There are several questions that the Churches of Christ are wrestling with today, but I believe we may have missed one of the most important ones: what does it mean to repent? Amazingly, this question has divided many of us from one another for decades. It’s time to give some attention the question.
Subtly, unconsciously, we apply two different definitions of “repent” depending on the situation. When we speak to a potential convert, we urge the convert to repent, meaning that the convert should give up sin and try to live a righteous life. However, we don’t expect the convert to actually stop all sin—this would be impossible. Rather, we merely expect a change of heart, but a heart that tries very hard indeed to live as Jesus would have us live.
When we address a doctrinal error that we’ve divided over, we again demand repentance. However, in this case we require those who disagree with us to actually change. Regardless of how pure and innocent their hearts, we declare that they’ve failed to repent until they given up their wicked practice. Indeed, they are damned even if they are utterly unaware that they sin by their false practices. Hence, the independent Christian Churches cannot be forgiven for their use of the instrument, we say, because they’ve not yet repented. And their lack of repentance is amply proven by their failure to give up the instrument.
Then again, when we look at ourselves, we recognize that we are not perfectly sinless either. After all, everyone sins and falls short of the glory of God. This is just how it is with our fallen nature. Hence, as we ponder our failure to evangelize as we should, our materialism, our consumerism—well, we’re saved by grace, aren’t we? We, after all, may not be perfect, but we’re penitent. We’re trying to do better, and although we’ve not put all our sins behind us, we’re trying hard, and that’s good enough.
In short, we apply one standard to ourselves and another to others. The sins we’re guilty of are forgiven even though we still commit them, because deep in our hearts, we really want to serve God, we are trying hard, and God forgives our failings.
The sins they’re guilty of aren’t forgiven, even though they’re trying to do right, too. They really want to serve God, they’re really trying hard, and yet God doesn’t forgive their failings. After all, they should know better-and they haven’t stopped. Of course, neither have we, but that’s different.
It’s beyond me just how we dare consider that we’re forgiven for sins that we know better than to commit—failure to care for the poor as Jesus did, failure to seek and save the lost as Jesus did, failure to pray as Jesus did—but consider that they’re damned for making mistakes they aren’t even aware are sins.
Now, of course, I’m speaking only of those in grace. Sins are forgiven for those who are in Christ—both doctrinal and moral sins. Those who’ve never been saved are not under consideration. But Jesus forgives the sins of those in grace, not just ours, but theirs, too.