Synthetic Repentance

uturnsign2This week’s post is from Huw Williams.  The issue of repentance is of vital importance in all aspects of gospel ministry, and in this post he probes the problematic issue of faking repentance.  Huw was part of Cor Deo in 2011, is now pastoring the International Church of Torino, Italy, and will be co-leading the Bible Teacher’s Network with Peter at this year’s European Leadership Forum.  Huw’s blog is well worth a read – click here to visit.  Over to Huw . . . 


Preparing a sermon in Luke 3 this week, I’ve been intrigued by a few features of Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s ministry. Luke tells us that John was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Nothing so surprising there, prophets of God have always been advocating the turning to God with the change of heart which constitutes biblical repentance.

But the heart does not always welcome change, especially when faced with the prospect of relinquishing it’s own self-love. And so we see here in Luke 3 two of the great universal responses to the great invitation of God – self-justifying religious orthodoxy and synthetic repentance:-

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’”

If God had called us to salvation through financial donation, religious ritual, or moralistic living, most of us would have found that form of self-justification far more palatable than humbly accepting an outrageously generous offer of relationship with Him. There is something about the hard-heartedness of sin that objects so strongly to the relationship on offer in the gospel that will do anything, anything to squirm out of it.

And so the hard heart desperately looks around for another way. Perhaps we can appeal to our claims of religion or Christian family heritage. Or perhaps we can trick God by mechanically “saying sorry” with such regularity that He will be fooled by our synthesis of a heart which has humbly and truly accepted His gracious love in true repentance.

I feel at least two real challenges here. Firstly, I think in my own teaching that I am far better (and bolder) at refuting the claims of the religious, than those of the synthetic repenter. Of course we’re not called to be constantly making judgement calls as to who is a true, and who is a false believer, and neither are we to ‘challenge’ with such sledgehammer dynamics that we obliterate the bruised reed. But at the same time, doesn’t John’s challenge to produce identifiable “fruit in keeping with repentance” remain?

Secondly, even with that challenge ringing in our ears, don’t we all feel that tendency to hard-heartedness gnawing away at us sometimes? And where do we go with it? Are we aware of what our own shots at self-justification or synthetic repentance look like? And what help can we draw from this text? Well, where does John direct us? To the one who will come after him (v15-18), he who who takes centre stage just a couple of verses later, and with the vision of such glorious Trinitarian love and delight which will always warm the coldest of hearts, with the help of the same Holy Spirit.

2 Responses to Synthetic Repentance

  1. Gretchen February 23, 2013 at 11:23 pm #

    Your post was really a knife in my own heart as I reflected on the years—decades really—that I lived in that place of synthetic repentance. When I ponder that, how empty must my claims of love for Christ must have seemed! In contrast, how rich and beautiful the relationship with Christ when our hearts are drawn into the love of the Trinity by His love for us! On another note, while it’s true that we must be very careful about attempting to assess where another person is in terms of their own repentance, God DOES tell us in Proverbs to guard our hearts, and I think that includes guarding our hearts in the context of relationships with others who claim repentance but do not “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Thanks so much for this post. It caused my heart to overflow with thankfulness at the reminder of God’s incredible love.

  2. Huw March 11, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    Hi Gretchen. Thanks for your encouragement – and apologies for my tardy response!

    Yes, you make a good point, and funnily enough I had a similar dilemma preparing yesterday’s sermon. The passage in Luke 6 included Jesus’ challenge to those who say to him “Lord, Lord” but do not do what he says. Very clearly this is a call to self-examination (and as you point out, even to loving interpersonal challenge), and I wouldn’t have been faithful to the text to shirk it… Then the challenge becomes presenting Jesus’ challenge correctly – so often we can present this (even unintentionally) as a call to changed behaviour, rather than heart-response. It was a tough message to prepare, but a blessing too!

    Thank you so much again for your encouragement!

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