TURN thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned… (Service of Commination, 1662 Book of Common Prayer)
We are wrongdoers. The stark reality of this fact frames all our ethical theories, every human religion, and so many of our daily interactions. It is in the avoided eyes and turned shoulders of broken people, as well as the furious activity of an overachiever. It is the implicit tension which underlies all our dealings with each other: the reason why confidence is the mark of the socially successful. We are wrong-doers. We have been, and we will be so again. We will harm each other.
How will we respond to this knowledge of ourselves and each other?
The christian response to the recognition that we are wrong-doers is repentance. For christians, forgiveness and repentance are the twin figures which together mark out the path to reconciliation. Here’s a working definition: Repentance is the christian response to the knowledge of ourselves as wrong-doers in the light of the good news that forgiveness and reconciliation has come in the person of Jesus Christ.
Christian repentance is evangelical. Mark records the commencement of Jesus ministry in these words: After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee, preaching the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:14–15 HCSB). Repentance is called forth as a response to my wrongdoing in the light of the gospel (the ‘evangel’). It is a response to ‘good news’. We cannot fail to hear in Jesus’ words a call to ‘happy-sorrow’, the tear-stained smiles of people who are having confirmed what they always knew, their distance from God’s goodness, and yet simultaneously are hearing that this distance has been traversed by God himself.
Christian repentance is remarkably different from the ‘worldly grief that produces death’ (2 Corinthians 7:10 HCSB). Worldly grief is a knowledge of ourselves as wrongdoers which leads us to despair. We become so convinced of our worthlessness and inability to do right that we (mistakenly) seek self-annihilation as a last refuge. Or worse. We seek to suppress the knowledge of ourselves as wrongdoers by annihilating the person we have wronged, sometimes literally, sometimes by erasing every memory of them from our daily lives, pushing on, leaving the past behind. In contrast, ‘godly grief produces a repentance not to be regretted and leading to salvation.’ (2 Corinthians 7:10 HCSB).