As a reminder, faith is always transitive as our bond with Jesus. He is our partner in spiritual faith as he engages us and we respond to him. So if he remains a distant figure—a memory from last Sunday’s sermon, an entry in a creedal faith, or an iconic figure in our Christian music menu—then our faith is a religious myth.
If that mythology leaves us empty how do we gain a real faith?
The answer is both complex and simple. The simple answer is that we need to repent. The complex answer is that in faith we begin to process every moment with eyes to see Christ’s active, caring presence with us.
Let’s take repentance first.
That calls for a pause to consider what repentance means. In newer generation—‘emergent’—churches the word and its substance is mostly ignored; and even in the old-line venues repentance is a rare word. Yet both John the Baptist and Jesus opened their ministries with calls to repentance; and Paul made it central when he spoke before Agrippa, reminding both Jews and Gentiles “that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20).
I can only guess about the current silence on the subject. It may reflect a cringe-factor left over from moralistic preaching of the past: the “turn or burn” sermons. Current preachers aim to invite rather than to confront.
Another related issue is today’s post-modern relativism: preaching that condemns is seen to be arrogant and self-elevating. In its place we find themes of encouragement and creative engagement.
So why should we turn back to what some see as an outdated, arrogant, and moralistic notion? Because repentance offers life. When someone makes a wrong turn into a cul-de-sac the best response is to turn around. In repentance one turns to the Way, Truth, and Life and away from the Cul-de-sac, Liar, and Death. Calls to repent are an invitation to redemption rather than a blast of condemnation. Yet one can ignore the invitation and by that carelessness wander into God’s condemnation.
Faith, in turn, is neither a capacity nor a commodity—something we own or use—but a bond. It is our response of devotion to one person, Christ, in place of a basic reliance on self or on others. Repentance represents our recognition of misplaced devotion as we turn from one bond to another.
The complex answer engages this reality: that complete devotion brings with it the fascination of an endless set of relational discoveries. And in the case of our coming to know Christ we find ourselves engaged in a personality whose self-disclosures are endless and dynamic. He is engaging, delightful, frightening, consoling, and more: much, much more, given his unbounded range of creativity.
Let me add one more element here. The late Aussie Bible scholar, Leon Morris, concluded that the book of Acts treats repentance as a gift of God. He’s right. Apart from Christ’s coming to tell us “You’re headed in the wrong direction!”—think of Saul on the road to Damascus here—we have every reason to think that our ongoing preoccupation with personal needs, wants, ambitions, and desires are the proper way forward in life. But that reflects a faith in self—actually an intransitive ‘unfaith’—rather than a devotion to Christ.
So if any of us still have a distant Christ in view rather than the conversation partner and life companion the Bible offers to us, we may want to repent and then live within our repentance. And if we do, let’s give him all the credit for first catching our attention. And then enjoy his presence.