We read through Whatever Became of Holiness? by Steve deNeff this week in the masters Theology of Holiness class. As many will know, he takes a very strong view of God's holiness and justice and of sin and thus of repentance. I was reminded of a conversation I had in England once upon a time with my best friend there, an Anglican minister. He wondered whether I had ever been converted because my testimony did not involve a period where I acquired a strong sense of my vileness (my words).
I posed this question for discussion Tuesday night. Picture a 5 year old girl in Sunday School whose temperament is compliant. She is the type that is always eager to help. She listens intently to whatever the Sunday School teacher says. She tries to help others when they are hurt or when others mistreat them. She in fact is observably kind in "nature."
Now the question. How do you go about convincing her that she is a vile sinner who needs to repent of her heinousness before God?
Surely most kids are not like this, but most pastors can picture this girl too. My suggestions are two fold. And they are only suggestions, not statements.
1. That while we must certainly repent of the things we have thought, said, and done that harm or wrong God and others, repentance is most healthily thought of as a proper attitude toward our relationship with God. That is of course as great a sense of our intrinsic insignificance before Him as possible, our complete intrinsic unworthiness next to the All powerful.
Our value comes from the fact that God values us, not from some intrinsic value we might have. I realize this gets us into issues of the image of God, but I will leave aside that "analogy" here.
2. Second, I think it may be unhealthy to approach this topic from the angle of any great offense we bring to God by our imperfection. This model of God's justice, the fount of the idea of penal substitution, seems to raise lots of questions in my mind. In particular, I feel like I am most like God in my parenting, not when I lash out in mechanistic punishment of offenses against my sovereignty, but when I am able to see beyond the "presenting problem" to address the issues of my children that lie beneath the surface. I suspect that even our current foreign policy as a nation is tainted by an immature sense of God's wrath and nature as just. These elements of the biblical record are far from uniquely Jewish or Christian. They are part and parcel of the ancient world where the whimsical and unpredictable gods must be "fed" to keep them from going off on us again and spewing volcanic ash on our heads.
I want to add one more footnote. Repentance is not a major category for all the NT authors. It is of course major for Luke and Acts, and also for Revelation. Since of course we sometimes read the early church through the eyes of Acts, we might take the impression that repentance was central for Paul. But of course Paul himself rarely even uses the word repentance. It does not seem a major category for him. As one who has taken a generally "new perspective" on Paul, I do not read Paul as a person who had a strong sense of his own sinfulness either before or after he accepted Jesus as Messiah (I don't think Paul ever really felt much like Romans 7 himself). The book of John doesn't even use the word once!
My suggestion is that repentance does not take central place for all the NT authors, and thus we need be careful not to assume it will have the same emphasis in the life of every Christian.
These are the thoughts I am thinking today...