Thursday, November 28, 2013

An Illustration of Repentance at Work in the Life

The Westminster Shorter Catechism has an excellent definition of repentance in Question 87: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience."

In the heat of the Christian life, however, that definition may seem more theoretical than practical, not particularly helpful when seeking to live a life of repentance (See the first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent" (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.) We recognize that repentance is a grace. That is, it is a gift from God. It is not something we work up for ourselves. It is not turning over a new leaf. It is a turning away from sin and a turning to God that is fueled, as it were, by the Spirit of God at work within us.

We all recognize that that first act of repentance is only the beginning. We recognize that sins must be mortified. We recognize that there is the problem of indwelling sin in the life of the believer. But I suspect that we don’t often attach repentance to these things. In part, this may be because we do not have a sense of what repentance look like when God is working repentance in us.

Perhaps an illustration will help. Imagine repentance as a man walking in one direction who suddenly realizes that he is walking in the opposite direction from which he should be walking. He stops. He turns around. Then he begins walking in the new direction. It is a quick and simple process. He realizes. He stops. He turns. But imagine someone on a bicycle realizing he is going the wrong direction. In one sense, it is still obvious. He stops. He turns around. He begins bicycling in the new direction. But it is a longer process. He has to come to a stop. Depending on his speed, that may take some time. The turning around also takes longer. And it takes longer to get up to full speed in the new direction. The process is the same for a man in a car. But it takes longer than for the man on the bike, and it may require going somewhat out of his way before he gets back on the right track. The process is the same for a man in a speed boat. He has to slow down, enter the turn, and come back. But the time and distance required to do so is much longer than what was required for the man walking. Now imagine that the man is piloting a supertanker. It takes him miles to slow the ship down enough to even begin to make the turn. The turn itself is immense, taking him quite a distance from his intended course. Then again it also takes a large amount of time to get up to full speed in the new direction.

Now apply the images to repentance. Some sins are small and easy. We stop and walk the other way. Some sins, like the bicycle, are a little more difficult. In God’s work in the believer, he takes a little time to bring the believer to an awareness that his course is actually a sinful one. Then there is the process of coming to a stop, the process of the turn itself, and the process of getting up to speed in faithfulness. But some sins are enormous. We may not be aware that they really are sins. Or they may be so deeply ingrained in us that we are not willing, at first, to recognize them as sins. God works patiently with us, carefully slowing us down, as the captain does with the ship, so that he can bring us through the turn and into the new direction, where he can bring us up to full speed.

There are two things that I find helpful about this illustration. First is the fact that God does not work repentance in us instantaneously, but over time. So the awareness of sin and the desire to change come gradually. God brings us, as it were, to a full stop slowly and carefully. So there are going to be many slips and falls on the way to that stopping point. The second thing has to do with the turning itself. In the image of the ship turning, there is a long time when the ship is neither on the old course, nor on the new course but, as it were, dead in the water. So it may well be in the life of the Christian. The sin has been admitted. The slips and falls have gotten fewer. But there seems to be little progress. We seem to be dead in the water. At that point, we are in the turn. Speed will pick up. Godliness will grow. But it will do so slowly, as God patiently works with us.

So if you have prayed for repentance for some particular sin, and there has been no instantaneous change, keep praying. God has promised to work, and he will. And you will be glad in the end that he did it slowly and carefully.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


What constitutes worldliness? For many raised in fundamentalism, worldliness has much to do with outward appearance: the clothes you wear, the places you go, or refrain from going. It always struck me as humorous that in certain circles, it was bad to go to the movie theater, but it was okay to watch the same movie at home on video.

Many Christians even outside of fundamentalist circles tend to have an externalized idea of worldliness. Hence, in many conservative Reformed circles, the manner of one’s dress is a hot issue. Now I’m all for modesty in dress, but some of these people seem to think that Victorian era dress was the most modest in the history of the world, hence most to be emulated. One wonders how Christians in Corinth would have done on the modern modesty scale. In some circles, where your children are in school is a defining factor. Home school? Thumbs up! Christian school? Maybe thumbs up, maybe thumbs down, depending on whether it has the right curriculum. Public school? You heathen!

These rubrics of worldliness and holiness are prominent in evangelical circles. The Bible, however, doesn't seem to have much to say on any of them, except for modesty in dress. And even on that the Bible doesn't say all that much, except to encourage it. I think the difference is due to the fact that we like to be able to define godliness and worldliness and other such concepts on the basis of what we can see. The Bible doesn't do that.

Instead, we find passages such as 1 John 2:15-17. Verse 15 says, Don’t love the world. Love of the world and love of God cannot exist together. No man can serve two masters. But what is the world? Verse 16 tells us: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life. This is a subtle allusion to the deception of Eve. She saw that the fruit was good for food (the lust of the flesh), was a delight to the eyes (the lust of the eyes), and was desirable to make one wise (the boastful pride of life). The world is ever before us, drawing us away from the love of God and into love of the world.

But what is the problem with love of the world? Verse 17 tells us that the world is passing away (and its lusts as well). The lover of the world will pass, as will the world. But the lover of God abides. Note that worldliness is not just a love of sin. It is a preference for the temporary over the eternal. It is a preference for what we can see over what we cannot see. It is a preference for sight over faith.

We can’t see worldliness. It grows in the heart. But we may be able to see some of its fruits. And those fruits are not primarily in how we dress or how we educate our children. Instead, worldliness shows itself in carelessness about spiritual things. It shows itself in prayerlessness. It shows itself in using the weapons of the world to fight the battles of faith.

Are you worldly? I don’t know. But you might want to ask yourself: Do I prefer what I can see over what I can’t see? Am I disappointed with God because he didn't do what I wanted him to do? Do I prefer this present life over the life to come?  Do I desire heaven? Do I pray that his kingdom come?

It is easy to pass external tests for worldliness, because we make up those rules. It is much more difficult to mortify the root of worldliness that lies within us.