Frederica Mathewes-Green

Whatever Happened to Repentance?

Jesus didn’t come just to save us from the penalty for our sins; He came to save us from our sins—now, today, if we will only respond to the challenge and let Him. A nation of grownup Christians, courageous, confident, humble, and holy, would be more compelling than any smiley-face ad campaign. The Lord does not love us for our good parts and pass over the rest. He died for the bad parts and will not rest until they are put right. We must stop thinking of God as infinitely indulgent.

Forget what the Billboard charts say—to judge from church ads in the Yellow Pages, America’s favorite song is “I’m Mr. Lonely.” Churches are quick to spot that need and promise eagerly that they will be friendly, or be family, or just care. Apparently this is the Church’s principal product. When people need tires, they look up a tire store; when they start having those bad-sad-mad feelings, they shop for a church.
Here, for once, denominational and political divisions vanish. Churches across the spectrum compete to display their capacity for caring, though each has its own way of making the pitch. The Tabernacle, a “spirit-filled, multi-cultured church,” pleads, “Come let us love you,” while the Bible Way Temple is more formal, if not downright odd: “A church where no stranger need feel strangely.” (The only response that comes to mind is “Thank thee.”) One church sign in South Carolina announced, “Where Jesus is Lord and everybody is special,” which made it sound like second prize. And one Methodist congregation tries to get it all in: “A Christ-centered church where you can make new friends and form lasting relationships with people who care about you.”
But when Jesus preached, He did not spend a lot of time on “caring.” The first time we see Him, in the first Gospel, the first instruction He gives is “Repent” (Mark 1:15). From then on, it’s His most consistent message. Yes, He spoke words of comfort like “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden” (Matt. 11:28). But much more frequently He challenged His hearers, urging them to turn to God in humility and admit their sins. Even when told of a tragedy that caused many deaths, He repeated this difficult theme: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
We love the caring sayings of Jesus. We repeat them often, paste them onto felt banners, and print them on refrigerator magnets. We mostly ignore those on repentance.
We live in a time when it’s hard to talk about Christian faith at all, much less awkward topics like repentance. (No era finds repentance easy, but many have found it easier to talk about.) Paradoxically, we live in a very easy time. We are the wealthiest, healthiest, most comfortable generation in history. With less to struggle for, we become increasingly oriented toward pleasure. This all-too-natural inclination is what most unites us. America is a place of wild diversity, but we all meet at the shopping mall.
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