Thursday, November 08, 2007

The fruits of repentance

by Dan Phillips @

The subject of repentance could be approached from many angles. Today, let's just focus on the Baptist's words: "Bear fruits in keeping with repentance" (Luke 3:8a).

That's how the ESV has it. The Greek ποιήσατε οὖν καρποὺς ἀξίους τῆς μετανοίας (poiēsate oun karpous axious tēs metanoias), more woodenly, would be "Make, therefore, fruits worthy of repentance." The phrase ἀξίους τῆς μετανοίας (axious tēs metanoias) is variously rendered:
  • "worthy of repentance" (KJV, NKJ)
  • "consistent with repentance" (CSB)
  • "in keeping with repentance" (NAS, NIV [surprising pairing], ESV, NJB, MLB)
  • "that proves your repentance" (NET)
  • "that answer to your repentance" (Moffatt)
  • "as evidence of your repentance" (NAB).
  • The NLT goes all paraphrasey (surprise!), with "Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God," and...
  • does J. B. Phillips (no relation): "See that your lives prove that your hearts are really changed!"
So, whatever repentance is in itself (—and I would argue that it is a transformative change of mind ["root and branch," Treebeard might say], as opposed to a mere shift in opinion), we know this: true repentance is productive. The claim to repentance in itself means little; fruit is what balances the scales and indicates reality. Fruitless repentance is a vapor.

But from the fact that John issues the imperative {"Bear fruits!"), I deduce that the fruits may not appear instantaneously nor automatically. John appeals to their wills. The prophet calls them — he commands them — to bear fruit answerable to the repentance they claim to have in their hearts. "If you have genuinely repented, as this baptism signifies," says John, "then prove it. Show visible evidence for this invisible quality."

Nor does the New Covenant obviate the parenetic imperative. In English, I mean that Acts 26:20 says that even in these days of grace we still have to tell people to produce fruit answerable to the repentance they claim to have.

Calvin, in his commentary, says that "the repentance, which is attested by words, is of no value, unless it be proved by the conduct." Similarly, Alexander Maclaren comments,
Repentance is more than sorrow for sin. Many a man has that, and yet rushes again into the old mire. To change the mind and will is not enough, unless the change is certified to be real by deeds corresponding.
As a younger Christian, I'd been taught that repentance was proper only for Jews. This is nonsense, of course; Paul preached as John did (Acts 17:30; 26:20).

At minimum, then, we have to say that repentance that is not visible is dubious at best. Repentance may or may not be a work; but genuine repentance produces works.

Let's imagine, then, a scenario.

A professedly Christian man (Bud) is infuriated with his longtime best Christian friend (John). John's crime? He is learning from the Bible, he shares what he learns, and he tries to practice it. For the sake of the illustration, we'll stipulate that John isn't doing anything obnoxious. He's just being a growing Christian who's trying to walk his talk.

But our professor isn't reading his Bible much, and he isn't growing. Accordingly, sins are starting to take root, the flesh is flexing its rotting muscles — and the mere fact of John's practicing the Biblical faith that Bud claims to have is sand in his speedos. It makes Bud feel bad and, he thinks, makes him look bad. It points up Bud's own sins and failings

So finally Bud tells John that, if he doesn't quit this pious garbage, he won't be his friend anymore.

John is stunned. He prays for Bud, he reasons with Bud; he bears with him, pleads with him, does everything he can to reach out to him in God's name. But Bud is increasingly proud, arrogant, resistant. He digs in his heels. He calls John a legalist and a Pharisee. Bud sneers that he's come to a much higher plan of Spirit-led Christianity, and doesn't need John's book-religion. He stops reading his Bible, he stops going to church; yet he insists that he is not only still a Christian, but a much better one than John.

John is completely sucker-punched.

Then one day, Bud shows up wearing a new T-shirt. It bears John's face on the front — with a
big red circle around his likeness, and a slash through the circle.

Bud wears the T-shirt everywhere. Unbelievers they've both talked to about Christ see this picture. Slanderous lies start spreading about John, which Bud does nothing to counter. John is deeply hurt. But John can think of nothing to do but bear the pain and the shame, and pray for his friend.

Fast-forward a few months. Bud shows up at John's door. Tersely and unexpectedly, he tells John that what he did was a sin, and he's sorry for the pain it caused John. He wants to be friends again. John is startled, happy, and cautiously hopeful. He starts thinking glad thoughts about their restored friendship.

Just one thing puzzles him.

Bud is still wearing the T-shirt.

But John is gracious and patient, and figures things can take time. Repentance is a process.

Bud starts wanting to get together, again and again. He acts as if nothing happened. But he's always wearing the T-shirt.

So, reluctantly, John brings it up. Bud retorts that John really made him mad with how John handled the whole Bible-reading thing. John's puzzled — did Bud think he'd sinned? Yes, Bud says stiffly. Does Bud regret what he'd done? Would he do it again?

Now Bud begins to dither and hesitate and double-talk. He won't say "No." He won't utterly disown and kill his sin. And the T-shirt stays — the T-shirt Bud created and donned only because of Bud's sin.

So, has Bud repented?

Here's the thing: sin is born of pride, and begets more pride (Psalm 10:4; Proverbs 16:18; 21:4). We sin because we're proud; our pride moves us to cling to our sin; our pride will try all it can to stay on the throne. It's a deadly cycle. Even if we are forced to admit that (technically) our sin is sin, pride will still find a way to make it a special sin, will want to qualify, extenuate, excuse, temporize, and rationalize. Pride will not nobly commit seppuku, like a shamed Samurai. It wants to live, whatever the cost to its host-organism.

If our sin is to die, our pride must die.

And that's where the fruits accompanying repentance come in. The repentant person begs forgiveness of the wronged party, makes no excuses for his kill-Christ sin, leaves it no "wiggle-room." He sets out to make his wrongs right. He does not dictate terms to the wronged party, but invites terms, asks what he can do. He humbles himself.

The fruits of repentance set out to burn bridges to sin, and to right wrongs. We have been overcome by our own evil; now we seek to overcome our own evil with good (cf. Romans 12:21). The purpose of these fruits is
both to signal that the pride/sin complex has died, and deal death to it. The fruits of repentance pour Roundup on the weeds of pride, so that the sin and all its survival mechanisms will die.

So that we can live.

"Be killing sin or it will be killing you" (John Owen)

Dan Phillips's signature

No comments: