As the Diagnostic Division Leader for VitalChurch Ministry, I write a lot of reports for churches. While we see similar issues in many churches throughout North America and the U.K. I seek to address each church individually and prophetically. One consistent observation is that every church has the need for ongoing repentance. At VitalChurch we would adamantly assert that every church (and every person) has a collection of sins and sinful patterns that require an ongoing lifestyle of repentance.
Repentance (with accompanying humility) is always the best way forward to begin a season of transition that moves toward revitalization and renewal. Martin Luther launched the Reformation by nailing the “95 Theses” to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The first of the theses stated that “our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” At first glance, this seems dreary and depressing. Luther seems to be saying Christians may never make much real progress in transformation. But, actually, Luther’s point was just the opposite. Luther was saying that repentance is the BEST way to make progress in transformation. Indeed, pervasive, all-of-life-repentance is the best indicator that we are growing humbly and deeply in the character of Jesus Christ. And when others encounter this, they often want it too. This is also how the Sermon on the Mount begins—by acknowledging our spiritual poverty and mourning over it is the beginning point of becoming citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Here’s how the late, great Eugene Peterson said it in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: “Repentance, the first word in Christian immigration, sets us on the way to traveling in the light. It is a rejection that is also an acceptance, a leaving that develops into an arriving, a no to the world that is a yes to God” (p. 33).
Consider how the gospel affects and transforms the act of repentance. In “religion,” the purpose of repentance is basically to keep God happy and placated so He will continue to bless us and answer our prayers. Religious people continue to ask, “What must we DO to please and placate God? What this question means is that for the religious, repentance is actually selfish and self-righteous because the ultimate goal is to benefit self. The gospel is actually more about what Jesus Christ has already DONE. A gospel view and practice of repentance is to repeatedly surrender afresh to the wonder, beauty, joy, and majesty of what Christ has accomplished on our behalf, which will weaken our impulse to do anything contrary to God’s heart. This happens best through (listening) prayer and through worship.
True repentance is not simply a one-time act that occurs at the time of our regeneration, rather an intentional ongoing daily submission to the God of mercy and grace for our sins of both omission and commission. True repentance then, is the unlikely route to joy.