On Repentance and Forgiveness

This past Sunday’s post talked about the continuity between what God desired for the world before and after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Before, the message was about restoring relationships through repentance and forgiveness of sins; and after, the message remains restoring relationships through repentance and forgiveness of sins.

This message is one we badly need to hear as a culture. And yet, it is also a message that feels out of sync with our times. Our present moment is all about hearing demands for justice. Our systems — and the people (usually men, usually white) who sit in positions of power within them — are, in some cases for the first time, being held to account for the ways they oppress people and perpetuate injustice in the world. This is a challenging time to be sure, but I believe wholeheartedly that this is God’s work. As Christians — as people informed by the Law and the Prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, and the example of Jesus — there ought to be no question that we will speak out against police violence, racism (both personal and systemic), sexual harassment, consolidation of wealth and pandemic profiteering, ecological destruction, and all the other evils of our time.

But, at least on the surface, these cries for justice seem to sit uncomfortably with traditional Christian teaching on repentance and forgiveness of sins. Advocates for justice now openly scoff at public apologies; the oppressed bristle that their oppressors expect, and feel entitled to, their forgiveness. This is not because there is anything inherently contradictory about justice and Christian teaching. Indeed, justice is the presence of healthy and whole relationships, and repentance and forgiveness are important tools to restore damaged relationships to health and wholeness. So they go hand-in-hand. They only seem not to fit together because the powerful have weaponized them against those excluded from power. We have as Christians cheapened repentance so as to make it worthless. This, in turn, has placed the onus on the oppressed and sinned against to do the hard work of reconciliation. No wonder they’re fed up.

How have we cheapened repentance?

Too often repentance seems to be only about a public, shame-faced apology, the twenty-first century version of the old Biblical “sackcloth and ashes.” This may be accompanied by a promise to do better, but such promises are often allowed to go unfulfilled without consequence. This sensibility was described well sixty years ago by Thomas Merton:

There is something scandalous about the religiosity of popular piety. All the empty gestures of people who … make signs of the good, go through the gesticulations which symbolize good intentions, and allay their guilty feelings with appropriate grimaces of piety …. [B]ut at the same time the most terrible of crimes are accepted without a tremor… (The Inner Experience)

This is not repentance.

Traditions of sacramental confession and absolution can similarly cheapen repentance. Here it is not turning repentance into a public spectacle that is the problem, but turning it into a private, spiritual matter between the individual and God. If there is some sort of penance or restitution required as a result of the confession, it is primarily of a ‘spiritual’ nature — reciting certain prayers, to cite a common example — working to restore a broken relationship with God rather than the human relationships harmed by the person’s sin. This is what the twentieth-century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace:

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. (The Cost of Discipleship)

The problem is not with these ritual expressions of repentance in and of themselves — ritual actions can be deeply meaningful. The problem comes when they cease to be symbols of repentance but are instead equated with it. Similarly, a public apology is a very good beginning. The problem only comes when that beginning is not followed up with a middle and an ending. A public apology or private confession are not repentance if they are not accompanied by meaningfully changed behaviour. Yes, our sins damage our relationship with God, but they do this primarily because they damage our relationships with one another. We make a mockery of reconciliation with God if we are not also committed to making things right with those we have wronged. I’m reminded of the words of Abba Poemen of the Desert Fathers, who, when asked what it means to repent of a sin, answered, “Not to commit it again in the future” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Poemen 120).

Without changed behaviour, repentance becomes costless and therefore worthless. The offended party is offered empty words and expected to offer the very costly act of forgiveness in return. They give up a lot having received very little. In this way, instead of being tools for healing relationships, cheap repentance and forgiveness can act to perpetuate injustice and deepen the wound.

Repentance is more than an apology or a confession, no matter how heart-felt. It is about change. Change is built right into the word the New Testament uses for repentance, metanoia, not just ‘changing my mind’, as it is often interpreted, but changing my perception of the world — seeing it through God’s eyes and hearing it through God’s ears — and changing my attitudes and actions accordingly. This kind of repentance is costly and transforming, and it’s the kind of repentance that acts to restore right relationships.

But what then about grace? Grace — God’s loving generosity, which we receive and then share with others — is at the heart of Christian theology and imagination. It’s this generosity of spirit that is at the heart of forgiveness. But it must also be at the heart of our understanding of repentance, not in the sense of feeling entitled to receive it, but in the loving and gracious longing to make our wrongs right. It makes no sense to say that we must be generous when others wrong us but can be stingy when we wrong others. Insisting that repentance be accompanied by meaningful change is not a rejection of the doctrine of grace, but its full application in our lives. And, again, Bonhoeffer would remind us that grace is not cheap:

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. (The Cost of Discipleship)

Grace is not a spiritual ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card; it is rather the key to a new life dedicated to healthy and whole relationships, relationships that are based on true peace — shalom, on God’s justice. And repentance — real repentance that is about real change — when we have wronged others, and forgiveness when we have been wronged are two of the biggest tools we have to heal those relationships when they’ve been broken. It is no wonder they formed the core of John’s teaching in the wilderness, of Jesus’ teaching in his earthly ministry, and of the Good News the Apostles were commissioned to share with the world.

As those who are inspired by the same Holy Spirit that anointed them to this ministry, may we all take up this message and way of life as our own.

31 thoughts on “On Repentance and Forgiveness

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