Two stances toward our spiritual health stand in the way of repentance, and each of us might take either of these stances at various times. One is self-satisfaction, which can saturate our sense of spiritual worth: “What do I need to repent of? My relationship with God is fine.” Conversely, worthlessness can envelope us: “God could never forgive me; God does not want a person like me.”
When we reject our need for personal repentance, we convince ourselves that we are always in tune with God and only others need to change. The apostle Paul persecuted Jesus’ disciples because of his “zeal” for God and judged his “righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil 3:6). Paul’s goal was to serve God by doing what he understood God and the Torah demanded.
In looking back on his previous behavior, Paul will say that he is “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God,” invoking that humanly generated sense of worthlessness that can be felt when we reflect on our own sinfulness. But Paul does not stop there, for God’s call generated Paul’s repentance and the overwhelming power of grace that permeated Paul’s life and writing: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (1 Cor 15:9–10).
Paul’s recognition of his personal sinfulness and his subsequent sense of worthlessness are redeemed by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Once Paul experiences this grace, he recognizes the abundant forgiveness God lavishes on those who repent. Paul knows that the grace on offer to him, and to everyone, is not due to human achievements; nor is the offer rescinded because of overwhelming sins. It is presented to each of us as beloved creations of God. Repentance is our proper response to God’s mercy. All the human gains Paul achieved prior to his call on the road to Damascus can be described only as “rubbish” (skybala, a much earthier word in Greek that also means “dung”) in light of the saving act of Jesus Christ.
John’s Gospel also gives us a portrayal of God’s mercy for those who think they do not need to repent and those who might fear they are beyond it. Jesus encounters a woman who was said to have been caught in adultery by the religious officials who brought her to Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees took the woman to Jesus, however, not because of her sinfulness but because of their own. They wanted to “test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him.” This is a ruse intended to snare Jesus; but like Paul, they must believe they are fulfilling God’s law by seeking to accuse Jesus.
Jesus challenges the religious leaders to cast a stone at her according to the laws governing adultery if any of them is “without sin.” Whether the charge of adultery against this woman is real or trumped up, the accusation against her simply hides their own motives and sins. Refusing to repent for their own sins, Jesus actually shows them mercy by allowing them to walk away to consider their need for forgiveness. It is not just the woman who is asked “not to sin again,” whatever her sins might be, but all of us. Jesus challenges all of us to reckon with our own sin before that of others.
Those who are overwhelmed by their own sinfulness often feel that their sins make them unfit to be called a disciple of Jesus. Those who refuse to acknowledge their own sinfulness see mercy and forgiveness as something others need. But just as none of us is unworthy to repent and to approach God for forgiveness, so we must be willing to acknowledge that we are all in need of God’s mercy.
If you believe God’s mercy is only for others or that you do not need it, heed the apostle Paul: “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” God’s mercy and forgiveness are constant, and repentance is the path that reveals God’s grace and allows us to press on to Christ, the goal itself.