Martin Luther opened the Reformation by nailing “The Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. The very first of the theses was: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” On the surface this looks a little bleak! Luther seems to be saying Christians will never be making much progress in the Christian life. Indeed, pervasive, all-of-life-repentance is the best sign that we are growing deeply into the character of Jesus.
The Transformation of Repentance:
It is important to consider how the gospel affects and transforms the act of repentance. In ‘religion’ the purpose of repentance is basically to keep God happy so he will continue to bless you and answer your prayers. This means that ‘religious repentance’ is a) selfish, b) self-righteous, c) and bitter all the way to the bottom. But in the gospel the purpose of repentance is to repeatedly tap into the joy of union with Christ in order to weaken our need to do anything contrary to God’s heart.
“Religious” repentance is selfish:
In religion we only are sorry for sin because of its consequences to us. It will bring us punishment – and we want to avoid that. So we repent. But the gospel tells us that sin can’t ultimately bring us into condemnation (Rom. 8:1) its heinousness is therefore what it does to God-it displeases and dishonors him. Thus in religion, repentance is self-centered; the gospel makes it God-centered. In religion we are mainly sorry for the consequences of sin, but in the gospel we are sorry for the sin itself.
Furthermore, ‘religious’ repentance is self-righteous. Repentance can easily become a form of ‘atoning’ for the sin. Religious repentance often becomes a form of self-flagellation in which we convince God (and ourselves) that we are truly miserable and regretful that we deserve to be forgiven. In the gospel, however, we know that Jesus suffered and was miserable for our sin. We do not have to make ourselves suffer in order to merit forgiveness. We simply receive the forgiveness earned by Christ. 1 John 1:8 says that God forgives us because he is ‘just.’ That is a remarkable statement. It would be unjust of God to ever deny us forgiveness, because Jesus earned our acceptance! In religion we earn forgiveness with our repentance, but in the gospel we just receive it.
Last, religious repentance is “bitter all the way down.” In religion our only hope is to live a good enough life for God to bless us. Therefore every instance of sin and repentance is traumatic, unnatural, and horribly threatening. Only under great duress does a religious person admit they have sinned-because their only hope is their moral goodness. But in the gospel the knowledge of our acceptance in Christ makes it easier to admit we are flawed (because we know we won’t be cast off if we confess the true depths of our sinfulness).
Our hope is in Christ’s righteousness, not our own-so it is not so traumatic to admit our weaknesses and lapses. In religion we repent less and less often. But the more accepted and loved in the gospel we feel the more and more often we will be repenting. And though of course there is always some bitterness in any repentance, in the gospel there is ultimately sweetness. This creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth. The more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you. But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defenses and admit the true dimensions of your sin. The sin under all other sins is a lack of joy in Christ.
The Disciplines of Gospel-Repentance:
If you clearly understood these two different ways to go about repentance, then (and only then!) you can profit greatly from a regular and exacting discipline of self-examination and repentance. I’ve found that the practices of the 18th century Methodist leaders George Whitefield and John Wesley have been helpful to me here. In January 9, 1738, in a letter to a friend, George Whitefield laid out an order for regular repentance. (He ordinarily did his inventory at night) He wrote: “God give me a deep humility and a burning love, a well-guided zeal and a single eye, and then let men and devils do their worst!” Here is one way to use this order in gospel-grounded repentance.
Deep Humility vs. Pride:
Have I looked down on anyone? Have I been too stung by criticism? Have I felt snubbed and ignored?
Repent like this: Consider the free grace of Jesus until I sense a) decreasing disdain (since I am a sinner too), b) decreasing pain over criticism (since I should not value human approval over God’s love). In light of his grace I can let go of the need to keep up a good image-it is too great a burden and now unnecessary. Consider free grace until I experience grateful, restful joy.
Burning love vs. Indifference:
Have I spoken or thought unkindly of anyone? Am I justifying myself by caricaturing (in my mind) someone else? Have I been impatient and irritable? Have I been self-absorbed and indifferent and inattentive to people?
Repent like this: Consider the free grace of Jesus until there is a) no coldness or unkindness (think of the sacrificial love of Christ for you), b) no impatience (think of his patience with you), and c) no indifference. Consider free grace until I show warmth and affection. God was infinitely patient and attentive to me, out of grace.
Wise Courage vs. Anxiety:
Have I avoided people or tasks that I know I should face? Have I been anxious and worried? Have I failed to be circumspect or have I been rash and impulsive?
Repent like this: Consider the free grace of Jesus until there is a) no cowardly avoidance of hard things (since Jesus faced evil for me), b) no anxious or rash behavior (since Jesus’ death proves God cares and will watch over me). It takes pride to be anxious – I am not wise enough to know how my life should go. Consider free grace until I experience calm thoughtfulness and strategic boldness.
Godly motivations (a ‘single eye’):
Am I doing what I am doing for God’s glory and the good of others or am I being driven by fears, need for approval, love of comfort and ease, need for control, hunger for acclaim and power, or the ‘fear of man?’ Am I looking at anyone with envy? Am I giving in to any of even the first motions of lust or gluttony? Am I spending my time on urgent things rather than important things because of these inordinate desires?
Repent like this: How does Jesus provide for me in what I am looking for in these other things? Pray: “O Lord Jesus, make me happy enough in you to avoid sin and wise enough in you to avoid danger, that I may always do what is right in your sight, in your name I pray, Amen.”
*Dr. Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, and the author of The Reason for God: Belief in an age of Skepticism (In my opinion the best book to date on apologetics for a postmodern culture—I think this book will do for post moderns what Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis did for moderns).
*R.C. Sproul’s Christian Testimony: A Personal Pilgrimage
The quest for the meaning of life was a troublesome problem for me from an early age. The “why” questions were the ones that gripped my mind—not so much physical questions but metaphysical questions. Many children are fascinated by “how” things work. They may even pester their parents with questions like, What makes a car run? How does a clock work? How does a seed turn into a flower? I had childhood friends like that, forever tinkering with cars and lawnmowers and skeletons. Some became engineers, some doctors, one a geologist and one a physicist. But I was bored with those questions. I knew they were very important questions, but they simply were not the ones on my mind.
As a youth I had two consuming passions. One was sports and the other the “why” questions. I saw no relationship between them at the time but in present reflection I think I can see how they fit together in my own circumstances.
I was a wartime child. The earliest question that plagued me was the question of war. I wanted to know why there were wars. They seemed pretty silly to me at the age of four. I couldn’t sit at a table and resolve their differences without using tanks and bombs and ships. Of course I had a personal vested interest in the question. What the war meant to me personally was the absence of my father. From the age of two to age six my father was a picture of a man in uniform. He was the one who wrote air letters to us. He was the one my mother talked about and typed letters to every night. She let me punch the X and O keys at the end of every letter. For some strange reason none of my childhood friends’ fathers were away at war. I kept wondering, “Why does everyone else have a dad at home and I don’t?
The plaguing question of war evaporated for me with a happy ending. Playing stickball on the streets of Chicago I was startled by a sound of people screaming and beating on pots and pans. I watched them hug each other and behave in a strange manner. I was upset that their antics interrupted the stickball game until I understood what it was all about—V.J. Day, 1945.
The full implications of their jubilation did not hit me until I stood in a railroad terminal that looked as if it was filled with a million men in uniform and a lot of weeping women. Then the troop trains came in. In the midst of a multitude of soldiers who all looked the same, one of them caught my eye. Fifty feet away he dropped his duffle bag, dropped to his knees and threw open his arms with a flashing grin on his face. I broke from my mother’s hand and covered fifty feet in Guinness record time. Dodging servicemen and running around duffle bags I flew into the arms of my father. The war didn’t matter anymore.
Then came school. From day one I didn’t like school. It is still something of a mystery to me how I ever ended up in an academic vocation. I remember walking to school on Mondays dreaming about Fridays. The thought that plagued me was why do I have to go to school five days a week and get to play only two? It didn’t make sense to me. My father’s schedule looked even worse. It seemed like he was always working. I wondered what life was all about when you had to spend so much time doing what you don’t like so you could spend so little time doing what you do like.
I was a good student but my heart wasn’t in it. Sports were my passion. Sports made sense to me. I took a sensuous and intellectual pleasure in them. I liked the feel of my body responding to action moves: dodging a would-be tackler, driving through the key for an “unmakeable” lay-up; skirting across the bag at second and firing to first for a double play. I was consumed by sports. I read every book in the town library on sports. I was a walking encyclopedia of sports “trivia.” My hero was the fictional Chip Hilton. He excelled at everything; he was a pristine model of fair play; he was a champion.
Practice for sports was never work. I was never so tired that I wanted practice to end. I loved every second of it. There was a reason for practice. The game. Victory. The game had a starting point, a goal, and an end point. Victory was a real possibility; defeat never entered my mind. When we were behind my thoughts were never “What if we lose?” but rather, “How can we win?” Like Vince Lombardi, I never lost a game but just ran our of time on a few occasions. My coaches were my real life idols because they always pointed ways to victory. We would be willing to die for them on the field as a matter of obvious course.
But something happened that changed all that and changed me so radically that I’m not over it yet. I was 16 years old when my mother came to me and said, “Son, your father has an incurable disease. There is nothing the doctors can do for him. You can still play some sports but you’ll have to cut back and get a part time job. Dad is dying and you have to be the man of the house.” I took the message outwardly with stoic heroism. Inwardly I was enraged. I could not believe there was something as an unsolvable problem. We won the war, didn’t we? We always found a way to win ball games. Why can’t we beat this? There must be a cure. The doctors are wrong. But there was no cure. The doctors were right. Dad didn’t die right away. He died a day at a time. Every night I fireman-dragged his emaciated body to the dinner table.
I still played sports for a while but it was different. They were foolishness. The coach said, “Sproul, I want you to take this football and carry it with you everywhere you go. I want you to take it to dinner ad sleep with it. You have to eat, drink, and sleep football.”
Two weeks earlier if had said that to me I would have loved him for it. Now I wanted to scream at him, “You idiot!” Don’t you know this stuff doesn’t matter at all!” Practice was misery. The games became a nightmare. Sports, like life, were an exercise in futility. Chip Hilton was a myth and life a bitter joke. When the referee blew his whistle and called a foul I pushed his whistle in his mouth. When the umpire called me out I took a swing at him. Bitter, frustrated, confused, I knew only defeat. Now there was no way to win. I quit.
The last time my father fell I picked him up and carried him to bed, unconscious. Twenty hours later he was dead. No tears from me—no emotion. I “quarter-backed” the funeral arrangements. When we put him in the ground my soul went under with him. The next year was a year of unrestrained degeneracy. (Anger can do a lot of things to a young man.) I became the paradigm of the angry young man. In junior high I graduated second in my class, legitimately; from senior high I was one hundred fifty-seventh by every crooked means available.
Sandlot football won me a scholarship to college. Then came radicalizing number two. One week on campus and my life was turned upside down again. The star of the football team called me aside and told me about Jesus. I couldn’t believe this guy. In my eyes ministers were “pansies,” and “Christian” was a synonym for “sissy.” I don’t remember what he said to me; but it drove me to the New Testament. Truth breathed from every page. It was my virgin experience with the Bible. It was a spiritual experience of revolution. I always knew there was a God but I hated Him. In this week my anger and bitterness dissolved into repentance. The result was forgiveness and life.
It would perhaps be appropriate to relate a story of coming to Christ via the route of intellectual inquiry. But that’s not how it happened with me. The intellectual drive came later. For one year I had a consummate passion to learn the Scriptures. I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t believe them. Most of my professors were skeptics. The campus atmosphere was mostly secular. I was quickly faced with every conceivable objection to Christianity. I was most vulnerable, in light of my past history, to the charge that my faith grew out of my emotional trauma and psychological need for Jesus to be my “Father” and to give me hope in my despair and bitterness.
I wasn’t a Christian long until I had to face the question squarely: Was my conversion rooted in objective reality or was it merely an expression of my own subjective needs? I began to experience what Saint Augustine called, “Faith seeking understanding.” Thus I turned my attention to the study of philosophy as my major academic pursuit.
The study of the history of philosophy exposed me to virtually every serious alternative to Christianity the world has brought forth. I began to see the bankruptcy of secular world views. I found valuable insights in Spinoza, Kant, Sartre, and others. But no one seemed to have a consistent and coherent life and world view. The philosophers themselves were their own best critics. Hume critiqued Locke; Kant critiqued Hume; Hegel critiqued Kant, and so on it went. There emerged no “sure results” of speculative thought. The study of philosophy did provide very important tools for critical analysis which proved very helpful for my own pilgrimage. The more I studied philosophy the more intellectually credible and satisfying Christianity became.
After college came seminary. Naively I expected seminary to be a citadel of scholarly interpretation and defense of Christianity. Instead I found it to be a fortress of skepticism and unbelief. A negative posture toward classical Christianity prevailed which exposed me to a wide variety of contemporary critical theories that rejected orthodox Christianity. Thus seminary exposed me to a wide variety of scholarly criticisms of the Bible. This forced me to face the question of the trustworthiness of Scripture. Fortunately I was blessed with two crucial support systems. On the one hand I was well enough equipped with the tools of analytical philosophy to spot the philosophical assumptions that the negative critics were using. Through philosophical tools I was able, to some degree, to critique the critics. I was intellectually unimpressed by the weak philosophical assumptions of the “liberal” professors. On the other hand I was fortunate to study under one professor who did affirm classical Christianity. He was our toughest professor and most academically demanding. His “bear-trap” mind and singular ability for “close” and “tight” reasoning impressed me. He seemed to tower over the rest of the professors both in knowledge and analytical brilliance.
From seminary I went on to a doctoral program in Europe. It was a difficult and exhilarating experience. Almost al of my work had to be done in foreign languages which required a new kind of intellectual discipline for me. Studying under G. C. Berkouwer of the Free University of Amsterdam exposed me to all the latest theories of theology and biblical studies. The European system exposed me to the method of approaching theology and biblical studies as a technical science. Studying the primary sources in original languages such as Dutch, German and Latin gave new tools for scholarship.
From Europe I returned to America and began my teaching career. Teaching in both college and seminary I had an unusual pattern of teaching assignments. At one college I taught almost exclusively in the field of philosophy. In another college I was responsible to teach theology and biblical studies. My first seminary appointment had me teaching philosophical theology which combined both philosophy and theology. Oddly enough I was also asked to teach New Testament theology. In an age of specialization I was forced into being a “generalist,” working in several different but related fields.
The science of apologetics which offers intellectual defense of the credibility of Christianity finally became my point of “specialty.” That is usually what happens to generalists.
My training was not in a conservative “hothouse.” I have been through the gamut of liberal scholarship. I am a first-generation conservative—by conviction, not heritage or training.
The teaching arena has been the crucible of my thinking. The more I study and the more I teach and engage in dialogue with unbelievers and critics the more confident I have become in the rock-solid intellectual integrity and truth of Christianity. In fact, I am overwhelmed by the profundity, coherency, and intricate internal consistency of Christianity. I am awed by the majesty and brilliance, not to mention the power, of the Scriptures. Take away the Scriptures and you take away Christ. Take away the Christ and you take away life. My conviction is one with that of Luther: Spiritus Sanctus non scepticus: “The Holy Spirit is not a skeptic and the assertions He has given us are surer and more certain than sense and life itself.”
*This article was published in the Introduction to the book Reason To Believe (originally published in 1978 asObjections Answered) by R. C. Sproul, pp. 11-18.
Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: THE HOLINESS OF GOD; CHOSEN BY GOD; KNOWING SCRIPTURE; REASON TO BELIEVE; and PLEASING GOD) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as senior minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL. (The picture to the left was taken approximately around the time of Sproul’s conversion as a College student).