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  • Father David M. Knight

Repentance Isn’t Christian

Matthew (3:1) announces the call to conversion, “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the

wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent (metanoieite), for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

“Repentance” does not come close to translating metanoia. What the word calls for is a complete change of mind—of attitudes, values, and behavior—determined by the acceptance of a new goal in life. It is a change of direction; an act of interior conversion which must be embodied in external actions to be complete.

When we accept Jesus, the new goal that calls for a change of direction is “the kingdom of heaven.” Those listening to John did not have a clear idea of what that entailed. We know that the goal is total union of mind and will and heart with God by sharing in his own divine life: to “be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). But to start with, it is enough to know that this call addresses our whole being. It calls to life everything we are: our minds in believing, our wills in choosing, and our bodies in physical actions.

The first characteristic of authentic conversion is awareness; that is, it has to take place in a free, conscious act of choice. Conversion makes us aware of ourselves as free, choosing, self-determining persons. Jesus takes our humanity seriously. He doesn’t just scoop us up like inert matter and deposit us in heaven. Nor does he just save our behavior; it is us he saves, our free, personal, choosing selves. He redeems our freedom by calling us to respond—and making it possible.

Jesus empowers our response by “grace”; that is, by sharing his own divine life with us. When we choose, he acts with us and in us, but not for us. Conversion is an act of free self-determination. What we become is what we have freely chosen to be. The ability to create ourselves as persons by acts of free choice is the very essence of our likeness to God.

“Give some evidence…”

A second characteristic of Christian conversion is that it must be expressed in action. John demanded from those who came to him, “Give some evidence that you mean to reform! Produce fruit commensurate with the change you are professing” (Matthew 2:8). To respond with our whole being as integral human beings, we have to respond with both body and soul.

We must not miss the connection that exists between interior conversion and its external expression. The only way we can be deeply and convincingly aware of our conversion to Christ is to express our conversion in action. And the only way we can know that our conversion to Him is radical is to express it in radical actions.

Abraham is an example. He received a promise from God that in his culture spelled the difference between a fulfilled life and an existence that was ultimately meaningless. He had complained to God, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” Then God made His great promise:

Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be: as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands of the seashore (see Genesis 15:3; Hebrews 11: 12).

But how did Abraham know this promise was real? His first reaction to it was to laugh (Genesis 17: 17), and when his wife Sarah heard the news, she laughed even more (Genesis 18:12-15).

Had God left it at that, Abraham would not have had to know. He could have taken the position, “Maybe God spoke to me, maybe not. Maybe I will have children, maybe not. Who knows? If the promise turns out to be true, so much the better. If not, I'm no worse off than I was before.”

But God didn't leave it at that.

The very first thing God said to Abraham was, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father's house to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). In other words, if you want me to give you ultimate meaning in life (as you understand it - that is, to give you an heir), leave everything that makes your life meaningful here and now. Leave your country, your kinsfolk, and your father's house. Show your faith in my promise by an act of radical response.

God’s pedagogy is clear: Abraham would never have had to decide whether or not he believed in God's promise unless he staked something on it—something proportionately as precious to him as the promise itself. Until he expressed his faith through some real and radical gesture of unambiguous belief, Abraham could not really know whether he believed or not. It was the risk of his response that made him aware of himself as a believer. He knew the radicalness of his conversion through the radicalness of his response. From the moment he left “his country, his kinsfolk, and his father's house,” Abraham knew himself as a man who walked in covenanted relationship with God.

Conversion is a conscious experience. But it is a fact of human nature that we don’t really experience what we are creating ourselves to be until we see ourselves expressing it in action.

We didn’t “see the glory,” the glory of the Father’s only Son, until “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). To convert to the Word made flesh, we have to give flesh to his words in our actions.

“The ax is laid to the root…”

The third characteristic of Christian conversion is that it must be “radical.” This means it must get down to the roots of our life and of our choices: to the deep attitudes, goals, and orientation out of which our day-to-day choices grow. John says “The ax is laid to the root of the tree.” Change the root and all the fruit changes. Change the goal, the intentionality of a person’s life, and everything that person does will change. That is what authentic Christian conversion brings about.

St. Paul gives us the example:

Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:7).

This is the only level of conversion that is worthy of Jesus Christ. Just being sorry for our sins isn’t enough. Jesus did not come to “touch things up” a little bit on earth; He came to turn things upside down, to make all things new (see Isaiah 43:19; 1Corinthians 5:7; Revelation 21:5).

The choices, then, and the external actions which express our conversion to Christ must involve the root values that determine our lifestyle: money, sex, power, human relationships, achievement, basic life securities. What we love is what we live for. To love like Jesus is to live a Christian life.

(See A Change Within, Chapter One: “Accepting The Call To Conversion,” available on paper for purchase or free for downloading on the website ).

Question: What choices have you made that convince you your faith in Jesus Christ is real? If you were put on trial for being a Christian, is there enough in your lifestyle to convict you?

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