Thinking About Lent, Sin and Grace

Lent is the season of reflection and introspection. People often associate lent with a time of focusing on sin—to the point of excoriating self-examination, leaving no stone unturned of what we have done or not done, said or not said. It often amounts to picking the scab of a wound that has already begun to heal.

While it is important that Christians take sin seriously, we should take growing in grace more seriously and make that the focus of our Lenten activities. If we focus on sin exclusively, we find ourselves in the same conundrum as St. Paul in Romans 7 that the harder he tries not to sin, the worse it get. What we focus on is grace and how we can grow in that. We will then discover, like St. Paul, that where grace abounds, sin cannot.
When Jesus healed the blind man he refused to entertain ideas about the origins of sin or whose sin caused the man to be born blind. (John 9: 1-5)

He focused instead on the grace of God that was to be manifested in the man’s healing. The traditional focus during Lent has often been on the commandments and how we have broken them, which just makes us experts on sin. The can be very demoralizing and not lead to a grace-filled life. Another approach might be to also reflect on the times when we have kept the commandments, or been a faithful follower of Christ. What enabled us to keep the commandments? How has that been a blessing in our lives and in the lives of our neighbors?

Jesus didn’t come that we might have less sin and death; he came that we might have life, and share it abundantly with our neighbors.
Repentance is about turning from one course of action to another. Repentance is fundamentally about making changes. There are three “Rs” of repentance that help us understand the mechanics of change and the elements that people need to consider when making changes.

  • Recognize: that we are doing something that we don’t want to. Without awareness we will never recognize our need to change.
  • Regret: Being conscious of the cost to other and ourselves of our actions. If we don’t truly regret our actions, we will not change.
  • Reorient: Turning from what we don’t want to what we do want. If we continue to focus our attention on what we don’t want we will persist in that behavior.

Failure to complete a desired change is usually the result of a failure of one of the repentance steps. The most important step is often the reorient step. Many of us can recognize and regret our undesired actions, but the harder we try to stop the undesired behavior the more we remain stuck, just as Paul reported in Romans 7. Staying focused on the undesired behavior prevents us from reorienting ourselves to the desired behavior. During Lent if we only focus on what we don’t want ourselves or our parishioners to be doing, we will ensure that they and we will keep doing them. What we must do is reorient ourselves and them to the call of the Good News.

Similarly, if the focus of Lent is self-denial and learning to say no, we will never discover the grace and the new life that Jesus comes to offer. What is truly life giving to you and your congregation? How can you and they orient your lives around that discovering often leading to genuine repentance?

Any “no” or act of self-denial in the spiritual life is only as helpful as the deeper “Yes” that the no allows. Easter is not just a positive, feel good experience. Easter is the life-giving “Yes!” from God that echoes through the universe.

Repentance is never defined in the NT. That is because it had such a powerful tradition in the prophets that its meaning was assumed of Jewish hearers. It is a graphic word picture drawn from the Hebrew word shub meaning to do an about face; to be going in one direction and to turn and go another. Spiritually speaking it means to turn from sin to god. “Conversion” really expresses the idea better than repentance. The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, suggests a change of mind or sorrow for sin. But the Hebrew idea of conversion involves turning around the whole person toward God. Conversion for the Jew meant turning to the law in obedience to the revealed will of God. It meant doing good works. In our Christian tradition we tend to think of conversion as a onetime event; something that happened back there at baptism or when I confessed Christ as savior and lord. But to be faithful to the meaning scripture carries, there should be many con¬versions in our lives, many turning points, many returns to god, into a deeper and fuller obedience.

Luke uses a curious expression in v.3 to de¬scribe john’s ministry as “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It’s curious because it could be interpreted two ways. You could see it as a repentance baptism, a ritualistic washing that some¬how results in your sins being for¬given. Or you could see it as a baptism which is the sign and symbol of the forgiveness of sins one experiences when he or she repents. That’s a big difference. The first is a form of superstition, magic so to speak, the second is a sign that you take sin seriously. The water does not make you clean. The water is but a symbol of the cleansing which must take place internally. God is always ready to for¬give, but until we repent, until we turn, we can’t experience that forgiveness.

In September of 1985, convicted killer Theodore Strzelecki was released from prison after having served seven years for the hammer slaying of a Stanford University professor. He had been a model prisoner in many ways. On three occasions prior to his release, he had been offered parole, but each time he rejected it because he was unwilling to accept its conditions. One condition was that he express some remorse for his crime and promise never to kill again. But Strzelecki said, I do not feel remorse. I have never felt remorse.” He couldn’t experience the benefits of pardon until he was willing to repent. The parole board was entirely willing, but Strzelecki wouldn’t accept the terms.

This is the negative side of repentance. This is turning from evil to avoid the judgment of god. And let me say, that God’s judgment is not like human judgment. It is not a cruel, exacting punishment that requires payment for every iota of wrong-doing. It is God’s pronouncement that sin, rebellion, self-pitying, evil, and apathy will not be tolerated. Our God is holy, perfect, and pure and is opposed to all that is contrary to loving, life-giving divine intentions.

But there is a positive side to repentance as well. The Messianic ruler will also baptize with the Holy Spirit which will produce the righteousness and prosperity, the justice and peace that will be normative in the messianic age. In order to prepare for that coming kingdom john warned, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, walk your talk. Prove that what you say with your lips is true in your life.

Let me give you a contemporary illustration of this. When Michigan played Wisconsin in basketball early in the season in 1989, Michigan’s Rumeal Robinson stepped to the foul line for two shots late in the fourth quarter. His team trailed by one point, so Rumeal could regain the lead for Michigan. He missed both shots, allowing Wisconsin to upset favored Michigan. Rumeal felt awful about costing his team the game, but his sorrow didn’t stop at the emotional level. After each practice for the rest of the season, Rumeal shot 100 extra foul shots. Thus, Rumeal was ready when he stepped to the foul line to shoot two shots with three seconds left in overtime in the national¬ championship game. Swish went the first shot, and swish the second. Those shots won Michigan the national championship. Rumeal’s repentance had been genuine, and sorrow motivated him to work so that he would never make that mistake again. As Paul wrote, “Godly sorrow leads to repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10).

About Norman Bendroth

Norman Bendroth is a Professional Transition Specialist certified by the Interim Ministry Network. He has served as a settled pastor in two United Church of Christ congregations and as a Sr. Interim pastor in seven other UCC congregations. He was also an executive for three different non-profit agencies. He has had additional training in Mediation Skills for Church Leaders from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and training in Appreciative Inquiry from the Clergy Leadership Institute. Rev. Bendroth has the M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his D. Min. from Andover Newton Theological school where he concentrated on theology and systems theory. He is married to Peggy Bendroth and has two adopted Amerasian children.
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