the repentance heresy

by Robert Brow   (web site -

The repentance heresy is that you must feel really bad about your sins before the Almighty can bless you. The heresy fouls up the simplicity of faith, and it turns us inward away from the grace of God.

When I worked in a country parish the first satellite dishes appeared. I found a farmer who was happy to demonstrate his new toy. There was a box to make the dish turn, and way out in space there were five invisible satellites to choose from. Once you had locked in the right direction there were a hundred channels to give you hockey, baseball, football, soaps, cattle sales, Playboy, you name it.

I pointed out that with God it is much simpler. Humans are genetically equipped for faith. Which means we can turn to God's satellite, or we can put our faith in any other direction we choose. The farmer wondered what goodies came on God's channels. I said there were three channels called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The difference was that each of these responds to our very personal individual needs every moment of the day.

As a little child we turn to God as parent when we feel alone, insecure, scared, and immediately the Father is there to take us in his arms and comfort us. We turn to the channel of the Holy Spirit for wisdom in our particular situation, for inspiration to love and be creative, for empowering our ministry in the body of Christ. The Son's channel relates to his reign in the world, and his special concern to build his church. Each of these channels is open and free for anyone, however bad their present situation.

But surely we have to remember, list, and recite all our sins? I could see he was an Anglican used to the old Book of Common Prayer every Sunday. "Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins . . . We acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed . . . We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table . . . not weighing our merits but pardoning our offences."

If the farmer had been a Baptist, he would have heard a hundred sermons about the character faults the pastor disapproved of. Radio preachers each have their favourite catalogue of special badness that needs repentance. A Roman Catholic would know that he had no business coming to communion until he had gone to confession and detailed every evil thought. Whether we are Anglicans, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, or whatever, we are brainwashed with the repentance heresy.

The theory that underlies the heresy is that if we can get people to feel bad enough about their sins, and say so often enough, they might improve a bit. Actually, it has exactly the opposite effect. Focusing on our despicable selves means we can never look in the right direction to God who alone can perfect us. Feeling bad about our sins does nobody any good.

In any case, deciding what is wrong with us is very unlikely to yield the right diagnosis. We will major on the minors, like a mean-spirited child who gets the idea that the chief of sins is eating with your mouth open or licking your knife at table.

God alone knows the really major faults that need correcting in us, and he alone knows the sequence in which they can safely be dealt with. Some of us needed the Father's love and acceptance into a loving community. Others need the Son's invitation into costly service like the disciples being sent out to cast out demons long before the Day of Pentecost. All will need the powerful inspiration of the Spirit to give them wisdom, the love fruit of the Spirit, prayer according to the mind of God, the ability to understand the Bible and let it speak to us.

God gives us all this and much more without demanding the entrance fee of feeling bad about our sins. "By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God -- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us" (Ephesians 2:8-10). The worst kind of work we can trust in is, "I really repented and made the right decision."

But surely both John the Baptist and Jesus called people to repent? They did, but repentance need not mean any more than simply turning to God. Paul's commission was "to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith" (Acts 26:18). It is after we have turned to God's satellite that we discover hilariously that we are loved and totally accepted just as we are. In due course we are astonished when others say we are beginning to change.

What originated the idea of repentance as feeling bad about our sins? Heresy occurs when a truth is put in the wrong place. The truth in the wrong place is that there is a common experience of contrition or deep conviction of sin. It comes after we have tried valiantly to love God and love our neighbour. Job was "blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil" and it was after forty chapters of discussing with his friends about badness that he said "I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 1:1; 42:6). David had already been inspired to write psalms and do exploits by the Spirit when he wrote his penitential Psalm 51. Paul had already tried hard when he wrote, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . nothing good dwells within me . . . Wretched man that I am" (Romans 7:15-24).

Penitential conviction of sin will often grip us long after we first tuned in to God's satellite. Making it a requirement before we turn in faith scrambles the good news of the grace God. Jesus never demanded it of those who came to him. He did invite people to turn to God the Father, to himself as the Son of God, and to await the coming of the Spirit in power (Acts 1:4-5). Feeling bad about our sins was never part of the Gospel.

Bible translators would do us all a favour if they used the words "turn to God" instead of the unhelpful word "repent" in the Gospels. John the Baptist preached a gospel of turning to God, not of feeling bad about sins. Jesus said "The People of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah" (Luke 11:32) . We would be spared the repentance heresy by translating, "When they heard Jonah preaching they turned to God." What actually happened was that the king of Nineveh ordered the people to "turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands" and "cry mightily to God" (Jonah 3:8).

As Paul explained, we turn from the works of the flesh (which includes all that we can do in our own strength) and set our mind on the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-23; see Romans 8:5-6). The fruit of the Spirit are not produced by introspectively feeling bad about what we have been doing, but by looking to the Spirit to work in whatever way and in whatever sequence he chooses. Turning to God to be changed is all that is needed, anywhere, anytime.

a note about jonah

In the KJV and RV the reason the king gave for turning to God was "Who knoweth whether God will not turn and repent," and the result was "God repented of the evil" (Jonah 3:9-10). To avoid the problem of God falling into the repentance heresy, newer translations render the verse, "God changed his mind" (NRSV), and "God relented" (NKJV; Jerusalem). It is time the misleading English word "repent"was pensioned off for good.

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