"Repent and believe the gospel."

By Steve Manskar

wesleyan-leadership-ash-wednesdyThis morning a fellow Christian dipped his thumb in a small dish containing palm ashes mixed with olive oil. He reached out and made the sign of the cross on my forehead with the ashes saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.” I will carry that ashes and oil cross-shaped smudge on my forehead throughout the day. It marks me as a sinner in need of forgiveness and redemption. It acknowledges to the world that I need to continually repent and believe the gospel because I live in a world that denies Christ and his authority over the powers and principalities. The world tells me that I am okay just as I am and I can be even better if I buy and consume the right products and services. The world also tells me that god exists to make me happy and content and that it really is all about me. The ashes that mark the beginning of Lent remind me once again who I really am and who God is. They remind me that God is God and I am not.

Ash Wednesday reminds Christians of the importance of repentance as God’s way of helping us to know who and whose we are. John Wesley provides some help in understanding the character of repentance in Sermon 7: “The Way to the Kingdom” ...

And first, repent, that is, know yourselves. This is the first repentance, previous to faith, even conviction, or self-knowledge. Awake, then, thou that sleepest. Know thyself to be a sinner, and what manner of sinner thou art. Know that corruption of thy inmost nature, whereby thou are very far gone from original righteousness, whereby 'the flesh lusteth' always 'contrary to the Spirit', through that 'carnal mind which is enmity against God', which 'is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be'. Know that thou art corrupted in every power, in every faculty of thy soul, that thou art totally corrupted in every one of these, all the foundations being out of course. The eyes of thine understanding are darkened, so that they cannot discern God or the things of God. The clouds of ignorance and error rest upon thee, and cover thee with the shadow of death. Thou knowest nothing yet as thou oughtest to know, neither God, nor the world, nor thyself. Thy will is no longer the will of God, but is utterly perverse and distorted, averse from all good, from all which God loves, and prone to all evil, to every abomination which God hateth. Thy affections are alienated from God, and scattered abroad over the earth. All thy passions, both thy desires and aversions, thy joys and sorrows, thy hopes and fears, are out of frame, are either undue in their degree, or placed on undue objects. So that there is no soundness in thy soul, but 'from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot' (to use the strong expression of the prophet) there are only 'wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores'.

According to Wesley, prior to repentance a person is deluded into believing he or she is something that he or she is not. They are alienated from God and ignorant of the things of God. Their mind and heart are blind to their true condition of ignorance and self-centeredness. Without repentance a person cannot know themselves nor can they know God. Repentance is the beginning of knowing the true self, which is the beginning of holiness. It opens the mind and heart to the light of God that reveals the damage caused by sin. Repentance turns the heart and mind away from the self-deception of sin and towards the truth and life of God. Mindfulness begins when the heart and mind are turned away from self and turned towards God.

Repentance also opens the mind and heart to the truth and life of God revealed in Scripture and tradition. It enables persons to begin to know, understand, and live the doctrine and discipline of Christian faith. As they learn, practice, and grow in faith, hope, and love Christians become confident practitioners who are can humbly enter into conversation with their neighbors who practice other religions, or no religion at all.

Persons who lack repentance live in a world of illusion. This world is represented best in contemporary western culture which is deluded into believing sin does not exist. If something does not exist then it cannot be a problem. In a world that does not recognize sin as a real problem, evil is regarded as an anomaly. It occurs only in rare persons like terrorists and dictators. People in the west do not recognize sin in themselves because they are bombarded by messages in media, and the church, that people are essentially good. If people believe they are good then repentance becomes irrelevant.

This means many people who regard themselves to be Christian lack basic self-knowledge. They deny the reality of sin and their own sinfulness. Some years ago I was part of an adult Sunday School class in a typical United Methodist Congregation. During the course of conversation about the Scripture lesson for the day I made what I thought was a simple statement of truth: “We are all sinners.” I did not expect the class’ angry response. Everyone took personal offense. It did not help when I responded to the angry gazes directed at me by saying, “I’m including myself when I say that we are all sinners. No one is immune from the human condition that alienates us all from God.” Every person in the room agreed the doctrine of original sin was mistaken. They agreed that labeling people as “sinners” demeans them and damages their self-esteem. The consensus of the class was that sin is not really that big of a problem. They believed that sin was nothing more than bad habits that can be changed through a little will power. When I challenged their thinking by asking, “If sin is not really a problem then why did Jesus suffer the humiliation of death on a cross?” the room was silent.

Reflecting on my experiences as a pastor and, for the past twelve years, an active member of various United Methodist congregations, I am convinced the vast majority of church members are ill equipped to engage in real dialog with their neighbors, friends, and co-workers who practice other religions, or no religion. Without conviction of sin and earnest repentance they cannot know the God revealed in Scripture, the person and work of Jesus Christ and the witness of the early Church. We should not be surprised, therefore, when Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism is the dominant theology expressed by the majority of members in mainline denominations, such as The United Methodist Church.

The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is like “a butler or therapist, someone who meets our needs when summoned or who listens nonjudgmentally and helps [people] feel good about themselves.” The job of a butler or therapist is to serve, not to be served. They are chosen by us according to our own criteria, which reflect our character. We could say this god is created in the image of the people. Therefore, sin is re-defined as flawed character traits and bad habits that can be overcome by a little self-discipline. The god of MTD does not ask for nor require repentance.

Repentance requires awareness of sin and sinfulness. Persons must first hear the gospel proclaimed and experience Christ in a community in which the gospel is taught and practiced. The Apostle Paul puts it this way:

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ (Romans 10:14-17, NRSV).

This is why the church’s ministry of teaching, preaching, and practicing the gospel of Christ is essential to the formation of a culture of holiness. Christ must be at the center of the congregation. When Christ is the center discipleship follows. When Christ is supplanted by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism holiness is replaced by niceness. Repentance, and subsequent self-knowledge necessary for Christian witness, are short-circuited.