Heart Repentance: 1 John 1.5-10

“Get Up” by Matt Anderson, on Flikr, CC BY 2.0

Let’s call him Johnny. I was teaching 7th grade, and Johnny totally thrashed me.

A young teacher, I’d work each night to developed my own Bible curriculum for the large, Christian day school where I taught. In the morning, Johnny and his buddies were there to blow the class apart. One day Johnny stood on his desk and launched himself across the room. That got him sent to the principal, but they sent him back. Something about me needing to work out a relationship with him. Got it …

Then, Johnny got “saved”. It happened over a weekend church retreat. Apparently, Johnny surrendered his life to Christ. Now, he was celebrated by lots of cute girls. I went to his baptismal service. Something like a thousand people turned up. Jesus was mentioned, but the service was mostly about Johnny.

Three years later, I was studying in a popular sandwich shop when Johnny, now a young teenager, pulled up and jumped from his Jeep Wrangler. “Hey, Reg!” he said. (I was Mr. Reg in those days). I bought him a sandwich. Johnny started boasting about old times—the hellion he’d been, what a great time he’d had making things hard.

“Tell me about your baptism and your decision for Christ,” I prodded. “I was there. What was going on then?”

“Oh, that …” Johnny said, “I was just screwing around with that [religious] stuff back then. Nothing big ever happened.” And that was that. The lunch ended, and—unless he pops up in my life again—so did the relationship. Heart-breaking.

We’ve all known Johnnies, people who make a grand show of change, but then, a few years later … nothing. Are they genuine converts to the faith? It’s hard to say, especially with a young person, since we can’t look into peoples’ hearts. But, the church is the place where the invisible work of God becomes visible. And, when we consider the relationship between faith and repentance, it’s clear that saving faith will look like something.

We’re talking about conversion—that is, what it looks like to other people when we place our dependance on Christ in a saving way. And, the Apostle John’s first epistle is a wonderful place to go, because the old, revered apostle and friend of Jesus’ was sorting out for others just what genuine faith amidst apostasy looked like in the waning days of the first century.

Genuine conversion requires faith. In John’s imagery, the genuine convert has received “the message” from Christ of God’s holiness and has responded by “walking in the light” (1:5-6). That person’s life matches his confession. He is one who has ” … believed in the Son of God” and now has assurance of eternal life (5:13). “Walking in the light” for that genuine convert involves personal dependance on the person and work of Jesus.

But, in the words of the old adage, we’re saved by faith alone, but saving faith is not alone. It has a companion.

Genuine conversion includes repentance. As faith is the positive turning to God in personal dependance, so repentance is the turning from sin—the change of mind with regards to God involving godly sorrow and a desire to live for God.

We’re often hesitant to emphasize repentance. Maybe, we don’t want to dilute pure faith as the means to salvation, or we don’t want to lead others to rest their salvation in being sorry for their sins. We’re right to be careful. But, Scripture makes much of this change of mind in regards to God.

There’s Peter on the day 3,000 were gathered in, “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).

And, Paul, to the Ephesian elders, “You yourself know … how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ …” (Acts 20.18 … 21). Faith and repentance appear here together, so as to appear almost inseparable.

Perhaps the image of the baseball pitch helps. The ball leaving the pitcher’s hand catches the eye, but few would consider the release the sum total of the pitch. There’s also the wind-up. And, for those who know the game, it’s hard to imagine one without the other.

So it is with faith and repentance. We’re saved by faith alone—not crying about or feeling badly for sins. But, faith results, sooner or later, in godly sorrow. It looks like something!

When we gather in our local church communities we’re watching God’s invisible work become visible. This involves discerning who among us has experienced God’s work of conversion, as evidenced by a heart-felt desire to turn from sin toward God in repentance. In the language of Woodland, the healthy, growing church partner is a genuine convert who repents from the heart. 

Ten years ago, some ten years after I finished teaching, I received a phone call. It was from Ben, also a former student of mine. While not a hellion, he’d been a rascal. “Mr. Reg,” Ben said, “I want you to know that I love you, and I’m sorry for how I treated you.” Then, he told me of his life in Christ and how he’d found a godly girl to marry. And, how he thought that he just ought to get right with me so that we could celebrate God’s work in his life together.

We’re saved by faith alone that is not alone. And, the invisible work of God, when seen in the genuinely converted in Christ, really does look like something.

Find somebody to share with, and talk the questions below:

How does it help you to think about conversion as a positive turning toward God in faith and a negative turning from sin in repentance? 

If you’ve trusted in Christ, how is this similar to or different than what you’ve learned before?

Do you think we avoid talking about repentance? If so, why? 

Again, if you’ve trusted in Christ, when did you experience sadness at your sin and a desire to live for Christ? Was it right when you trusted Jesus by faith? Before? A long time later? 

What about these ideas is perplexing or confusing or needing more talking about? 

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