Repentance – and personal responsibility

At times it can be tempting to seek to draw a perverse comfort from the thought that there are people who are at least as sinful as we are. If other people are worse than us, it might let us off the hook, or at least diminish our guilt.

But one of the things that Jesus makes clear in his call to repentance is that we cannot allow speculation about other people’s guilt to do away with our personal responsibility. Both in relation to the temple massacre and in relation to the tower tragedy Jesus closes the door to speculation about the relative sinfulness of those who died and turns the spotlight back on the personal responsibility of his hearers:

Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

As long as people were wondering about whether or how to apportion blame in these two incidents they were in danger of forgetting their own need for repentance. It’s still true: whenever we are tempted to sit as judges on others’ lives and destinies, we are in danger of being distracted from our own responsibility before God. We cannot allow the sins of other people (actual of suspected) to divert us from the sin that lurks in our own hearts.

A preacher was once asked to conduct the funeral service of a notorious scoundrel. Everyone knew what kind of a man he had been. To complicate the request, it came from the dead man’s brother who promised to make a significant donation to the preacher’s church. There was one condition: during the service the preacher would describe the dead man as a saint. The preacher agreed.

During the service the preacher spoke about the dead man. He affirmed what everyone in the community knew to be true. The man had been a crook, a liar and a cheat. The brother’s face was a picture. The preacher had flagrantly broken the agreement. But then the preacher added, “However, compared with his brother, he was a saint.”

That’s what comparison can do. If there is someone worse, then I am not as bad as I feared.

In the late 1990s a well known and brilliantly gifted Bible teacher in England came out as a homosexual, leaving his church and his family. It sent shockwaves through sections of the evangelical church. The news even made the national press. Around that time Anne Atkins wrote in a national newspaper about her reflections on what had happened. There was a sense in which what had happened had not been a surprise, given what the Bible says about human nature.

She went on to describe – with great honesty – something from her own experience.

She wrote:

“A few years ago, I was in a remote part of the world, alone with the owner of an idyllic island. As the days went by, he became more attentive and more attractive. It was an extremely pleasant sensation. I was enjoying myself greatly. My work required me to be there and my head insisted that I was above temptation. But I’m not. The Bible tells me so.

Consequently I knew I must leave urgently. I did. By the grace of God, I didn’t commit adultery. Not then and not yet. But it’s there in my heart biding its time. Jesus said that makes me as bad as the worst offender.

Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Jesus calls us to examine what is going on in our own lives rather than speculate about the guilt of other people. Perhaps you pride yourself on your gift of discernment. You know what people are really like. You can spot a fraud ninety-nine times out of a hundred. But too often your discernment drifts across the line into the sin of judgmentalism, and your judgmentalism is blinding you to issues that you need to deal with in your own life.

We need to consider repentance from the perspective of personal responsibility.


Next: Repentance – and invested resources.


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