“I used to think that repentance was a place that you visit. I’ve had to come to understand that repentance … is where we’re supposed to live.” – James MacDonald*
I love this quote … and I am still trying to wrap my head around it. You see, I used to visit that place called Repentance a lot. Every time I would give in – yet again – to one of my besetting sins, I would confess it, claim God’s grace, and happily head back into “normal life,” figuring I’d done my duty and could now walk clean before God.
The problem was that this view of repentance kept me trapped – enslaved by the sins that I would never fully cast off – never fully drop at the foot of the cross. No, instead I would sigh, pick up my burden of sin again, and keep slogging, hoping maybe I would have the strength to resist next time. But I didn’t. This became an endless cycle of stumbling, falling, dragging myself up from the pit I had fallen in, and trying (in my own strength) to keep on – somehow hoping I could, with enough effort, become a better Christian.
Do you see the flaw in that? I hope so. I hope you are not trapped in the same cycle I was all my life – until I finally, truly repented and surrendered my heart to Jesus Christ.
What is repentance? It’s changing your mind; it’s turning away from one thing and going toward another; it’s going in the opposite direction. What it is not is a revolving door! That’s how I treated repentance before I submitted my life to God. It was a way of making myself feel good and of taking advantage of “cheap grace.” Not biblical grace, which was very, very costly to our God. No, it was a counterfeit version that wasn’t grace at all.
And therein is the deep flaw in my thinking that brought me eventually to the place of desperation where I knelt at the foot of the cross, dropped my burden, and rose a free man. I had misunderstood three important things. Strength, grace, and repentance.
First, I believed I had to somehow conjure up my own strength before I’d really be a man … and before God would accept me. What I came to understand at my most desperate was that true strength lies in humility and surrender. As the Apostle Paul said, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10 – ESV) In the years since my conversion, this has begun to make more and more sense. Not that I don’t still try to find my own strength all too often, but my Heavenly Father continues to gently, persistently bring me back to my own weakness – so I can clearly see his strength in me.
Second, grace – to me – had been more of a cookie jar that never ran out … that I could reach into whenever I sinned or failed. While in one sense God’s grace is overflowing and never runs out … I went to him like a spoiled child – not wishing to be changed or set free – but wanting forgiveness for the moment. In this, as I look back, I not only dishonored the Author of Grace, but I also cheated myself of the true freedom that he longed to give me. Not earned, but a gracious gift received by faith, trust, surrender to his Lordship. Until I was willing to throw down my puny crown at his feet and swear my allegiance to the King of Kings, I only dabbled along the edges of his endless waves of grace. Like a dirty child who only washes his hands so he can eat dinner, never wanting the full cleansing bath being offered him.
Third, I misunderstood repentance. Of course I didn’t want to turn from my sinful pleasures! They were too … well, pleasurable. And as long as I deceived myself into believing that my kindly old Grandfather God would always receive me and say, “There, there, it’s all right!” … I thought nothing of coming to him again and again to hear those false platitudes and feel I was okay.
But I wasn’t okay, and as I sank deeper in the spiral of sin, I finally found myself powerless (in my own strength), filthy (in my cheap grace), and trapped (in my false repentance). I was dead, and I knew it, and there was nothing I could do to rescue myself.
Then – all glory to God – he broke me in his gentle strength and limitless grace and brought me to true repentance. I was redeemed as his treasure, adopted as his beloved child, raised to life in my Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 6:4).
Am I now sinless? Of course not, but I have learned, with James MacDonald, that repentance is “where we are supposed to live.” It is a daily, moment-by-moment turning, choosing – by the power of his Holy Spirit – to surrender my heart, my mind, my life to his Lordship. And it is a place of great joy!
*Walk in the Word radio broadcast, 3/5/2018