Leading Question: How should we consider confession and repentance: As duties or responsibilities? As requirements or conditions for salvation? Or as gifts of God?
What happens to one of God’s children who really wants to confess, repent, and to believe wholeheartedly, but seems to fall short? Where does the fault lie? Several passages of Scripture can help us.
1. Repentance is a gift of God: Acts 5:31. I remember how surprised I was as a young Christian when I was reading the chapter, “Repentance” in Ellen White’s Steps to Christ. For it was in that chapter that I discovered Acts 5:31. She quoted it. Repentance is not something we do, it is a gift of God!
2. Grace before law – a powerful motivator: Rom. 5:6-11. The traditional understanding evangelical of the grace/law pairing is that law condemns and grace saves. But from another perspective we can see that grace comes before law, a reminder that we can’t save ourselves; only God can do that. And when we see it in that light, then even law can be seen as good news – as it is throughout the OT. Psalm 119 is an entire psalm that sings the praises of Torah, law! The principle of grace before law is illustrated in God’s dealings with Israel. God lead Israel out of Egypt with virtually no cooperation on her part. She was resisting all the way. But the deliverance at the Red Sea convinced Israel of God’s grace and then she would see Sinai as also a gracious gift from a gracious God (cf. Deut. 4:5-8).
The most magnificent text that puts grace before law is in the New Testament, in Romans 5. Three times, Paul puts the divine initiative first: while we were “still weak” (vs. 6), while we were “still sinners” (vs. 8) “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (vs. 10). While we were still shaking the fist in God’s face, Christ died for us. When an awareness of that grace touches my soul, my “favorite” sins somehow seem so much less inviting.
3. “I believe, help my unbelief”: Mark 9:24. The desperate father of the epileptic boy cried out the Jesus a prayer than any of us can pray. It is the starting point, a cry to help us in our unbelief.
4. If we confess, he forgives: 1 John 1:9. This is one of the most famous of New Testament salvation passages. If we confess our sins, Jesus will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteous.” What if we worry that our confession is not sincere? Then back to Mark 9: “help my unbelief.
5. No condemnation in Christ. It is very important to move beyond the chaos of Romans 7 to the assurance in the first verse of Romans 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Whatever our shortcomings, he has them covered.
An insightful quote from C. S. Lewis concludes his preface to Mere Christianity. It helps bridge the gap between Christianity in general and Christianity in particular, and encourages believers to be specific with their needs, their requests, their prayers:
I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be “Do I like that kind of service?’ but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?”
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house. – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Preface #15-16 (pp. 11-12, McMillan edition)