Gavin Matthews: Time for Christians to redeem the once unmentionable word ‘repentance’

David Hadfield with his latest book 'Route 63' Around England on a bus pass at the launch in Blackpool
David Hadfield with his latest book 'Route 63' Around England on a bus pass at the launch in Blackpool
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Rugby League player Dave Hadfield recounts that he was once transferred between clubs during the half-time interval, wearing shirts of both Oulton Rangers and Hemel Stags in one match. How his erstwhile team-mates treated him on the pitch after his radical switch of loyalties he does not record! Changes of loyalty, purpose and identity always provoke a reaction, not just in sport.

Essential to the Christian view of the spiritual life is just such a transition. The problem is that the word once routinely used to describe it has fallen into disrepute.

The dodgy word, is of course, “repent”! Formerly considered to be the standard stuff of the spiritual life, it has become the domain of swivel-eyed loons yelling at people in shopping centres.

The comic-actor Tamsin Greig performed a hilarious impromptu routine on the Graham Norton Show in which she talked about her atheist neighbour who dog-sits for her. The story goes that she gives her new dog a mad-name which her neighbour will be required to yell in the park in order to call it back to heel. The name of the new dog? Of course, it was “Repent!”

Is it possible to rehabilitate this most awkward word, and deploy it for good? Or is it irredeemably lost to us as a useful and helpful description of the transformation experienced on becoming a Christian, let alone a credible way of commending this change to others?

One of the issues is that the word is routinely misunderstood. Many people remember the monks in Monty Python and The Holy Grail beating themselves with wooden planks. Indeed, during the Great Plagues in England, there were flagellists who did just that.

Believing that the Black Death was an outpouring of the wrath of God, they sought to punish themselves in order to deflect this wrath from the populace. But this is a misunderstanding of what Jesus meant when he called people to “repent”.

What do Christians mean when they talk about “repentance”? When Dave Hadfield swapped rugby teams he first changed shirts – he publicly identified with the new team. More important, though, was the understanding that he would completely change his direction of play.

There is nothing self-flagellating about this transfer. After all, the Bible is insistent that entry to the Christian faith is entirely founded upon the grace of God and doesn’t require either self-denigrating acts of flagellation any more than self-enhancing acts of charity.

In fact, the picture is that the passion of Christ has completed any necessary flagellation for the whole of humanity.

Nevertheless, this free transfer has immediate and life-changing implications. That is, nothing less than a complete change in our goals, aims and direction of play. This essentially involves heartfelt changes in patterns of behaviour.

In the West today these typically involve a change to the way we relate to the big beasts of the human psyche, (money, sex and power): how we regard possessions, ourselves and others.

Christians make no claim to being “good people”; rather, they are people who need forgiveness. In our sporting metaphor, we still make errors on the pitch, score dreadful own-goals, and give away penalties.

However, pursuing those things is no longer part of our identity, our purpose, or intention; rather we are deeply committed to a new direction of play.

Properly understood, repentance is both required and life-giving. It is required because Jesus demands it. In fact, the very first words the New Testament records Jesus as preaching are “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near”.

Attempts to remove the notion of repentance from Christianity have been common throughout history. Some have thought that repentance is an affront to the idea that God saves us by his grace, not our efforts.

This is fraught with problems, not least that this free grace changes us radically.

Some have tried to merely add a religious veneer to their lives; but something deeper is required.

Faith in Jesus Christ is one side of the coin. The other is repentance, which means embracing this new identity, owning a new loyalty and heading back out onto the pitch, in new colours, ready to begin to play for a different team.

Repentance is the moment at which the love, grace, joy and transforming power of God flows into a person; and the business of making them more Christlike begins.

Repentance is not some self-flagellating ritual nor an optional-extra; it is the departure lounge for eternal life.

Don’t expect your former team-mates to welcome your change of loyalty, though. It can be rough out on the pitch.

Gavin Matthews, Solas Centre for Public Christianity, www.solas-cpc.org