Repentance as Discipleship
The first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he meant that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”
We cannot follow Jesus without repentance. To be his disciple is to be a person of repentance.
So, what is repentance? Here’s how the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines it: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace by which a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of sin, turn from it toward God, with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience.”
In other words, repentance is simply turning from ourselves to God, asking him to help us obey. To repent is to trust that God has more mercy than we have sin.
Repentance is part of the good news of the gospel. It’s how we get free. We need that kind of freedom over and over again. Repentance is saying, “I was wrong” to the One who has never been wrong and cannot sin, and, therefore, can help us get out of the mess we’re in.
How can we be sure he will help us? The gospel proves God is not a “told you so” disappointed father, waiting for us to shuffle home so he can tell us how it really is. No, the gospel proves when we come to our senses and leave the pig sty for the Father’s house, he runs to meet us with a party and a fatten calf and a robe and ring. He treats us as if we never left and gives us what we never deserve.
No Cheap Grace
Repentance is the doorway into God’s grace. Once inside, we find ourselves not in the courtroom but the royal court, deep inside the heart of God. God loves repentant people. Why? Because repentant people have come to God with no more answers, no more grand ideas, no more theories of how to “get better.” Repentant people come to God trusting only his mercy and grace to change and help them. Repentant people are humble people, finally open to God. And they find in him a refuge. God becomes God to them. They change because they weren’t looking for seven steps to a better life but one hope to an eternal one. Seven steps might move us along, but it doesn’t change our direction. Only repentance does.
We are not after what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Cheap grace is being forgiven without changing directions. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
Bonhoeffer goes on to say the grace we need, and the grace Jesus offers, is costly grace. “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his son: You were bought with a price, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
The way we experience the costly grace of Jesus is through true repentance. It’s one of the sweetest graces God offers to us in Christ, by his Spirit. As we stop coddling our sin and turn to Christ, we find his smile upon us. And he sends us out to find others who need that smile. God calls his people to repentance because he’s sending us heralds of the King, and the message we carry is best expressed from forgiven sinners, not prideful do-gooders. Repentant sinners show the watching world the kind of king Jesus is. Repentant sinners invite others in because they just can’t get over his grace. They’ve heard the good news and they must share it, whatever the cost. The world must know of this Savior who went to such lengths to save a wretch like me! Repentant sinners are contagious, spreading the aroma of Christ wherever they go.
What Repentance Looks Like
Remember Romans 7? Paul said, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-24)
Jared Wilson wrote about this in his book, The Imperfect Disciple.
Every day, I wake up into Romans 7. Every dadgum day. My alarm goes off and I sit up in bed, gearing up for sins—both of omission and of commission. I’m engaged in the flesh before I even get my feet on the carpet.
And yet, right there beside me, laid out like the day’s outfit for school, are new mercies. Romans 8 lies right there, spooning Romans 7 in a full-size bed, no wiggle room.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” (Romans 8:1-3)
Every day you drift naturally into Romans 7. You don’t need any help with that. It’s just that your wheels are naturally out of alignment. You’re just wobbly, okay? So here’s what you do.
As early in the day and as often as you can, you turn on the light of Romans 8. You bring Romans 8 into Romans 7 and you say, “look what I found, everybody!” You’re the gal who’s brought your fiance home to meet the family, and it turns out he’s a much better catch than anybody, including yourself, ever thought you’d end up with. He’s a rich doctor-slash-fighter pilot who spends his summers digging wells for orphans in the Congo or something, okay? And Aunt Bitterness is sitting over there in the corner of the living room strewing away, ready to take you on a trip down angry memory lane, and you’re like, “Aunt Bitterness, I’d like you to meet my fiance, Dr. Gospel. Isn’t he dreamy?” And there’s Uncle Lazy sitting at the table medicating his feelings with three Egg McMuffins, and you bring Dr. Gospel over, and Uncle Lazy instantly perks up and realized how embarrassing he looks in the face of such accomplishment. And there’s your twin sister Pride sitting there in the middle of the room, like she owns the place, but when Dr. Gospel walks up to her, she gets up and offers him her seat without a word.
It’s a little like that. You introduce the truth of Romans 8 to every corner of the room, every dark place in your heart, as often as you can, as much as you can, as fiercely as you can.
Every day. It has to happen every day.
God is not calling perfect people to be his ambassadors in this world. There wasn’t a perfect man among the twelve apostles. There is only one kind of disciple Jesus really has, and that’s an imperfect one trusting in his perfection.
If you’re so weak you can’t get out of the bed in the morning without wondering who will deliver you from this body of death, but you’re turning to Jesus for the strength you need, you’re the perfect disciple for Jesus. You are exactly the kind of person Jesus is looking for, exactly the kind of person Jesus will use, and is using. You are not only tolerated by Jesus, you are accepted by him. He is not ashamed to call you his brother or sister.