Saturday, January 7, 2012

Does Repentance Bring Forgiveness in and of Itself?

I watched “Cowboys and Aliens” the other night, and the recurring theme was summed up in the words of a dying preacher to the main protagonist of the story, who had been trying to remember who he was for the entire movie, and finally found out he was a low-life criminal. What the preacher said to him was this:

“God doesn’t care who you were, Boy. He only cares who you are.”

This is a recurring theme in movies and tv shows, i.e., the bad guy that turns into a good guy. I imagine, if there is a biblical reference here, this would refer to Ezekiel 18. However, this needs to be clarified, as we tend to think that one can become a good person after being a bad person apart from a means to be forgiven by a Just and Holy God.

In one sense, then, this statement isn’t really true. God isn’t bound by time, and so there is no “were/are” distinction with Him. Hence, who you were is who you are, since sin just doesn’t disappear over time all by itself. My point here is simply that repentance needs a means to be forgiven. It is not cleansing within itself. A payment must be made in order for repentance to be real. The payment must equal the required penalty, and not be less than what is required. In our case, the penalty is eternal death and curse. But how does one restore his relationship with God if, in fact, he must forever pay a penalty that separates Him from that salvific relationship?

We also cannot pay for what we've done by doing good, because, to take some good thoughts from Anselm, we owe our entire lives to God, not just some of it. What this means is that we already owed God, as our Maker, every good work possible to be performed. If we just do good works for the last half of our lives after doing bad ones for the first half, we've still only give God half of what we owe Him. Hence, we cannot pay for the bad with the good because the good already was due God. What this means is that our good cannot be the basis for why we are forgiven by God in repentance, but neither, as we see above, can forgiveness be arbitrary. Hence, the holiness and justice of God must be satisfied by something other than what we can do.

Hence, in another sense, this statement is absolutely true, as Christ has made restoration to God possible through repentance. Forgiveness has a basis. It isn’t arbitrary and it would not exist without the full penalty having been paid. Since the penalty has been paid in full, the individual can repent and enjoy a restored relationship with God immediately upon his repentance. Hence, Ezekiel 18 is possible because of the work of Christ, but apart from Him, it is not.

What this means is that there is no other religion in which men can repent and be saved. They may feel sorry for what they have done. They may try to do better. But in the end, they are who they were, because God sees only now, not past and present in distinction. It is our sin that has happened now, and it is Christ’s payment that has satisfied God now for it, and it is now that we are who we are in Him. We are His sons and daughters now, because we have always been His sons and daughters. In time and our experience, we became so, but in God's eyes we were chosen and loved as such before the foundation of the world. Hence, with Christ, through the good news of His work, repentance and forgiveness is possible, and God only cares who we are now, but without Him, forgiveness is impossible and these people remain now the same people they once were.

Of course, if biblical repentance is a turning away from a Christless life to a Christ-filled life, then no one can repent and become a different person apart from receiving Christ as Lord and Savior. 

We're going through Ephesians in our family morning devotion time right now, and it is amazing how many times the phrase "in Him," "in/through Christ," or "in the Beloved One." is repeated throughout Chapter 1:3-15. Take a look:

Blessed [be] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly [places] in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love, He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved One.    
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, [that is], the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation--having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of [God's own] possession, to the praise of His glory.

So it is true, when qualified, that God doesn't care who you were (in terms of who you were in your sin nature for a short time), He only cares who you are, because, in Christ, you have and always will be, His child. And we have been made His child in Christ, chosen in love from long before we ever existed, long before the world existed. It is through Christ, then, that repentance is effective, and we are restored to that relationship we were always meant to have, and to that person we were always meant to be. 

[To make clear: We become saved as His child when we put our trust in Christ in time and space, but we were always loved and chosen to be so from the foundation of the world. So, to God, we have always been His. To us (i.e., when salvation is applied and we receive the Spirit of God), we have only been His since the time we believed]

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