A couple is taking a leisurely drive to Punxsutawney (which for readers not from Pennsylvania, is the charming little town of Groundhog Day fame). Shortly after turning onto a county road, they pass a sign that says “Punxsutawney 10 miles” and it points opposite to the way they are heading. The wife says sweetly: “Dear, did you see that sign?” “Yes, I did see it” replies the husband reassuringly. A few miles later the wife asks quizzically: “So, do you believe the sign?” “Yes, I do believe it” comes the reply. “Well then, TURN AROUND!”
So, here’s the question: What Biblical concept do you think this little parable is intended to illustrate?
If you said ‘repentance’ you can give yourself a gold star! But if you’re shaking your head with puzzlement over the connection, then you’re also in very good company! You see, a great many people these days have a fundamental misunderstanding about the Bible’s many emphatic commands to repent.
Now when they heard [Peter’s preaching] they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
If you have an understanding of repentance as ‘beating yourself up,’ a passage like this can sound like ‘work righteousness’ – as if it is an obligation we perform to somehow pay for our forgiveness. And we encourage that mistake when we equate ‘repentance’ with acts of penance (as our Catholic brothers and sisters are sometimes accused of), or of requiring big public shows of remorse for past sins (as some Protestant groups are accused of). In a word, when we make our own acts of self-abasement into criteria for our forgiveness, we are trusting in our own works for our salvation, rather than the freely given Grace of God, accepted by faith alone.
So what does the Bible mean by ‘repentance’? The Greek word is metanoia which literally means ‘a change of mind’ and more specifically, to ‘turn around’ in your priorities. Repentance is making a ‘U turn’ in how you approach life – of turning towards Christ and turning our backs on sin.
But some try to argue that requiring such a ‘U-turn’ contradicts ‘salvation by faith alone.’ They would have us believe that one can have a saving faith without repentance. And that’s where our little parable comes in since it illustrates the silliness of thinking that intellectual assent is meaningful if nothing changes. Just as it doesn’t matter what the guy believes about the sign unless he heeds it, so too we’re still headed in the wrong direction if we don’t turn our lives to Christ. James 2:19 puts it succinctly “Even the demons believe – and shudder!” Satan certainly believes the facts about Jesus and His redemptive work on the cross – and that’s what terrifies him!
Now, it is certainly true that repentance isn’t something we would prefer to do. St. Paul compares it to being crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). It’s painful because it means denying all the ‘false gods’ that our sinful natures would prefer to serve – with ourselves at the top of the list! We must turn away from those distractions – repent of them – and turn to Christ alone. But, unlike driving to Punxsutawney, that’s not something we can accomplish by our own determined will and effort. Unlike turning a car around, turning our hearts fully to Christ, even when we try our hardest, will always be incomplete on this earth. But the Good News is that the same God that orders us to ‘turn around’ also graciously gives us the will to try, the forgiveness when we fail, and the strength to persevere. Rather than beating us down with a dreary burden of guilt and remorse, our loving God embraces us in a dance of joyous repentance as the Holy Spirit constantly turns our trusting hearts back to Him. As we sing in our Lenten liturgy (Lutheran Book of Worship):
Return to the Lord your God,
for He is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love!