and religious leaders to associate these events with God’s judgment, as well.

So, is it reasonable to believe that God’s judgment has been falling upon North America? I think the answer is yes. Does that mean that God is sending each specific tragedy upon us? In my view, not necessarily. Some years ago I wrote a book entitled, When God Doesn’t Look Like God, and in chapter 3 of that book, I explored quite extensively the question of why God created such a dangerous world and why God has allowed us to be so vulnerable to its perils. In brief, what I have observed in that chapter is that the Christian Scriptures teach that the natural state of the universe is formlessness, chaoticness, darkness—in a word, lifeless. Life, according to the Prophets of Israel who wrote the First (or Old) Testament, is a consequence of the unnatural creative activity of God.

For the writers of Scripture, the more intimate creation’s relationship with God, the more orderly and safe creation is for God’s creatures. And, the inverse is also true: the more disconnected creation becomes from God, the more of the original chaos and lifelessness that returns. To put it more simply, when God withdraws, the forces of destruction pour into the void He leaves behind. Judgment, understood in this way, is a natural consequence of humanity’s pursuit of autonomy. My suspicion is that in response to our culture’s increasing rejection of the Christian God the One God of all creation has been quite graciously doing what our culture has been asking—God is withdrawing. And when God withdraws, life goes with Him.

When God withdraws, life goes with Him. Click To Tweet

For those of us who have remained faithful both to Jesus and to those God has chosen to speak to us on His behalf—the Prophets of Ancient Israel and the Apostles of Jesus whose teachings have been preserved for us in the Christian Bible—what is left for us to do? All that is left to us is to repent and to live submitted to God as He has been revealed to us through the Prophets of Israel, in the Person of Jesus, and through the Apostles Jesus elected to proclaim His Gospel to us.

Of what must we repent? The list is long, and it is long past time for true and sincere followers of Jesus to leave behind all that hinders along with the sin that has so easily entangled us. We must repent of our history of failing to treat all humans as beings made in the image of God and worthy of special honor, whether we’re speaking of our history of slavery, or of our justifications for racism, or of our culture’s treatment of the unborn, or of our treatment of those with mental illness, or of our treatment of those who live and behave in ways that we know to be inconsistent with God’s intention for humanity, or even of the conditions in which we place criminals or lawbreakers. Have we loved our neighbors as ourselves? Have we loved our enemies? Have we prayed for those who have persecuted us? Is it clear that we understand all human life to be life made in the image of God and worthy of special honor?

Forgive us, our Father, Who is in the heavens!

We must repent of our failure to submit ourselves to the ethics and instructions of God as they have been delivered to us by the prophets, and apostles, and by God-in-the-flesh—Jesus Himself. Though Jesus helps us to understand the spirit of the moral and ethical instructions which undergirded the first covenant God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, we must repent of our attempts to use Jesus to deny the revelation of God to Israel and the persistence of the moral and ethical revelations of God to all nations through the prophets and apostles of Israel.

Forgive us, our Father, Who is in the heavens!

In the words of Jeremiah to all Gentile nations who receive any of the blessings God poured out on His people Israel:

14 Thus says the Lord concerning all my evil neighbors who touch the heritage that I have given my people Israel to inherit: I am about to pluck them up from their land, and I will pluck up the house of Judah from among them. 15 And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I will bring them again to their heritage and to their land, every one of them. 16 And then, if they will diligently learn the ways of my people, to swear by my name, “As the Lord lives,” as they taught my people to swear by Baal, then they shall be built up in the midst of my people. 17 But if any nation will not listen, then I will completely uproot it and destroy it, says the Lord.[1]

We must repent of our failure to submit to God’s sexual instructions,  to God’s social instructions to defend the poor and the alien and the orphan, to God’s judicial instructions to seek and to do justice without respect to wealth or social status or citizenship or ethnicity, and to God’s relational instructions with respect to forgiveness and rage and envy and character assault.

Forgive us, our Father, Who is in the heavens!

There is so much more to mention, but it is because God’s own people called by God’s own name are turning from the fullness of what it means to follow Jesus that God’s discipline of distance is just and right to fall upon us. Might our repentance save or forestall the end of our culture? In Genesis 19 it would have taken only ten righteous people to move God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Might we pray for ten fully devoted followers of Jesus to arise in every village and town and city in our country?

Another Gentile city, the city of Nineveh, found the humility to repent in the wake of the specter of God’s judgment. We find the story in Jonah, chapter three:

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.[2]

Our God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. If these events truly are God’s discipline, then perhaps if we return to Him, God will return to us.

Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; ... so that we do not perish. Click To Tweet

Those who have ears to hear…

~ J. Thomas

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Je 12:14–17.

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Jon 3:6–10.

Reflecting on Psalm 51 – J. Thomas Johnson

This article was originally written for A Plain Account: A Wesleyan Lectionary Commentary. You can find the original article HERE.

When we have chosen to betray the most sacred and solemn of our commitments, may we hope for restoration? When we have lived into patterns and paths that have done violence to those for whom we have covenanted to care, may we pursue reconciliation? Are some choices too dastardly, some patterns too devastating, some rebellions too grotesque for us to be redeemed? Perhaps some reading this have stood in this space, a space of utter desperation, a space in which the way before us seems to lead only into increasing darkness and distance from both God and our neighbors.

When we have chosen to betray the most sacred and solemn of our commitments, may we hope for restoration? Click To Tweet

In the tradition of the Hebrew people, this is the moment out of which Psalm 51 has arisen. What might the fallen say? How might God and our human community respond? Is there hope before us, or is hope now forever lost? Much depends on our theology—that is, on our understanding of God.

From the earliest days of the Christian Church, it has not been uncommon for the so-called ‘God of the Old Testament’ to be depicted pejoratively as a harsh, sometimes tyrannical ruler—a head-of-household patriarchal dictator who is easily disappointed and anxious to discipline His wayward children. From Marcion to Jonathan Edwards to contemporary ‘hell-fire’ expositors, the wrath of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been emphasized and variously interpreted. And it must be confessed that the Christian Scriptures do reveal the seriousness with which God treats sin, as well as the willingness and the capability of God to act to forestall its pervasiveness.

But, of course, there is more to say. After all, if this is all there is to say of God, then the hope of those who transgress seems fleeting. And, indeed, the First Testament does have other things to contribute to the conversation. As willing and capable as God is to act in judgment, the Torah and the prophets and the writings of the First Testament insist repeatedly that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed (steadfast love).

This is where the psalmist, standing on a road of deepening darkness, moving toward increasing isolation from God and neighbor, begins his turning away, his repentance, his cry to God. He cries out not to a just God or a wrathful God or a disappointed patriarch, but to a merciful and compassionate parent.

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. [1]

The word translated ‘abundant mercy’ is the Hebrew rachamim, which refers to the innards of the lower abdomen. In the plural, as it appears in Psalm 51, it is often translated as ‘intestines’ or ‘loins’. In the singular it can refer to a uterus or womb. Among the Hebrew people this is the anatomical area associated with compassion, hence the translation above.

The psalmist does not appeal to God’s justice or even God’s holiness, but to God’s womb, to God’s intestines, to God’s compassion. Samuel Terrien in his commentary on the Psalms has written:

The compassions of Yahweh are those of his femininity, for the words “tender mercies” are the plural of majesty for the singular “uterus” or “womb,” which never forgets the child it has conceived, nourished, and brought forth.[2]

Hope in the darkness of the deepest human failure is to be sought in the compassion of God. This is humanity’s primal and only lasting hope, and it is toward this that the cry of the repentant is directed. There is no hope of forgiveness, none of reconciliation, none of cleansing or redemption or reconciliation or transformation if the God who draws near when we pray is not gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed.

This is, of course, only the beginning of Psalm 51. The psalmist proceeds to confess his rebellion against the fundamental shape of the Kingdom of God (vs. 3-5), and implores God to cleanse him, create a clean heart within him and breathe a fresh breath into him which might animate him in the ways of the Kingdom (vs. 6-12). And he covenants again with God that these acts of compassion on the part of God will result in his own grateful response. He will live into God’s Kingdom, confessing with his heart, soul, mind, and strength the goodness and orderliness of God’s good creation (vs. 13-17).

There is much to explore in verse three and following. However, I want to pause and reflect on the appeal to God’s compassion with which the psalmist has begun. It is sometimes presumed that those who have fallen short must begin their journey toward God and neighbor with contrition—that is, with a confessed and perhaps ideally emotional realization of the wickedness of their actions. Of course, these features of repentance are necessary in proper time.

However, restoration and redemption of the fallen is not rooted in the individual. Restoration and redemption is rooted in the compassion of God. We do not hope in our earnestness or our contriteness, believing that somehow by our pitifulness or our authenticity or our earnestness that God might be manipulated. It is the compassion of God that is the source of our hope for deliverance. To say it another way, because God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, we can repent; we can imagine restoration and reconciliation; we can hope.

Restoration and redemption is rooted in the compassion of God. Click To Tweet

We will not be restored by contrition or sincerity, by intention or conviction, by sacrifice or by ritual. These may describe the road that we must walk out of the darkness, but they are not the source of our deliverance, nor can we simply trust them to save and to restore us. We will be saved by the compassion of God. And so repentance begins, not with us, but with God’s compassion. And redemption proceeds in faith along the road that God’s compassion carves out of the darkness.

That road, no doubt, will include confession and contrition and forgiveness and reconciliation, and the rest of the journey revealed through the prophets of Israel, the Gospel of Jesus, and the interpretations of the Apostles. But, repentance is rooted in the compassion of God, and this is no idle observation. Bound up in this confession is the realization that our restoration does not depend on human effort or capability, but on God’s compassion. If we hope in repentance as a process or ritual, our hope lies in our capacity to complete what we’ve started. If we hope in God’s compassion then our hope rests in the capacity of God to bring to completion what has begun in Him. May it be so.

Our hope rests in the capacity of God to bring to completion what has begun in Him. Click To Tweet

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ps 51:1–2.

[2] Samuel Terrien, The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 404.