What Is Repentance? with Gary Deddo
In this interview, Dr. Deddo explains “Who is God?” and the real meaning of repentance.
JMF: If everyone is included in the love and grace of God, then why do we have to struggle so hard to obey God?
GD: That inclusion is inclusion in a relationship. If we remember who this God is, God as revealed in Christ is a communion and fellowship of three divine persons in God. God himself is a fellowship, a being together, where there are real relations, knowing and glorifying and loving one another from all eternity. God’s being is a fellowship and communion. His salvation for us is also a being in communion and fellowship. This is why we can say God is love in his own being, and we were created for loving purposes. Salvation is fellowship and communion with God.
When we’re saved and we receive the mercy of God, we’re saved into a relationship, so we have our being by being in relationship to God. We have our being by belonging to God through Christ. Obedience is just living along the grain of that relationship. It’s receiving that unconditional grace, but then responding appropriately to that grace with repentance, with faith and hope and love, with thanksgiving. God is inviting us into salvation as he’s inviting us into a real relationship with God. And that calls for our response and participation. We’re united and belong to Christ in order to participate with Christ, in Christ.
JMF: So living the Christian life is not just a matter of keeping a list of rules, some arbitrary list that God came up with in order to have something to measure us with – it has to do with an actual relationship.
GD: Yes. He’s calling us into a relationship that has a structure. To be loving, you have to do loving things. To have a free exchange of knowing, receiving back and forth, requires an order and a structure that’s built into the nature of the relationship. In our case, we’re in a loving covenant relationship with God where he gives us all of who he is and what he is, and then we receive it. And we pass it on to others. It’s the demands not of the law, but as the nature of a loving, glorifying relationship with God.
We sometimes get confused. We often think that God has an arbitrary list of rules, things that he just wants done, whereas God enters into a covenant. He says I am for you in Christ. Paul says all things in Christ are yes, God’s yes to us. Amen. There are not conditions to receive the grace, but as James Torrance likes to say, there are the obligations of grace itself. That is to receive it, to give thanks back, and to pass it on to others.
In some ways, you could describe a life filled with that grace, and with that giving and receiving to it, as some kind of “rules.” You could say it looks like this, it looks like that. You could make a list from it, but the list could never be exhaustive, and it would never show you the true heart of the relationship.
We’re invited into a relationship that has a very definite shape. Our essential response is faith, hope, and love. We obey by faith, hope, and love, not out of obligations to arbitrary rules.
JMF: In a relationship with your spouse, you wouldn’t take out a list in the morning, or even the commandments, and say to yourself, “Today I want to have a decent relationship with my wife, so I must remember not to steal from her, and I shouldn’t kill her…,” That isn’t how it works. When you’re in the relationship, a loving relationship, there’s a desire to do that which is good and which enhances the relationship, as opposed to just taking out a static list of rules.
So what’s the point of the Ten Commandments, if the commandments are fulfilled in Christ and in our lives as we are in Christ, then what was the point of the Ten Commandments in the first place, and how do they apply to us as Christians as opposed to how they applied to the Israelites?
GD: We can see the place of those commandments in Exodus and, as Paul reminds us, the covenant came first. The law didn’t come till 430 years later. That can hardly mean that the law is first. God creates a covenant relationship very much like a marriage, where he commits and promises things freely for the sake and the favor and the benefit of his beloved. God makes a covenant with Israel, and with Israel on behalf of the world. He makes a covenant, he offers a promise.
JMF: You say, “On behalf of the world,” meaning?
GD: That Israel was to be a light to the world so that the world might come and know the same God that Israel knew. They were a servant people. They were a people with a mission. Often in their history they forgot that they were, but they were meant to be a channel of blessing.
Abraham knew this – a channel of God’s blessing to others. So the covenant is established. The simplest way we find it in Scripture, repeated throughout, is, “I will be your God and you shall be my people.”
God is going to use all his Godness, if you can put it that way, to bless his people. God chose Israel in order to be a blessing to them. But the greatest blessing was for them to pass that blessing on to others. As he has that covenant relationship with them, there are the obligations of grace, to live in the covenant where God will be their God and they shall be his people. To live in that relationship, there are the obligations of that graciously given relationship.
That comes to be, to help Israel, described as laws. If you’re in a loving relationship, if you’re counting on God to give you all his promises, you will live a life of receiving that blessing like this, and like that, and like the other. You can list the ways, but those ways don’t establish the covenant, nor do those ways break the covenant.
God has freely given his covenant to bless, and that is very much like a marriage, where you promise freely out of who you are to bless the other, and God does the same with us. Our fulfilling the conditions doesn’t create the covenant, our not fulfilling the conditions doesn’t break the covenant – but our failures do create a rocky relationship. That’s what you see in the history of Israel: a rocky relationship when Israel resisted the covenant and refused to be the channel of God’s blessings to others. There are consequences to resisting the covenant. It can be described as breaking the laws.
JMF: For many of us, it’s as though we have a relationship with the law first, and God is just the arbitrator of the law, or the sheriff, or the enforcer or something. We sense that our real job is to keep this law happy, and we get upset if we’re not keeping the law happy – but it changes the nature of the relationship from God to the law.
GD: Many are caught in that exact trap, and I was as well. It leads to burnout in the Christian life. We start thinking that God is at a great distance from us, and that he hands over to us just a law and rules, such that we don’t really know the heart of God, the mind of God, but we have his rules. Then the law mediates the relationship, rather than Christ himself by the Spirit mediating the relationship. He is the one true mediator who brings us into the presence of God and who brings God to us in his own presence with us by the Spirit. He is the mediator.
This is why Jesus can say, I am Lord of the Sabbath. I created the Sabbath. I know what it’s about. Don’t you tell me what the Sabbath is about. I’ll tell you what the Sabbath is about. I am your Sabbath rest. I myself. When we forget the covenant and forget who God is, the law can intervene and become its own mediator. Instead, Jesus is the one who takes us to the Father and brings the Father to us all in the power of the Spirit.
JMF: There’s a passage in Daniel 12:2 that reads, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” How can we say that all are reconciled now, if some will be raised to shame and everlasting contempt?
GD: That passage is describing what might or could happen, and it’s a warning passage, given so that it doesn’t happen. But there is a warning. It’s important to remember what the object of God’s wrath and judgment is. The object is sin in his creatures, who belong to him, created in Christ (Paul tells us), through Christ, and for Christ. We all bear the image through our creation, the image of the Son in us.
The object of God’s wrath and judgment is on that which destroys his good purposes and his good creation, including us. God is against the evil that destroys his good creation. He’s never going to change his mind about that. Never. God is implacably opposed to that, because it ruins his relationship with creation and creation’s relationship with him.
When God’s wrath comes upon us, it’s coming down to do what? To get rid of the sin in us. If it weren’t for Christ and God’s wrath come down upon us in order to get rid of the sin in us, we would die in our sin. But, because the wrath of God, implacably opposed to all evil, comes down on Christ, one with God and one with us, the result is that evil is done away with. Evil has no future. It is done away with in Christ, and we are set free from it. We are saved, but our sins are not saved. God is not perpetuating the sin, but us, cut apart from our sin.
One of the meanings of forgiveness in the New Testament is to send away, to separate away. God separates it. When God’s judgment comes (and it will always come against anything that ruins and destroys his creation) in Christ, we are rescued from it.
This passage is imagining people who somehow would resist God’s work of separating us from our sin. If it’s possible for some to do that till all eternity, to cling to their sin so tightly and to resist the work of God in their place and on their behalf in Christ, then what will happen to their sin and the evil in them may also happen to them, if they can manage to cling to their sin.
But in repentance and confession and dying to self and living to Christ, we don’t say to God, make an exception about the sin in my life. What we say is, you’re right, it’s wrong, kill it, get rid of it, get it out of my life forever. I don’t ever want to see it again. And God says yes, I will. He condemns the sin but rescues the sinner, and that is the good news.
Might some people figure out how to hang onto that sin? I guess it’s a possibility. But that’s the very possibility that Christ has come to see that it never happens.
JMF: Often we think that because we sin (especially when we sin in an overt way, that we’re struck with it and discouraged because of it), we tend to think we’re not worthy of the grace of God. We’re not worthy of God’s presence in our lives. And yet the very reason Christ did what he did is to deal with that sin, when we think we can’t come to him because we’re not worthy to come to him.
GD: We can be caught in that trap of thinking we’re not worthy. Sometimes we talk about meriting. But we were never worthy. It was never God’s intention throughout all of Scripture for human beings to somehow work up their own righteousness.
The apostle Paul figured this out. It was never God’s intention for us to have our own righteousness that God would then reward. From all eternity, righteousness only comes from God. The only way to receive righteousness, to have righteousness, is to receive it. This is why Paul counts all his righteousness as nothing, because the only real righteousness is that which is given as a gift and received by faith.
It was never intended to be merited, either in the Old Testament or the New. Righteousness is a gift, to be received by repentance and faith, from God. It was never about merit. It was never about earning or rewarding. It never was and it never will be. It’s received as a gift from first to last.
JMF: That takes us back to the beginning of what we were talking about. If you trust God to forgive you and to cleanse you from all sin, and the question again comes up, that’s too easy. It’s too easy to just know God has forgiven you and to trust that he is still on your side and cares for you. Doesn’t that encourage you to just keep on sinning instead of encourage you not to sin?
GD: If sin is just violating an arbitrary rule, yes. If grace is an exception to a rule – we think about grace periods, or I teach sometimes and so I’ll be gracious, and the student won’t have to turn it in on time – we often think that grace is the exception to the rule. No. Grace is not an exception to any rule. God doesn’t overlook the sin. The sin has to be done away with.
When we receive God’s mercy, we’re living in his light, living in his love. That has a shape, and we could even say an obligation, the obligations of love. So we stay in that center. We stay in the light. We stay receiving from God all that he has for us. When we sin, we offer it up in repentance for him to do away with it and renew and restore us.
We want to stay in that renewed and restored relationship, and that requires effort. It’s the effort of faith and hope and love. We are trusting in God to continue to provide for us and renew us and restore us over and over again. It doesn’t lead to laziness or laxness at all. It leads to a vibrancy and fullness to want to remain in the very center, in the heart of that relationship, where we’re receiving from God everything he offers us. There is a discipline, an order and a structure, but it’s the order and structure of a right relationship with God and wanting to stay in the middle.
An analogy here would be to say, what is the point of people becoming married, because if you’re married, then there’s no point in living together. No, it’s the exact opposite. The point of being married and declaring those covenant promises one to another is in order to live together, and it’s the same as living in the center of God’s covenant with us: that takes all the energy and creativity and faith and hope and love in God that we have. There’s no laziness in it.
JMF: In many ways, the question doesn’t make sense, that if God loves you and has forgiven you, therefore why should you go out of your way to live a Christian life? It doesn’t make sense, because if you love God, you’re not oriented in the direction of that question. Our typical response to such lavish grace seems to be that it overwhelms us. We think, how can such a thing be? It’s like we have such a need to get a little of our own righteousness in there, and let that righteousness be worth something, rather than receiving the good things God has for us.
GD: Yes, it does put us in a position of humility – the humility to receive all God’s goodness and all that he freely gives us. Sometimes that makes us nervous, so that we want to go back into a contractual relationship with God, where if I do this, God, then you do this. This creates a false sense of security, that if we need God to love us, all I need to do this, and then he will love me, but if I’m not so interested in God and I want to go off and do my own thing, I can just be disobedient for a while. That gives us the sense of being in control, which is false.
It is humility to live as God is loving in his own being, and extend that to him, so what he’s calling me to is to receive from him daily. It is a matter of humility to receive him and to realize I don’t control it, I can’t earn it, I can’t even dis-earn it. It is the reality behind who God is and who I am and who he is toward me. It calls for a continual humility of receiving. But it shouldn’t lead to insecurity, because this God is faithful.
We see that faithfulness in Jesus Christ from beginning to end. From birth to crucifixion to life to ascension, continuing to intercede for us for all eternity, God is for us. We can’t control God, but the good news is that we don’t have to control God. God, out of the fullness of his own triune being, is loving and merciful toward us and does not need to be contracted with or bargained with or manipulated or pressurized. God himself, being himself, leads to that love and security.
JMF: And sin carries its own consequences, because that’s what makes it sin. If you put your foot in the lawnmower, then it will cut your foot, so you want to avoid doing that, just as we want to avoid sin, because it has negative consequences. Christ came to deliver us from a life that produces negative consequences.
GD: Absolutely. If we resist the grace of God, it will have consequences. The consequences aren’t that we will change God’s love into God’s hate. No.
I’ve used this image before: If you know anything about sailing (I used to sail a bit), sailing with the wind is an extraordinary experience, of the wind blowing behind you, the boat going with the wind, the waves are going with the boat. It’s calm. The sun’s out. It’s warm. It’s silent. But you’re moving through the water, sometimes at tremendous speeds. It’s a wonderful experience.
But if you need to turn around and go back the other direction, or even at a 90-degree angle to that, in just a moment, as the boat turns very quickly, everything changes. The sail is now flapping and making all kinds of noise. There is all of a sudden wind, and you’re going against the waves that are blown by the winds. The water is splashing on you. You’re getting wet. You’re getting cold. You would think you were in a different ocean at a different time in a different place. But what has changed? The direction of the wind? The warmth of the sun? The direction of the waves? No. You’ve changed.
When we resist the mercy and grace of God, it resists us. There are consequences. But the consequence is not that we can get the wind and the sun and the waves to change. They continue to blow against us. Why? Because God is, with his breath and with his wind, blowing us into the very center of his own heart. So there are consequences, but they cannot undo who God is, what God has done for us in Christ.
JMF: Jesus said, “If I am lifted it up, I will draw all men to myself.” That’s got to be a journey that all of us are on, each in our own way as God draws us toward himself. The purpose is to get to the place where we’re in that right configuration with the wind and the waves that you’re describing instead of contrariwise to it. When we are in that right configuration, we begin to reap those benefits of being in right relationship with God.
GD: That’s right. When we participate (that’s an important New Testament word), when we have fellowship and communion with God, then everything God gives us, we receive, and it blesses us and enables us to deal with difficulties that we face. It reminds us of God and enables us to treat our neighbors in a loving and forgiving way. All the benefits flow through us then, to us and through us.
When we resist that, we’re gumming up the whole works. Another simple image could be: we’re putting water in the gas tank of this vehicle that takes us to Christ to live in his very heart. God is not interested in seeing us go through that, much like parents watching their children resist good things from time to time. God wants us to live in the fullness of that relationship, even now, to its fullest.
JMF: And that’s not something we can bring about or do ourselves and just get ourselves in that configuration.
GD: The amazing thing about the grace of God is not only God coming toward us and offering a relationship, but by his Spirit uniting us to Christ, enabling us to respond. Our responses are also a gift that we receive by faith.
We are saved by faith or justified by faith in the good working of God, but also we’re sanctified by the good working of God. God grows us up. God transforms us and gives us Christ’s own Spirit, so our responses are a gift of God that Jesus as our high priest mediates to the Father graciously, transforming them, perfecting them, and offering them back to God as if they were his. He is the great mediator that brings the things of God to us, but he also takes our responses and mediates them to the Father. The dual mediation of Christ.