A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
“In fact, it needs to be a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person – and he would not need it (p. 57).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
That thought – it takes a good person to repent – almost makes me laugh. But I’m afraid it is too true to be funny. I have noticed that those I look up to most repent the best. Let me illustrate with a story.
Six years ago we were visiting friends from seminary (a couple my wife and I viewed somewhat as mentors). During the visit we walked our children to the park (so the adults could talk). Our play date was cut short by rain. My wife and I forgot our umbrella. To which my friend’s wife said, “I apologize. I packed an umbrella for my family and did not think of yours. Will you forgive me?”
I replied playfully, “Why should I forgive you because I failed to check the weather?”
Her response stunned me, “I want to love my neighbor as myself and I thought of my family without thinking of yours. That does not represent God’s character. I see that. I want to change and you were affected by it. Will you forgive me?”
Her repentance was clean. It was motivated by love for God more than personal guilt or embarrassment with people. I do not think I had ever repented like that in my life before that moment. Up until then repentance was only something I had done when I was caught or felt guilt. I cannot say that I had ever repented as an act or worship and exclusive longing to be more like God.
Her repentance also revealed how irrelevant I perceived God to be in that moment. I was thinking God was only relevant in that moment if I had stolen her umbrella or yelled at my wife because I forgot ours. I had reduced repentance to a “work” I performed to make up for what I did wrong.
I do not want to idolize my friend’s wife. But I do want to use this example to illustrate two reasons why we need Jesus to repent (admitting there are many more than two).
First, Jesus is the only one sinless, and therefore other-minded, enough to repent. As soon as we sin, we become focused on self-preservation. This mindset distorts repentance into an interpersonal tactic to get back on even footing with the other person. It is Jesus, the sinless One, who took on sin and was able to experience pain of sin without any defensiveness. Jesus is the only One to experience sin selflessly, so He is the only One who could respond to it appropriately. We are partaking of His righteousness even when we repent well.
Second, it is the cross that breaks the tendency to reduce repentance to a “work” I perform to regain God’s acceptance. I must understand that repentance is a gift that God gives me not a gift that I give God. My confession is merely the “thank you” response to God enabling repentance to be possible and effective at the cross. It earns nothing. God does not respond because of the eloquence, sincerity, or emotional intensity of my repentance. God responds favorably to my repentance because of Jesus.