Tag Archives: Repentance

Rescuing The Dying American Church

We are what we love. If that’s true, the church is off track. We’ve stopped highlighting repentance, humility, holiness, self-sacrifice, and eternal judgment and have replaced these core values with wealth, influence, leadership training, fun, marketing, and lust.

The Bible says a double-minded person is unstable, and should not expect to receive anything from the Lord (see James 1:7). So since we’ve confused attendance and political connections with spiritual authority, and we’ve exchanged pleasing God with pleasing people, we’ve entered into a death spiral as a church. Prayer rooms are empty unless the music and leadership are just right, and consecration to God is treated as obsolete or boring.

The admonitions that “believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position, and the rich should be humble because, after all, they will pass away like a wild flower” are ignored because we’ve become a backslidden worldly church.

But there is always hope. James 4:8 writes, “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”

But our current church leadership is so deceived they don’t perceive that they are the sinners, nor do they believe they need to purify their hearts. Why? Because their churches are full, their bank accounts are bulging, and they are surrounded by people who think their leaders are godly.

I’ve seen this first hand. Humble, kindhearted men of God love service, prayer, and the Scriptures. But that all changes when the cameras come on. It’s as if they become drunken with the spirits of this world for power, money, and prestige. Then they spiral into a stupor of superficial appearances of godliness, but the true spiritual power is gone. No longer is depending on the power of the Gospel the basis of their existence, but the influence they have on others takes its place.

David wrote about it in Psalm 51:17,

The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.

Ezra 9:6 says it perfectly.

 I prayed,

“O my God, I am utterly ashamed; I blush to lift up my face to you. For our sins are piled higher than our heads, and our guilt has reached to the heavens.

Isaiah 57:15 says,

The high and lofty one who lives in eternity,
the Holy One, says this:
“I live in the high and holy place
with those whose spirits are contrite and humble.
I restore the crushed spirit of the humble
and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts.

As I am writing this blog, I am reminded of a young man who was living in squalor. His family had provided a house where he lived with his young son, who was increasingly delayed in his development because of the environment of immorality and drug abuse in his home. Every bedroom was filled with trash, dirty mattresses, discarded condoms, and used needles.

The man needed help and was willing to repent and return to Christ, but he didn’t know where to begin. A crew from our church helped clean his house, and then funded the young man and his son to move out of state to a dependable family member where they could get a fresh start. The church also worked with him to get his teeth fixed, get free from his former addictions, and to start his education. Now time has passed. The young man is now gainfully employed, married, has a beautiful new son. His other son is now in above normal ranges cognitively and behaviorally. No more developmental delay.

Every one of us who has been bound by the power of depravity and selfishness and then set free by Christ knows exactly why we deeply despise sin and earnestly love the Lord and his people.

Psalm 97:10 says,

You who love the Lord, hate evil!
He protects the lives of his godly people
and rescues them from the power of the wicked.

Our hope is for our leaders to go unannounced to the mountaintop with no publicity, no cameras, and no publicly announced agenda, to press through for a private and powerful meeting with God. Most of them will need to unwind from the adrenaline that has been driving them. They will also need to leave their cell phones, energy drinks, caffeine, “medications,” and assistants at home, and stay until they push past boredom and then, like Isaiah, cry out in desperation,

It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.

This can only happen by divine revelation, divine encounter, and divine devastation.

But here is the problem. Should they have an encounter like this, they will be tempted to return from the mountaintop and market this experience.

Maybe it’s time we start a new kind of secrets in the body of Christ. Maybe our leaders need to encounter the Lord, be quiet about it, and let the Lord reveal in public what has happened to them in private. That would be a refreshing change of pace, and might rescue our dying American Church.

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Continuing the Reformation in Our Generation

Religious tradition is sometimes more potent than Scripture itself. For that reason, we, as seekers of the truth, are compelled to question any tradition that is not based on Scripture.

Around 250 AD, the Roman Emperor demanded that Christians sacrifice to him as a god. Many Christians, out of fear of persecution or death, conceded, which resulted in a lapse in their relationship with the Church. Later these Christians regretted their actions and repented. The Church was not sure how to respond to them since many of its members who had not conceded had either been killed or suffered greatly. So the Church was not kind to those who repented, but decided to allow them back into fellowship if they would demonstrate their repentance with displays of humility through penance, sometimes for extended periods of time.

One of these acts of penance required these repentant sinners to lie across the threshold of the church door as the other worshippers who had not lapsed stepped over them to enter the church. This demonstrated the humility of the repentant and the spiritual superiority of the faithful. Other penances required by the Church varied greatly and sometimes included periods of prayer and fasting and the wearing of sackcloth and ashes.

This practice of requiring penance transitioned the Church from being a source of redemption, forgiveness, and healing into serving as a purveyor of judgment and punishment. The unintended consequence of this initial response communicated that repentance was inadequate to appropriate the benefits of the cross. Works had to be added. A belief developed in the Church that if believers sin, they have to do penance to earn forgiveness, which reflected their genuine regret and sorrow for their sins.

This practice expanded over time. When lapsed sinners (those who left the practices of the Church) returned to the Church, their confession transitioned from confession and forgiveness into an interrogation in which the severity of their sins was assessed. During confession, the Church would decide the amount of penance they were required to do in order to be forgiven. Church leaders determined that without a demonstration of sorrow and proof of a resolve to do better, repentance might not be genuine. Thus, the absolution of the sin did not occur until after the penance was completed.

As this practice became the norm, penances were sometimes protracted to the point they could not be done in a lifetime. Thus the departed remained in Purgatory (a place where, according to tradition, sinners continued to suffer until their sins were completely atoned for before they could enter Heaven). To shorten or remove suffering in Purgatory, a family member could do penance for their departed loved one, or buy indulgences (credits provided by the Church) to pay for their sins.

See the progression over time—repentance and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross were seen to fall short of redeeming the sinner who was required by the Church to perform additional acts of penance that equated with the gravity of their sin in order to receive forgiveness.

It sounds repulsive now, but penance became the way for sinners to earn God’s grace. This belief obviously led to abuses. And it was these abuses that led to the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation rejected penance as the sure path to forgiveness because it promoted the idea that repentance based on faith in Christ and his sacrifice on the cross were not adequate to redeem a sinner. The practice of penance required that sinners needed to perform additional work in order to earn forgiveness. Protestants, on the other hand, celebrated the power of repentance based on the redemptive work of Christ alone on the cross as taught in Scripture, and therefore, rejected penance.

But did we Protestants really do this?

I don’t think so.

To this day, Protestants, just like Catholics, punish, shun, excommunicate and exile sinners, we just never say it. And if a sinner is to be forgiven, we require penance for them to be restored to fellowship with the Church. Though we Protestants don’t typically institutionalize penance like the Catholics, nor do we call it that, we practice it through inflicting punitive judgments, contractual agreements, or simple silence toward the sinners which results in social stigma. This is why the biblical definition of repentance is important.  

In 332 AD Pope Damasus I ordered Jerome, a priest and theologian, to translate the Bible into Latin in order to give the Church a standard translation—which we now call the Vulgate. Jerome translated the Bible in relative seclusion in Bethlehem, completing it in 405AD. Afterwards, it became the Catholic Church’s officially promulgated Latin version of the Bible which has influenced the western Church to this day.  Yet Bible scholars believe Jerome’s biggest error was in mistranslating the Greek word metanoete as “do penance” where “repentance should have been. Metanoete literally means “re-think, or change your mind,” which is the meaning of the word repent. Therefore, repent is a more accurate translation.

That one error created a practice that has plagued the Church for centuries because it changed the Church’s role from recognizing God’s grace toward a sinner and acknowledging God’s forgiveness to assessing sinful violations and mandating punishment. Repentance was replaced with works to demonstrate humility on the part of sinners to church leaders and the devout, or maybe self-righteous, Christians. This error helped lay the foundation for wide-spread misconceptions of how the church should respond to sinners.

This is where we need to continue the Reformation in our generation.

What do the four words in the original languages of the Bible, translated correctly as repentance really mean? This answer is critical for every Christian whose faith is based on the Gospel.

The two Hebrew words used in the Bible that we translate repentance are naha and shubh. One communicates the emotion of repentance, and the other emphasizes the decisions associated with repentance.

  1. Naha—means “to feel sorry, to lament, to grieve, to sigh, or to groan.” The word literally refers to difficulty in breathing while one experiences intense emotion. It usually results in a change of behavior and character. David did not stop with feeling bad – he turned around.
  2. Shubh—means “to turn back, to make a radical change in attitude toward sin and God.” It involves both the conscious moral separation from God, and the personal decision to return to God. This word was most often used by the Old Testament prophets when they called God’s people to return to God.

There are also two Greek words that we translate repentance—metanoia and epistropho. The first word reveals the power of choice that we have to respond to God, while the second describes a change in our position and relationship with God after repentance. Combined, these two words communicate the miracle transformation that takes place in our lives when we repent, both internally and relationally.

  1. Metanoia—which expresses the internal, intellectual, and spiritual change that occurs when a sinner turns to God. The actual meaning of metanoia is “to have another mind,” “to re-think” or “to change one’s mind, attitude, and purpose regarding sin.” I believe Hebrews 9: 9, 14, 15b describe this miraculous transformation by saying,

For the gifts and sacrifices that the priests offer [under the Old Covenant] are not able to cleanse the consciences of the people who bring them. . . Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. . . For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant.

  1. Epistropho—which describes the distinct change of position in relation to God that takes place as a result of repentance. This word can be summarized as a spiritual positional transition into being seated in Christ (see Ephesians 2:6).

See what a denial of the Gospel we created when we translated this life-giving idea into punitive works that believers must do for the Church to prove they are repentant! We must intentionally correct this.

God revealed his heart by the way he responded to our sins. We reveal our hearts by the way we respond to another person’s sins.

We deny the Gospel when we respond to another person’s sin by demanding that they work to prove themselves repentant, or work to receive forgiveness. We are the Church. We are not the accusers of the brethren. We are not journalists who expose the sins of others, nor are we District Attorneys who are required to punish others for their sins. We are the Church, God’s institution that provides healing, restoration, redemption, and grace.

Righteousness is given to us freely by God. It is not a result of our works—which keeps us from boasting or believing that we are spiritually superior to others.  God’s authentic Church in the earth is not the gathering of the self-righteous, but of the gratefully redeemed. And our charge is to freely offer that same grace to others.

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Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Repentance?

“Repentance is an about face from sin and dead works to the living God.” That’s what theologians say. They also say, “It’s an entire change of mind resulting in a total change in life.” I think they are right, but I would also add:

  • Repentance is the most positive word in the English vocabulary. 
  • Repentance is the most hopeful idea in all of humanity. 
  • Repentance causes some of the most positive feelings anyone can experience.

So why is our culture forgetting the power of repentance and instead embracing punishment, shame, and public embarrassment as the popular responses to wrongdoing—as if those have ever produced anything good?

As we have learned recently from our politicians, enemies will highlight a person’s weaknesses and ignore his or her strengths or the good that also marks their character. And as we have also seen in the media, a person learning from mistakes, changing, and growing are given little expectation or value. The media calls it flip-flopping or being deceitful. But I know people change for the better every day. I watch it constantly. I’m a pastor, and as a Christian, I know the value, power, and hope of repentance.

This is why Paul, when preaching in Athens, as recorded in Acts 17:30b, told the people that God “. . . commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him.”. 

Why? Because God wants the best for us, so he, like any good parent, wants us to get rid of the things that hurt us. So as we meet him and get to know him, his goodness motivates us to turn away from the things that are dark and destructive . . . sinful. . . in our lives.

Repentance is a wonderful gift, so when we have opportunity to repent, we need to take advantage of that opportunity. Notice that after Peter saw a group of Gentiles be baptized in the Holy Spirit, he reported, “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life” (Acts 11:18, emphasis mine). When Paul was exhorting young Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:25, he said, “Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth” (emphasis mine). God gives us opportunity for repentance. We choose to respond or not.

This is why we should all embrace repentance with grateful hearts, and why we as a society are making a mistake by not validating repentance.

When David wrote Psalm 51, he modeled God’s gift of repentance for all of us. After he committed destructive and devastating sins, he reveals the hope we all can receive from God if we will embrace repentance. Read this passage slowly and thoughtfully, then consider going back and praying through it:

Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just.
For I was born a sinner—
yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.
But you desire honesty from the womb,
teaching me wisdom even there.

Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Oh, give me back my joy again;
you have broken me—
now let me rejoice.
Don’t keep looking at my sins.
Remove the stain of my guilt.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me . . .

17 The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.

Sin is not only the negative, inappropriate, or destructive thoughts, words, and behaviors that violate our lives and those around us, and sometimes society as a whole, but it is also a violation against God and his perfect, wonderful, uplifting plan for our lives. No one wants the best for us like God does, so when we know him, we can repent, and live better lives.

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