Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Distinction between Legitimate and Illegitimate Repentance

The significance of words and their meanings has come under serious scrutiny in our postmodern culture. In his book, “How To Do Things With Words,” J.L. Austin writes, “The term ‘performative’ will be used in a variety of cognate ways and constructions, must as the term ‘imperative’ is. The name is derived, of course, from ‘perform’, the usual verb with the noun ‘action’: it indications that the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action – it is not normally thought of as just saying something.” [Austin, J.L. “How To Do Things With Words” 6-7] When a person says “I repent,” what does that mean? Repent is an action verb. The same is true when we say “I forgive.” The person uttering this sentence is making a performative claim to have done something. Kevin Vanhoozer says, “The purpose of Doctrine is to conform us to the truth, and we conform to the truth by bearing true witness to what God has done and is going in Christ through the Spirit. We bear true witness by speaking, and embodying, the truth in love.” [Vanhoozer, Kevin J. “The Drama of Doctrine” 397] Conversely, when we bear the name of Christ and refuse to live according to the life that He promised, we bear false witness against our Lord and Master before the world. Jesus says, believe in me and my work will transform you into X. However, when we live our life according to our own good pleasure and not according to X, all the while taking Christ’s name, we shame Him, make Him a liar in other’s eyes, and bear false witness to the world about the character and promises of God. “Words, as every one now knows, ‘mean’ nothing by themselves, although the belief that they did, as we shall see in the next chapter, was once equally universal. It is only when a thinker makes use of them that they stand for anything, or, in one sense, have ‘meaning.’” [Ogden, C.K. & Richards, I.A. “The Meaning of Meaning” 9-10] To speak about repentance is to speak about a very specific even from a Christian perspective. The question regarding the meaning of that word could grow extremely daunting if one were to entertain modern philosophical theories about meaning and hermeneutics. In the Christian ethic, God is the source of human language and foundationally, as the author of language, His meaning is the meaning we seek.

What is the difference between legitimate and illegitimate repentance? What is the difference between legitimate and illegitimate forgiveness? I recently heard about a church that read the names of three men before the congregation who had left their wives and families, and refused to repent. The church moved to step three of the disciplinary process by making sure that everyone knew what was going on so that the rest of the members could reach out in love and seek to regain these brothers to Christian obedience. The pastor and elders had spent months counseling these men about their sin. They repeated went to them, spent time with them, called them and did everything they knew to do to show them their sin. One by one, each man refused to repent. Now the entire church is in the process of reaching out to these men to urge them to repent. Only time will tell what will become of the men. Perhaps God will grant them repentance, demonstrating that they are true believers after all. Perhaps He will not, demonstrating that this particular leaven needs to be removed from the body of Christ. Either way, the Church’s only concern is with the words of Jesus: go show them their sin. Of course, the burden is for repentance and restoration. However, that may not be realized. Now imagine what the elders would say if all three of these men said, they repent of their sin, but they are not going back to their wives. Imagine them saying they forgive whatever perceived short-comings their wives have, but they are not going to return to the family. What do you suppose the elders should do? What do you think Jesus or Paul would do?

In I Cor. 5, Paul has to deal with a very immoral situation where a man had apparently married his stepmother. The Law forbade such practices (Lev. 18) and was exceptionally taboo in the Greco-Roman world. Drastic action had to be taken. Paul judged the matter harshly and with urgency even in absentia. To the entire congregation at Corinth that had refused to take action regarding this matter, Paul said, “You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.” (I Cor. 5:2) The church that refuses to act is seen as arrogant. After all, what right does the church feel it has to excuse such wickedness? The church steps into the shoes of God when she thinks in this manner. The church has no right other than to address the sin. Paul sees the deliberately refusal to address the sin as playing God. Jesus saves the church in order to be her Lord, her Master, not so that she can continue to be her own lord and master. Secondly, Paul says the proper response is to mourn. The church should have sensed great sadness regarding this evil. How many churches today sense great sadness over the sin in their communities? In our hyper-individualistic culture, our attitude is that it is none of our business and we leave these matters for others to work out. Moreover, in some strange and convoluted manner, we manage to escape the sense of duty that ought to be weighing heavy on our hearts all along.

Paul later says, “I have decided to deliver such a one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (I Cor. 5:5) The Greek construction does not promise such deliverance. The idea is that Paul hopes that such deliverance will take place. The destruction of the flesh is like Paul’s perspective on excommunication. They are placed outside the Christian community. Now ask yourself this question: “what if this man came to Paul and claimed to feel bad about it all and said he repented before God but refused to stop his behavior of this illicit relationship?” Do you think Paul would respond with a hearty, alright then….as long as you feel about it all and have made your peace with God, then I suppose that is all that matters? Would Paul accept that kind of repentance? Is that repentance? The simple truth is that Paul’s understanding of repentance is easy to see. Repentance involves a radical shift in disposition and behavior. For this individual at Corinth, repentance meant that he must cease and desist from this immoral practice immediately. In the west, we focus on the individual and their feelings, not to mention our false concern over their spiritual well-being and how that if we chase them off, then they will never get help. I actually witnessed this sort of reasoning before. If we discipline this person, they will leave and the she will never get help for her situation. Her sinful situation had been going on for two years! Where was the help for the last two years? At any rate, the excommunication of this individual was supposed to cause great sorrow on the part on this man in hopes that it would produce legitimate repentance. The community was far more important in the social context of Mediterranean cultures than it is in our own today. The Christian church is commanded to look much closer to the practices such cultures than it is the extremely individualistic culture of the modern west in a number of ways. Suffice it to say, excommunication is something that ought to produce tremendous pain in the soul of genuine believers.

Did Paul’s instructions work? What ever became of this man? While debate over the question of this man’s response will remain open to the end, many scholars do think there is evidence suggesting that he repented. For purposes of this post, at a minimum, we do have evidence that helps us understand what legitimate repentance looks like. Many believe Paul is referring to this man in 2 Cor. 2:7-8 when he says, “so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore, I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.” The idea behind confrontation is to produce godly sorrow. Godly sorrow, the sorrow that is godly, actually produces legitimate repentance. Paul says in II Cor. 7:10, “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.” The response to correction was sorrow! This sorrow was not unsanctified human sorrow that merely produces guilty feelings that lead to depression and a desire to punish oneself out of self-righteous desires. True godly sorrow produces a hatred for the sin one has committed and this inevitably leads to a change in disposition and behavior toward that sin. Two specific sins come to mind when thinking about this issue. I think of the modern practice of “shacking up” and the absurd rate of “illicit divorce” in the Christian church. When a professing Christian is confronted with the sin of unmarried cohabitation, they are instructed to repent of that sin. In other words, stop doing what you are doing. Legitimate repentance takes place when they are no longer “shacking up.” The same is true of illicit divorce. One spouse divorces their mate in the Christian community without biblical cause. Some people think once the divorce is final, they are free. They feel that they are no longer under the command to reconcile. That view is contrary to I Cor. 7:10-11 where Paul commands the wife that if reconciliation remains possible, she is commanded to reconcile. It is only if such is not possible that she comes under the command now to remain single to avoid adultery. What does repentance look like for a couple like this? It is really quite simple: reconciliation! They stop “being separated” from one another and begin living as husband and wife once again. Anything short of this is not legitimate repentance. For a man or woman to divorce their mate and claim to have repented of it without reconciling that relationship where reconciliation is possible is bearing false witness to the testimony of Jesus Christ.

“Repentance is needful for hypocrites. I mean such as allow themselves in the sin. Hypocrisy is the counterfeiting of sanctity. The hypocrite or stage-player has gone a step beyond the moralist and depressed himself in the garb of religion. He pretends to a form of godliness but denies the power (2 Tim. 3:5). The hypocrite is a saint in jest. He makes a magnificent show, like an ape clothed in ermine or purple.” [Watson, Thomas. The Doctrine of Repentance 68]
The puritans were some of the greatest defenders of genuine faith in Christ and repentance toward God. Watson’s words are stinging indeed. Perhaps that sting is godly sorrow that will work repentance in our hearts.


"No big words of ready talkers, no fine boastings will suffice;
Broken hearts and humble walkers, These are dear in Jesus' eyes."
[Spurgeon, C.H. Love's Commendation-v. II, pg. 411]


"Break off the yoke of inbred sin, and fully set my spirit free!
I cannot rest till pure within, Till I am wholly lost in thee."
[Wesley, John. Repentance of Believers-v V, pg 169]







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