A story is told of a wise old theologian who learned every jot and tittle of the Bible. Say the name Belshazzar in his presence and he would expound Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for an hour, then continue for sixty more minutes with a history of the Medes. He knew his stuff.
One Sabbath a young woman new to the faith approached the theologian in the narthex after the eleven o’clock service. She wanted to get things straight and understand the details of this religion that had so smitten her. The old sage’s reputation preceded him. Though she was nervous, she was more earnest than scared. She inquired, “Tell me sir, I would like to get things straight and understand the details of my new Christian faith. What must I know first?”
The old bookman opened his eyes wide and raised an arthritic finger to the sky. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” he said. He spoke with such conviction, the young woman looked up, half expecting to see the Sistine Chapel overhead. She collected herself. “And what must I know next?” she asked excitedly.
The theologian wrinkled his nose and shook his head. Sadly he recited, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”
The new Christian was not expecting that. It took the wind out of her sails. Even so, she pressed on, “And what must I know next?” The old man looked into her eyes, and his demeanor was as pastoral as learned. “Only one more thing,” he said. “It is all repentance and forgiveness after that.”
Actually, I have no idea if the story of that old theologian has ever been told before. I just wanted to write about repentance and thought it would be a good way to start. Repentance has been on my heart and mind lately. I have been especially thinking of repentance together.
If you are an evangelical like me, who has peeked during altar calls to look at the raised hands, but who also has walked the aisle yourself and asked for forgiveness, then you are comfortable with repentance. You are grateful the Apostle John said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We all rest on the mercy of this Scripture each day. But (I am not sure I will get this thought out well) we too many of us rest on the mercy of this Scripture each day by ourselves.
This is tricky to say right. We think of our sins as my sin. And we think of repentance similarly. We speak in the first person plural to describe what we think of in the first person singular. But should we?
Reading Deuteronomy 30 or the story of King Josiah or the book of Jonah or Romans 11 or Jesus’ words to the seven churches in Revelation, one gets the impression that repentance and forgiveness is not only for individuals. Being sorry and being forgiven sometimes happens corporately. Moreover, it seems possible to be sorry and be forgiven corporately for sins one did not commit individually. Perhaps I am misreading this? There seems to be Scriptural precedent for groups of people confessing sin together, even if individuals among the group did not themselves commit the sin being confessed. In a scenario like that, does God’s mercy extend to the whole group?
Again, perhaps I am misreading this. But if not, then it begs some questions. Should there be examples today of Christians repenting together? If there should be, then where are they? And if we are not a part of those examples, are we missing out?
It is Lent, which is one reason I am considering these things. There also are other reasons that would be too cumbersome to try to explain in a blog post. I know I have not developed an argument here for what I am about to say. Yet, let me propose it anyway. Those who repent together, stick together.
The body of Christ is powerfully cohesive when its members do not all assume the role of pointer finger. Or another way to look at it is like this: If the body’s foot unjustly kicks and injures someone, the body’s hand sounds foolish protesting, “Well, that wasn’t me.” More reasonable would be for the hand to reach down, help up the offended person, and then the mouth could say, “We are sorry.”
Dave is an author, educator, and advocate of living simply. Dave has spoken nationally and internationally about simplicity. He has appeared in Time Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine, the London Times, and The Guardian, and has been a guest of the 700 Club. His book The 100 Thing Challenge (HarperCollins, 2010) tells the story of his simple-living journey and the worldwide movement it contributed to. Dave holds an M.A. from Wheaton College and a B.A. from Moody Bible Institute. He works at Point Loma Nazarene University and lives in San Diego with his wife and three daughters.