I want to ask a question that may initially seem off topic for the theme of this evening’s service. Why do we repent? Why do we say we’re sorry and ask for forgiveness? We’re Christians, and so we know that we should repent, we should ask for forgiveness. We have been taught to keep short accounts. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. If you bring your gift to the altar and you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift, and go make it right immediately.
But why do we repent? Why do we ask for forgiveness? Why do we apologize? Why do we want to go make it right?
There are ultimately only two possible answers to that question. In this world, there are really only two motivators, only two engines that drive every human soul. There is the way of fear and the way of love. The engine of fear drives people to try to obey, to try to do what’s right because they are afraid of the consequences, afraid of what people might think, afraid of pain, afraid of shame, afraid of embarrassment, afraid of being rejected, afraid of losing friends or loved ones, afraid of being alone, afraid of sickness, afraid of disease, and ultimately this is because people are afraid of death (Heb. 2:15). But this kind of fear is ultimately selfish and self-serving, and so it must collapse back onto itself. This kind of fear operates in order to protect self, in order to protect yourself from those fears. But selfishness is always self-defeating. Jesus says that those who try to save their lives will lose them. Those who try to protect themselves will be destroyed. This is because selfishness is actually a thick blindness, and this means that for all the thrashing about, you’re still on a hook that’s drawing you to your death. You’re a lousy protector, a lousy god, and you’re still going to die. And thus, fear begets more fear.
Fear is a bad motivator because it lies about God and the world. If fear is fundamental, then your picture of God and the world is all skewed. The world is a horror story with random acts of violence and terrorism, and then on top of that, you better stay in line, you better do what’s right or else you’ll really get squashed. Don’t tick off the big cranky god in the sky; He might come and stomp on you. But this means that all obedience and all repentance must always have some element of resentment in it. Fine I’ll do it. I guess I will if I have to. I don’t really want to, but if I don’t, something bad will happen, something worse will happen, people might find out. But that’s not obedience. That’s checking boxes. Obedience out of fear, craven, bitter obedience is not obedience. It’s disobedience. Saying you’re sorry because you might get in bigger trouble is not Christian repentance. Crying because you feel really bad is not Christian repentance. Paul says there is a worldly sorrow that actually produces death. There’s a way to confess your sins that is actually suicidal. There’s a way to confess your sins out of fear that’s poisonous. But God hates that kind of confession. God hates that kind of apology. And that’s because it’s full of lies.
The central lie concerns the nature of God and the world. Fear skews that picture, but the truth is that this world is infested with the goodness of God. This world is swarming with the gifts and blessings of God. God daily loads us with benefits. God continuously sets a table for us, hounds us with His goodness. He gives us life, and then when he could have just dropped our brains in vats of chemicals to think and calculate for eternity, He gave us hands and feet and mouths and eyes and ears. He gave us rain and sunshine, He gave us grass and rivers, He gave us ice cream and peanut butter and steaks on a grill. He gives us chocolate and wine and sex and symphonies and glory upon glory upon glory. And in our sin we are like rotten little kids giving God the finger, ripping open the presents and throwing them down in tantrums, insisting that that isn’t what we wanted. Or we complain that it’s the wrong color, the wrong shape, the wrong size, or we take the gifts of God and we abuse them, we break them, tear them apart and rip them up. God gives us life, and we rip off the cover and thoughtlessly spill our milk all over it. And still God keeps giving. He gives us sleep, He cares for us, He sends friends for us and family for us and clothes and houses and cars. And still we complain, still we are not satisfied, still it’s not good enough and we try to fix God’s gifts. And still God conspires to bless us with His goodness. Still He keeps on giving. He comes to His people again and again and again, and they rebel and they reject Him and they treat His grace as cheap, as a knock off. But still He comes. And ultimately He comes in His own Son. He comes with life for the world. And He comes to save us, even though we go kicking and screaming all the way.
Fear cannot save us, fear ultimately fails to motivate, ultimately cannot get us free of our failures, of our weaknesses. And therefore we must not act and live and teach our children that we live by fear. It is not fear that drives us to repentance. It is not fear that motivates us to obey, to confess, to go make it right. It is the goodness of God that leads you to repentance. It’s the love of God that compels you to go make it right.
How does this work? The goodness of God displayed in this world and centrally in the cross of Jesus is the unbreakable, unshakeable, unquenchable love of God for you. It is God’s insistence that He will not let you go. He will not let you go into the dark. He will not let you go down into the grave. He will not let you throw His gifts away. The life that God gives, His own life-giving presence is a feast, it’s a party, it’s joy unquenchable, it is gladness that is unbearable, it is glory unsearchable. God’s goodness is irresistible. It’s what every human soul longs for. It’s what we hunger and thirst for. To be in fellowship with God and with one another and with this world is a peace and a joy that liberates, that sets free, that remakes and refashions the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.
And this is the only logic that makes sense for repentance and confession. If the world is a hell hole and God is a demon tyrant, then confession makes no sense, apologizing makes no sense, putting things right is silly and stupid. And if you do it, you just do it to avoid getting in trouble, to avoid the mess. You do it because you’re lazy and you’re a coward, afraid to really face down the evil in this world. But if the world is God’s festival, if the world is God’s continuous Christmas, His continuous feast, then to sin, to rebel, to be out of fellowship with Him or one another is to be outside of the feast, outside of the party, outside of the grace. The only real repentance is the repentance of the prodigal Son, coming to your senses scrounging for food in the pig pen, and remembering the goodness of your Father.
Repentance is going home to your Father. Repentance means going home, willing to serve as a slave and meeting your Father who welcomes you with outstretched arms. Repentance is going home to the feast, going home to the party, going home to the goodness of God.
We call this day Good Friday, and yet on this day 2000 years ago the worst thing in all of history happened. This Good God, this Good Son, this Good Man, the only Good Man, the only Good Son was betrayed, condemned, mocked, spat upon, beaten, abused, and crucified for us and for our salvation. On this day, our God said enough is enough. On this day, the goodness of God drove Him all the way to the grave. And while we were still enemies, while we spat in His face, while we mocked Him and jeered at Him, God laid upon Him the chastisement for our peace. God laid on Him the iniquity of us all. And then Christ our God, having received all our guilt, all our rebellion, all our fear, all our failure, all our frustrations, all our insecurities, all our brokenness and rebellion, having received all of it, having taken all of it, cried out with His dying breath: “It is Finished!”
It’s the goodness of God that drives us to repentance. It’s the goodness of God that drives us back to the Father who awaits us with open arms. It’s the insistent, stubborn, relentless goodness of God that teaches us to defy our fears, to defy our circumstances, to defy the lies and lusts that seduce us and imprison us. It’s the goodness of God that wakes us up with stomach full of the pods fed to pigs; it’s the goodness of God that wakes us up and reminds us of the goodness in our Father’s house.
Isaac Watts describes this well:
God has laid up in heaven for me
A crown which cannot fade;
The righteous Judge at that great day
Shall place it on my head.
God is my everlasting aid
And hell shall rage in vain;
To him be highest glory paid,
And endless praise.–Amen.