Repentance, what is it good for?

Glory to God in the HighestSunday before last was the Second Sunday of Advent. Our readings were  Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 1:3-11, and Luke 3:1-6. The Gospel reads in part

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Our preacher, who is usually very solid if not dynamic, included a few odd assertions. And by odd I mean wrong. Two rather important points: (1) John the Baptist introduced the practice repentance and baptism. (He did not. It was a Jewish practice long before John hit the scene, as any cursory look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, can attest.) And (2) that John’s sermons did not include any “timeless truths.” While point #1 is not new it is a timeless truth.

The preacher further compounded his error by asserting that we do not “need to repent because we are bad, but because we are loved.” Now the latter half of that sentence is true; we are loved by God, without a doubt. The assertion, however, that repentance has nothing to do with our own status as sinners is ludicrous. It doesn’t even pay attention to the Gospel reading (“proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins“) and after all, this simply goes against the very meaning of the word. If we have done nothing “bad” then there is nothing to regret or for which we should be remorseful. One does not have to be a southern preacher to realize that we are all sinners who need to repent of our sins. More than anything else though the attitude that “we don’t need to repent because we are bad” fails to understand the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ own message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 3:2). This too is the message of Advent.

So what did it mean that John and Jesus called us to repent? Well this part our preacher got right; it is to prepare us for the coming of the Messiah. A significant and vital part of that preparation is a recognition that are a sinful (“bad,” if you will) and in need of forgiveness. Advent, not unlike Lent, should be a time of prayerful self-examination as we look to the coming of Christ and our perfection in him. Now this is not, in my view, to be an exercise in self-flagellation, beating ourselves up saying “I am noting but a worm! Oh! Woe is me!” But it should involve our being honest with God and ourselves about our failings. We need to acknowledge the sin in our lives and ask God’s forgiveness and healing as well as his strength to change. Thus when we welcome Christ into the world and our hearts, while we are not already made perfect, we are at least prepared to be perfected by His Great Work in our lives.

Excursus

I teach a lot of “leadership” courses and seminars nowadays and attend even more. I am struck that while so many in our churches continue to play down the value and importance of acknowledging our sin and our need for repentance and forgiveness, those who write about leadership and run assessment and development programs all recognize this. Of course they do not look for “sins.” What they do is look at one’s strengths and weaknesses (“opportunities for strengthening” was one euphemism I heard last week). In order to be a strong leader one has to recognize what one is good at, but also where one is not strong and in need of change. For example, if I am really good at creating a vision of the future for my organization, but I cannot articulate that vision to others or build them up into a team to execute the vision then my strength is useless.

So what is repentance good for? For preparing us to welcome the Savior into our lives, both the infant Jesus and the Risen Lord. We must acknowledge our weaknesses so that he might make us strong.

The Kingdom of Heaven draws near, let us repent and prepare to welcome our Savior.

 

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