Thoughts on Repentance

“Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God . . .”
Hebrews 6:1 (NIV)

You learn a lot of things in college, many of which are startling.  The startling often has to do with an old theme, that you thought you knew well, being split open, busted, or flipped on its head.  One of those old themes for me was repentance.  I grew up in a revivalist Wesleyan church and we made hay on the idea of repentance.  Repentance was synonymous with going to the altar and admitting to God (and ourselves) just how utterly guilty we are.  So I found myself repenting an awful lot, since I felt guilty about almost everything.  

Then in college my Bible professor started talking about repentance.  He said something like this:

In the Bible repentance isn’t necessarily about guilt, though guilt is often a part of it.  Repentance is about a change in direction; away from the old life and toward life in Christ.  It’s about changing your mind: the old way is inadequate/corrupt and the new way of Christ is true and good. 

Then he showed us definitions of the Hebrew and Greek terms for repentance.  I sat in my tiny desk, mind blown.[1]  For me repentance was all guilt and really had very little to do with God.  I can remember many times kneeling at the altar wallowing in that guilt—perhaps shame is a better word.  But in the Bible repentance is mostly about what we’re turning toward.  Certainly it has to also be about what we’re turning away from, but not to the neglect of hope and not in a way that compounds feelings of personal inadequacy.  In this passage from Hebrews it has nothing to do with the person being inadequate, but with the deadness of the old way of life.  

There are days that I get in a hurry to leave my house to go to work.  I get so caught up in my day’s pending activities that I actually walk out the door without kissing my family goodbye.  Then all of a sudden on my porch I’m struck with this conviction that I need to go back.  I think about how horrible it would be if something terrible happened and I never got to hold them again.  So I repent—I immediately and dramatically turn around.  I dismiss an inadequate way of leaving and turn back toward my family’s embrace.  Now my conviction about leaving without saying goodbye happens in a split second and does not linger.[2]  Instead, on my way back, the whole of my mind and heart are fixed on family and how good it will be to hug them.  Imagine if I walked back languishing in how pathetic I was because I walked out the door the first time!

My turning has everything to do with my love for my family.  So too, repentance has to do with the conviction that God in Christ is good and gracious and supreme to all other ways . . . that he is worthy of faith and sin is not worthy of faith.[3] We leave the pigsty in hope of a better life at home with our father.  And why do we make that turn around?  Because somewhere we trust that this father is gracious and that our future in his household will be far better than our current destructive path of selfishness.[4]
I don’t know, for me that’s mind-blowing.

[1] I don’t know whether it’s a Christian college thing or what, but my desks in college wouldn’t have been big enough for an Ipad. 
[2] We should also admit that without this conviction of “guilt,” I would have no reason to turn around. I am not interested in doing away with guilt, only bringing it into proper balance with hope.
[3] Because ultimately when we live sinful lifestyles it’s because we’re trusting that lifestyle to accomplish some end.
[4] The reason we can make such a leap?  Because he has proven his love for us by dying for us (see Romans 5).  Is there anyone you would trust more than someone willing to die for you?


  1. Really appreciate this post... mind blowing, indeed!

    I remember my pastor in Indianapolis teaching that the Christian life is a cycle of repentance and rejoicing. We repent of our sin as often as we sin (that is, very frequently), and because of the work of Christ, we can also rejoice. He is our righteousness, and we are now God's children whom he loves unconditionally and eternally!

    This is one of many tensions for the Christian -- sorrowfully confessing guilt in repentance and yet remaining full of rejoicing in the finished work of Christ.


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