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A step beyond surrender

God gives us things to do in repentance, not only things to feel

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BE WARY OF VIEWS of repentance that are overly complicated. Or vague and squishy. Or that need a seminary graduate to explain them. In the Bible, repenting is just ceasing to do the bad thing you have been doing, and starting to do the right thing. To be sure, repentance includes an attendant change of mind, but even tying your shoes requires the decision to tie your shoes.

Tax collectors in John the Baptist’s day are taking more money than they are authorized to. Soldiers are extorting. When they ask the prophet what they should do, he simply tells them to stop it. He doesn’t talk about their feelings. Some church teachings on repentance give you the impression that repentance is mainly about feelings. But a woman can make her husband walk on eggshells every day and feel genuinely bad about it at bedtime and nevertheless keep doing it. If even imperfect action doesn’t follow the feeling, how deep is the feeling?

When Jesus heals an invalid by the pool of Siloam, He says: “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (John 5:14). The man is not a theologian, nor does he need to be. Jesus and he know exactly what sin is being referred to; the man asks no follow-up question.

On another occasion, a lawyer does try to get Jesus bogged down in follow-up questions. The Teacher has said plainly, “Love your neighbor.” The young man “wishes to evade the obligation to obey the commandment of God. The only answer he receives is: ‘You already know your duty: do it and you will live.’ The first round is already lost, so the lawyer must try again. … He tries to escape by raising moral difficulties: ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship). His strategy is to keep talking so he can escape the necessity of obedience.

Christ’s letters to Ephesus, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodocia are encouragement sandwiches: Here is what you’re doing right; here is what you’re doing wrong and must change immediately; here is what I will give you if you get rid of that sin (Revelation 2-3).

But to hear the text preached in some circles, you would never suspect that God is telling us we need to actually “stop sinning or something worse will happen to you” (John 5). We are served up impassioned rhetoric about our depravity, about heartfelt sorrow, about praying that God will eventually change us. Language of “surrender” may even possibly be used if it is carefully handled. But one detects a curious resistance to going the whole nine yards to a straight-up command to stop sinning.

Why is that? The aversion comes from a theological commitment to the idea that God must do everything and we must do nothing. It sounds theologically lofty, protective of God’s sovereignty, and like a bulwark against works righteousness or the notion of earning grace. But as a matter of fact, the Lord does give us many things to do. Doing is not the same as earning.

Watch out for theological systems so tight they don’t even let the Word of God get through. If we are not careful we will “utter error against the LORD, to keep the hungry unsatisfied” (Isaiah 32:6). Satan loves it when muddy-waters preaching sends the congregation home unaffected, unresolved. “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8). And it is to battle that we are called—to “fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12); to “put to death what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5).

When my father died the last week of 2022, God convicted me about a long-festering sin in my life. He was not delicate about it. I should mourn, I should pray, I should surrender—but above all I should stop that sin immediately (1 John 2:1). No longer should I deceive myself with the thought that my sin doesn’t matter because I’m saved. So acute was the experience of fear of the Lord that 2023 was a very different year for me.

You can ask my husband about that.

Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her columns have been compiled into three books including Won’t Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides near Philadelphia.


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