[Note: This note was written in August of 2008, when I was in an extremely philosophical mood, but it reflects my own thoughts, and I was reminded of it when teaching the doctrine of repentance as it relates to the Days of Unleavened Bread in Doctrines class yesterday. And so I share it with you all.]
We must not suppose that by repenting we are doing God a favor, as if we were helping God improve his statistics in a universal struggle against Satan, free agents receiving offers from both sides, looking to negotiate better terms than God has laid down for us. We must not suppose that we are like the soldiers in the North during the American Civil War, faced with the option between joining God’s army willingly and receiving a higher wage, some bonus money, and the choice of where we want to serve, between the possibility of being drafted to serve, where we would have to fight where we were ordered, or running away from service or paying a fee so that a substitute may fight in our stead. We are not mercenaries who generously offer our services to God in exchange for titles of nobility, or great wealth, with the unspoken promise that by hiring ourselves out we will avoid harm and incur no deeper loyalties in exchange for our generous service. We must also not suppose that we are volunteers fighting for God, as if we are doing anything to benefit him that He should be grateful for. Instead, we need to realize that when we come to our senses, at whatever age that is, we are already in rebellion against him, rebels being called by our sovereign lord to lay down our arms and to return to a condition of peace with him according to the terms he sets, without negotiation. We are already the enemies of our rightful Lord and King, our heavenly Father, who instead of blotting us out of existence (as would be His right to do), extends mercy and grace towards ungrateful and unworthy rebels and traitors who (even after repentance) are prone to chafe and struggle against His rule. Why do we, so often then, treat repentance as such a small matter, and as such an inconsiderable thing, that we take it so trivially as to deny the magnitude and scope of our treachery?
Surely we recognize that turning from our old ways, in which we behaved as if we (or our society or government) had the right to choose what was right and wrong, and that if there was any absolute standard that we were already in accordance with it, would carry with it consequences. The Word of God amply demonstrates some of the serious consequences that result from repenting of one’s ways and seeking to come into alignment with God’s ways. For example, Peter comments on the astonishment that leaving one’s previous life of dissipation causes to one’s former associates who remember the “old person” and are puzzled by the “new person.” This astonishment may not merely be puzzlement or amazement, but may be hostility. For example, Paul was prominent among the persecutors of the early Church of God, holding the baggage of those who killed Stephen, and armed with a special prosecutor’s license to hunt down members in Damascus. However, upon his conversion to the way of God, he not only found hostility among this former associates who disdained his supposed treachery, but he found mistrust among the apostles and among those brethren who had been imprisoned or whose families had been harmed by Paul’s thorough previous work. Small wonder he hid out in the desert for three years of private teaching and reflection. Others, like Jephthah, found considerable difficulties when they sought to become legitimate and tried to deal with the hostility by ensuring a secure position where they could be safe from such abuse. Let us not underestimate the hostility that can result from changing our ways for the better. What is right is not always, or even often, very easy to do.
We must also not lull ourselves into complacency by supposing that we have an eternity to repent either. For one, we do not know the day or the hour of the return of our Lord and Savior. Whatever plans we make and whatever tasks we set ourselves towards, we do not know if they will succeed (and we must make plans, even knowing that if they are apart from the will of God they will most certainly fail). Even if the return ends up being a long time off (as has been the case for the believers who lived in ages past and died in the faith without having seen the establishment of God’s rule on earth), we do not know the day or hour of our own death either. That too, God keeps from us, not letting us know if He wills a long life for us, or a short one. We act according to His purposes without knowing what He has planned for us, unless we are able to glimpse it in part as through a glass darkly. In light of our ignorance about the end of the age or our own departure into the grave, we must reckon that the day of repentance is today. Even if the return is far off and even if God has willed it that we should live a long and healthy life (neither of which is certain), then there still remains for us other reasons to repent now and not some time in the future. For one, the sooner we repent the better we may practice the way of God while we live, and the better we may become at overcoming those struggles we are faced with on earth. Why struggle harder and more unsuccessfully (i.e. apart from the help of God’s Holy Spirit) than we absolutely must. The struggle to develop righteous character and overcome sin and damage from being in a world full of sin and evildoers is hard enough as it is—why make it more difficult on ourselves? Why cause more suffering to ourselves and to those around us than we have already done? The more we become expert in the ways of wickedness, the harder it is to uncoil the kinks in our own characters and personalities and become the beings we were created to be. This assumes as well that we will be able to avoid those presumptuous and flagrant sins that will take the sacrifice of Yeshua, Jesus Christ, our Savior so lightly that we will not be able to enter into forgiveness because we will have lost the desire to repent. This is not something to be tossed aside lightly.
In repenting, we must remember that it is more than feeling sorry for our actions and for their consequences, like the convicted felon glumly awaiting a sentence and trying to squeal on his confederates beforehand to ensure that he is viewed as ‘cooperative’ and thus worthy of a lower sentence, or a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar trying to look sorry so he is not spanked by his parents. Yes, we can (and should) feel sorry for being caught. However, that is not repentance. Nor are we to be credited for bearing such punishment as we receive for our own sins bravely, as we are merely doing our duty. Indeed, we should not feel that we should receive any credit for obeying God’s laws either, as we are merely unprofitable servants doing our duties by obeying as well. God does not owe us anything—what He gives is, in our lives, in our gifts and abilities, in the blessings we receive in this life, and in the offering of salvation and eternal life as His sons in His family are all gifts, and not wages. Repentance is more than feeling sorry for being caught, or even in feeling guilty that we have betrayed (whether out of malice or, more often, weakness) our Lord and Sovereign. It is a heart-felt and sincere and strong desire to change our ways so that they are in accordance with the will of our Father in heaven. We cannot truly repent without the help of God’s Holy Spirit, which opens our eyes (if we are truly serious about repentance) to the wicked and dark corners of our character which we often blind ourselves to in order to avoid despair and to justify our peculiar self-pride. Repentance, by bringing us face to face with the dark evil inside of us, has a way of puncturing that pride, one of the reasons why repentance is not an easy task.
Why then, should we repent, if we cannot achieve salvation by our own effort (no matter how strenuous or successful), and if God does not owe us anything no matter what we do? The example of Job is noteworthy here. Job, in accordance with the common (and mistaken) belief that good follows inevitably to those who are righteous and, conversely, that misfortune follows those who behave wickedly, was faced during his own grave trial with a difficult dilemma. According to Job’s friends, the reason for Job’s suffering was clear: he was a wicked man. Since Job (correctly, as it turns out) knew he was not wicked and depraved, his suffering could only mean that God was being unjust, and so he sought (somewhat foolishly) to try God for unfairness, as if God owed him a good life because of his obedience. As it turns out, while good things usually follow those who are righteous, but not necessarily. Tragedies can happen because we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, born into the wrong family, because others around us are wicked, and because we are just “unlucky.” They can happen because of our sins, because of someone else’s sin, or because God wants us to learn something that can only be learned through suffering, so that we can help someone else. What does this have to do with repentance? When Job repented of his desire to try God for unfairness, and when he submitted to the capricious will of His Creator, far beyond his understanding (or ours), God was able to give him the blessings he sought to gain by lawsuit, as it were, as a free gift. And so it is with repentance: by submitting to the will of God in our lives and in striving as mightily as possible (with His help as well), God can give us eternal life as well as blessings (and the occasional trial for our growth) as blessings to us, even though we may only see the trials as blessings in retrospect (if then) for the good it has brought forth in us. We should repent because we wish to be in God’s family, and because we are willing to follow according to His will even when we may not understand it. That is a choice only we can make, to choose life instead of death, to choose blessing instead of cursing, and to choose of the tree of life rather than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That choice is placed in front of each of us just like it was placed in front of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and we alone are responsible for the choices we make. Let us therefore choose wisely.
The question remains, though, of what needs to be done after repentance. One is not to suppose that the path from repentance to the Kingdom of God is walking on rose petals along some yellow-bricked road to an Emerald City. As we begin our path towards God’s kingdom as rebels laying down our arms, there remain two tasks that must be undertaken by the remorseful ex-rebel who seeks honorable service in the army of God. The first is that we must be made right with our rightful King. We do this through baptism, the death of the old man and its ways, and through the laying on of hands, which provides access to the Holy Spirit, which gives us help in changing our ways so that they correspond with the laws of the Kingdom of God (described in detail in the Bible, particularly in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible that many who claim adherence to God’s way turn away from shamefully and ignorantly) so that we can walk in the footsteps of our army’s commander and our savior, who gave up His life and was resurrected to remove the death penalty from those rebels and traitors who wish to be made right with their ruler. Even though we are spared from a literal death, we must die in a figurative sense, and take on a new identity as well as a new set of relationships. To that end, we must be re-educated and develop new patterns of thought and behavior that show respect and honor towards our king instead of sullen and willful disobedience. This re-education takes place under the watchful eyes of the army’s commander and in the context of our relationships with other repentant ex-rebels who are seeking the same entrance into the same kingdom. Like Roman soldiers taken from hostile border regions, we do not gain our citizenship without many years of long and devoted (and sometimes quite dangerous) service. We also must remember that we serve in units, not as individual soldiers free to go from one legion to another or one cohort to another on a whim, but rather are called to develop trust in our comrades in arms so that we can all rely on each other in times of trouble, knowing the soldiers around us have our backs, just as we have theirs. That means that the Christian walk necessarily includes membership in a congregation of believers (whether it meets in a house or an auditorium). What is important is not the size of the military unit, but the cohesion and trust of its soldiers, some of whom are officers who have come through the ranks (and who themselves are ex-rebels whose old ways sometimes, in spite of their best intentions, seep through). Our survival depends on the extent to which we are able to join together with our fellow soldiers, for we are vulnerable when cut off from the rest of the unit, unsure of where we are going or what our orders are, unable to defend ourselves when the need to sleep overcomes our fear of what is around us and the terror of what lurks in the dark forests and deep valleys our army marches through. Let us consider this also.