Mercy: It’s Seriously Wonderful
I have seen the purity and beauty of thy perfect law,
the happiness of those in whose heart it reigns,
the calm dignity of the walk to which it calls,
yet I daily violate and contemn its precepts.
Thy loving Spirit strives within me,
brings me Scripture warnings,
speaks in startling providences,
allures by secret whispers,
yet I choose devices and desires to my own hurt,
impiously resent, grieve, and provoke him to abandon me.1
A couple weeks ago, we began looking at Donne’s poem A Hymn to God the Father. With Donne, we wrestled through the question of “Can God forgive me?” In the process, we were drawn back to the fact that God’s forgiveness is not based on us. Rather, it was earned through the life and death of his Son, Jesus Christ. In this fact is glorious freedom. Instead of a relationship that is dependent solely on toeing the line, doting all our i’s and crossing our t’s, we enjoy grace and forgiveness. We are free to love rather than fear, because, as John reminds us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love”2 (1 John 4:18).
And yet, I still sin. Quite often, actually, if I’m honest with myself. Donne explains this quandary in the first stanza of A Hymn: “Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run, / And do run still: though still I do deplore?”3 Indeed, the same theme seems to come through in the second stanza as well: “Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun / A year, or two: but wallowed in, a score?”4 The prayer quoted at the beginning of this article expresses similar struggles. Viewing our current sins, there are three basic responses. For some, the temptation might be to treat God’s grace as a welcome mat to sin. After all, if God’s grace covers my sins, then why worry about them? I’ll live how I want and let Jesus pick up the bill. On the other end of the spectrum, the temptation is to shrink in self-loathing. “How can you keep doing this? What’s wrong with you, don’t you know you ought to live better? You’re doing a terrible job utilizing God’s strength to fight sin!” Neither response accurately understands our true situation, leaving them wide of the mark. The only appropriate response to our sin is repentance. Repentance alone both answers the abstract question, “What about the fact that I keep sinning?” and the practical question, “What should I do now that I have sinned again?”
What is this repentance of which we speak though? Wayne Grudem’s definition is a helpful starting point: “Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ.”5 Looking at Grudem’s definition, there are several aspects deserving further attention. First among these is the fact that repentance is more than an emotional response to our sin. Paul seems to touch on this fact while writing his second letter to the Corinthians: “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). In praising the Corinthians’ grief over their sin, Paul makes clear that their praise was due to the fact that they were “grieved into repenting.” While grief is part of repentance, it is not the sum total. Indeed, to make sure this point is not missed, Paul follows up his praise with the reminder that repentance is what separates godly and worldly grief.
Grudem describes this difference as “a sincere commitment to forsake it [sin] and walk in obedience to Christ.” While there appear to be two parts to this process, turning from sin and turning to Christ, it is more accurate to see them as one motion. In turning away from sin, we also turn towards Christ. Isaiah highlights this in his call to Israel: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7). Merely turning from sin is not enough. There must be a turning back to God. Indeed, if we do not turn to God, at best we will be turning to a new sin, effectively demonstrating that we never turned from sin in the first place.
What difference does repentance make to the questions asked above, though? How does a better understanding of the process of asking for God’s forgiveness affect our assurance of receiving forgiveness? We began answering this question last week with the reminder that God’s forgiveness is ultimately based on Christ’s work, not ours. Building on this answer, it is worth remembering that Scripture constantly points to God’s willingness to forgive. One particularly poetic reminder6 comes from the author of Lamentations. In the midst of his grieving for the destruction that Judah has brought through its sin, the author is able to say, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’ ” (Lamentations 3:21-24). Of our ability to out-sin God’s forgiveness, there is no cause to worry. It is this trust that fights against our temptations towards self loathing—God’s forgiveness and love is freely offered to all who repent. At the same time, this act of repentance also fights against our temptation to use God’s mercy as an excuse to sin. There is no forgiveness for those who plan to continue sinning, for they have never truly repented.
In the end, following Donne’s questions again brings us back to the seriousness and wonder of God’s mercy. It is serious, for it calls us to live a life with fidelity to our King. At the same time though, it contains an inexpressible joy and wonder because this same King is willing to pardon us rebels and bring us back into his household. The closing lines of the prayer quoted earlier capture this attitude of our soul:
All these sins I mourn, lament, and for them cry pardon.
Work in me more profound and abiding repentance;
Give me the fullness of a godly grief
that trembles and fears,
yet ever trusts and loves,
which is ever powerful and ever confident;
Grant that through the tears of repentance
I may see more clearly the brightness
and glories of the saving cross.7
Christian, as we continue life this week, we will undoubtedly encounter sin in our lives. When this happens, may we be quick to sorrow over and turn from our sin, trusting God’s grace both to forgive us and to enable us to live rightly.
Does the church play a role in helping it’s members with their repentance?
If so, what does this role look like? How can you start putting it into practice?
2. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. Donne, John. The Complete English Poems edited by A.J. Smith (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1996), 348.
4. Ibid, 349.
5. Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press and Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 713.
6. Others that could be referenced include Deuteronomy 30 and many passages throughout Isaiah and Jeremiah.
7. “Yet I Sin”, 125.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Earle