There are many things I find disturbing about Christianity in our present day, but the problem I am going to address in this article has most likely plagued Christianity from the start. The calling of Christ is a call to genuine repentance, not repression. Repentance is a word that has caused a lot of confusion and in fact has been misinterpreted again and again. Most definitions that you find in the English language dictionaries do a poor job of capturing the meaning of the word. It’s usually defined as being sorry for sin or feeling of remorse deep in your conscience.
There is a much deeper definition that goes way beyond what we feel when you begin looking at the theology of the word repent.
The most common term in the Old Testament for repentance is the Hebrew verb sub, which appears well over 1,050 times. The word is translated as “repent” only 13 times, and the adjective translated as “repentance” occurs only once in the NIV. The more common translation is “turn” or “return.” A related term is naham, is translated three times as “repent” in the NIV. In the New Testament, the most common verb is metanoeo which occurs 33 times and the noun metanoia which occurs 20 times. A synonym metamelomai is once translated as “repent” in Matthew 21:32.
These words go much deeper than simply feeling sorry or feeling anything for that matter. Repentance actually has little to do with our feelings. This is significant in a society like ours that obeys its emotions rather that doing the right thing. Repentance is better defined scripturally as a returning to God while turning away from evil.
Three times Ezekiel prophetically speaks God’s call to the people of Israel: “Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!” ( Ezekiel 14:6 ); “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses” ( 18:30 ); “Turn! Turn from your evil ways” ( 33:11 ). This calling was a consistent one the prophets (Isa 45:22 ; 55:7 ; Joel 2:12-13 ). The Septuagint usually translates the Hebrew word sub with the Greek word epistrepho which means to turn about or to turn away from.
A simple definition of the word often doesn’t help us. When translating scripture, it is sometimes easier to capture the definition by seeing how it is used. Isaiah 1: 16-17 for example captures the heart of the word repent. “Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
To repent is to abandon our evil intentions and our evil deeds. Both our motives and our conduct have to be radically changed. As you can see from a careful reading of the passage, repentance has very little to do with how we feel. To repent is not just to feel sorry or feel bad. To repent is to do something about the things for which we have become sorrowful. Repentance is a complete change of action that comes from with a change of heart and mind.
The Greek verb metanoeo is formed from two words: Meta which means change, and noe which means mind or to think. To repent is to literally change your mind.
So, if the call is to repentance then why do we so often live instead by repression? In my experience the church is often more interested in repression than it is in real repentance. If we repress something we bury it deep. Repression puts the things we are afraid to show out of our minds so we don’t have to deal with them. Repression helps us ignore the unsightly things in life. If we repress something then we just pretend it isn’t there (like poverty and homosexuals for instance). It’s just easier to repress the elephant in the room that nobody talks about. We bottle our secrets up inside and try desperately to keep the cork on while the pressure ferments and builds pushing harder and harder against the cork until one day the bottle just explodes.
These headlines are the result not of repentance but of repression:
• “Latest Catholic Church sex abuse scandal could impact Oregon case” –the Oregonian
• “Charismatic Church Leader, Dogged by Scandal, to Stop Preaching for Now” –The New York Times
• “Ted Haggard, minister caught in sex scandal” –Los Angeles Times
• “Religious scandal threatens to overshadow Jesus” –The Suffolk News-Herald
I think the last headline bothers me more than any of them. “Religious scandal threatens to overshadow Jesus.” In the Christmas story the angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit is going to overshadow her and in the process she is going to give birth to Jesus into the world.
Mary must have been scared out of her mind. Teenage pregnancy outside of marriage used to be a huge deal, punishable by death. More likely than death, she would have had her nose cut off and would be forced to walk through life disfigured as an example to all other women not to fool around with sex outside of marriage. Some real, true repentance had to come about with Mary in that moment.
It wasn’t that she needed to confess and be sorry for some sin in her life, it was that God had to change her mind and heart so that she would be willing to become an actor in this play that God was producing. She had to put away the plans she had for her future and set out on a new course with her fiancé Joseph. This change of mind/heart/direction/action is also an example of repentance.
The thing is that in spite of all our sinfulness and filings, Jesus cannot be overshadowed. You can mock him, beat him, drag his name through the mud, crucify and kill Him but he will not be overshadowed. He does the overshadowing.
This world has a real need for people who will not repress but will actually confront life head on and repent by letting Jesus overshadow them. We need people who will be transformed by grace to the point where everything in their life changes for the sake of the call. What we have are too many people that try to look the part by ignoring and repressing the chains that are holding them down.
Repression leads to scandal, repentance leads to the cross. Yes, the cross is a scandal to the Jews, and a folly to the Gentiles, but to those of us who are being saved it is the very power of God. It takes courage and honesty to repent. It takes cowardice and deceitfulness to repress. repression is easy, it follows the crowd. Repentance is very difficult and will cost us everything.
So, now the moment of truth, are we people of repentance or people of repression? If the church has called you to repression because it doesn’t want to deal with the hard, lifelong work of repentance then I apologize on behalf of the church. The church is a place filled with people and wherever people are there will be flaws. But, the church is also filled with a God who loves sinful people very much and loves them too much to let them remain unchanged. Repentance is not a one-time confession of sinfulness so we can go to heaven. Repentance it is a lifetime of walking like Jesus, being honest about who we are, refusing to cover up our disgraces to that in the light of Christ they can be healed. We don’t ignore our sins, we confront them, deal with them, and turn away from them.
It’s altar call time. It’s probably the main altar call that Jesus was concerned with. This altar call of Isaiah to repent is echoed in the life of Jesus. Anyone brave enough to heed the call?