Charles Colson tells the story in his book Loving God about Mickey Cohen who was a big time mobster in the 40’s and 50’s. One of his associates, Jim Vaus, had become a Christian through the young evangelist Billy Graham. Through Jim’s encouragement and arranging, he brought Mickey to a private hearing of the Gospel message via Billy and Bill Jones, a Christian friend of Jim and Billy’s, attempted to pour much time into Mickey to see him brought to faith. Mickey had a flair for the dramatic, made a profession of faith at some point, albeit a weak one, and when prodded to leave his life of organized crime replied “What’s the matter with being a Christian gangster? If I have to give up all that–if that’s Christianity–count me out.” (pg. 92)
As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “Ah, there’s the rub.” In other words, that’s the dilemma or the confrontation point that we all have to come face to face with. When asked to leave our life of sin, do we? After confessing Christ and turning to Him, my contention is that Jesus still taps us on the shoulder and asks us to leave things and we have to make the same choice Mickey faced, the rich young ruler faced in Luke 18 and all of us face.
A guy gave his testimony once and said “Since Jesus came into my life, it’s like I did a 360.” He may have slept during math class or he may have revealed what can be the case in Christendom. If he really repented, then he meant to say a 180, which would mean stopping and going in the opposite direction. That’s repentance. But all too often we do a circle (360) and go right back to what we were doing.
When pastors start calling people to repent, they usually are addressing a rather small percentage of people in the congregation that do not know Jesus and urge them to come to Him. The connotation is that once you’ve confessed Christ, prayed the sinner’s prayer, and began attending church on a regular basis, then you don’t need to come forward, raise your hand, or pray the following prayer that the pastor prays.
I have been judgmental when I read the Old Testament and see that a king who meant business with God would kick out the witches, tear down altars to Baal or Asherah poles, but almost always it is followed by the statement “but they did not tear down the high places.” I used to think they were thick or something to not take it all the way. But don’t I/we do the same thing? We genuinely come to Christ, make some changes in our lifestyle (stop partying, cussing, being impure, whatever–all good changes) but we stop short of even more sweeping (radical) moves that are in keeping with true repentance.
When the Pharisees came to get baptized by John the Baptist, he called them out saying in Matthew 3:8 “Make changes in keeping with your repentance.” He wouldn’t baptize them. In Matt. 7:15-23 we see the call “Why do you call me Lord, Lord but not do what I say?” and then “Depart from Me I never knew you.”
When I’ve struggled with an obedience issue, letting go of something, stopping something that I know God is badgering me about it’s been a tug of war. I have given things up to take them back, renounced things or made sweeping statements that sound like New Years Resolutions, only to fall back and not break free. Thank God that those battles have diminished over the years. True change has come when God, in His mercy, has rolled away a stone that I couldn’t. My point in saying that is that I have experienced that true repentance is a work of God in my life, an act of His grace and mercy, and I can’t boast in myself that I turned from much of anything. I still have to make godly choices and flee from sin, but the real work of change is accomplished by the Philippians 1:6 God who promises “He who began a good work in You will bring it to completion.”
I am struck with the contrast between the rich young ruler who went away sad and Zacchaeus, who gave away half of his riches to the poor and repaid those he ripped off 4 x’s over. That’s repentance. We could confuse the rich man’s tears as repentance, or when people leave a service crying or making sweeping resolutions, but the proof is in the pudding (Shakespeare didn’t say that).
Repentance isn’t just for nonChristians, it is for all of us. James 4:5 reminds us that the Spirit that lives in us envies intensely when we chase after the high places of this world and make friendships with things that are enemies of God and His holiness.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts,. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Psalm 139:24
The following link is a conversation between David Platt and Francis Chan about repentance, discipleship and obedience. It’s only about 3 minutes long–worth watching: