Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Three Repentances

The Three Repentances

This is just going to be a short piece designed to set down some thoughts I’ve been having about the nature of repentance and its application in the life of the Christian, a kind of written meditation on the theme.  For my purposes then I divide repentance into three easily distinguished categories, all of which come under the general idea of repentance as a turning, a re-orientation of the self toward God.
Not sure Gaius really had the hang of repentance
Firstly, and broadly speaking, repentance takes the form of our turning away from the state of being-in-Adam towards the gift of being-in-Christ.  Essentially this form of repentance does not include a turning away from the things we do, but rather is a turning away from the thing that we are.  It is an ontological repentance at the level of being.  That is, our status before God as sinners is not Biblically understood to be about the things we have done, but rather about whose ‘son’ we are – God’s or Adam’s.  To be a son of Adam, to be in Adam is to be an enemy of God.  Though the Bible has a lot to say about individual and corporate guilt for specific sins committed, it is not for this or these that we are found guilty before God prior to our birth.  The default position for the human being is that they are a sinner because technically they were ‘in Adam’ from the beginning, making his individual act of rebellion a constitutionally species-wide phenomenon.  I take this to be what Paul is writing about in Romans 5.

Secondly, repentance in the everyday life of the average Christian takes the form of identifying specific “sins” that have been committed, confessing those sins and asking God to both forgive and to ‘deliver us from evil’ – both the evil of the world and our own tendency to wickedness.  Not so much seen at the level of ontology, this repentance is barely even what might be called a turning, especially in the case of repeat performances of the same sin, say alcoholic gluttony, but can form part of a way of relating to God that actually hinders his power.  What I mean by this is not that confessing a sin and asking God to forgive is somehow antithetical to a relationship with him, but rather that when such behaviour becomes quite literally a repetitive performance of abjection culminating in an emotional release one can be sure that what is being related to is not God.  What is happening here is the “Christianised” repetition of a way of relating that uses God in order to obtain the prize of some sort of emotional release.  So, in this instance, a man (or woman) may use pornography for sexual gratification, and of course on the surface what he is doing and why is plain to see because the drive towards sexual gratification needs no justification other than itself.  The key to what I am arguing though is in what happens next, over and over again.  Feeling disgusted with himself he turns to God for repentance, beating himself up, abjecting himself before God and feeling genuinely sorry.  Knowing that the scriptures say that God will forgive the repentant sinner he moves in himself towards a point of a deep emotional release.  He is forgiven, all is well, and off he trots.  My contention though, based on the idea that the reason people do the things they do is because they want to do them, is that the whole cycle of temptation, sin, abjection, repentance, forgiveness is of a piece, forming a comprehensive and organic whole in which the person relates to his God, with each member of the performance as necessary as any other.  What I am suggesting further to this though is that what is desired by the man is not sexual gratification per se, which is merely a tool for obtaining what is really desired, which is the emotional release that comes from an abject repentance – he wants to abject himself, and he wants to plead for forgiveness, and he wants to feel the emotional release that comes from knowing he is forgiven, and it is this for which he utilises his sexual drive, which conveniently provides the focus of the repentance.  The same can be seen in men who genuinely love their wives but repeatedly commit adultery against them, not because they particularly want to, but because for them real love takes the form of pathetically abjecting themselves before a loved one in order to be forgiven.  Without being too Freudian about it I can only imagine that this pattern was created in childhood as a means of obtaining some sort of distorted relational satisfaction from whoever provided the most love and care.  That is, if love was to be found by the child through a naughtiness which led to the pleading for forgiveness at the devastating thought of losing love, leading to a physically warm reconciliation, then of course this pattern of relating will inevitably feed into how the person relates to his heavenly father.
The third form which repentance takes is that which I would say is the most important form for the day to day life of the Christian.  It is not so much a turning away from specific sins, as it is a turning towards Christ in one’s affections.  That is, leaving aside the dysfunctional relational paradigm described above in which repentance becomes both a means of holding a real relationship with God at bay, and a repetition of old means of obtaining emotional satisfaction (like spiritual thumb-sucking), this third form is a learning to love Christ above the things that tempt us.  To repeat: we do what we do because we want to do them.  Loving Christ is a learning to love him that does not come naturally to our fleshly natures.  We are all adopted children into his family, and like any adopted child loving one’s new parent is not automatic, but requires time, patience, the laying down of old and inappropriate ways of loving/relating, and the development of our trust.  As such loving Christ is itself a fundamentally joyful, and not abject, repentance away from old ways and towards new ways of loving and being loved.  This third form is also the most effective in the battle against specific or perennial sins, and the most effective is exposing the boring theatrics of the second form, because it reveals those sins as not necessarily being about a desire to drink too much, or look at pornography, or to be financially greedy, or whatever else, but as being vehicles of a dysfunctional repentance that actually loves its own dysfunction more than it loves the one who forgives.  This is why attempts to change, attempts to discipline the self into something that refuses these specific sins also don’t go far enough, becoming a mere towing of the party line, if our affections remain unchanged.  A further point would be to add that loving Christ must not be seen here as a vehicle for change, that is, being a Christian is not about becoming a better person in the sense of becoming more acceptable to ourselves or others – change in us will only take place if and when we love Christ more than the possibility that he might change us.  If loving Christ becomes a mere means to an end (self-transformation) then what here is being loved is not Christ but our own sense of who we would like to be, even if this is our idea of a good person.  And of course this third form of repentance is only possible because of the first form, because our status before God has changed at the ontological level of being-in-Christ.  Not that the second form doesn’t have a place in the life of the Christian; of course we must continue to expose our hearts increasingly before God, confessing our sins and so on, but the point is that at the ontological level we are, we remain, and we will be forgiven because of Who we are in.

The conclusion then is that repentance for the Christian must primarily be about a learning to love Christ more than anything else.  While our affections remain unchanged, so will we.         


  1. Thanks!

    I am glad that the Holy Spirit wors repentance in me (through the law and the gospel).

    If it were up to me, it wouldn't happen.

  2. Steve's bang-on right! That's why Luther could pray....

    “He [Christ] is my form, my furniture and my perfection, adorning and beautifying my faith as the colour, the clear light, or the whiteness do garnish and beautify the wall…. For we cannot spiritually conceive that Christ is so nearly joined and united unto us, as the colour or whiteness are unto the wall. Christ therefore, saith He, thus joined and united unto me and abiding in me, liveth this life in me which I now live; yes Christ Himself is this life which I now live. Wherefore Christ and I in this behalf are both one.”

    This is from his Galatians commentary. Galatians 2:20-21 spring to mind....

  3. To be honest, the near date and time match of our posts is a little scary.....