Among the many things often heard by advocates of what I’m calling Hyper-Grace is that too many Christians are focused on repenting of their sins. We are excessively “sin-conscious,” so they say, and should instead turn our attention to the finality and sufficiency of God’s saving grace to us in Jesus Christ.
There is a sense in which this is a good and important reminder. Some Christians are excessively sin-conscious and have failed to recognize the glory and peace that come from trusting wholly in what God did through Jesus to remove the guilt and condemnation or our sin. But what they fail to recognize is that it is precisely because of the wonder and majesty of God’s saving mercy in Jesus that we should be sensitive to our sin and quick to repent of it. We do not repent in order to curry God’s favor or to make it possible for us to be reconciled to him. But repentance is absolutely necessary if we hope to live in the daily delight that comes with being reconciled to God.
Our experiential communion with Christ is always dependent on our sincere and heartfelt repentance from sin. We are altogether safe and secure in our eternal union with Christ, due wholly and solely to God’s glorious grace. But our capacity to enjoy the fruit of that union, our ability to feel, sense, and rest satisfied in all that is entailed by that saving union is greatly affected, either for good or ill, by our repentant response when the Holy Spirit awakens us to the ways that we have failed to honor and obey God’s revealed will in Scripture.
Part of the problem in the Hyper-grace message is their failure to properly define repentance. Several Hyper-grace authors contend that the only sense in which a Christian is required to repent is to change his/her mind or to rethink regarding sin and our relationship with God. Here is how one man thinks we think about repentance. In other words, this is how he believes we believe:
“Ongoing repentance is necessary to keep an angry God happy enough with you to be willing to bless you and use you. Your standing with God must be maintained by ongoing good behavior, and the only way to accomplish this behavior standard is through frequent sessions with God where you confess all known sins, ask for forgiveness, and repent or turn away from those sins.”
Again, he writes:
“Repentance is viewed as a necessary but onerous requirement in dealing with sin and staying in God’s good graces. It is a tool to be used to keep us in line and to prevent us from acting like the heathens we once were. If behavior modification is the goal, and it is with all legalists, then repentance is viewed as the primary method of accomplishing it.”
He argues that repentance simply means “to change your mind” about something. Rethink it. See the truth and believe it. Here is how he sums it up:
“The Holy Spirit convicts . . . or convinces me that I have believed a lie. I confess . . . or agree with the Spirit of Truth (no sense of condemnation). I then repent . . . or change my mind in light of truth.”
Michael Brown, who has written the most comprehensive response to hyper-grace, provides us with an illustration of how bad a definition of repentance this is. I’ve taken the liberty of expanding upon it a bit.
If you live in Oklahoma City, as I do, and you wish to join me in a leisurely drive to Dallas, Texas, you would typically depart from my house, drive east on Memorial Drive, and then turn right onto I-35. It’s about a 3½ hour drive. Everything seems to be going well until you notice a sign that says, “Wichita, 124 miles.” You turn to me (since I’m driving) and say, “Hey, guess what: we’re driving north instead of south. Dallas is in the other direction.” My response is: “Huh, you are correct. I’ve changed my mind about whether or not we are driving in the right direction.” And then I proceed to continue driving north, heading straight for Wichita, Kansas, instead of south for Dallas, Texas.
Changing of one’s mind is useless if it isn’t accompanied by a change of direction, a change of life and action. The only reasonable thing for me to do, having first changed my mind/belief about what direction I’m heading, is to exit off the interstate and do a 180 degree about face and head south in the direction of Dallas. It’s one thing to change my belief about where I’m heading. It’s another thing to change my behavior. And both elements are involved in genuine, biblical repentance.
One of the mistakes certain Hyper-grace authors make is building their belief about repentance on the root form of the Greek word. But meaning is not determined in this way, but rather on usage and context. If you want to learn more about this, I strongly urge you to get D. A. Carson’s excellent book, Exegetical Fallacies (Baker), and read what he says about the root fallacy. A simple illustration should suffice.
If I asked you to define the word “butterfly” I trust you wouldn’t say: “Well, let’s see, when we pull apart the words that make up ‘butterfly’ we get ‘butter’ and ‘fly.’ That leads me to the conclusion that it must be a stick of butter that has somehow sprouted wings and is able to propel itself through air. Or perhaps it refers to a very small insect that is actually made up of butter.” No! The meaning of words is not based upon the linguistic elements or root words of which they are comprised. We determine meaning on the basis of usage.
So how is the word “repentance” used in the NT? What are the contexts in which this word is found? A brief look at its usage in Revelation 2-3 should suffice. On several occasions Jesus calls upon the churches to repent. To the church in Pergamum Jesus declared: “Therefore repent” (Rev. 2:16a). And to the church in Sardis he said: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent” (Rev. 3:2). And to the church in Laodicea: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19).
Our Lord’s words to the church in Ephesus are especially helpful:
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:4-5).
Notice here that the repentance to which Jesus calls the church involves stopping one kind of behavior and embracing another kind of behavior. Stop abandoning your first love and “do the works you did at first.” That is genuine repentance.
To be quick to repent is not to acquiesce to a life dominated by the consciousness of sin. But we must be conscious of our sin precisely so that the forgiving, renewing, refreshing reality of God’s grace can control, energize and empower our daily living.