For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel,
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
But you were unwilling,
and you said,
“No! We will flee upon horses”;
therefore you shall flee away;
and, “We will ride upon swift steeds”;
therefore your pursuers shall be swift.
A thousand shall flee at the threat of one;
at the threat of five you shall flee,
till you are left
like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain,
like a signal on a hill.
Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the LORD is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.
— Isaiah 30:15-18
Every year my family visits the Great Vermont Corn Maze. It’s the largest corn maze in New England and bills itself as 24 acres of confusion. It usually takes us over two hours to complete the maze and find our way out. There are countless wrong turns, dead ends, and many I told you so’s. We turn left then right then left again, thinking we are going in the right direction, but in reality we are getting more and more lost. In those moments we stop, make a u-turn, retrace our steps, and get back to the right path. This is a lot like repentance. It’s admitting we’re lost and that our attempts to find our way out are making it worse.
October 31st 2020, was the five hundred and third anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door at Wittenburg Castle. Luther begins with, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.” This lengthy and incredibly important document begins with the assertion Christians should be repenters.
Luther is saying that the Christian life is a life of repentance. Repentance, turning from sin, is the first step to faith as Jesus says in Mark chapter 1, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” but it is also the daily substance of the Christian. Traditional religion would say the holier you get the less you repent. The Gospel says the holier you get the more you repent. The posture of a Christian should be one of repentance.
There are however two kinds of repentance. There is what the Puritans called legal repentance and then there’s gospel repentance. Gospel repentance seeks to resist evil and wrong doing while legal repentance seeks to avoid the consequences of wrong deeds. Gospel repentance seeks genuine heart change while legal repentance seeks merely behavioral modification. Gospel repentance understands the radical grace offered in Jesus while legal repentance relies on our record of moral performance.
On the surface this call to continuous repentance seems awfully bleak. Does this mean we never get any better, we never have victory over sin? No, what Luther means is a life of repentance is a sign of godly growth and allows us to tap into the joy of our union with Christ. The more we see our own sin the more beautiful and precious God’s grace becomes to us.
Joy and mourning are at the heart of repentance. It’s both the depth of God’s amazing grace and the depth of our sinfulness. John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote another hymn that beautifully depicts the heart of repentance. The following are the lines to "The Look” which is based on Peter’s denial of Jesus:
In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.
I saw one hanging on a tree,
In agonies and blood,
He fixed His languid eyes on me,
As near His cross I stood.
Sure never to my latest breath,
Can I forget that look,
It seemed to charge me with His death,
Though not a word he spoke.
My conscience felt and owned the guilt,
And plunged me in despair;
I saw my sins His blood had spilt,
And helped to nail him there.
Alas, I knew not what I did;
But now my tears are vain;
Where shall my trembling soul be hid!
For I the Lord have slain.
A second look He gave which said,
“I freely all forgive;
This blood is for thy ransom paid;
I die, that thou mayest live.”
Thus while His death my sin displays
In all its blackest hue,
Such is the mystery of grace,
It seals my pardon, too.
With pleasing grief and mournful joy,
My spirit now is filled,
That I should such a life destroy,
Yet live by him I killed.
Grief and joy, confession and forgiveness, repentance and rest.
Ministry Director, Christian Union Vox (Dartmouth University)
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