Defining the Gospel
Chapter 2: Repentance
In the previous chapter we saw what the Law is and, hopefully, why an understanding of it is important in our efforts to define the Gospel. That said, we begin this current chapter by examining the 3 possible responses to that Law, which accuses us fallen men by pointing out where and how we fall infinitely short of God’s righteous standards. In so doing we will hone in specifically on the one right response and elucidate what it means.
A brief interaction with the differing results of receiving the Law
Option #1 – Rebellion (Romans 7:7-11)
The first possibility that exists is that, upon hearing the Law, the individual quickly rebels, throwing off the restraints the Law by nature lays against them, and becomes more of a pagan than they were before.
Surely we can see original sin here, for we are all born with this tendency. Who among us hasn’t noted how, when a child is instructed not to do something, that thing becomes exactly what the child wants to do most in the world? Even commands given to protect the child (“don’t uncap that electrical socket”) are taken in by the little sinner and, rather instinctively, deliberately disobeyed.*
And even into adult life, doesn’t this continue, albeit more subtly? “You can’t tell me what to do!” is what often comes out of our hearts in response to a command (be it of your boss at the office, or your Boss in heaven). We sinful humans want to do what we want to do – the old “you will be like God” line still tempts us to try and define our own right and wrong – and any authority that tells us “don’t do that” (even if we didn’t want to do it in the first place) is looked at as an infraction upon our rights – on our own personal sovereignty, if you will.
Yet as natural as it is – and it is only natural to our sinful flesh – this is not the proper response to the Law.
Option #2 – Self Righteousness (Luke 18:9-13)
The second possibility is that, upon hearing the Law, the individual thinks to himself, “Ah! I’ve done a pretty good job at doing those things. I’m not one of those greedy politicians, or one of those crack-addicts on the street. I’ve never been to jail or slept around. I pay my taxes. Yep, I’m a pretty good person.”
Now of course, this is wrong on several levels. The first is obvious: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so this type of thinking is futile when compared with Scripture’s revealing words. The second is a little more subtle, but it is this: it causes you to look with pride and distain on your fellow man – a sin in and of itself.
You see, any type of self-righteousness automatically seeks to place yourself above others. It has to. After all, if you were to solely meditate on your own life – both the good and the bad – you would be forced to admit how inadequate and sinful you indeed are. However, when you can keep focusing on other people, sizing up their shortcomings and picking at specks in their eyes, you can safely ignore your own faults and, as long as you pick a “bad enough” group of sinners to compare yourself to, you can always feel like a swell person by comparison. It’s a little bit like a man missing a leg going into a group of patients with quadriplegia, just so he can admire how agile he himself is.
But this too – as good as it may feel to be “better” than everyone else (though it’s really just in your head) – is not the proper response to the Law.
Option #3 – Repentance
The third possibility upon hearing the Law is that the individual is brought face-to-face with his own sin, in all its grotesqueness and horror, and is struck with fear and remorse. Fear because of the recognition that the wages of sin is death, and therefore the sinner has the fiery prospect of eternal damnation before them; of “dying in their sins”. Remorse because the heart grieves its own corruptness and that the sinner has offended a Holy God.
He Will Convict the World of Sin
Now, repentance is quite obviously the correct response to sin, but before we delve deeper into what repentance is, we need to stop and make one thing clear:
Repentance itself is not the work of the Christian – it’s not something you affect of your own reason or strength of will or character – rather it is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8). Therefore even this is not a work or our own to be boasted of, but a work of God to be confessed with thanksgiving.
What is Repentance?
Repentance, from the Greek word μετάνοια (metanoia) which means “after-thinking” or better “a thinking differently afterwards” or “a change of mind”.
That is essentially the thing: changing your mind. Repentance has the connotation of making a 180 degree turn away from what had previously occupied you. Indeed, turning away from sin so that your mind, heart, body and soul are no longer engaged in the sinful things that are against the will of God; it is a putting away of fleshly things.
But to leave it there would be to give only an incomplete picture of repentance. That is to say, if repentance involves a 180 degree turn, and since you are clearly turning away from something (sin), there then must of course be something to turn to.
And that there is. Again, repentance is not merely the turning away from sin and towards the unknown, rather it is turning away from sin and towards the Gospel. As Jesus preached at the beginning of His ministry:
The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.
– Mark 1:15
Thus, repentance is never without both the Law (which tells you what you are repenting of: the life of sin you now turn away from) and the Gospel (which is the clear promise of God in Christ that you turn towards).
The Law convicts and the Gospel saves – repentance occupies the tension in between. As sinners according to the Old Adam in the flesh, we are convicted by the Law constantly because we sin constantly, and as saints according to the Gospel of the New Man (that is, Christ), we live in this tension every day of our lives. This is why Martin Luther could say in the first of his 95 Theses:
When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Onwards and Upwards
In this post we touched fairly strongly on the Gospel itself, as promised. However, in the next installment we will devote the entirety to focusing head-on on the promise of God in Christ, for sinners: that is, us.
*This concept is so well recognized that it even has a name: reverse-psychology, whereby a parent convinces a child to do A (which they want the child to do) by telling them to not do A (a command which they assume the child will rebel against, causing them to unwittingly do exactly as the parent had intended).