Thursday, November 02, 2006

Repentance and Sinful Natures

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...


Glen Robinson said...

Interesting post, Ken. Thanks for your thoughts. I wanted to respond to the issue of penal substitution you mentioned.

I think for most Christians, it is difficult to comprehend or accept the kind of God that can be angry with us, hate us, and even have wrath on us (i.e. sinners - 1 John 1:9). Yet this kind of God that we have is the God of the Bible. I heard it said recently (I haven't checked myself), but that "God is referred to most often as a holy God, rather than a loving God." I don't think this reduces God's love, just the fact that the Scriptures mention God's holiness and justice and wrath on sin more often (as pertaining to His nature).

Personally, I deserve God's wrath and anger towards me. Every psychologist and counselor tells us that we need to love ourselves and find greater self-esteem because we really are good people and dawg-gonit we deserve it. This is a false gospel through and through.

I'm okay with a God who is angry at sin and takes wrath on sinnners. The thing most leave out of the equation though is Jesus being the propitiation for sin (Jesus takes on God's wrath in our place, which is ultimately God's expression of His love). When God gives me this instead of His wrath, the only appropriate response is repentance.

As far as little children are concerned, a lot of parents don't discipline them when they sin because they want them to grow into a fine citizen. The notion is to believe that anger and punishment over behavior will cause that child to rebell even more and respond in hatred instead of love. I would say that a parent who doesn't discipline and doesn't get angry at their sin - has no love for them.

Ultimately, the child needs to pray to Jesus and feel sorrow over their sin, and parents need to leave some room for that instead of always attempting to build up their self-esteem by tip-toeing around them and trying to be their friend.

Thanks for the post!

Glen Robinson said...

One more thing...

You wrote - "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?"

I would say to give her time. It seems we don't have to try very hard to discover we have a sinful nature. What needs to be explained is that God has a problem with that, but that problem has been solved in Jesus death on the cross in our place.

Nathan Crawford said...

I believe that some scholars - N.T. Wright may be one (I forget) - are now talking about repentance less in ways of overcoming our sin and turning to God and more in ways that are political - turning from the current political order and adjoining oneself to the Kingdom of God that is ushered in with the person of Christ.

In regards to the little girl, why does she have to feel the weight of her sin. I mean, can anyone really feel the weight of his or her sin? I am not sure that this is even an option. The proper response then is repentance in the fact that we turn to God.

This brings up for me the fact that a Wesleyan anthropology (and subsequent view of sin) must be strongly distinguished from a Reformed anthropology (and their views of sin). And, I think your Anglican friend may be on the Reformed end - reading too much of the Westminster Confession.

OnceaWes said...

Here are the Apostles own words about his ministry,

"Therefore, King Agrippa I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision but declared, first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and THROUGHOUT THE REGION OF JUDEA, and THEN to the GENTILES, THAT THEY SHOULD REPENT, turn to God, and do works in keeping with repentance."

I really don't know how the case can be made, in light of the Apostles own words, that his ministry wasn't one constant call for repentance. All because his letters aren't filled with the word 'repent' doesn't mean the idea isn't constantly there.

Ken asked,

How do you go about convincing her that she is a vile sinner who needs to repent of her heinousness before God?

OnceAwes responds,

You explain to her that because she was baptized a Christian that her whole life must be one of repentance. Further, you explain the whole idea of what it means to fall short of the mark. You keep emphasizing that God is pleased with her and her obedience solely for the sake of Jesus imputed righteousness. This delivers her from any psychological problems stemming from thinking she has to be perfect.

If you don't explain that to her she could grow up thinking that she really hasn't a need for Jesus since her nature is so good. Surely, you would agree that even those of us with the most compliant natures need to realize that creator creature distinction and that part of that distinction is that we are sinners and He is not.

I really like what you said that our value is found in how God values us, and of course God can value us because, out of love, He sent Christ to propitiate the Father and expiate our sins. Surely, the fact that God values us because of Christ's work is a major prompting to our living a life of repentance.

I was wondering given what you said if you are more comfortable with the Governmental theory of atonement then the penal satisfaction theory? That could be an interesting discussion.

Still, all in all we do find the hilaskomai word grouping in the Scriptures. And of course when that reality is combined with the much of the OT sacrifical routine it is clearly the case that the God of the Bible does require appeasement. (Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of Sin.) Of course the difference between pagan models of appeasement and the Biblical model of propitiation is that, in love, God in the incarnate second person of the Trinity takes upon Himself the Father's Wrath. So while God requires propitiation, God Himself provides propitiation.

Surely, you would agree that this is far different then pagan notions of appeasement.

Finally in order to show that Paul did have a sense of his own sinfulness I appeal to Philippians 3.

Thanks for your willingness to publish your thoughts. It is good to be able to bounce these things around.


Scott David Hendricks said...

I'm not sure I buy extreme penal substitutionary atonement theory. You can call me the product of the IWU religion dept. faculty. Do our sins "provok[e] most justly [the] wrath and indignation [of God] against us" as the Book of Common Prayer suggests? Probably.

But I do not think that we should ask people to see something in themselves that is not within them. While all have sinned, and fall short of God's glory, because some have sinned less, I imagine they haven't fallen as short as others. Therefore, I have to agree with Dr. Schenck and say that repentance is turning toward God away from concupiscence and wickedness. Surely we all rely on God's grace, but the one who has sinned less, as St. Augustine has said, ought to thank God moreso because they have been saved by God from committing some sins to begin with. So, we are both saved from sins committed, and sins we do not commit (so we pray in the last two lines of the Lord's prayer).

I'm still unsure how much of a role imputed righteousness ought to play in Christian soteriology. However it does, it ought to be held together with other "metaphors" for initial 'conversion,' such as: adoption, regeneration, purification, sanctification, baptism (washing).

OnceaWes said...

Hey... I'm a product of the IWU religion department also so we should have a great deal in common.

Help me out here.

1.) God is infinitely Holy

2.) God requires Holiness for man to be acceptable to Him.

3.) Some unconveted men are less unholy (in actions) then other unconverted men.

4.) Therefore those unconverted men who are less unholy then other unconverted men should be more comfortable when contemplating God's requirement for Holiness?

I don't see how that works but I'm probably misunderstanding something you said.

Finally, if we are going to consider metaphors lets keep them separated between the metaphors of what God does within us in Salvation and the metaphors that deal with what God does outside of us in Salvation.


Scott David Hendricks said...


Thank you for responding to my comment. I appreciate your challenge. Unfortunately I just replied at length, tried to post and the computer I'm at said, "You are not connected to the internet" when it seemed by all other signs that I was. My words were lost, and I wish they hadn't, even though I was less than satisfied with them, since what is about to follow will not be nearly as thorough or well-said. I apologize.

First, logically and explicitly, what I wrote in my comment did not go as far as your #4, even though it may have implied it. Second, I only mean to say with Dr. Schenck that we can only repent from what we've done, and as far as our hearts have wandered from God, since repentance is mainly: sorrow for our sin and spite for it, recognition of our inestimable need for God, turning toward him with intent to not commit the sin again, trusting in his grace to keep us from falling.

Repentance involves a combination of humility and boldness that only comes by God's grace. And I believe that the more that we as Christians, humbly trust God instead of ourselves and our track-record of righteousness (presumption), and the more aware we become of how much we really rely on God's grace, then the more holy we will become.

That is essentially all I wish to say of repentance, and I hope it suffices to clarify and correct what I said previously.

With regard to metaphors, I would be delighted if you would be willing to briefly outline your distinction between the inward and outward ones, and explain how/why this is helpful.

Thanks for playing.

God's peace.

Ken Schenck said...

Lots to think and respond to. Just a couple Schencky thoughts to start off in between grading:

1. I do not think the idea of holiness has an intrinsically ethical component. The temple prostitutes of Baal were holy to Baal. Holi-ness is a matter of connection with God and is not strictly a cognitive content. To say God is holy is to say that God is God--and to get on your face at the very thought of the awesome power and corresponding weakness involved. In my opinion, to say God is holy and therefore gets very angry when we sin is missing an intermediate step in the argument: 2) God doesn't like x.

2) Anger involves change and reaction. Since God knows everything and does not change concepts like "thinking" and getting "angry" are surely metaphors to help us as stupid humans to have some sense about a God we could not possibly understand literally. This must make us reflect long and hard on how "incarnated" this language of God's anger must be at its very core.

More later...

OnceaWes said...


Part of the idea of Holiness is that whatever it is that has been 'set apart' has been 'set apart' from common usage. I would submit that in as much as the 'set apart' item is now kept for special (sacred) usage in that much we find an ethical correspondence.

We are God's 'set apart' people (new creatures -- II Cor. 5:17) who live in the 'set apart' age (age to come). Because we are new creatures living in the New creation (Is. 65:17, Col. 1:13) we are ethically different from those who are are old creatures and who belong to this present wicked age.

Even the idea of the necessity of one to 'get on one's face' in the presence of God implies an ethical quality. (Humility, wisdom, awe, etc.) If we didn't do that it is fair to say that God would be angry because He doesn't like pride -- after all, God is near to the humble but the proud He knows from afar.

Finally, though I agree with you about anthropopathisms and anthropomorphisms I think we need to be careful that we don't toss the very hooks that God has given us in order to understand His nature by casually dismissing them as 'metaphors.' There is a reason that God used the ones He did and Trying to get behind them to see God naked might be fraught with trouble.

I do agree though that humans, such as myself, are a very stupid lot.

I pray daily that we would all be given wisdom from above.


p.s. -- Scott, what you said about repentance was beautiful.

Scott David Hendricks said...

Thank you, OnceAWes, for your gracious compliment. I love to agree with people. And I agree with both you and Dr. Schenck when it comes to working within the constructs of Scripture, when it comes to understanding humanities relationship with God. By all means, let us explore the truth with all our might, and use metaphysics and philosophy to our advantage when we can (or perhaps we use them all the time!), but always ending up with a greater vision of God, and never a more fragmented or 'naked' one. I marvel especially at the wisdom and mind of God, since mine is so finite. When I see that there is so much good to be experienced, known, thought of, enjoyed, and shared, I could despair for vanity's sake; but the more Christian response is thankfulness for every gift, and trust in One God, the Father the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen.

Blessed be God, and Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.

David Drury said...

Great subject-matter to grapple with, Ken, in your classes and here on Schenck Thoughts.

For my two cents, I'll say that I always have struggled with relating my "testimony" to others because of this "absence of vileness" in my pre-6-year-old-conversion state.

Because of that, I've always leaned toward the reality that Jesus saved me from the potential vileness in mye as much as the existing vileness (to use your term twice) that I had before 1980 (when I was 6 and "prayed the prayer.")

So, I take a "potentiality" view of salvation and sin, I suppose.

And of sanctification, in fact.