One of my responsibilities at Calvary Bible Church is to order all of our discipleship and counseling resources. Last week, upon perusing our counselors’ bookshelf, I noticed that we had no resource on the topic of repentance…so I went on the hunt. My searching led me to a book by C. John Miller called, Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrender. There is much about the book that is good, but chapter 2 is great! In it, Miller shows the difference between penance and repentance. One of the characteristics of penance is that it focuses on what people do instead of what God has done. In other words, through penance (religious duties, acts of kindness, involvement in certain programs, etc.) a person seeks to justify himself before God, in order to put his conscience at ease. There are many things wrong with this (foremost being that justification only comes through Christ), but one thing Miller points out grabbed me by the scruff of the neck.
He describes the reality that people with a penance mindset will often mask their self-effort with much prayer – pleading with God to help then and even with tears. Miller calls this “asking God to baptize your sin”. In essence, when people do this, they are “asking [God] for help so [they] can continue to live a life which is independent of God”, that is, seeking from God “enough grace to be strong in themselves”.
Do you see yourself in this? I see myself. Sadly, at times, I have used prayer as means to the end of maintaining a life of self-service and self-justification, wherein I can feel good about doing what I should (praying), while enjoying what I really want (chasing after pet sins and idols of preference). Engaging in this practice, essentially, is asking God to support our idolatry with his grace. We think because we’re praying about it that we’re behaving “Christianly”, when we’re actually sharing in the practice of the Pharisees who used “godly” practices for their own selfish goals (Matthew 6:1-4).
Church, let us pursue God-centered joy in repenting of this. Let us know the bliss of turning away from a heart that sees God as only a means to a heart that sees him as the means and the end. We exist for him and, in Christ, he gives us all we need to fulfill our purpose.