Repentance and John Wesley

Hopper

Hopper

By Isaac Hopper –

Repentance isn’t a word that is often used outside of the church. It carries little to no meaning for those who aren’t familiar with the “insider” language of sermons and worship songs. Even within the church, it’s a word that is used carefully and seriously because it’s a word that carries with it some significant baggage. This word has definitely fallen out of use because it is linked so closely with sinfulness. And let’s face it, no one likes to be called a sinner, nor be reminded of their sins.

I have heard this word used to shame, ridicule, and even frighten people into adherence to certain moral behaviors.  Used in this way, repentance primarily means to admit that one is wrong. “Admit it, you’re a sinner!” It carries with it a connotation of heavy guilt and doesn’t present a picture of what to do with the guilt. We acknowledge our sin, but this picture of repentance doesn’t explain what to do next – it simply leaves us with the burden of awareness of our sin.

More often, I have heard it used interchangeably with “saying sorry,” as though to repent means simply to say we are sorry and to God ask forgiveness. Many churches approach repentance this way – as a way to receive God’s forgiveness. This definition, while better than the first, still doesn’t offer a complete picture of what repentance really means.

I have lived much of my life under the first two definitions of admitting that I am a sinner and saying sorry for it. I think this is where most people fall when they hear the dreaded word repent. In seminary, I heard a new definition. To repent, so I was told, means to make a 180-degree turn; to face the opposite way; to change direction from moving away from God to moving toward him. I like this definition better than the first two. Still, the biggest problem is that our common definitions identify repentance as admission, saying sorry, and turning around. These definitions all miss a critical component, and one that I think speaks to our context in the 21st century as much as it did to John Wesley’s context in the 18th century.

In his sermon “The Way to the Kingdom,” Wesley identifies the steps toward becoming a citizen in God’s kingdom. He begins where the biblical writers do, with repentance: “And first, repent, that is, know yourselves. This is the first repentance, previous to faith, even conviction, or self-knowledge.”

We, in the West, live in societies that value self-knowledge above all other things. This is evident in our emphasis upon self-expression, newer self-guided education systems, our advice to young people to find themselves, and our national past-time of protecting and promoting the self-identification of individuals against the common masses.

John Wesley wrote that repentance is true self-knowledge, in that it shows us, even before we have come to faith, just how corrupt and sinful we are. “Know that corruption of thy inmost nature, whereby thou are very far gone from original righteousness,” Wesley wrote. “Know that thou are corrupted in every power, in every faculty of the soul, that thou art totally corrupted in every one of these, all the foundations being out of course.”

For Wesley, this was the essence of self-knowledge – it recognizes the depth of the disease called original sin and understands how far the disease has spread into the life of the individual, expressing itself as both inward and outward sin.

Repentance brings the kind of self-awareness that goes farther than identifying moral failures. It shines a spotlight on the soul-corruption that manifests as moral failures, broken relationships, pride, shame, self-hatred, and, somewhat ironically, self-centeredness.

Repentance is an ugly word, because its very meaning is to recognize one’s own inability to do what is good and pleasing to God, or to turn aside his wrath, which we have duly earned. But there is good news on the other side of repentance. Even as we come to a true self-knowledge and see our own sin, God steps in to show us his mercy and love.

“‘The gospel (that is, good tidings, good news for the guilty, helpless sinners) in the largest sense of the word means the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men,” Wesley writes. “The substance of all is, ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;’ or, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, to the end that we might not perish, but have everlasting life;’ or, ‘He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.’”

Once we recognize the depth of our need – when we really know ourselves (repent) – only then can we turn to God in faith, through Jesus Christ, and be healed. Repentance doesn’t have to be the dirty, taboo church word that nobody wants to hear. In its fullest definition, it brings hope to the hopeless and freedom for those enslaved to guilt and shame. Only when we repent, seeing clearly the depth of our sin and helplessness, can we truly turn to God in faith, knowing that he has already reached into our darkness through Jesus and the cross.

But we should also understand this to mean that, while repentance may precede faith, it should not end with it. As Christians, steadily growing in God’s grace, we would do well to begin living into a pattern of repentant living.

Repentant living doesn’t mean living in fear of God, constantly admitting guilt, or saying sorry with every other breath. No! You have been freed from those through faith in Jesus!

Repentant living means truly knowing yourself; recognizing your wounded brokenness, your proclivities toward sin, and even the inward and outward sins you still commit, and continually offering those up to God our Savior, who is the only one who can rescue us from all these, and has already done so, if we only believe.

Isaac Hopper is a Ph.D. candidate in Wesley Studies at the University of Manchester, where his research focuses on John Wesley’s Christology. He is a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary. Connect with Isaac at www.isaachopper.com.

 

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