The Art of Repentance

We can all relate to the Apostle Paul.

In Romans 7:15, Paul writes about the things he wants to do, but doesn’t. However, the things he doesn’t want to do, he keeps doing. Sound familiar? That probably hits home with many of you. It his home with me.

We know what we want to be doing in our lives, but we keep doing the opposite. There is something we don’t want to be doing, some kind of sin, and no matter how much we confess it to God, it keeps coming back. We keep doing what we don’t want to do. Does that ever happen to you? I know it does with me.

For myself, one particular sin keeps showing up from time to time. It’s not one I am proud of, as if we could be proud of our sin and disobedience. It keeps coming back. Fear. It is this overwhelming sense of doubt I have from time to time about my own abilities and giftedness. No matter how much I confess, and no matter how strong I am in my ability and gifts, it will comes back. Often, it comes when I least expect it and when I have little time to wrestle with it.

Does this ever happen to you? Maybe not this exact sin, but a sin that is in your life that keeps coming back. It is a sin that you have confessed and given to God. Yet, it comes back. This can be frustrating and hurtful to our faith. We doubt if our confession was real. We question if God has forgiven us. Why do these confessed sins keep coming back? Have we done something unforgivable? Could it be something else? Perhaps, we haven’t repented of these sins.

This might seem odd. Isn’t confession the same as repentance? That’s what we’ve always believed or thought, isn’t it? Remember, last week we said confession is the admission of our sin. By God’s grace, we’ve been confronted with our sin and convicted of it. In response, we have confessed our sin before God.

Isn’t this repentance? Confession is the pathway leading to repentance, which John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, called the “porch of religion.” As followers of Christ, we are called to confess and repent of our sin.  So then, how do we repent? What does it mean to repent? In order to answer these questions, we are going to walk through an act of repentance Luke describes in our Gospel passage for today.

Jesus, Luke writes, is walking through the Galilean country side. He has just finished a time of teaching that included the healing of a paralytic man. It was a contentious healing, and it led to a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. This confrontation centered on the idea of the forgiveness of sins. The gathered Pharisees had a difficult time believing a paralytic could have been forgiven of their sin. They believed a person’s sin caused their condition.

If they questioned whether a paralytic could be forgiven, they certainly would not believe a tax collector could. In those days, a tax collector was the most despised person. They would take a share of the taxes and were in cahoots with the Roman Empire. No one liked them. They were considered the worst of the worst. Pharisees and other religious leaders would have stayed clear of the tax collector. Not Jesus. Luke says Jesus approaches a specific tax collector, Levi, and invites him to follow him. The words “follow me” indicates Jesus is inviting Levi, who Matthew, in perhaps an autobiographical way, calls Matthew, to join him in deep discipleship.

How does Levi respond? Luke tells us he “got up, left everything and followed him.” Luke’s statement tells us so much about the process of repentance and what it means for our discipleship in Christ. Repentance is the act of changing one’s life and aligning it with Christ’s desires for us. It is a rejection of the false and a taking on of what is true. In accepting the call of discipleship, Levi not only confessed his sin, but truly repented of his sinful life and took on the life of Christ.

The process of repentance begins when we are convicted of our sin. Wesleyan scholar Ken Collins writes that repentance “flows out” of prevenient and convincing grace, the grace from God that guides us before we enter a faith and dependence in Christ. In arising, Levi makes a move we are called to make in confessing our sin. Levi was convicted of his actions as a tax collector. This conviction came from the Holy Spirit’s work within Levi. This is true with our conviction of sin. Paul writes about this in 2 Corinthians 7:9. He calls it being made sad to the point of repentance. We feel guilty about our sin, a guilt which comes from the Holy Spirit’s presence at work in us. This guilt brings us into a time of confession.

Confession isn’t repentance. If we only stop at confession, we are just saying “I’m sorry.” There is no action behind our words. Think about when we were children, or perhaps now as adults, when we’ve said “sorry.” Unless there is something behind these words, there is no change in our behavior. We will keep doing those things we do not want to do, which only hurt ourselves and others. Even more, it distances us from God. Confession must be joined with a complete reversal in how we live our lives. That is repentance. In order to repent, we must abandon our false self.

Robert Mulholland writes that the false self is a nature that is counter to God’s desire. It is our sinful nature that each of us have inherited because of the fall. The fall makes us do things that run counter to God’s desires for our lives. Sin is our way, Mulholland writes, of taking on the God’s role in our lives and in our communities. When we sin, we want things our way and our way is often counter to God’s desires for us.

Repentance allows us to give up our false self. It is the act of turning away from our sinful self and taking on the life of God and what God desires for us. This is what Levi did. He left everything to follow Christ. This wasn’t merely an abandonment of his former career, a career he could never go back to, but it was something more. He was abandoning his sinful life and was aligning himself with God’s will.

When we repent, we not only confess our sin, but we say we are never going back to that sinful life again. We cannot look back. We’ve not repented if we keep looking back to the life that we had and wonder if we can go back. Following Christ means turning and pointing forward and staying focused on Christ. Repentance means we are going forward with Christ. We are aligning ourselves with Christ’s desires. This is what Jesus meant by the plower never looks back. Once we’ve truly have turned from our sin, it must be a forward movement – just like the following of Levi, who, after giving his life to Christ, began the process of bringing others to Christ. How can we say we have repented if we are always looking over our shoulders and never truly focusing on Christ?

Repentance means we turn our back on our lust, our greed, our selfish desires, our hatred, and our sins that distance us from God. Instead, we turn take on a posture that is receptive to God’s will for us. We are moving forward in the journey to forgiveness. We desire to be one with Christ.

Repentance is not easy, but it is holy. It is not easy to reject the life we have been living, because it is the life that is familiar. There is something to be said for repentance in community, perhaps following the directives of Christ in how to admit sin in the life of the church. Together, we can encourage one another, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, toward what it means to live for Christ and abandon our false selves. We cannot repent on our own. We must ask for a heart ready for repentance and the willingness to receive God’s grace. Repentance is also enhanced by us being humble before God and each other about those temptations we all have. To paraphrase what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:13, we are not alone in our struggles.

Repentance is not a one-time act. It is a life-long commitment of following Christ, just like Levi followed Christ. This is a life-long act of aligning ourselves with God’s desires. It requires discipline and commitment, but it also requires encouragement. To repent means we have an open and honest desire to turn and follow the will of the Father, not just once, not just today, but every day. Each day is a new opportunity to “repent and believe in the Gospel,” to repent and believe that Christ surely had us in his heart on the cross.

Each of us are called to point forward and turn from our lives. What sin do you need to repent of? What do you need to turn away from? What sin is holding you back from truly giving your life over to Christ? It’s hard to experience the fullness of God’s grace if there are things keeping us back.

We can be like Levi. A man who felt the guilt of his sin, confessed, and walked away from his sinful life. We can be like the drug addict who felt the sin, confessed, and walked away from that life. We can be like the writer who felt the pain of a sinful life, confessed, and walked away from that life.

Today, let us repent of our sin, turn our face to Jesus, and walk away from our false self and take on the things of Christ, all in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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