Evangelization Through Repentance

“I almost lost my witness.” These words, said—often in jest—by a former (very southern) seminary professor of mine, often echo in my head when my driving affirms the stereotypes about native New Yorkers and their driving habits. It doesn’t make my overreactions to the bad driving of others right, but it often makes me thankful that I’ve never given in to the pressure to broadcast my faith with a “Jesus fish” on my bumper. Whether you’re an aggressive driver or not, I don’t have to be a prophet to know that everyone has sinned in a public setting. Does this then put us in danger of, as my seminary professor said “losing” our witness?

Dealing With Sin Is Part Of Sanctification

Dealing with sin is essential for following Jesus. We follow a perfect Savior who never sinned. We rightly want to be like him, but we follow imperfectly. And when we take our eyes off of him for even a moment, we return to the sin that we previously swore off. Proverbs “beautifully” compares us to dogs returning to our vomit when this happens (Prov. 26:11). Most every Christ-follower has exclaimed, “I thought I’d dealt with this sin!” when a familiar pattern of the flesh rears its ugly head after months without any significant incident. Such is the awkward and often frustrating dance of sanctification.

It is possible to teach old “dogs” new tricks and replace their diet of vomit with righteousness, but it is painfully slow and wrought with discouraging setbacks. John Owen wrote:

"The growth of trees and plants takes place so slowly that it is not easily seen. Daily we notice little change. But, in course of time, we see that a great change has taken place. So it is with grace. Sanctification is a progressive, lifelong work (Prov. 4:18). It is an amazing work of God's grace and it is a work to be prayed for (Rom 8:27)."[1]

No great oak tree sprouted overnight, it takes decades to grow to an impressive stature, and so it is with growing in Christ-likeness. We notice little growth when comparing yesterday to today, but when we look back on our life as a whole we notice a gradual trajectory growing toward Christ.

When we find ourselves in the aftermath of our own sin and are face to face with the victim of it (like my illustration of the traffic confrontation), we are at a crossroads: Will we harden our hearts and deny our sin? Will we rattle off excuses of why our sin was just under the circumstances? Or will we deal with it, admitting that we messed up and repent?

A Man After God’s Own Heart

Each of us could point back to examples in our own life where we admitted our sins, accepted God’s grace, and moved on grateful and in awe of his work in our life. Other times, we hardened our heart and moved away from God in pride and selfishness. I know this is true of everyone because the Bible is replete with examples of it and the nature of being a fallen being guarantees it. David’s life is a great case study.

The man after God’s own heart blew it when he acted on his sinful impulses to pursue Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). But God gave him opportunities to repent. The first came when God opened her womb to conceive. Rather than confess, David tried to cover up his sin (much like his father Adam did in the garden) by encouraging Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba to cover up their sin. When this backfired, David resorted to murder (death is never far away when we let sin run its course). But even after hardening his heart at both opportunities to bring his sin to light, God did not let him go. Instead he graciously used the clever prophet Nathan (2 Sam. 12) to expose the sin and bring David to repentance. The drama of this event is better than the best of day time soaps and gives us keen insight into the human heart and the depth of our fall.

It’s in David’s repentance that we see the scandal as he cries out for forgiveness

“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.” (Psalm 51:13, 14)

We tend to think the best way to witness to the transforming power of Christ is to project images of ourselves as sanitized saints free from the ugly taint of sin. But Psalm 51 gives us a glimpse into the evangelistic power of repentance. David’s prayer is essentially, “I’m dirty, everyone knows I’m a sinner, please cleanse me, and my sin will be the means for testifying to others about your righteousness.”

Notice, the righteousness he is pointing to is not his own. How could he possibly deceive himself into thinking he had any righteousness of his own? He had slept with another man’s wife and had Uriah’s blood on his hands! He needed to be cleansed of the blood and only God could “wash him white as snow” (Ps. 51:7). His method for testifying about the goodness of God was not to spin his life story to make him look flawless but to point to God’s grace in the midst of his sin. The gospel we proclaim is not that we will no longer sin once trusting Christ for salvation, but that God is good and forgives even the most wretched of human behavior. This is Good News for both the Christian sinner and all sinners. When the thin veneer of having-it-all-together cracks like a piece of cheap furniture we are presented with a short window to proclaim the goodness of the God who is not surprised by our sin and had a plan in eternity past to deal with it. David learned the invaluable lesson that our sin always finds us out (Num. 32:23). The wages of that sin is always death (Rom. 6:23). In David’s case, God spared his life, but not the life of the child (a small glimpse into the future where another child from David’s line would die on his behalf to pay for the totality of all human sin). Amazingly, David uses his sin as an opportunity to tell others about the God who forgives, and he does so not by minimizing or hiding his sin, but using it as a launching pad into the Good News of the God who cleanses us from it.

With Sin Comes Opportunity

Martin Luther famously started his 95 Theses with these words: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said "Repent", He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In other words, repentance isn’t a one-time event and it isn’t just for “new” believers. It should be the distinguishing mark of every disciple. Yet, so often we unintentionally function and speak as if all of our days of repenting are behind us. Out of a fear of “losing our witness” with those outside the Church we try to sweep our sin under the rug and present ourselves as those who “have it all together.” We come off as phony and insincere (dare I say hypocritical?). When we do this, in an ironic twist of providence it often backfires and has the opposite effect. Who could possibly be drawn to the Savior we represent when we represent him so poorly and give the impression we’ve committed no sin to be saved from?

A shift in thought is needed when we find ourselves in a confrontation with someone we’ve sinned against. Instead of trying to minimize our own sin and point out the sins of the other party we actually have an incredible opportunity to witness to the transforming power of the gospel in all its messy beauty. But this has the odor of death to it, as growing in Christ-likeness always does. But for the believer, with death comes resurrection.

The Good News

In the upside-down economy of the Kingdom of God we are offered eternal life in Christ (Jn. 3:36). But Jesus counter intuitively calls us to die in taking up our cross to follow him (Luke 9:23). How can these two seemingly contradictive offers be reconciled? The answer is found in the Christ of the resurrection.

Every time a Christ follower sins against someone outside the Church there is an opportunity to take up our cross and follow Christ. Will you try to sweep your sin under the rug like David and cause the other person, like Uriah, to bear the brunt of it? Or will you die to yourself and your desire to have a “clean” image? To think that the only sinless person who ever walked the earth didn’t answer his accusers but silently absorbed their scoffs and blows for the benefit of others leaves us with no excuse.

When the still small voice of the Holy Spirit prompts us to own up to our sin and repent of it we will experience a small sort of death: the death of the flesh (Rom. 8:13). This death, what the Puritans called “mortifying the flesh,” is the arduous path to growing more like Christ and in it he meets us there and resurrects us to life in him. Sin always requires death, either ours or someone else’s. Will we die to our pride, our selfish desire to defend and justify ourselves or accept his death on our behalf and clothe ourselves in his righteousness and life? Transparency about this painful process with those witnessing it (and sometimes falling victim to it) is one way of making and maturing disciples.

[1] The Holy Spirit, 108-109

Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, MD. Prior to that he served at Terra Nova Church in Troy, NY for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is about to be a father for the second time. He occasionally blogs at Hardcore Grace.