If a cloud of ambiguity hovers around our understanding of repentance, it might have to do with how we understand faith.
We’re reminded of Luther’s introductory words, unfolding into 94 other theses nailed to the door at Wittenberg: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”
Our entire lives repentance? In one sense, we understand what he means. We should continually be turning from sin toward Jesus. The one great business of the Christian life is, as John Flavel puts it, to “preserve our souls from sin and maintain sweet communion with God.” In other words, we mortify and vivify, we put off and put on.
But our entire lives? Even if we sign off on this theologically, chances are that few of us make this the practical work of our Christian existence, at least not explicitly. Few of us would answer, if asked to describe what it means to be a Christian, “You repent all the time.” Sure, we repent. When we sin — when we are convicted of our sin — we repent. But it’s probably a far cry from our “entire life.”
Luther says, though, that Jesus intends our entire lives to be about repentance. And he’s on to something. So what do we do?
If It’s All in Our Heads
My sense is that the measure of opaqueness we feel in Luther’s statement likely corresponds to how much we view the nature of faith as primarily intellectual rather than affectional. In other words, we’ll never grasp repentance as an all-of-life ordeal so long as we see faith as a mental adherence to facts about Jesus, even if we consciously agree that the facts are wonderful and glorious. Reason being, we can hold a lot of different facts in our minds that co-exist without the slightest trouble. If faith was just facts, if believing in Jesus meant theoretically agreeing with what he says about himself, then we won’t necessarily sense any problem with theoretically agreeing with several other things. We can simultaneously hold Jesus as Treasure in our minds while we dig for rubies somewhere else. The word for this kind of Christianity is nominal (in name only).
Mental agreement that Jesus is glorious is like affirming the statement that honey is sweet. As much as you might agree on paper, it still doesn’t stop you from eating other things. We can crunch on salty cashews without changing our minds about the honey. And we don’t necessarily feel like the cashews are something we need to forgo in order to eat more honey. To suggest we should would seem strange. If faith is all in our heads, repentance is still opaque.
Seeing Is Embracing
But faith is mainly affectional, not intellectual.
Two biblical passages stand out to support this. The first is from Second Corinthians. Concerning those who don’t believe the gospel, Paul writes, “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Jonathan Edwards comments: “Nothing can be more evident than that a saving belief of the gospel is here spoken of by the apostle as arising from the mind being enlightened to behold the divine glory of the things it exhibits.” In other words, faith comes from seeing the worthiness of Jesus. Paul says that those who do not believe the gospel fail to see Jesus for who he is. Edwards, therefore, infers that those who do believe the gospel must see Jesus for who he is — or as Paul puts it, believing is seeing “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (Future Grace, 200.)
Faith is getting the glory of Jesus. It’s when it clicks. It’s when people see him and say Yes. To a certain degree, the same goes for any trusting relationship. Trusting someone — believing them — is intrinsically about the affections. We must see them — their intangible, aesthetic qualities — and then deem them worthy of our confidence. We have much more than our heads wrapped into this, and that’s one big reason it hurts so bad if that trust doesn’t pan out (you’ll never hear a Country sob song about missing a math problem). Believing in Jesus is the heartfelt embrace of Jesus as worthy and glorious and enough.
Hot Coffee and Buttered Toast
The second standout passage is in the Gospel of John. The apostle recounts, “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst’” (John 6:35).
Notice the parallel construction. Coming to Jesus, or believing in him, is described as feeding and drinking. This is a much different picture than acing an exam. Jesus is pictured as the Thanksgiving Day dinner for our famished souls. He is a bottomless cup of cold water for our parched tongues. This says something about faith. Jesus means that the deep longing at the core of our humanity is met.
The tireless search for satisfaction has blistered our souls like the scorching sun in the dead of winter. We’re stuck, without coats, without shade, unbroken wind chapping our faces, throats frozen dry. Our stomach is so empty our toenails are aching, whatever is left that we can feel. Our heads are pounding in pain, our senses completely disoriented, and then someone walks out and throws a heavy blanket over us. This person digs us out of the miry snowfall and leads into his cabin. He sits us next to a crackling fire and hands us a cup of hot coffee and a warm slice of buttered toast. He tells us that he is the blanket, the coffee, the toast, and that we’ll never be cold again, or hungry, or thirsty. So we stay there to eat and drink. That is what it means to believe.
We don’t simply agree with the said qualities of the fire, the coffee, the toast — we indulge ourselves in them. This is where hazy repentance dies.
When Jesus says that if we believe in him we’ll never hunger or thirst again, he is saying that the option of eating and drinking elsewhere is over. We can stop searching. In fact, we must stop searching. It means we repent. It means that our sitting next to that fire and drinking that coffee and eating that toast is our saying that there’s no other fire or coffee or toast like this. It is our saying that we’re done looking for another cabin, that we’re sick and tired of getting stranded in the snow.
And that is something we say everyday. Our entire life is one of repentance because our entire life has become a relentless pursuit of eating and drinking him, not this or that or anything else. That’s how faith talks. This type of deep, affectional clinch of our souls — it doesn’t multitask. Just like you can’t love God and mammon (Matthew 6:24), you can’t truly embrace Jesus and anything else. And to embrace Jesus is to say that. To treasure him is to make that clear.
Because this is what faith is, and this is what repentance does, I think Luther was right.