Tim Keller writes: Martin Luther opened the Reformation by nailing “The Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. The very first of the theses was: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is the way we make progress in the Christian life. Pervasive, all-of-life-repentance is the best sign that we are growing deeply and rapidly into the character of Jesus.
The transformation of repentance. It is important to consider how the gospel affects and transforms the act of repentance. In ‘religion’ the purpose of repentance is to keep God happy so he will continue to bless you and answer your prayers. This means that ‘religious repentance’ is a) selfish, b) self-righteous, and c) bitter all the way to the bottom. But in the gospel the purpose of repentance is to repeatedly tap into the joy of our union with Christ in order to weaken our desire to do anything contrary to God’s heart.
‘Religious’ repentance is selfish. In religion we only are sorry for our sin because of its consequences to us. It will bring us punishment – and we want to avoid that. So we repent. But the gospel tells us that sin can’t ultimately bring us into condemnation (Rom 8:1.) Its heinousness is therefore what it does to God-it displeases and dishonors him. Thus in religion, repentance is self-centered; the gospel makes it God-centered. In religion we are mainly sorry for the consequence of sin, but in the gospel we are sorry for the sin itself.
‘Religious’ repentance is self-righteous. Religious repentance often becomes a form of self-flagellation in which we convince God (and ourselves) that we are so truly miserable and regretful that we deserve to be forgiven. In the gospel, however, we know that Jesus suffered and was miserable for our sin. We do not have to make ourselves suffer to merit forgiveness. We simply receive the forgiveness earned by Christ. (1 John 1:8) says that God forgives us, because he is ‘just’. That is a remarkable statement. It would be unjust of God to ever deny us forgiveness, because Jesus earned our acceptance! In religion we earn our forgiveness with our repentance, but in the gospel we just receive it.
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