Repentance and Christian Character
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
2 Peter 3:9
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
The Christian faith is different. A lot of faiths nowadays (whether secular or religious) are a bit too positivistic. They focus on self-fulfillment, and maybe the generic innocence of me, the individual. But the result is that they can’t fully address the problem of evil in our world. I think this is especially true of the evil within our own hearts. At the end of the day, in every relationship, we tend to see the bad and only sometimes the good. For example, what makes for a good marriage? Two perfect people? Certainly not! The tabloids blow up this picture. One day, this famous couple is beautiful and perfect, and then the next day the couple’s troubles are made public. But every couple has troubles. I am a complainer, Ami could tell you her faults. We’re not the perfect couple. Of course, we don’t sin against each other in the same exact way that other couples sins against each other. Some struggle with discontentment (about each other, about their lack of finances, about their lack of children, about the trials of the children), others struggle with sexual immorality, others struggle with anger, others struggle with fear… A good marriage is an honest marriage of a man and a woman who acknowledge their struggle with sin, and help each other grow in killing sin and offering and receiving grace. Repentance makes for a good marriage.
The Christian faith is different in that it takes into account my evil and not just the evil out there in the world. And in God’s great kindness, he is patient with us beyond what we deserve. Just think of how the tabloids skewer celebrities. We ought to be skewered. Our evil hearts (no matter how hard we try to hide it) must be dealt with, and our sin must face true justice. Yet, when we were facing God’s justice as enemies to good, he sent Jesus to save us. In his kindness and love, he offered a way for us poor sinners to have reconciliation. What defines any Christian is their repentance. It is the most important thing. And honestly, I’m much happier as a pastor when I see the mess of someone’s life but their heart is repentant than I am when someone acts as if life is all happy and perfect in their manicured life. In the mess, at least the signs of humility and repentance display the work of God’s Spirit. Perfectionism tends to reflect self-centered aggrandizing.
But we mustn’t just live in the place of crazy-mess-sinner-saved-by-grace. On the one hand, this will be the main descriptor of our whole lives. And as you grow in grace, you should come to see how wrong your sin is all the more. But on the flip side, we also should be growing into the likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul in Colossians, for instance, tells the church ‘to put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another as the Lord has forgiven you.’ Imagine his audience. I assume many hadn’t been Christians very long, certainly not longer than 20 years. Yet, he lays this vision out for what repentant, faith-filled Christians grow into. Not bitter hearts, but compassionate hearts. Not self-seeking pride, but humility. Not braggadocious and gossipy words but meekness. Not a quickness to judge others, not impatience with your brother or sister who is a sinner, but patient. Not keeping your distance with your sinful sister because she’s harmed you, but forgiving her. Why? Because Christ! He loved you enough to die for you when you were a hater, a gossip, a proud person, an enemy of God. But you’re not an enemy of God if you’ve put your faith in his gospel, you’re not an enemy because you have turned from your sin. And so we turn our face toward Christ, and we grow into his likeness. There are many of these character lists or virtue lists in the New Testament. Galatians teaches us the fruits of the spirit. Character matters, and it is evidence that God is at work in you.
It is a curious paradox when sin comes out in a Christian’s life. Sometimes it even harms other people. Again, there can be good in the midst of this because it displays what we have been hiding in our hearts and avoiding addressing. It is ugly, it is not easy to fight, it hurts, but our aim is to fight the good fight, much of which is to battle our own sin. And this is why we have the church around us to walk with us in our fight.
When we think about leadership specifically, this is one of the things we want to see in their lives: that they have attained a certain level of maturity. The requirement for an elder not to be a new believer is an expectation for them to have grown into a certain level of maturity. The deacons in Acts were appointed because they were full of the Holy Spirit, and this is an acknowledgement that they also have grown into a place of maturity. This doesn’t mean they’ve been a Christian the longest. There are some people in their 50’s who have been Christians their whole lives, and yet they are spiritually immature, and there are 20 year olds who display an astonishing measure of maturity (at least for their age). The end of the matter is that we must seek to be diligent in growing ourselves, but we should also be careful to challenge others in the church on to growth like the author of Hebrews says, ‘And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.’