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Forgiveness without repentance?

By Ross Reitz

We preach a lot in our churches about forgiveness. Many people believe they are Christians because one time they bowed their head and said, “God forgive me for my sins.” But gaining power by saying the right words or the right formula is not Christianity. It is witchcraft.

While it is true that we need to confess our sins (I John 1:9), a simplified, formulaic Christianity deletes the teachings of the Bible. The very first recorded teaching of Christ to His disciples was “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 3: 17). Likewise, the first Christian sermon ever preached told people to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). And even the apostle Paul, who taught us that we cannot be saved by our actions, said, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 16:20).

The Biblical word “repent” means to make a complete change, to turn to the exact opposite direction. The Bible is clear that we can’t earn our salvation, but it is also equally clear that we must not just ask forgiveness for our sins; we must turn away from them.

Repentance is hard because it is a slow, life-long change. One theologian talked about repentance being like a growing tree. Sometimes the changes are so small, we don’t notice the growth. But when the tree is cut down, we can see that every year the tree grew a new ring. Like the tree, with repentance, we see slow changes. We still start to get angry, but we can ask forgiveness more quickly. Then our outbursts slowly become less fierce. Then we become able to see the other person’s viewpoint and become less selfish. And years later, we get to the point where we can act in love, where we used to act in anger.

Often, however, we have no desire to repent. We prefer the god of magic who absolves us if we chant “I’m sorry” instead of praying, “Let Your Holy Spirit change me to be like You.” There is always something we lose if we repent. If we repent from anger, we lose the ability to get our own way because no one wants to deal with us. If we repent from greed, we will think of the better car, the new house, the concert tickets that we gave up so that we could share. If we repent from pride, we will have to watch other people get promotions or recognition we feel we deserve.

Repentance is even harder when the Holy Spirit convicts us to repent from a sin that is socially acceptable. Eugene Peterson, the translator of “The Message,” talks about repenting from ambition and from desiring to have a bigger church instead of a Christ-following church. Likewise, who still repents over jealousy, over-indulgence or seeking attention? Some may even feel the need to repent from “following my dreams” if those dreams are more about self-satisfaction than sharing Christ’s love with others.

Ultimately Christ taught us to “count the cost” before choosing to follow Him (Luke 14:25-35). As the Holy Spirit transforms us to be like Christ, we will lose part of ourselves. And we will mourn for those things that we have lost. But God will transform us into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) that is more able to enjoy Him and His creation.

Ross Reitz has been a Suffolk resident since 2009. Prior to that, he taught the Bible in Africa for two years and spent six years as a teacher at a Christian school in Philadelphia, Pa.