This blog post is written as an answer to questions that I am getting about my last post on repentance…
I want to reiterate that we misunderstand the teachings of Jesus when we come to the conclusion that being a Christian is about agreeing to keep a list of rules. It is also a misunderstanding of repentance when we think that repentance is about turning from breaking that list of rules to promising to keep them. This issue is precisely what got Jesus crucified and the very heart of the gospel. Get this wrong and your Christian faith is never going to make sense.
Jesus went up against the religious people of his day who had a long list of rules that they required everyone follow. Jesus kept breaking these rules. For instance, he didn’t keep the Sabbath, he befriended “bad” people by going to dinner with them, he was friends with women he wasn’t related to, he touched sick people, etc. The list goes on.
In actuality these religious people didn’t know God at all. They thought that they had a contract with God – we keep your rules and you bless us in this life and the life to come. But God had made a covenant with them, not a contract. A covenant is about having a relationship. God offers humanity a covenant (I will be your God and you will be my people). The covenant was and is about following Christ not a list of rules.
Now those who follow Christ may look like they follow a list of rules because they demonstrate a radical love for others. But in truth, they are following Jesus. Believe me… it is far more difficult to follow Jesus than it is a list of rules, because Jesus will ask you to make sacrifices that rules protect you from making. For instance, the law said, “love your neighbor,” which protected you from loving those who weren’t like yourself. But Jesus said his followers would love even their worst enemies – and all the people in between.
There are many rule followers today who call themselves Christians. They keep a set of rules (and want to force others to keep them). They think that makes them right with God. But they don’t even know God. Just like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, they have no love for God and others. They are trying to twist God’s arm (still thinking they have a contract with God) into blessing them and giving them a ticket to heaven. But when one follows Jesus they live sacrificially in God’s love giving up their own desires to let Christ live through them – to let Christ through them bless even their enemies.
It is like a good marriage… when one truly loves the other person, there needs to be no rules, because you want what is best for the other and are willing to give sacrificially for them. In a bad marriage… you have a list of rules you follow. Each person wants what is best for themselves and protects themselves and places limits on how much they will give the other. In truth, this is no marriage at all – it is just a contract between two unfortunate people! The religious people of Jesus’s day had this kind of relationship with God. Which was no relationship at all. It was a misunderstanding of the covenant they had made with God.
This is where we come back to repentance. Repentance is different from agreeing to a set of rules… repentance is giving God permission to transform us into someone who follows Jesus into the difficult hard places. To give God permission to make us a sacrificial person who lets Christ live through us – a person who puts others first. Repentance is to give God permission to empower us to stop worrying about which rules to follow and to start loving God and others unconditionally.
This is the gospel!! Far harder, but far more rewarding than keeping a list of rules.
April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. It is equally great for group Bible studies or to be read as a novel!