The Authenticity of Grace through Repentance

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For many believers in our culture today, “repentance” is a word that has fallen out of favor. Many are still more than willing to talk about their “weaknesses” or “struggles.” Some are even willing to admit them in a somewhat public format with other believers. As Brett McCracken wrote in his article, “Has ‘Authenticity’ Trumped Holiness,” many American Evangelicals have begun placing a heavy emphasis on their own sense of brokenness as a means of earning the culturally relevant badge of authenticity. 

As a youth pastor and a believer, I have felt this pull towards authenticity. I understand the power of honesty both in a counseling setting as well as in the culture of student ministry. In those settings, I often stress the importance of being open and honest. But so often, I feel, I perhaps fail in equally stressing the importance of genuine repentance. The question is whether or not this is a failure or a matter of strategy.

Open repentance seems, of course, a bizarre and even harmful youth ministry strategy at first glance. It’s uncomfortable for us because it requires far more than just merely admitting one’s weaknesses. Instead, it forces us to truly gaze upon the horror of our sin and consider the penalty it truly deserves. As Rosaria Butterfield says in her book, Openness Unhindered, when we only admit sin – rather than confess it – we fail to linger long enough at the cross to understand the true nature of what we have done before God. It is only when we linger at that cross of Christ that we are confronted by the grim reality of our sin. Furthermore, it is only when we (yes, even as believers) understand that grim reality that we can also properly understand the immeasurable grace that Christ offers and live out our calling in true Christian community. 

For many in our Evangelical culture today, the idea of encouraging one to gaze upon something so horrific can seem entirely unpleasant and even “anti-Gospel.” In an attempt to preserve the Gospel, it is tempting to immediately step into the life of a fellow believer in the midst of serious struggles and say: “But Christ has forgiven us…so there is no need to think on something so unpleasant.” This tendency may sound gracious and it may, in fact, produce temporary relief in our hearts, and in the heart of the one whom we’re seeking to comfort. In so doing, though, I fear many of us follow in the pattern of those Old Testament leaders who continually called out “Peace, peace” when there was no peace (Jeremiah 8:11). In a similar fashion, one cannot be too quick to call out “Grace, forgiveness,” without real repentance.

This practice ultimately results in weakening the true sense of community among believers. While one might assume that the urgent call to repentance might only create shame, the truth in practice is the complete opposite. When the true nature of sin is ignored, we immediately fail to view fellow believers as they are before God. Again, Butterfield’s book offers an incredibly insightful look into this reality. She points out that in our failure to value repentance, we no longer see one another as sinners robed in the righteousness of Christ. Instead, we identify our peers based on their ongoing fleshly struggles. As a result, we can suddenly appear to be far more interested in the struggles of our peers than in their victories in Christ. And when those victories are ignored (or even discouraged by a refusal to label sin as sin) we ultimately fail to offer the true power of the Gospel, and our ministries can quickly start to feel more like a sad meeting of hopeless addicts than a gathering of believers who have overcome the world in Christ. 

Ultimately, when the assurance of victory is voiced in lieu of real repentance, the shame we try to ignore only grows in its power over us. Despite the initial discomfort it can cause, repentance is ultimately the only means of finding the weight of our sin finally and totally lifted. As David proclaims in Psalm 119, it is only when he fixes his gaze upon the Law of God that he is able to (1) understand the holiness of God, (2) understand the true nature of his sin, (3) be lead to the necessary point of repentance, and (4) then feel the shame of his sin removed. 

As a youth pastor, this reality is essential to remember both in how I present myself before my students, and also how I strive to build the community our believing students so desperately need. My confidence found in my forgiveness through Christ can only be felt by me, and understood by my community, when there is a proper appreciation of the sin that is continually overcome. Furthermore, that community can continue to grow in Gospel maturity only when it daily feels first, the weight of sin, and second, the relief of that weight being lifted. Yes, in Jesus we have the awesome opportunity to cry “grace” even to the utmost of sinners. But it is only when we linger at the horror of the cross that our students and we are given the ears to hear the fullness of that awesome cry.  

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles from Rooted’s youth ministry blog. 

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