Forgiveness and Repentance: Which Leads to Which?

forgiveness and repentanceIf everybody truly believes the misleading saying, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” why is there so much hating of sinners going around? It seems to be popular among some these days to divide sinners into two categories, those who are eligible to worship God and fellowship with us, and those who aren’t.

Those who are eligible we gladly welcome into our worshiping fellowship. “Hi! How are you! Have a seat right here. Please, share my hymnbook. Would you like a cup of coffee? If you’re interested, here’s an offering envelope.”

What makes a sinner ineligible? Two descriptions that I have heard just in the last week are those sinners that are unrepentant, and those that flaunt their sin, which is really just two ways of saying the same thing. They are sinners but don’t recognize certain of their sins as sin, so they aren’t sorry for their sin. And by calling themselves Christians and entering into the worship of God and the fellowship of believers they are flaunting their sin in our faces. To be clear, these unrepentant sin-flaunters don’t claim to be sinless, it’s just that there are some things in the their lives that we call sin that they don’t.

But who can escape that definition? Who then is eligible for Christian worship and fellowship? I’m not, not by that definition. I am a recovering Fundamentalist, and the list of things that I was told was sin was long: going to the movies, drinking wine, listening to rock music, working on Sundays, going to a restaurant on Sundays (because you are making other people work on the Sabbath), and reading Catcher in the Rye.

Not only don’t I any longer recognize that those things are sin, I’ve done them all—as a pastor. In worship. I’ve shown clips from secular movies to illustrate a sermon, I’ve played rock music on guitar in our contemporary worship service, as a pastor I work every Sunday, and last week I went out to eat at a restaurant after church—where I saw a couple of other unrepentant church members flaunting their sins. (I’ve never had wine in church, and I read Catcher in the Rye at home. By choice, not as an English assignment. I figured any book Fundamentalists want to ban is a book worth reading. It wasn’t bad. Not on my list of must-reads, but not worth burning either.)

But it’s not the hypocrisy and judgmentalism that bothers me the most about these positions, it’s the misunderstanding of the Gospel that is most disturbing. Underlying the idea of unrepentant vs. repentant sinners and those who flaunt their sin vs. those who don’t is the assumption that the unrepentant sin-flaunters are unforgiven until they repent and stop flaunting their sin. The rest of us properly repentant non-flaunters are forgiven, so we are allowed to worship God and be part of the fellowship of believers.

Here’s how the math works: you recognize your sin as sin, you repent, you ask God to forgive you through Jesus, God forgives, and now you are saved, eligible not only for Christian fellowship but life in heaven after you die. There’s nothing wrong with this unless you insist that this is fixed, rigid formula in which everything must occur in this order; but Jesus introduced a new order, one which I would argue makes repentance and salvation more likely.

To understand this you must place Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News in the context of Israelite history that was at play in the 1st century when Jesus lived and the New Testament was written. In short, you must see it in the context of the Exile.

The longing for the Messiah to arrive was the longing for the Exile to be over—for Israel to be free of foreign occupation, for an Israelite king from the line of David to be ruler over a unified Israel, and for the Shekinah presence of the LORD to be back in the Temple, among other things. Israel had been conquered by Assyria and then Babylon and led into exile because God was angry with them for their idolatry, their addiction to violence, and their injustice toward the poor and powerless.

It’s important to understand that the Exile was different from previous times of apostasy found in the book of Judges. In Judges, when Israel repented, God forgave them and restored them, but it would only be a matter of time before they sinned again. This cycle of sin-judgment-repentance-forgiveness repeats itself throughout Israel’s history until God has had enough.

In Isaiah God declares that judgment is coming in the form of the Babylonian army, and this time he is going to see it through no matter what Israel does. This time, no amount of repenting will save them. Whereas every other time repentance always led to God relenting of his intended judgment and thus forgiving and restoring Israel, this time repentance would not lead to forgiveness and restoration.

Even so, God said that there would be a remnant that would survive, and he would use that to restore Israel.  “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” (Jeremiah 23:3 NRS)

That God doesn’t utterly destroy Israel but allows a remnant to survive has everything to do with God’s merciful nature and his faithfulness to his covenant with Israel and nothing to do with the actions or worthiness of the remnant. He does not act because the remnant has properly repented; he acts because he chooses to out of mercy, grace, and faithfulness.

I can’t emphasize this enough: the judgment of the Exile removes repentance as a prerequisite for forgiveness. Forgiveness and restoration would come not as a result of repentance but out of the nature of God and according to his timing.

This time, when forgiveness came, it would be unilateral. It would rest solely on God’s initiative. There would be nothing that anyone could do to hasten the day of God’s forgiveness, his return to Zion, and the restoration of Israel.

Israel was to understand that the Exile would not end until God’s anger had been soothed and he had forgiven them. Only then would Messiah come. Only then would the kingdom of God be established. After forgiveness.

Chew on that for a bit; I’ll have more to say tomorrow.

Image by The Quote Factory

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