One of the problems for many evangelicals, James Kushiner notes, is that we have come to associate repentance with a specific act, that is, conversion. When Jesus says "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near," it is what Alexis Torrance calls "experiential repentance," what Kushiner summarizes as "an ongoing disposition of the soul that is shaped by both the knowledge of our daily failings and the invitation of a merciful God to return." Indeed, he points out that the Greek verb for "repent" denotes ongoing repentance. It is, in other words, a life-long posture of humility, a continual turning of bent wills from all that is morally bad, untrue, and ugly toward that which is good, true, and beautiful. It is a Godward disposition, a grace-shaped turning toward light in which our wills are utterly dependent on the Spirit for obedience. That paradox of our work and God's work is summarized in Phillipians 2:12, where Paul tells us to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Thus, even our desire to do what is good is enabled by God.
Kushiner says it is an invitation of a merciful God to return. God persists and enables but doesn't compel in the sense of making us automatons. It is our choice. It is His grace. Yet in some mysterious way, as the Reformers taught, God's grace is irresistible, a love that is so compelling that He inevitably draws His own to Himself. And so the invitation, the turning, and the returning to God is continual, a "love that will not let me go," in the words of the hymn. The posture of repentance, a life of grace-enabled turning, is fundamental to life in Christ.
But good posture takes time. It likely takes a lifetime. Eugene Peterson speaks of it as a "long obedience in the same direction." In repentance, says the ancient yet sage words of the Westminster Confession,
a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are pentitent; so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with him in all ways of his commandments. (XV.2)
The Confession doesn't speak only of an episode, but of a continual turning. Of a posture. I'm still learning.
I can sin before I even get out of bed in the morning. My thoughts on awakening can so easily turn to some task I don't want to tackle, and ungratefulness seizes me. Or I begin to fashion some idol in my mind of how the day should go should it suit me. I have to repent before I even rise, have to return to a gracious God and say "thank you, your tender mercies are new every morning." I am new every morning.
No one has ever reminded me better of that than a short excerpt from Frederick Buchener's Alphabet of Grace, only a truncated bit of which I can insert here. Buechner is waking in his home, a new day before him, and he has a sense of the preciousness of it all, the treasure before him. Listen in:
It is the first day because it has never been before and the last day because it will never be again. Be alive if you can through this day today of your life. What's to be done? What's to be done?
Follow your feet. Put on the coffee. Start the orange juice, the bacon, the toast. Then go wake up your children and your wife. Think about the work of your hands, the book that of all conceivable things you have chosen to add to this world's pain. Live in the needs of the day.
I hope I think of that tomorrow morning. Rather than roll over and into my dream of the day, I pray that I repent and return to a Creator who recreates every day, who invites me into a day brimming with possibilities ---the first day, and the last day. I stretch out my hand, grasp a cool bed post, greet the cat lounging at my side. Trace a sunbeam across the floor. Feel a familiar home wake up around me. Whisper thank you, thank you, for the nearly 20, 075 days of my life.
What time is it?, she says. What time? It's today. It's the only one like it. The first day and the last day. It's our life. Time to get up. Time to follow our feet. Time to stand. Time to work on my posture, again. Time to live in the needs of the day, I say.
What did you say?
Oh, nothing. Everything. Just everything.