What Leads to Heartfelt Repentance?

Gregory S. Clapper

In a previous essay, I encouraged contemporary United Methodists to unashamedly use Wesley’s—and the Bible’s!—language of “heart religion.” There I showed how the current intellectual culture has started to appreciate in a fresh way the potential theological and intellectual integrity of our emotions. In this essay, I will explore the specific “emotions” (or “affections” in Wesley’s terms) that he said were the key markers of the Christian life.

Three leading interpreters of Wesley’s theology—Richard P. Heitzenrater, Albert C. Outler, and Thomas A. Langford—have each taken Wesley’s statement of his “main doctrines” in Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained as a representative summary of his views. In that piece, Wesley names the three essential doctrines that describe the doctrinal kernel of Christianity.

Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three—that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third, religion itself. (Works 9:227)

There are several remarkable things about this statement, one of which is Wesley’s descriptions of “repentance,” “faith,” and “holiness” as doctrines. To say that these three terms are, in and of themselves, “doctrines,” is, I think, more than a kind of lazy shorthand on the part of Wesley. This “doctrinal” summary speaks directly to what Wesley held to be most crucial in the whole Christian enterprise—namely, lived Christianity, describable in terms of the affections of the heart. Wesley’s “main doctrines”—the indispensable components of essential Christianity—were best understood as they were enacted in human lives (i.e., hearts). In this essay, I will focus on the first part of that “house of religion” image—the “porch of repentance.”

If we want to bring people onto the “porch” of repentance of this “house” of Christianity, we must start by understanding the logic or grammar of how emotions/affections work. First of all, we need to see that emotions take objects—they are “transitive.” For example, we love or fear or hate not everything in general—these emotions instead take specific objects (“I love my dog,” “I fear failing this test,” “I hate racism”).

Since emotions must take an object, as Christians we need to see that it is not always helpful to point people to their own sinfulness if we want them truly to repent. Targeting one’s own sinfulness can only lead to one’s feeling of guilt. Perhaps there are times when this is important in a particularly unawakened person, but more often than not, what is needed is to focus people’s attention on that object which can best bring about an awareness of one’s own sin. The Bible shows us that very often the best way to do this is to focus people not on their own sin, but on the holiness of God.

As we can see in both the Old and the New Testaments, we are often most vividly aware of our sinfulness not when someone comes along and wags a finger at us and tells us how bad we are, but when we catch a glimpse of God’s holiness. In Isaiah’s call to ministry (6:1-5), he is aware of the holiness of God and the angels put this awareness into words by saying “holy, holy, holy.” The first words out of Isaiah’s mouth, however, are “Woe is me! I am lost” By seeing what true holiness is like, Isaiah becomes aware of just how unholy he is, just how far he is from the image of God he was created to bear.

Similarly, in Luke 5, when Peter witnesses the miracle of the net full of fish, he shouts out to Jesus “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus does not have to judge Peter or rub his nose in his sins to invite Peter onto the porch of repentance. He merely had to show God’s holiness through the miracle of the net full of fish. When Peter was given this vision, all he could think of was fleeing, for he had become aware of his own sinfulness through an encounter with the Holy One.

As preachers, if we want to bring about repentance, we need to offer our people Christ. Let them behold the holiness of God revealed in Christ, the holiness of the uncompromising teacher of the Sermon on the Mount, the holiness of the one who loved us so much that he gave his life for us, the holiness of the one who forgives his tormentors as he writhes in pain on the cross. When people catch such a vision, they see, by the inevitable comparison to themselves, just how unholy they are–and how much they need to repent.

In a subsequent essay, I will explore Wesley’s “door of faith” and his “house of holiness.” The interested reader can explore Wesley’s “house” in greater depth in my book As If the Heart Mattered: A Wesleyan Spirituality (Wipf & Stock, 2014).

Posted Jun 04, 2018

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