There are of course many ways of describing the pastoral, liturgical and theological struggles of our day. But one very simple way of describing current problems that touches on all these areas is simply this: that a presumptive attitude of mercy without repentance is both taught and widely held by far too many modern Catholics, and other Christians.
There is much talk of how God loves us, is rich in mercy, is kind and forgiving. And all of these things are true. But another essential truth is that these gifts, these essential attributes of God, are accessed by repentance. It is repentance that opens the door to mercy, forgiveness, and kindness.
Perhaps an analogy will help. Consider a man who is in very poor health. Perhaps he has a host of problems that surround obesity such as hypertension, cholesterol, diabetes etc. Now modern medicine has a lot to offer people who are struggling with poor health. The healing help includes everything from medicine to surgery, to information on nutrition etc. But in order for this man to access that healing help, a number of things are first necessary:
- He may need others to testify to him some concern for his health, for many exhibit various levels of denial as to their condition especially when it involves things like overeating, smoking, or drinking.
- He then needs to accept that his condition is serious enough that needs both help and change.
- He needs to decide to seek the help of the medical profession and follow through on that decision by scheduling and keeping an appointment with a doctor.
Now, when he does this, AND ONLY when he does this, will the healing help of the medical profession unfold for him. It is not enough for him to say, “Well isn’t it great that there are doctors, medical professionals, information, and medicine that can help me! It’s just wonderful that there are so many caring and professional people out there who can help and save me!” No, that is not enough. He has to make a change and actually reach out and develop a relationship with the medical community. He has to actually take the medicine. It is not enough to praise the medicine, he has to take it. It is not enough to feel reassured that there are people out there, he actually has to go to them, interact with them, and set a new course.
And this is an analogy for the spiritual life and repentance. God’s offer of mercy and healing love stand, and are offered to everyone. But these magnificent gifts must be accessed through repentance. That is to say, we must come to understand the seriousness of our condition, turn to God, call upon his mercy, and begin to receive the glorious medicine he offers: the medicine of his Word, of the Sacraments, of prayer, and walking in fellowship with the Church, which he established as his ongoing presence and voice in the world (cf Acts 2:42).
The Greek word that is usually translated as repentance or repent is metanoia and it means more than simply to clean up our act. Most literally it means to come to a new mind, or a new way of thinking. This is why God’s word, the teachings of the Church, and preaching are so essential for all of us. Whereas perverse councils separate us from God, (Wisdom 1:3), God’s truth proclaimed in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church summon us back to him, summon us to a new mind, a new way of thinking. It convicts us of error and sin, but also announces the Savior who is the saving Truth who sets us free.
But of course it is not enough for us simply to hear of this new way of thinking, we must actually come to it, decide for it. Repentance is to actually embrace this new mind, and this unlocks all the blessings the healings, the mercy, and the salvation that is promised. We must allow the grace of God, interacting with our freedom to effect an actual change, a decision in our life that changes the way we think, the way we act, and puts us into a saving relationship with the Divine Physician Jesus.
Like the patient above, we must be brought to understand the seriousness of our condition, come to know that there is saving help available, and then by positive decision, rooted in grace, actually reach out to lay hold of that help.
Repentance is the door, is the key that unlocks mercy.
Yet too often today mercy is preached without reference to repentance. Too many who preach and too many who hear have come to see mercy as granted without any human engagement. One simply has it automatically, no matter what.
Yet that is not what Scripture teaches. Most notably, Simon Peter on Day One of Pentecot and the going for of the gospel preached a sermon laying out who Jesus is, and how we, in our sin and rebellion killed the very author of life. The text from Acts says,
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “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)
Thus, when asked what they are to do, Peter does not say, “Don’t worry, all is well, God is mercy. He says, “Repent and baptized.” In other words, come to a new mind, come to your senses, reject your sins, be washed clean and come to Jesus. And this will unlock the supreme blessing of the Holy Spirit of God, who is the mercy of God, the love of God the very life and grace of God!
And how is this accessed? Repentance.
Isaiah had said, The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD (Is 59:20).
And to the Disciples in Emmaus Jesus said, This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:46-48)
And thus preachers and teachers in the Church, who are Christ’s witnesses, must proclaim repentance that unlocks the forgiveness and mercy of God.
St. Paul warns, In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
Thus those who preach and teach mercy without repentance are deceivers and likely themselves deceived. And those who think of mercy without reference to repentance are deceived.
Faith and repentance are the supernaturally transformed and assisted human element that is necessary to unlock mercy and the graces of God. To ignore or deny this amounts to a denial of human freedom and does not help God’s people. Rather it hinders them, for mercy is accessed through repentance, and without it, the door cannot open. Repentance must be preached to all the nations because repentance, by God’s grace opens the door.