Repentance for Lent
Repentance for Lent
The Very Revd Dr John Shepherd AM | Dean Emeritus
Ash Wednesday and Lent are upon us. Originally a time for catechumenates to prepare for baptism at Easter, it is now a time for us all to examine our consciences, weigh ourselves in the balance and align ourselves more thoroughly with the new life to be celebrated at Easter.
At the heart of this time of reflection is repentance. This is important. It is required of us. ‘Repent and believe in the gospel’, the writer of the book we know as Mark has Jesus say (1:15). The twelve were sent out ‘proclaiming the need for repentance’ (6:12). In Luke’s account of Pentecost Peter says ‘Repent, and be baptised’ (Acts 2:38).
The primary meaning of the word ‘repentance’ is ‘change of mind’. Sorrow and regret might well be implicit, but it’s the sense of a change of direction which is dominant.
So we could say that the gospel is something that makes us change our minds. First, about ourselves. And it’s total. After all, what could be more total than to accept that the last will be first and the first last (Matthew 20:16)? Or ‘blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’ (Luke 6:20)? Or ‘happy are those who endure trial’ (James 1:12)? This isn’t just a swerve off the well-beaten track. It’s the full 180 degrees.
But changing our mind also involves changing our mind about God. The gospel is an invitation to think about God in a way that’s totally opposite to how we usually think about him. The non-gospel way of thinking about God is that he is great, powerful and holy and therefore to be afraid of. His greatness, power and holiness are all geared up to stamp out evil, and so God is the enemy of sinners. On this view of God, the only hope for our survival would be by some change that would make us acceptable to God. This might work if we could change from being a sinner into not being a sinner. Stop sinning, and we’ll be OK. But let’s face it, is it really possible to stop sinning? Right now I’m thinking this will turn out to be a really good article, and bingo, there’s the sin of pride.
It’s also possible to say that God’s wrath can be deflected by meritorious mechanisms that would atone for sin: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. We could even give martyrdom a try.
An older form of this view was that God had provided the means for sin to be taken away through the sacrifice of animals. The sinner could come into communion with God through the offering of sacrifices prescribed in the Law, particularly on the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). The author of Hebrews (9:13 ff) interprets the death of Jesus this way.
But isn’t it simpler and less convoluted to say that God isn’t against sinners, but for them? And that his greatness and power aren’t sledgehammers poised to destroy, but ways in which he can extend his love? And that whenever God is thought of as the enemy of sinners, that is not the gospel.
Our authority for saying this? Jesus. He eats and drinks with tax-gatherers and sinners. He searches for the lost sheep. He forgives a man let down through a roof. He perseveres with disciples who continually let him down.
The gospel invites us to repent, that is, to change our mind. This involves us in changing our mind about God. Totally. God doesn’t have to be placated by good works or sacrifices. Or by anything. Because he’s not in need of placating.
He is already for us.