Ask Bob #95: Which Comes First?

Today’s Question: “Bob, there’s something I’ve been contemplating lately. Which comes first: repentance or forgiveness?”

My Answer: [Said with a delighted smile] Oh, Friend, you enjoy the hard questions, don’t you? Very well, I’ll enjoy the answering of it!

To begin, I’ll ask you a question: which comes first: the ocean, or the rain-filled clouds?

Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

And so it is with repentance and forgiveness. There is no cause for one without the other. The two spring into being, fully formed, at the same instant. Or, at least, we must say, “Only God knows.”

But here, let me give you a harder answer, a more detailed answer. To do so, we must first be clear about why the question seems so hard to us. The question seems complicated because we equate repentance with changed behavior, and if we don’t see obvious, visible signs of changed behavior, we take it upon ourselves to conclude that there hasn’t been any real repentance, and thus, there can’t have been any real forgiveness.

In a moment, I’ll show you why our human efforts at validating changed behavior will always fall short. Before that, though, I’ll take a moment to explain why this question is even a cause of controversy in the church.

Argument #1: “Repentance comes before forgiveness.”

There are scriptures which, if taken by themselves, support this position. For example:

 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
(Acts 2:37-38, ESV)

Well, that seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? “Repent…for forgiveness.”

But, on the other hand…

Argument #2: “Our knowledge of forgiveness leads us to repentance.”

The Bible turns everything upside down. Jesus forgave the ones who crucified him, and they hadn’t repented.

And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
(Luke 23:33-34, ESV)

And, of course, there’s that pesky thief on the cross, who may have repented, but had absolutely no opportunity to prove to us judgmental types that he had any changed behavior.

And he [Jesus] said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
(Luke 23:43, ESV)

Jesus, you see, doesn’t need to see our behavior to know what’s really going on in our hearts.

But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?
(Matthew 9:4, ESV)

So, where does that leave us? On the one hand, there are passages that speak of repentance followed by forgiveness. On the other hand, Jesus has the audacity (and the authority!) to forgive without any repentance at all (for example, the people who gleefully crucified him).

Okay, now it’s time to back up a bit. Earlier, I wrote, “I’ll show you why our human efforts at validating changed behavior will always fall short.” Now it’s time for me to make good on that promise. To do so, I’ll tell you a story…

The Parable of the New York Prostitute

There was a prostitute in New York City who had a young daughter, a toddler. One day she met a Christian woman who helped her get a job as a clerk in her bookstore. She was able to leave prostitution behind and earn a living from selling books. In the course of time, she also learned about the love of Jesus from the Christian woman, and became a follower of Jesus herself. She had hated herself for her former life of prostitution, and worried about the effect it would have on her young daughter. She found great joy in her relationship with God and the sense of forgiveness that she had obtained. But in the course of time, the sale of books on the Internet increased, and the sale of paper books at the bookstore declined. Finally, the bookstore closed, and she was unemployed. She looked for another job, but didn’t find one right away. The rent on her apartment was due in four days, and she was already two months behind. She knew that she would be evicted soon. So, she did the only thing she knew to make some money. She turned again to prostitution, and was able to pay the back rent and buy some food. But a woman from the church saw her get into a car with a man and reported to the Elders, “She has been fooling us! She isn’t a Christian at all!” Then the Elders went to her apartment and asked her not to return to their church.

Do you see? A penitent heart sometimes occurs a long time before we see changed behavior. And sometimes the changes in our behavior are more like a yo-yo than an arrow. This happens when we want to change, but don’t see how we can change.

But God takes a different view of your life. In fact, God has a different view on all of time. You must understand: God already sees who you will be, not just who you are.

For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning.
(Isaiah 46:9-10, ESV)

Did you get that? God declares the end from the beginning.

In the first chapter of John’s Revelation, God said,

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
(Revelation 1:8, ESV)

And in the last chapter of John’s Revelation, Jesus said,

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
(Revelation 22:13, ESV)

God knows your heart, and he knows all time. That is why repentance and forgiveness, like clouds and ocean, exist together, rather than in any sequence.

This article is getting long, but please indulge me while I tell you another story.

I have vivid memories of a “relationship challenge” when I was a teenager. I had gotten in trouble, and I was sitting in the living room with Mom and Dad. The three of us were discussing what I had done wrong. The discussion was almost over. It was late, and time for everyone to go get ready for bed. I hesitated. Mom picked up on my reluctance to leave, and said, “What is it?” Barely able to hold back the tears, I looked at both of my parents as I asked, “Am I forgiven?”

They both assured me that yes, I was indeed forgiven. They told me that we can leave this in the past, learn from it, and go forward.

The point I want to make with the story is this: my mother loved me no less before, and no more after, that night of understanding. The difference was not in her love for me, but in the quality of our relationship. Now, we could commune without sin’s hindrance.

Let me give you an example of communing without sin’s hindrance.

We lived just a couple of blocks from the high school. Every day at noon I walked home from the school, and my Dad (a Pastor) drove home from the church, and we had lunch together. We made sandwiches, sat across the kitchen table from each other with a chess board between us, and played a game or two of chess as we ate.

Now, imagine the day after that conversation in the living room, if I had not known that my Dad had forgiven me. The chess game at lunchtime would have been agony! There I would have been sitting across the table from the man who (in my mind) despised me, going through the motions of familial love. I would have sat there, imagining his smoldering resentment, or bitter scorn.

It is important to forgive. It’s also important to know that you’re forgiven.

Time does not heal all wounds. Time buries wounds. It doesn’t heal them.

Time does not heal all wounds of offense. Forgiveness does. This is why repentance and forgiveness matter. Take the healing, the new life, that Jesus has prepared for you.

–Bob Young
10 September, 2017

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